A sermon, based on Mark 10.17-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2018
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This man, urgent in need and with earnest respect for Jesus, running to him, kneeling before him, calling him, “Good Teacher,” also speaks for us. We who know the joys and sorrows of this world long for eternal life, which I define as our lives lived in the presence and the power of God, both through the veil of death and now. So, we ask, “What must we do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus, the proclaimer, the living presence of the kingdom of God, answers surprisingly: “Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone.” Reciting the commandments, he continues to surprise us. For he doesn’t speak of the commandments regarding our reverence for God – “I am the Lord your God, you shall none other than me, worship no idols, take not my name in vain, remember the Sabbath day”(1) – but only those about our human relationships – “You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, defraud, and honor your father and mother.”
Maybe being faithful in our relationships is what we must do to inherit eternal life. Makes sense. The cross, among many things, is a symbol of the essential, everlasting connection between, in its vertical dimension, our relationship with God and, in its horizontal plane, our relationships with one another. (So, the Peace we exchange with one another is not our peace, our goodwill for one another, but always the peace of God who reconciles us in Jesus. Thus, when we hear, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,”(2) we, believing, accepting God’s peace, are called, verily, compelled to share freely with others what we freely by God have been given!)
The man replies, “I’ve kept the commandments,” in effect, saying, “I’ve been there and done that. There has to be something else!” Jesus, loving him, looking at him, seeing through him that he loves his possessions more than anything or anyone, acknowledges that there is something else, “You lack one thing,” thus, something more for him to do, “Go, sell, give to the poor, then follow me.” The man, shocked, unable, unwilling to part with his wealth, “went away grieving.”
Now, we, though created by God as spirits in flesh, in our lives in this world, bound by time and space, have possessions. And our love of our possessions can hinder our discipleship, can impede our taking up our crosses and following Jesus. But, blessedly, Jesus doesn’t demand that we give them up. Rather Jesus requires one thing; one thing we may lack.
Yes, Jesus says that it’s hard for the rich who love their wealth, who make their wealth the object of their love and worship, to enter God’s kingdom. (This shocked the disciples! For, at that time, wealth not only was the mark of one’s worldly well-being, but also a tangible sign of divine blessing. So, if one richly, literally, blessed by God couldn’t be saved, then who could?) Yet he immediately includes everyone: “Children (referring to all of us!), how hard it is to enter God’s kingdom!”
All of us, whether rich or poor, have the same problem in doing something, anything to earn salvation. We can’t! “For mortals it is impossible,” says Jesus, “but for God all things are possible.”
Now, this is no cheap grace that allows us to be and do as we choose and God will handle the rest. Though it is true that there is nothing we must do to inherit eternal life. For inheritance always is a gift of being in a family and never about doing something to earn it.
Nevertheless, there is something we must do to lay claim to our inheritance. This is the meaning of Jesus’ word to Peter who protests the great sacrifices the disciples have made. To follow Jesus is to belong to a new family of sisters and brothers unbounded by time and space, unlimited by culture or race. This new family, whose surname is Christian, is our inheritance that Jesus died to bequeath to us. Will we open our hands and hearts to receive it? Will we today live our lives loving and respecting each other as one and equal in the Lord as we will be in glory? That is all we ever must do!
(1) Exodus 20.2-8, paraphrased
(2) The Book of Common Prayer, page 360. In the Eucharistic liturgy, the declaration of God’s Peace, following our confession of sin, is a renewed expression of God’s Love for us in restoring us to right relationship with God that we can strive again to keep God’s Law to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Illustration: Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889), Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911)