Last Sunday amidst rains, floods, and apocalyptic warnings, we kicked off a new theme for Central Presbyterian Church for the coming year. You’ll see it proclaimed on the front of the bulletin and on banners around the church with graphics designed by Brett Rawlings and text from I Corinthians 13: “Faith, Hope, and Love… The Greatest of These Is Love.” After talking about all the different spiritual gifts, which have clearly been a divisive subject for the Corinthians, Paul lifts up three positive characteristics as most important – faith, hope, and love – and says the greatest is love. In fact, he says that if any of the spiritual gifts are exercised without love they are worthless.
If you’d like to hear or read the kick-off sermon from last week you can go to our web site (listed on the front of the bulletin), or pick up a copy in the narthex after worship. In a nutshell, though, in selecting this theme your church staff felt it would be great to spend a year focused intently on counteracting all the negativity around us in the world. This will be a presidential election year, so there will be more than enough negativity added to the normal amount to make this a real need.
There are many, many biblical texts and hymn texts which will provide great support for this theme. Much of it, however, can be gleaned from looking at “ordinary” texts through the lens of love. Today, for instance, I am using today’s lectionary readings, as I will for most of the Sundays between now and Thanksgiving.
When you first hear the story about Jesus and the young man he told to sell everything and give it away, it sounds a lot more like judgment than love. But Mark clearly says in the midst of the conversation that Jesus loved this man. Of course, we know and sing that Jesus loves everybody, but this stands out. Jesus loved this man enough not to tell him what he wanted to hear, but to instead nudge him towards a way of life which would be even better for him.
Numerous times during this past week in study groups here at the church I have been reminded that Jesus was a master of hyperbole. What I mean by that is that he would say something so extreme and so opposite of what people expected that people would be in shock. What I think he was trying to do was to take people whose thinking was here and by presenting an idea that was all the way on the opposite end of the spectrum hopefully move them in that direction some. If everybody sold everything they had and gave it away it would probably create more problems than it solved. But if everyone became less attached to their stuff and more willing to give then we would all be a lot better off. Love leads to giving rather than withholding.
So let’s spend some time looking at this encounter. Context is always important in the Bible, so let’s begin with looking at that. In the passage right before the one I read, people were bringing little children to Jesus for him to bless them. Mark tells us that the disciples spoke sternly to these people and turned them away. Out of sight, out of mind, is where children belong, right? Let Jesus spend his time with adults, the important people.
Jesus was indignant about this and told the disciples, “Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he proceeded to hold the children in his arms and bless them.
How do you receive the kingdom as a child? Well, maybe children are more dependent on others for what they cannot do and provide for themselves than adults tend to be. Maybe they are more accepting of other people and less restrained about showing love for others. Maybe they are better at playing and at finding joy in small things. Maybe they are less status conscious.
Against the backdrop of this story, the one we are looking at today is pretty ironic. A man arrives to see Jesus who is someone important, someone the disciples would welcome with deference and feel honored by his presence. He probably traveled with an entourage. He would be ushered right in to see Jesus, not kept waiting. He is a man of great wealth, yet he comes before Jesus and kneels. He asks the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He apparently was not present for the conversation about the children or he would know he needed to become like a child.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? That’s the question asked, and that’s the question Jesus answers. What you have to do to earn eternal life is obey the commandments, so Jesus goes through the commandments with him. The man says a surprising thing in response: “I have kept all these from my youth.” That is some self-confidence, to believe you have faithfully kept all the commandments all your life. Jesus does not criticize him for this answer or argue with him about whether or not this is true. In fact, this is where Mark says that Jesus loved him.
“Well,” Jesus said, “then I guess there is only one other thing you have to do to earn eternal life: Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this the man was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Jesus had answered the questions the man asked. The man came with the belief and expectation that he could earn his own salvation, and this was the faith in which the man had grown up, that obedience to the law is what makes one right with God. The man was quite confident that he was well on the way to accomplishing that. He came to Jesus, the new teacher in town, to see if he knew one more thing he should do for good measure to seal the deal, or if his answer would square with that of the other rabbis.
The answer Jesus gives him is shocking – for the man, for the disciples, and for us. “Well, if you are sure you want to earn that salvation you are looking for, then there is one more thing. Sell everything, give the money to the poor, and come follow me.” The man was used to being able to buy whatever he wanted, but he learns now that it will cost him everything and require a total change of life orientation to earn salvation.
It would be a mistake to infer from this passage that Jesus says the requirement for any of us to be saved is to obey the commandments and give away everything we have. We would be right to conclude that if this man’s exemplary life and abundant possessions were not enough to save him, then we should be looking for a different door to salvation.
That door is the one Jesus always stands at, knocking and waiting for us to invite him in. We, meanwhile, spend our time at other doors which promise so much, banging away trying to get through to what we are sure is waiting for us on the other side. We forget that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” We cannot be saved by more obedience or more stuff. We can be saved by more trust, by more dependence. When we understand our helplessness and open the door and invite Jesus to come in and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, then we have taken the right step.
It sounds simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. We are preparing to enter stewardship season, where we are reminded vividly of that fact. We like to feel as though we are in charge and controlling our own destiny. The more we have, the more we are deluded into believing we have that control. That’s why Jesus went on to say to the disciples, “It is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” That came as a shock to the disciples, because Judaism accepted that wealth was a sign of God’s favor. In our society, many see wealth as something they are entitled to. I seldom hear people say, “I don’t understand why God has given me so much,” but I do hear people say, “I don’t understand why God has given me so little, or has taken so much away.” In truth, losses of all kinds serve to humble us and lead us to the one thing necessary – to become like a child and ask Jesus to become our guardian, our advocate, our Savior.
Yes, Jesus said, “It will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” When the disciples had picked their jaws up off the ground after hearing this they asked in amazement, “Then who can be saved?” Maybe Jesus winked at them as he said, “For people, it is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” The man had asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” The answer is, “You can’t do it any more than a camel can squeeze through the eye of a needle, but I know someone who can see you through.” Jesus has much more of a sense of humor than most people give him credit for, and this image of God tugging and pulling us into heaven through the eye of a needle should give us all a chuckle.
Is this story about money? Absolutely. Money has great power over us and frequently drives a wedge between us and faithful living and dependence on Christ. Is the story just about money? Definitely not. There are a lot of other things which have power over us and keep us from faithful living, sometimes including lack of money.
In the end, this chapter of Mark’s gospel leaves us with three pieces of information about receiving salvation, and we have to hold them in tension as we live our lives. First: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” That sounds simplistic and too easy. All you have to do is sit back and let God take care of you. Second: To earn salvation you have to obey the commandments, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and leave your old life behind to follow Jesus. That sounds mighty hard, like salvation by works. Third: With people, salvation is impossible; but for God all things are possible.
Perhaps it is possible to keep these three in balance as we live our lives. Trust in and depend on God alone to care for our needs, while we do the best we can each day to love God and serve others in ways that are faithful to the Gospel and generous in the use of the gifts God has given; and knowing in humility that we cannot earn or buy our own salvation and must trust God to do the impossible for us.
The good news is that he is eager to do that very thing, because God loves us so much. Even now, even here, even today, Jesus stands at the door of our hearts and knocks. He wants to show us his limitless love and fill us with that love so it will overflow into the lives of others. He will not force his way in, though, so the one thing we need to do is to open the door to him and give him the keys. As the corny but true bumper sticker says, “If God is your co-pilot, then change seats.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 11, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church