The folks at 1st Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls have invited me to preach tomorrow morning. The lectionary passages for this Sunday are particularly difficult -- not to understand, but to live. The sermon is directed back towards myself: I am that youth who went away sorrowful, although I cannot claim to have "kept the commandments from my youth." I pray that, even so, the Lord, looking at me, might love me -- as I know He does. Hallelujah.
Sermon: Mark 10:17-31
We often, I think, look at the young one who comes to our Lord Christ with a bit of pride: where he went away sorrowful, we have stayed faithful -- here we are in worship, after all. But what one of us can claim to the Lord Christ's face that we have "kept all these commandments from our youth"? Take note that our Lord does not correct him or chastise him for pride: "Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him..." This youth has done what to us seems impossible: he has kept the Law of God! Surely there is eternal life stored up for him! Job, from the Old Testament reading today, certainly seemed to think that in God’s presence “an upright man could present his case and...would be delivered forever from his judge” (Job 23:7). What hope do we, who have followed the Christ yet sin, have of inheriting eternal life? The news is even more dire than that, I fear: this perfect youth misses the mark, for his god is ultimately his riches. He is held under a cruel tyranny by them. In him the saying of our Lord comes to full life: "no one can serve God and Mammon" (Matt. 6:24). Keeping the Law does us no good if we do not forsake all this world has to offer for Christ Himself. This is not to say, though, that the Law does no good: as St Paul teaches us "Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor catamites, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10). There is a tension here: even if the whole Law was fulfilled, we could still miss out on eternal life, yet those who do not fulfill the Law "will not inherit the Kingdom". What is there to do? It is here that we can understand the Apostles' astonished question: "Who then can be saved?" Jesus, looking at them just as he had the rich youth, said, "With men -- impossible; but not with God, for with God all things are possible" (Mk. 10:27).
Let us share in the disciples' astonishment; if we don't, we are asleep or, in St Paul's language, deceived. Our life, our salvation, is at stake here. "With men -- impossible." Here is the great mystery of our Faith: Christ calls sinners to Himself and, like in the Exodus, He sets them free and gives them Himself. The one who kept the whole Law had a different master, an unrelenting lord as cruel as the Pharaoh of old: the love of money. This love, which enslaves young and old, rich and poor alike, cannot share room in our hearts with the love of God. Pharaoh could not find it in his hard and hardened heart to let the Hebrews have a 3-day festival to their God; the love of money refuses to let our prayers arise unhindered. Yet, in the Gospels, the tax collectors, the sinners, the Apostles, the prostitutes, they knew their poverty of spirit and forsook all they had, great or little, to follow Him. Those who know they are cruelly enslaved are glad when the Liberator has come; those who receive pittance from the old master go away sorrowful, thinking themselves rich when they are truly destitute. Which are we? St Paul continues in the passage I mentioned earlier: "Such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God!" (1 Cor. 6:11). We cannot compare with the rich youth, who kept the commandments; but we have been washed in baptism, sanctified at the font, and justified by faith when we confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, sharing in His death and rising to newness of life (Rom. 6:4). As our Lord says, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:11). You might respond to this, rightly, "who can do this? Who can keep himself from sin?" This is exactly what the disciples are asking! "With men -- impossible." Hear the grace of the Lord: "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). This is why our Lord instructs the youth to "take up the Cross and follow Me" (Mk. 10:21): it is only by communion with Christ that we have hope. Riches will not save us, keeping the commandments -- though important as St Paul reminds us -- will not save us; only sharing in the work of Christ through faith and baptism will save us. Faith confesses what Christ has done; baptism incorporates us into it.
For some of us, I imagine, baptism is a distant memory: maybe it happened when you were a baby, or a youth. My children were all baptized as infants, while I was as a teenager: I remember my baptism, but there is no chance that they do. It is easy, given enough time, to forget about the importance of that moment. Hear St Paul again: "Do you know know that as many of us were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death...our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin" (Rom. 6:3-7). Baptism is no mere symbol; it is your sharing in Christ's crucifixion, His salvific death: you died on that day. Died to what? Died to sin, to what St John calls "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16), that is, to the way of Adam that we have inherited, the way that leads without mercy to judgment and death, the way of enslavement to sin and the corruption that is in the world, that is what we have died to. This includes the love of money. How can we look at our culture, the air we breathe, every time we turn on the TV or listen to the radio or use social media or read the paper, without seeing that it is a culture of Adam, a culture of death? We are surrounded by those who have made it their goal to "get rich or die trying," by those who feel the need to "keep up with the Kardashians," by those who think the purpose of life and education and labor is to retire comfortably. We are those selfsame people. This is the way of Adam. Hear instead the summons of our Lord Christ, who "though He was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9): "sell whatever you have and give to the poor" (Mk. 10:21). This is the baptized life, the life that shares in the death of Christ, and so "lives and that abundantly" (John 10:10).
What do we gain, though, by this forsaking of all things? Isn't this just a recipe for poverty? "Assuredly," in the Greek this is a vow from our Lord, "I say to you, there is no one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the Gospel's, who shall not now receive a hundredfold in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life" (Mk. 10:29-30). This is rather strange, isn't it? What does He mean that we receive all these things "now in this time"? Look around you: are not all these your brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in the Faith? Would they not take care of you as one of their own, from their own body? For you are all one Body, Christ's Body, which transcends genetics and biology, in other words, in this case baptismal water is truly thicker than blood. You are the family of God and have, therefore, received all things: you are all co-heirs with Christ, if in fact you have "put on Christ" in baptism (Gal. 3:27), the inheritance of all things is yours, which means you have no need for riches or wealth or the love of them to control you or guide your life. Instead, you have the Holy Spirit of God, who St Paul calls the "down payment of our inheritance" (Eph. 1:14). The Holy Spirit, as we confess in the Creed, is God, the infinite God! And yet He is called our "down payment!" For those of you who have a mortgage, you know that a down payment is only the promise that someday, maybe, you’ll own the house outright. The Holy Spirit is our down payment on eternal life, on sharing the Life of the Holy Trinity, our inheritance forever. Truly we have been blessed with "every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies with Christ" (Eph. 1:3) -- God Himself has made His home in us! What fear should we have, then, of "selling all we have and giving to the poor"? "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on....Look at the birds of the air...Consider the lilies of the field...your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Mt. 6:25-33). The Lord knows what we need, much better than we do, and will provide it: we must turn our eyes instead to Christ, who is the righteousness of God, and His Kingdom. As the author of Hebrews encourages us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-3) "With God all things” -- even that which is impossible for humans -- “are possible." We have nothing to lose but our sin and our slavery and all of the Holy Trinity to gain -- this is the inheritance of eternal life. Amen.