15th October, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen, you are all aware that a repulsive murderer has himself been repulsively, and, perhaps deservedly, murdered.”
– Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express (film adaption)
A quote from a film adaption of possibly the greatest murder mystery of all time, Murder on the Orient Express! The story has been told and retold many times, with yet another version is to hit movie theatres in a few weeks’ time. And yes, despite knowing exactly whodunit I will be going to see this latest adaption.
Agatha Christi did not so much write the book on murder mysteries so much as she wrote all the books on murder mystery. Her 66 crime novels, 14 short story collections and other literary works have sold more than 4 billion copies world-wide and continue to be loved and enjoyed by many.
Much has been written about why her work has proven to be so popular and enduring. For me the most obvious reason is that at the heart of her work reside many questions about human nature, our capacity for evil and how we respond to the worst situations imaginable. Her books were some of the first to dare to put a human face on murder. Of course a few good twists and turns and a surprise ending that draws many plot threads together also make for a good and enjoyable story.
Another line of hers I like is, “Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend,” and I’ll tell you why this line sticks in my memory. There was a morning in when I was in my early 20’s when I was walking home from an all-night party. As I walked past a notorious block of flats close to where I lived I saw a large number of police officers. One of the flats was clearly being investigated, with crime scene tap blocking off access to the surrounding area. I knew a few people who lived in this area so I did approach a police officer and asked what had happened. He told me that there had been a murder the previous night.
I didn’t think too much about that, then and there. I was just happy to get home and go to bed. It was a few days later that I discovered that someone I knew had committed the crime. He was not a close friend, but was someone who had grown up with me. However, at some point our lives took very different pathways. For me that path led to university and thoughts about maybe entering the ministry. For my old friend his choices over many years led him into increasingly dangerous situations. That was how he came to take the life of another person.
This story is why tonight’s reading from 1 John is a bit of a sticking point for me. While I appreciate that the intention of this letter is actually one of encouragement, after all the intended hope is that those reading it will strive to live good loving lives, the arguments used are theologically problematic. Where does evil come from? Can I say that like Cain, my old friend came from the devil and that is where responsibility for his act of murder lies? For me that makes no sense at all. My friend would be the first to say that the situation in which he found himself all those years ago was a natural consequence to the choices he made. He was not under evil influence, rather he was responsible for his actions that led to that terrible night.
There are only a handful of biblical passages that move us towards a personification of the Devil as an embodiment of evil. These ancient attempts to wrestle with the problem of evil, where it comes from and how we are to resist it, lead us away from a basic truth. We all have the capacity for evil. Even the kindest, gentlest person in the world can make mistakes and cause harm to others. It is not as simple as saying godly people are good and evil people come from the devil.
Fortunately the weight of Christian thought does not actually rest on an understanding of the devil as being the one who leads us astray. Our strong theology of repentance, the need to turn back to God, acknowledges that we are all in need of forgiveness at times, because not one of us is perfect. Our theology of repentance understands that we are all works in progress.
Thank goodness we have tonight’s reading from the book of proverbs. That passage reminds us to always seek God and that goodness and wisdom are goals for us to reach for. Mistakes, even big mistakes like the one made by my friend are part of life’s journey. For him, he will carry the burden of that mistake for the rest of his life, but he is certainly not an evil person. He served his time, he has changed and grown and now works to help others overcome their challenges in life.
Scripture tells is that our God is a God of great faithfulness. That faithfulness of God is faith in us. God believes in our ability to learn, to grow and to change. Sometimes that process requires self-examination and acknowledgment of where we have fallen short. And yet no mistake is so great that God ever loses faith in us. Love and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases: God’s mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.” Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant (Preaching at Cathedral Evensong)