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Softening the World's Harshness

The kindness and goodness of the Holy Spirit
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Fruit: It Does a Body Good". See series.


Let's look at John 15:1-17 together. These are likely very familiar words. They're the words of Jesus on the last night of his time spent with his disciples in the upper room. It was just hours before he was carted off to be crucified. In this teaching Jesus seared into their collective consciousness a picture for them to remember when he was gone. It was an image of a vine bearing fruit. Those who connect themselves to the vine and remain in Christ, he said, will bear much fruit. Together they will fulfill the command of Christ: to love each other.

Fast forward a few decades later. Paul is writing to a church in Galatia. It turns out that this church is a pretty relationally challenged church and has many problems. Paul decides to reclaim this image that Jesus gave the disciples of the vine and the fruit, and he encourages them to be people who bear the kind of fruit that leads to love—fruit that comes from the Spirit of God. Now we're going to look at two of these fruit or virtues: kindness and goodness. We'll find that they're actually two sides of the same coin.

It makes sense to couple these two words together when we're studying the fruit of the Spirit, because they're actually closely related. The first word kindness comes from the Greek chrēstotēs. Unlike its English derivative, ("kindness" typically refers to action), this word chrēstotēs describes a person's inner disposition. It might roughly be translated this way: a generous temperament which puts others at their ease and refrains from doing harm. Another translation puts it this way: It's that grace which pervades the whole nature, mellowing all which would be harsh and austere. In Matthew 11:30, Christ uses the root of this word chrēstos when he says his "yoke is easy," meaning it does not chafe. And the Greeks would use chrēstos as a description of good wine, meaning that it's mellow. It's clear that the word emphasizes the kind of spirit out of which certain actions flow.

Goodness, on the other hand, is translated from another Greek word agathōsunē, and this word is closely related to kindness, but it is a more active term. Agathōsunē generally is described this way: generous character energized, expressing itself in active good. When these two words come together, they bring together the two ideas of character and action. We might put it this way: generous action which flows out of a spirit that seeks good and not harm. Kindness and goodness go hand in hand.

The power of kindness and goodness

The real challenge we may have with these two words are the images that they evoke in our minds. It may just be me, but when I think about the word kindness I think about grandmothers and kindergarten teachers. And when I think about goodness I think about Boy Scouts and Mom and Dad Brady from the Brady Bunch. These are nice images—don't get me wrong—but that's part of the problem, isn't it? In our world "kind" and "good" sound like "nice."

That's the problem: in our world these words kindness and goodness have this tendency to sound lightweight, timid, weak. Kindness doesn't advance your position in the company. It's not going to cause you to stand out among the competition. Kindness isn't going to win you a critical argument in the kitchen. right? And goodness isn't going to put food on the table. It's not going to put your kids through college or pay for retirement. What good are goodness and kindness when we come face to face with the challenges in our real world? For many people kindness and goodness seem like old-fashioned, sentimental ideals for people who are just slightly out of touch with reality.

But we're not talking about nice. We're talking about the Spirit empowered virtues of goodness and kindness. Though they are simple virtues, they contain an enormous subversive strength. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to look around the world and discover that it's a harsh and cold place. As we open up the newspapers and look at the headlines, we discover that we're in the midst of a global financial crisis. We wonder what's going to happen. We look at our homes and find relational problems of all sorts—marriages that are full of conflict, children who have made ruinous decisions. We look at our workplaces and see people who will stop at nothing to push themselves ahead of the crowd at whatever cost it may be to anyone else. When you add to all of that the sad reality facing millions of people around the world—the bitter problem of poverty and hunger, the children who are being sold and exploited, the AIDS epidemic worldwide—it doesn't take us long to acknowledge that the world can be a severe and unrelenting place. In a world like that, kindness and goodness are the last things you expect to see thrive and flourish. In a world that is hard and severe, the tendency of man is to turn his attention towards himself—to be self-protective, self-promoting, self-preserving. And when that happens, the world gets even colder, harder, and more isolating.

But this is where kindness and goodness can begin to demonstrate their subversive power. In a world that is cold and hard like ours, in a world that seems to demand that everyone look after his own interests, then small and seemingly insignificant acts of generosity can break through; among the bitter, hard, cold landscape, kindness and goodness can be seen for the beauty they present. As these virtues are shared in community, they contain the amazing power to soften the harshness of this world.

National Public Radio has a project called Story Core. It's a traveling sound booth that is set up from one city to another. They invite people to come in off the street to step into the booth and record stories from their lives. One story they captured was of a man named Julio Diaz. Julio's a thirty-one-year-old social worker from the Bronx. Every night he has a regular evening routine. He ends his hour-long commute back from the city to his apartment one stop early so he can get off and go to a diner. This diner's become his home dinner spot. One night Diaz stepped off the Number 6 train onto a nearly empty platform, and his evening took an unexpected turn. As he walked towards the stairs, a teenaged boy approached him and pulled out a knife. Julio gives the boy his wallet and says, "Here you go." As the boy leaves, Julio calls out, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm." He continues, "All I wanted to do was go get dinner, and if you really want to join me, hey, you're more than welcome." The stunned boy accepts Julio's offer, so they go to the diner Julio frequents. Once seated, the manager, servers, and other staff come by to say hi to Julio, and the boy is again surprised. He says, "Man, you know everybody here. You're even nice to the dishwasher … I didn't think people actually behaved that way." So Julio asks the boy, "What is it that you want out of life?" The boy sits there not knowing what to say.

When the bill comes, Julio says, "Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill, because you got my money … . So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you." The boy hands the wallet back. Julio takes a twenty out and gives it to the boy, asking the boy for his knife in return, to which the boy complies. In Julio's words, "I figure if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world."

You know, when I hear Julio tell that story, I don't think he was being nice. I think he was tapping into the power of kindness and goodness, which is much stronger than nice. Kindness is that great jujitsu response to the harshness of the world. Jujitsu is the counterintuitive Japanese martial art that refuses to forcefully oppose the attack of the enemy, but uses the momentum of the attacker's energy against them. Literally, jujitsu is the art of softness. It's the kind of strength that chooses to believe something can be gained when we respond to the harsh world not with greater harshness but with counterintuitive generosity.

I shared this story with someone this week, and she responded to me with a legitimate question. She said, "I wonder what happened to this kid after this encounter. Did it really change his life?" I thought about this for a while and wondered, What if it didn't? But I'm not convinced the story is about that kid. I think the story is about Julio. I began to picture this young social worker living in a city of twenty million people and how he could walk into a nondescript diner at the end of the day and be welcomed like he owns the place—by the manager and the wait staff and the dishwasher. People who treat others with goodness and kindness not only soften the harshness of the world of those around them, but I think they find their own world becoming a more beautiful place.

I wonder if you need a little goodness and kindness in your life, not expressed by somebody else, but welling up from within you and being expressed to others. How would our marriages be different if spouses really knew—not because we told them, but because they sensed it and experienced it—that we were actively seeking to do them good? How much more satisfying would our friendships be if we could just find simple, expressive ways to let each other know that we're there for each other? I think it would change our world.

Jesus kindness and goodness

As we've made our way through the various fruit of the Spirit, we've been turning to the Gospels and Jesus' life to see how he expresses this fruit throughout his ministry. This morning's look takes us to Mark 7:31-37. This is an encounter Jesus had as he journeyed from the Mediterranean seacoast down to Galilee. A crowd of people brought a deaf and mute man to him to be healed:

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man. After he took him aside away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue. He looked up to heaven with a deep sigh and with a deep sigh said to him, "Ephphatha!" which means, "Be opened." At this the man's ears were opened. His tongue was loosened, and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone; but the more he did so the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. "He has done everything well," they said. "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

I want to make a few observations about the kindness Jesus demonstrates towards this man. The first thing I want to point out is that Jesus' kindness is expressed person to person. When Jesus was asked to heal this man he was asked by a crowd of people to do it. Did you notice how he responds and to whom he responds? He doesn't respond to the crowd; he responds to the man. He responds directly to him, engaging him person to person. It's very intimate. The Scripture said he took him aside, away from the others. There away from the crowd, Jesus sees this man as an individual. He sees him as a person with a life and a past, a person with hurts and with hopes. He sees him for who he is. In that private moment, Jesus communicates with him about his intentions. Tenderly, Jesus takes his fingers and places them in the man's ears, showing him where he will be changed. Touching the finger from his tongue to the man's he assures him that once again he will be able to speak. With dignity, respect, and care, Jesus makes clear to the man that this moment is for him. The object of goodness and kindness is the well being of another individual. Kindness flows from person to person.

The second thing I want to point out is that Jesus demonstrates that God is the source of goodness and kindness. Did you notice what Jesus does right before he heals the man? It's a very simple action that you could almost miss if you read through it quickly. He looked up to heaven. That simple upward look was an acknowledgement by Jesus to the man and to us as we read it now that every good thing comes from the Father. If there's any kindness in the world, if there's any goodness, they can't simply be mustered up from within us. These things find their source in God.

This truth struck me hard as I prepared for this sermon. Yesterday was a really bad day at the Van Antwerp household. We woke up in the morning, each of us with very different agendas. I woke up with my message on my mind, and Julie woke up with an idea to go to the Concord River to float from the South Bridge to the North Bridge and back. And the two kids woke up with visions of lazying around their rooms playing with toys and relaxing. As the morning went on, it didn't take long for things to start getting ugly. We started nipping at each other with our words and emotions, and things started to fall apart. Finally, in desperation, Julie said, "We've got to get out of here. Let's go. Let's take the kids. And we're going to go to the river."

One problem with this idea was that the four people we took to the canoe were the same four people who were fighting in the house before we went. It was the same cast of characters, only all four of us were now in a boat. Things got a little lighter and easier initially, but after a while everything started cropping up again. And here I was—pastor, preacher—I'm thinking goodness/kindness, goodness/kindness. How can I be good and kind enough to change my world!? I did all the things that I should have done—talked soothingly, stroked hair, talked about emotions. We did all the good, kind stuff. But none of it worked.

Another problem was that I was trying to muster up enough strength in myself—enough good, kind words—to make the day work. When it didn't, I got frustrated, and my world became hard and cold and severe. What I didn't do was what Jesus naturally does: he looks up to the Father, recognizing that he has nothing except what he receives from the Father. Remember his words: "If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. But apart from me you can do nothing." Our family didn't turn to God in those moments, though God is the sole source of goodness and kindness. We must tap into his ability—not our own.

The third thing I want to point out from this encounter is something we've already said—that goodness and kindness indeed have the power to change our world. Verse 35: "At this the man's ears were opened. His tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly." The action of Jesus changed this man's world. The harsh realities of being deaf and mute in a society that made few accommodations for the disabled must have been extremely difficult. In one act of generosity, this man's experience in the world was transformed; in an instant his world because softer. That's the result of the genuine kindness and goodness that comes from God. This is the subversive power of God who will overcome once and for all the harshness of the world. As his people we can begin to experience that overcoming kindness even now in our lives.


This week's artwork is a painting by identical twin sisters, Grace and Ruthann Hewitt. The painting is entitled Reading To a Friend, and it depicts a simple act of kindness: two teenage girls holding a young child between them and reading her a story.

Several things stood out to me as I spent some more time with the painting. The first is that all eyes are drawn to the page of the book—that is where each girl is looking. But while their attention is drawn to the book, our attention is drawn to the people. You see, the subject of the painting isn't activity; it's actually relationship.

The more I looked, the more I realized that the painting actually creates a circle. Do you see it? It's a relational circle between the three subjects. In many ways as you look at the circle, you see that at the center of the circle is the little girl. They have created a world for this little girl—an environment for her that is safe and protected, a world that is soft and caring, a world that is full of warmth and wonder, and a world that at this moment knows nothing of the harsh realities of the world outside that circle.

This is actually a portrait of Grace and Ruthann reading to a friend's daughter. The two families met here a number of years ago and have cultivated a relationship full of love and sharing, one that is rich with generosity and friendship. Their world isn't immune to the harshness of the world around us; they're not closed off to the challenges that everyone must face. But this picture depicts theirs as a world energized by the power of goodness and kindness—the power that comes from God.

Tom VanAntwerp serves as Pastor of Community Life at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The power of kindness and goodness

II. Jesus kindness and goodness