Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
October 11, 2015
Mark 10: 17-31 (CEB)
As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”
18Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”
20“Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”
21Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.
23Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” 24His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! 25It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
26They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”
27Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”
28Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”
29Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”
What makes Christianity special? What makes Christians unique? Those questions are both simple and challenging at the same time, aren’t they? Christianity is special because of salvation through Jesus Christ, and Christians are unique because (at least in theory) we follow the example of Christ in our own lives. We seek to live like Christ. And yet, it’s often difficult to distinguish a Christian from any other upstanding person, isn’t it? If we were to sit in the Hamilton Place Mall for a day and watch people come and go, would we be able to point out the ones who are Christians? To be very honest, I think this would be pretty difficult. And the reason this would be difficult, I would like to suggest, is because of the fact that our modern American Christianity doesn’t really demand anything of its adherents. We’ve softened the commands of Christ and the gospel to such a degree that we don’t really have to DO anything, at least not anything difficult. As long as we attend worship, pray a little, and give some money, we’re set. We don’t have to sacrifice anything.
A perfect example of how we have softened the demands of the Gospel is this story of the rich man, who we also call the “rich young ruler” based on his identification in Matthew and Luke’s gospel. Here is a man who wants life and life abundantly, and he wants it for all eternity. And he thinks he’s got it made! He’s followed all the commandments of the Law since he was a child. But then Jesus says, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” Upon hearing this, the rich man turns away, disappointed “because he had many possessions.” You know, if Christ had meant anything less than what he said, the man would not have left disappointed. He would have enthusiastically continued his pursuit of eternal life. Yet, we try and mitigate this instruction from Jesus. We tell ourselves that Jesus didn’t literally mean for his disciples to give everything away, that we don’t have to go to that extreme. So instead of going and giving away, we head off to the mall to do a little something for ourselves, and we look like every other person in the world…No wonder Christianity is floundering. What is Christianity if not a life of sacrifice and generous love?
So what should our lives look like? What does it mean not only to BE a Christian, but to live as a Christian? For the rich young ruler, devotion meant giving up the greatest pride of his life, that wonderful privilege of riches; selling it, giving the money to the poor, and then following Jesus. Is Jesus’ demand of the rich young ruler about money? Sure it is! Should we do all that we can to give from our abundance to those with nothing? Absolutely! But Mark’s story of the rich young ruler is about more than money; it is about more than any one thing that we can or should do to inherit eternal life. You see, the gospel tells us that it’s never too late for the sinner to come home; it’s never too late to join in the banquet table of grace. But that is cheap grace if not for the fact that every now and then a window opens in life, and there is God present and active in the world; there is our chance to be a part of that work, to be the human we are called to be. But then the window closes and it’s too late. In his words to the rich young ruler, Jesus reminds us that when that window opens, we have to run through just as the young man ran to Jesus. We have to put Christ first. The story of this rich man is about an all-out devotion to Christ; being “sold-out” for Christ; putting God above all else in this world.
The rich young ruler thought he had done that. He thought he had it made. When he asked Jesus that question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” he was probably just seeking affirmation. He thought he was in. But Jesus told him otherwise, and he couldn’t handle the truth. So the man walked away. You can almost see it in your mind’s eye; head drooped, shoulders sagging, feet dragging; quite the opposite of his rapid entrance a few moments before. And I imagine that years later that man was sitting on his throne feeling empty, unfulfilled, and thinking, “If only I had listened to that man Jesus all those years ago.”
I suppose the rich young ruler was a good and decent man; a fair ruler. It would only seem logical considering his self-proclaimed faithful adherence to the Jewish law. But adherence to the law does not gain salvation; only devotion to Christ can do that! And devotion to Christ must be complete. Christ asks that we surrender all of ourselves to his power—all that we have, and all that we are. Nothing less. Our greatest weakness as individuals and as a church community is that fact that we can be upright, decent citizens of society without ever going on to become disciples of Jesus Christ, with his peculiar flavor of love and costly self-giving. We have a choice. We can devote our lives wholly to Christ, putting aside all that hinders our devotion, or we can be “decent citizens,” never quite able to go “all-in.” So we shuffle away; heads drooping, shoulders sagging, and a great chasm opens between us and Christ.
A few years ago, I was privileged to hear Dr. Tom Long preach. Dr. Long is Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler School of Theology. I want to share with you a portion of the amazing sermon I heard him preach. Professor Long told story of a couple in a nursing home. “There are many people in this nursing home who are plagued by the loss of memory. [Yet], there is one man in this nursing home who is plagued by the inability to lose memory. His name is Art, and he has just lost his wife of 60 years, and he is tormented by memories of failure in their marriage. He remembers when they were newlyweds and she accidentally dropped the frying pan and he cursed her. ‘If I could have her back,’ he said, ‘she could drop a hundred frying pans; I wouldn’t say anything.’ He remembers an argument that went on 60 years in their marriage. She wanted him to tell her more often how he felt about her; that he loved her. ‘I wasn’t raised that way,’ he said, ‘I don’t like to talk about it; I just like to show it.’
“‘Well, I know, sweetheart, but sometimes I need to hear it,’ she would respond.
“‘No, no. It ain’t my way. It just ain’t my way.’
“The last week of her life, she went into a coma and he sat beside her bed saying over and over, ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’
“‘She never said anything back, she never forgave me.’ The hour that she died, he was sitting in her room watching the television, and he said, ‘Haha! Look! The Red Sox are losing again!’
‘I would’ve liked it,” he said, ‘If she had died in my arms.’”
“Some of us know about this very personally. Tom Long goes on to tell a story of his own experience. “I cannot believe, I cannot believe that when I was a young father I actually got on that airplane and flew somewhere to give a speech to people who no longer remember me or what I said instead of going to the Father-Daughter Campfire Girls Banquet that my little girl, Melanie, begged me to go to with her. I can’t believe I did that!
“Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I know I made a bad decision, and I am now ready to go to the Father-Daughter Campfire Girls Banquet; to which my daughter would say, ‘Oh Daddy, it’s too late. I’m not that little girl anymore who needed her father that night.’
“The window opens; there is a chance to be a part of mercy and grace;” to follow Christ and experience his blessings.
“Don’t miss it. Don’t miss it!”
That rich young ruler needed something far more than affirmation of what he already knew, or even instructions on how to inherit eternal life. He needed the blessing of God that only Jesus Christ can give, and he missed it. He missed it! There it is, the blessing of God, in a simple call to put aside that which absorbs our attention and to follow Christ whole-heartedly. Why did he miss it? The same reason we do, he’s too rich; too self-sufficient; too proud; too self-absorbed; he didn’t need anybody or anything, and he walked right out of the presence of God.
“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” The rich man did not want to hear these words, and I don’t think we much want to hear these words either. Yet our promise from Jesus is that what we can put in God’s hands, we will still possess. When we give what we have in God’s name, eternal life is offered in return. But we cannot miss the opportunity that is right before us; we cannot walk away from the offer that Christ makes to us. We have to be ready to go “all in,” to surrender everything in our lives that keeps us from following Christ whole-heartedly. For the man, Art, in the nursing home, it was the need to tell his wife more often that he loved her instead of watching the baseball games. For Tom Long, the young father, it was the need to go to that Father-Daughter Campfire Girls Banquet with his daughter instead of speaking at a conference. For the rich young ruler who first approached Jesus, it was the need to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow Christ, so that he might know Christ’s blessings.
What is it that we need to lay aside? What opportunities might we be missing because we cling so strongly to something so empty? For some of us, it is money. For some, a tendency to workaholism. For others, an inclination to seek revenge rather than forgiveness.
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, once said, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I placed in God’s hands, I still possess.” Like the rich young ruler, we can hold on to what we have, or we can go “all in”, turning our lives to follow Jesus. When we let go of all the distractions; the riches, the pride, the grudges, and we can put that over in God’s hands; when we devote our lives wholly to God, then we will know blessings beyond measure. We will know what it is to have life, and to have it abundantly! Thank God for that opportunity! Don’t miss it!