March 1, 2020

“Think Like Jesus:  Receive Eternal Life”

Mark 10:17-31

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

March 1, 2020 (Lent 1)


Welcome to the season of Lent!  We are at the beginning of the 40-day season of reflection and repentance that will prepare us for a glorious celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It is a good time for us to pause in our daily routines to focus on our relationships with Jesus.  How have we been faithful to Jesus?  How have we struggled in our discipleship?  How can we draw closer to him?


We have been reading through the gospel of Mark since Christmas, and we have reached the point where the action seems to have slowed down but the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders is increasing.  He’s not rushing here or there “immediately,” as in the first half of the gospel, and the conversations he is engaging in seem more challenging.  As I said last week, he’s also beginning to indicate to people that he is the Messiah, and is hearing their objections to the kind of Messiah he says he is.


As we go forward in Jesus’ story, we will continue to be challenged to understand and accept the kind of Messiah he is—one who will suffer, be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed and then rise again three days later (Mark 8:31).  And he calls people to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him (Mark 8:34).  These are things we have heard and read repeatedly.  And yet, have we truly accepted that this is the kind of Messiah Jesus is?  Are we prepared to follow him to the cross?  


It feels right for us to be reading this part of Mark as we begin to observe Lent.  I like Lent because this season always makes me take stock of my life with Jesus.  I am challenged to look honestly at my life and see where I am being faithful, and where I am failing to follow Jesus.  And our readings from Mark will certainly encourage that kind of self-evaluation.


The man who came to Jesus in today’s reading was having a similar time of self-reflection and evaluation.  He had heard about Jesus and his teachings, and probably thought that the popular rabbi had answers to his most pressing questions about the spiritual life.  He ran to Jesus and fell on his knees, a sign of his respect and sincerity and desire. He asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17).  Did you notice his question?  “What must I do?”


Jesus’ initial answer must have sounded reassuring to the man.  He recited the second half of the Ten Commandments:  “You know the commandments:  You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother” (v. 19).  


Check, check, check.  Great!  “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy” (v. 20).  


What I like about this story is the way Jesus responded to the man.  It says “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (v. 21a).  I imagine that Jesus looked deeply at the man and could see his heart.  He could see his earnestness in asking about how to attain eternal life.  He knew the man had tried his best.  And Jesus loved him.  But Jesus knew what was really holding him back.  


Jesus’ answer was, “One thing you lack…”  Uh oh, he didn’t measure up.  There were more boxes to check.  “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me” (v. 21).


Jesus saw that the man’s possessions were keeping him from receiving eternal life.  Riches give people the illusion that they are in control of their lives, that they are able to do anything because they have wealth or power.  They don’t need anyone else.  And when the man heard that what was holding him back from eternal life was his wealth, he was sad because he was not able or willing to give it up because it meant giving up his illusion of independence.


We stop at this point in the story because we know that we too are rich.  Not Bill Gates or Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos rich, but in comparison to the rest of the world, we have a lot of stuff and we are rich.  And we squirm along with the disciples.


Jesus knows this is difficult to accept.  In his day, wealth was often seen as a sign of God’s blessing and approval of a person.  The Hebrew Scriptures even contain this idea.  In Deuteronomy 30:16 Moses said to the Israelites, “For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.”  God blesses and gives wealth to the faithful.  Job’s wealth was restored after he passed his time of testing, right?


But wealth that separates people, wealth that is used as a way to avoid being vulnerable, wealth that makes one self-sufficient gets in the way of our relationship to God.  And that’s how wealth makes it impossible for people to enter the kingdom of God.


After the man went away unwilling to sell all his stuff and sad, Jesus drove home his point to the disciples:  “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  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” (vv. 24-25).  


We squirm and question Jesus along with the disciples:  “Who then can be saved?” (v. 26). Have we no hope of entering the kingdom of God?  


Jesus gives us the key to entering the kingdom of God:  “With humans, this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (v. 27).  God and God alone can save.  Try as we might, following all the commandments of God, practicing all our spiritual disciplines, praying as earnestly as we can—none of this will get us into the kingdom of God.  


Jesus’ point was that entering into the kingdom of God is a gift.  It is something we receive, not earn.  It is impossible for us to enter the kingdom of God in any way except by receiving it. 


Our possessions and wealth may give us the illusion that we can somehow earn God’s favor and eternal life.  Remember the question the man asked Jesus:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The answer is, “Nothing.”  You can’t do anything to earn your way to heaven.  That’s impossible because the only way to get in is by God giving you entrance.  And if you continue to strive and earn and achieve your way into God’s favor, it’s never going to work.  It’s impossible.  It’s like trying to make a camel, the biggest animal known in Palestine at the time, to go through the eye of a needle, the smallest opening imaginable.  Yes, it’s that difficult to earn eternal life.


When this story is read, most people ask whether Jesus’ answer applies to them.  If I want to receive eternal life, do I need to sell all my stuff?  Is that what Jesus is really saying?  Clearly, that’s where Peter went in his thinking.  “We have left everything to follow you!” (v. 28).  He too wanted to be assured that he was on the right path to eternal life.


And Jesus did not disappoint.  All that Peter and the others had given up to follow him would be given to them—one hundred times as much now, in this present age—and in the age to come, eternal life.  Rest assured, their sacrifice would not go unrewarded.  


Much focus in this story is on wealth and material possessions.  But we often gloss over the part of Jesus’ answer to the man that invites him to follow him.  And I’ve been wondering whether that was the real answer to the question of how to inherit eternal life.


Following Jesus means having a relationship with the Son of God, which is the point of eternal life, isn’t it?  The man would have learned about and received Jesus’ love and grace.  He would have watched as Jesus related to the whole community of followers.  He would have become part of a community that was very different than any other, marked by love for God and neighbor.  He would have had to leave his family and let go of his wealth anyway, because they were on the move.  He would have found that he didn’t need to hold onto his wealth, because God provided for them.  In following Jesus, he would have developed deep relationships with the others, giving him a new family—more brothers, sisters, mothers, and children than he had left behind.  And there would also be persecution, a byproduct of following a man who was so radically different than any other rabbi.


We focus so much on the selling of possessions that we forget that what Jesus really wanted for the man was an ongoing relationship with the man.  And that relationship was a gift, not something to be earned or deserved.  That relationship was eternal life.


We receive eternal life by accepting Jesus’ call to follow him.  And everything else that we thought we needed or depended on falls away or becomes less important.  And because Jesus can be a threat to the world’s way of consumptive living, he and his followers are persecuted.


This relationship with Jesus puts us into a whole new way of relating to others, so that following the Ten Commandments is less of a check list, and more of a way to live together to experience eternal life.  Following Jesus puts us into the company with a whole lot of other people—a hundred times brothers, sisters, mothers, children.  And following Jesus means loving and living together with this new family.


I was reflecting on this as the news of the likely spread of the coronavirus was so prevalent this week.  As officials told us to prepare and not panic, what did people do?  They went to Costco to load up on big packs of toilet paper, cases of water, more hand sanitizer than one could use in a year, and wipes.  And maybe some food.  They went and bought up all the masks they could find, even though the authorities have been saying that the only people who really need masks are those who are sick so they don’t spread their illness when they cough or sneeze. 


This response is really about being self-sufficient, isn’t it?  It’s not just buying what you need, but hoarding and disregarding the needs of those around you.  As a result, the shelves are empty of supplies for those who really need them.


Can you imagine what our response might look like if we viewed our lives from the perspective of following Jesus along with our neighbors?  First, our fears would be cast out by love.  We would be responsible by getting our emergency supplies ready, but just enough.  We would be thinking about what the wider community needs.  And if a need arises, we could respond and help each other.  We could live interdependently.  There would be no need for panic buying, because we would know that help would be there for those who needed it at the time help was needed.  We would care, and we would receive care.  We would be living the true spirit of the Ten Commandments, not because we wanted to earn God’s approval, but in response to the true life that God has given to us in Jesus Christ.


Friends, Jesus challenges us to think and live differently.  He reminds us that he is the answer to our quest for eternal life.  Eternal life is not something we can earn—that’s impossible.  But he offers us the gift of eternal life when he says, “Come, follow me.”  And this gift puts us into an interdependent, loving relationship with others.  If you want eternal life, you are invited to follow Jesus.