October 11, 2015 Ecumen
The rich young man asked the question all of us who believe in heaven ask at some time or another--”What must I do to get in?” Little Billy had a plan. He was in trouble again and his mother asked him, “How do you expect to get to heaven?” Billy thought for a moment then said, “I'll do what I do here, I'll run in and out and in and out and keep slamming the door. When Jesus says, 'For heaven's sake, either come in or stay out', I'll go in.”
In a preschool Sunday school class the teacher asked her youngsters, “If you would like to go to heaven, raise your hand.” They all did except Justin. When the teacher asked Justin why he wouldn't like to go to heaven, he replied, “I'm sorry, but I can't. My mother told me to come straight home after Sunday school.
One thing I'd never noticed, he isn't introduced as a rich man, just a man ran up and knelt before Jesus. Only after Jesus had told him to sell what he owned do we discover he had many possessions. He was apparently a good and honest and devout person. He'd kept the commandments, he'd sought out Jesus; I think we'd find him an excellent addition to any congregation in town. So what more did he need to do to inherit eternal life?
This is not the only time this question is broached in the scriptures but the only time the answer Jesus gave was to sell all they have. And we see that this young man wasn't ready for that kind of commitment. He went away. The disciples, Peter was quick to point out, had left all they had to follow him. The rich man, the disciples...do we need to assume there is a requirement for us to sell all we have too? And of course we all know there isn't. This was a unique situation; Jesus loved this man and knew what was keeping him from the kingdom—it was his love of his possessions. “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The man learned that he'd been mistaken in his understanding of what led to eternal life. He thought if he kept the law, he would have it made spiritually. He thought if he had enough money, he'd be happy. Follow the rules, be a good guy, be secure in his future and he'd be set. But that wasn't enough for Jesus. Jesus invited him to follow. Jesus loved him. But Jesus loved him too much to allow him to be less than he could be. So Jesus invited him... but instructed his distribution of wealth to help the young man see where his heart truly was. Jesus wanted the young man to follow him fully committed. Jesus wasn't looking for some of the young man's heart. We aren't called to give up all our possessions, likewise, Jesus isn't inviting any of us to follow him partway. Jesus doesn’t ask us to follow him on Sunday morning and go our own way the rest of the week. Jesus isn't asking us to follow when it is convenient or easy. Jesus wants all of us; our heart, our possessions, our loves, our hobbies, our worries. Whatever is keeping us from following Jesus fully; that's what Jesus suggests we may need to give up.
What must each of us do to inherit eternal life? If we asked Jesus that, and Jesus looked into our hearts, would we be asked to give something up? Would it be all our possessions, like the rich young man? Or is it our security, our money, our house, our car? Is it the love of family that gets in the way of loving Jesus fully---? Is there something in your life today keeping you from fully following Jesus?
These are hard questions. Is Jesus really saying that God must come before my family, my health, my money, my retirement plans, my remodeling, my new car, my job? And the answer is yes, nothing in this world is to come before God. But as I say this, we can all recognize that it is very rare that God asks us to give up these things we love. We are seldom put in position to choose between God and our home; God and our family. We are blessed to live in this time and this place where we don't have to choose. But we also recognize that right now, on the other side of the world, people are being asked to choose between God and family. Choose between God and living in their home, God and life in many instances. And so many are being true to God's call on their life. It puts me to shame to think of what little I give to follow Jesus. But I look around this room and see many who have given much or who have lost much in this life. Family, home, possessions—the very things I've talked about. But we are not to regret those loses as much as we are to give thanks to the Lord for what we have received and what we are promised.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? I haven't answered that yet. We've discovered it is not to give away our possessions but certainly put them in the proper perspective. Not to merely follow the letter of the law, for the young man had done that.
For a fuller answer, I want to look back at last week's gospel. As Jesus blessed the little children, he told his disciples, “Let the children come to me for to such as these that the kingdom belongs. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What must we do? We must receive the kingdom as a child. What does that look like? It means receiving the gift of the kingdom openly and confidently. It means we don't bargain with God over the gift— “God, if you do this for me I will be true to you.” And God doesn't say “if you do these things I will love you.” God gives us love and we accept the gift as it is given, a done deal; salvation free and clear. Receiving the gift of eternal life means abandoning our need of achievement, our need to earn God's favor, our need to be in control. We need to allow ourselves to accept the gift as it is given.
What must we do? Accept the gift. And it is a gift as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2: 8-9)
The rich young man counted on his goodness and his success to count for something in his quest for eternal life. Jesus wanted more from him. Our goodness and successes are not what qualify us for eternal life. God wants more from us, not more doing but more accepting. It is a gift, it is God's grace. We can't earn it or pay for it. Riches are no good in the kingdom. Which made no sense to the Jews in first Century Jerusalem. Part of their theology was that God blessed the righteous with wealth. How could it be that this rich young man was not already fit for the kingdom? Jesus really shocked them by declaring it basically impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom—easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle—the largest animal; the smallest opening; doesn't work. Well, it would take God to make it work. And that what it takes to make it to God's kingdom, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." Our salvation, impossible for us to achieve through any works or promise or our net worth. But with God, all things...even our salvation is possible, is here for us to receive.
Jesus gave a different answer to the rich young man. Sell what you have, give the money to the poor—that's an important part of this. I heard Father Simon on the radio this week compare our riches with manure. If you pile up your money it smells but spread it around and it brings forth growth and blessing. We are called to give, not everything like the specific incident reported in today's gospel, we are called to give generously. But then Jesus gives us the key to a right relationship with God, “then, come, follow me.” We are invited to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus above and beyond the wonderful gifts of this life here on earth. Above and beyond the very things we so often consider most important. Follow Jesus above all earthly concerns and you will have treasure in heaven. Our memory verse of the month is a good reminder, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus is to be our treasure, our hearts belong to Jesus.
Jesus is calling each of us to heed his call to follow him. Our next hymn reminds us of this, we are called over the tumult... the troubles and trials of this world. We are called from the worship of “the vain world's golden store”. Jesus calls us, reminds us, tells us, “Christian, love me more than these.” More than these—all the vain things we have in our lives that we are tempted to love more than Jesus.
Who wants to go to heaven? It another way to ask the question of the rich young man--What must I do to inherit eternal life? The question of the rich young man is our question today. It's answer is to accept the free gift of grace offered by God in Christ. Live loving Jesus above the things of this world. Like a child accepting a present, joyfully say yes to the gift Jesus offers. And live in confidence that our God is faithful and true and you will have treasure in heaven, living eternally with our beloved Savior. Amen.
Hymn: Jesus Calls Us O'er the Tumult pg 178