a sermon, based on Mark 10.17-31 and Hebrews 4.12-16, preached with the people of the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints, St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, at the 9.00 a.m. Holy Eucharist on Sunday, October 11, 2015.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We know so little of this nameless inquirer. Save the urgency of his need, running to Jesus and the sincerity of his respect for Jesus, kneeling before him, calling him, “Good Teacher.” Still, this stranger speaks to us. Speaks for us. We who know the joys and tribulations of this world know, too, the heartfelt longing for that spiritual, existential state of eternality, its future reality and present possibility of life lived in the presence and power of God. Yes, this man speaks for us whenever we, in the words of Hebrews, seek mercy and grace in our time of need: What must we do to inherit eternal life?
And Jesus’ reply, he the proclaimer, the very presence of God’s kingdom of love and justice, surprises me: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Yet before I, stunned by his humility, can catch my breath, Jesus races on reciting the commandments; again surprising me. For Jesus, in response to a question about the eternal life of God, speaks not of the commandments regarding our reverence of 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”), but only those concerning our human interactions (“You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, defraud, and honor your father and mother”).
At first glance, it seems that being faithful in our relationships is what we must do to inherit eternal life. Hard to argue with that. The cross, among many things, is a symbol of the intrinsic connection between, in its vertical dimension, our relationship with God and, in its horizontal plane, our relationships with one another. And the Peace that we exchange with one another is the peace of God who reconciles us in Jesus. However, given the man’s reply that he has kept the commandments and Jesus’ response of acknowledgement, looking at him, loving him suggests something else is required, something more must be done to answer his, our burning question about eternal life.
“You lack one thing,” says Jesus, his instruction straightforward and severe: “Go, sell, give, then come, follow me.” The man, stunned, daring never to part with his possessions, in ancient times a visible sign of divine blessing and the literal substance of his worldly well-being, “went away grieving.” So, too, might our response be to Jesus’ demand for renunciation whenever our possessions inhibit our answer to his call to take up our cross and follow him.
Blessedly, Jesus does not require that of us, but rather something more. Something even tougher to remember and to do. Notwithstanding his word about how hard it will be for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, note how immediately he deepens the degree of difficulty to include all of us: “Children,” (all of us being God’s children) “how hard it is to enter God’s kingdom!”
All of us, whether rich or poor, have the same problem of earning salvation. We can’t. And Jesus, looking at his disciples and us with the same love he has for the rich man, says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
This is no cheap grace that allows us to be and do as we choose and God will handle the rest. Though true, there is nothing we must do to inherit eternal life; for inheritance, properly, faithfully understood, always is a gift of being in a family and never about doing something to earn it. However, there is something we must do to lay claim to our inheritance. Herein, I think, is the meaning of Jesus’ word to a worried 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. Our inheritance that Jesus died to bequeath to us.
Will we choose to open our hands and hearts to receive it?
Will we choose to live our lives where first and last no longer have any significance?
Will we choose to love and respect one another as one and equal in the Lord today as we will be in glory?
That is all we ever must do!