Embracing Eternal Life

+ A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 28B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 10, 2021 +

Text: Mark 10:17-31


“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
We hear this earnest question from a man who finds Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.
A devout man who has kept the law his entire life, and yet still feels like he is incomplete.
He runs to find Jesus, falls on his knees before him, and begs for healing—not healing from an illness, not healing from a disability, but healing from the realization that he is still missing something.

But what could he possibly be missing?
We’re told this man had many possessions.
He was rich, what could he be lacking?
What could he not buy, what could he not achieve, what could he not make happen in his life thanks to his vast resources?
He had power.
He had security.
He had certainty.
By all measure, it sure seems that this man had done everything right.
He has kept the law, he is seeking God’s approval, and he is wealthy.
Then as now, the common understanding was that wealth showed that a person had been blessed by God. That they had worked hard and found success.
But still this man senses that something is missing, that he hasn’t done enough to earn eternal life.
And just like so much of his life, he needed to be certain.
He needed to know that he had done what was necessary to inherit, to possess eternal life.

As if eternal life is simply something to be obtained.
As if it were just another box to check.
As if it were something to possess and keep for ourselves rather than something to be experienced.
It sure seems to me that this man on the road suffers from the same misunderstanding as so many modern-day Christians—that Jesus came to earth to give us tickets into heaven.
That Christianity boils down to the belief that if we do everything right, if we’re good enough, if we do enough, we too can obtain eternal life.
That the good news that Jesus proclaims is merely about what happens to us when we die rather than intended for the flourishing of our lives here and now in the present age.
But Jesus’ teachings are about so much more than what happens to us when we die, they’re about building up the Reign of God here on earth.
They’re about a fundamental reordering of society rooted in the abundance of gifts God has given us to share.
They’re about creating a new community where all people—from those who were living in mansions with their many possessions to those who were relegated to the margins—come together and use all they have for the life and wellbeing of all.

But Jesus also doesn’t shy away from the sacrifice required for realizing this new Reign.
When the rich man on that road hears what Jesus is asking of him, to sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor, he walked away grieving.
Now, it would be easy for me to criticize him for this, that he didn’t want to make the sacrifice necessary to truly follow Jesus.
But am I any different?
Are we any different?
How many of us cringed when we heard what Jesus said to this man?
How many of us flinched when we heard Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
We may try to temper Jesus’ words here to make ourselves more comfortable.
We may call them metaphorical and hyperbolic.
We may try to tell ourselves that we aren’t the rich people Jesus is talking about.
And sure, we may not be as wealthy as the millionaires and billionaires that live just a few miles from this place, but when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world, we quickly realize that our wealth far exceeds those of the vast majority of our siblings.
And if we really look at our society, we quickly see how we are obsessed with wealth, with accumulating possessions to buy ourselves comfort, security, assurance.
We equate money with success as we praise the ultra-wealthy as job creators, innovators, entrepreneurs when their wealth, and much of our comfort, is dependent on the work of other people who make far, far less than they do.

And yet, the constant desire and driving force of our society is amassing more wealth and more possessions.
We have fooled ourselves into a mindset of scarcity, that we don’t have enough, so we constantly work to acquire more stuff to improve our status and feel better about ourselves even as we forget those who labor to produce those products.
We allow our jobs to define and permeate our lives even as it decimates our down time, our family life, and our sense of dignity.
We relentlessly consume more and more—more products, more food, more energy—even as it wreaks havoc on the environment and covers the earth in pollution.
Like the people in the Prophet Amos’ day, we seek more economic prosperity at the expense of our neighbors and our climate.
But even as clear as it is that these practices are detrimental to our own wellbeing, to the wellbeing of our society, to the wellbeing of our planet, we continue to cling to our wealth and our possessions—not only cling to them but desperately seek to increase them—and find ourselves in the place of that man on the road to Jerusalem.

But just as Jesus says to that man on the road he repeats to us: you’re still missing something.
Even with all your wealth and all your possessions, you’re still lacking something.
You’re missing the point of eternal life, a new reign where we are all intrinsically connected with each other, with the people in this sanctuary, with our neighbors here in Factoria and around the globe, and with the whole creation.
Because no matter how hard we try, we cannot obtain or inherit the reign of God on our own.
And using our religion just to obsess over whether we’ll go to heaven when we die puts the focus solely on ourselves, on our worthiness, on what will happen to us.
But no matter how our society works, no matter what possessions we cling to, no matter the sense of certainty wealth provides, that’s simply not how the Reign of God works.
We cannot buy our way in—in fact, our reliance on our own wealth actually hinders us from achieving it, Jesus tells us, and prevents us from experience its riches as we ignore the needs of our neighbors.
We cannot earn eternal life, no matter how hard we try, because for humans that is impossible, Jesus tells us, but with God, all things are possible.
And not only are they possible, they have been promised to us. In the waters of our baptism, beloved, we have been assured of our place in God’s everlasting kingdom, in the promised life eternal.
So rather than using our lives and our religion trying to earn our place in heaven when we die, rather than working to obtain possessions on earth and secure blessings, we have been freed to use all of our time, all of our efforts, all of our resources to be blessings to the world.
To partner with God and each other to build up that promised commonwealth so all can experience eternal life.

We hear Jesus this morning on his way to Jerusalem.
He is on his way to the cross where he will refuse to preserve his own life but will instead show forth his love for the whole world.
Jesus tells that man he meets, he tells us this morning, that discipleship isn’t easy.
That following Jesus takes sacrifice.
It asks us to work with Christ and each other to build up a new society completely unlike the society that surrounds us.
One that is built not by accumulating wealth but shaped in the way of the self-giving cross.
One that seeks to enact the reign that Christ is proclaiming, a new commonwealth where we no longer cling to our own wealth, our own possessions, our own interests, but rather use all that we have for the flourishing of eternal life throughout the whole community.
To discover that when we share our resources, we experience an abundance a hundredfold greater than we could have ever imagined.
Jesus is inviting us to let go of the things that hold us back from embracing this new reign.
I don’t think Jesus wants us to just get of our possessions, to bury them in a hole and life an ascetic lifestyle of denial, but to recognize what abundance we have and utilize it to do Christ’s work in the world.
To allow God to work in and around us to create God’s Kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven.

I must say, Jesus’ words this morning ring differently to me than they have before.
Don’t get me wrong, I still cringed and flinched at his words and their implication for my own life, but just a few weeks ago, this congregation voted to move forward toward doing what Jesus is describing, didn’t we?
Toward selling most of our possessions for the life of our community.
And God knows this wasn’t an easy decision for us to make.
We could have punted the decision down the road.
We could have decided to maximize our profits and walk away.
But through prayer and deliberation and wrestling, we boldly moved forward towards what we believe Jesus is calling us to do.
To use what we have to literally build something new that will not benefit us alone but provide shelter and opportunity and life for our neighbors for decades to come.
We didn’t decide to do this because we’re trying to earn a place in heaven.
We didn’t do it because it’s easy or simple.
We did this because this is what it means for us to follow Jesus, to proclaim his good news in this place, and to bring our society even a small step closer to the eternal life he is bringing for all people.

My friends, Jesus’ words today may sound like condemnation upon those of us who cling to our possessions.
They may leave us despairing that we cannot sell all that we have and give it away.
We may even be ready to walk away and find a different road to travel.
But Jesus does not condemn this rich man today and more than he is condemning us.
Jesus looked at that man on the road, saw him for who he was, and loved him.
And in that love, Jesus told him that there was nothing he could do to gain God’s love because the work was already done.
There was nothing he could do to gain a spot in heaven, because God, for whom all things are possible, had done that already.
And Jesus invited the man to let go of the burdens that weighed him down, that separated him from his neighbors and had become his true driving force, so he could fully embrace the new and eternal life that Jesus is bringing for us all.
We don’t know how that man ultimately responded—whether he met up with Jesus farther down the road or not.

But this morning I cam confident that Jesus sees us for who we are, knows who we are, knows all that we possess, and loves us still.
And he asks us this morning, what are you missing?
What is preventing you from embracing God’s love for you?
What is preventing us from experiencing the eternal life Jesus brings?
How will we respond?

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