Sermon preached by Fr Jeff Parker at St. Luke’s Enmore, 27th October 2019
Joel 2:23–32; 2 Tim 4:6–8, 16–18; and Luke 18:15–30
What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is a question Luke likes to put on the lips of various people in his stories. Earlier, in Chapter 10, a lawyer on that occasion, asked exactly the same question – and the answer there was different.
Jesus had answered then that the key to heaven’s door was to love God with all the heart mind soul and strength and to love the neighbour as oneself … which led to the story of the good Samaritan and the commandment to go and do the same.
But here the answer to the question is not the two great commandments but, as well as obeying the commandments of God, to sell one’s possessions and to then give the proceeds to the poor.
Of course we all have possessions and we all have favourite possessions with which we would find it very difficult to part. So this answer from Jesus was not only very hard for this ruler to hear but its also difficult for us to hear and respond to.
So how can we approach this dilemma?
The reading from Joel sets up our discussion in a way. It’s a reading we usually have at Pentecost because it speaks of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
God has great plans for us and God is on his people’s side. God will care for us and provide for us. And God will send his Holy Spirit upon us. The Spirit will empower us to speak on God’s behalf and to dream of a better future. God is sovereign over all and as we give ourselves to God’s service, we receive blessings far beyond what we deserve and he will watch over and protect us from the dangers of this world.
The dangers of this world being the ones that separate us from God. Paul lists some of these in his letter to the Galatians which must have apparent in the churches in that place: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing.
Some of those words are a bit vague even for me, so I turned to Eugene Petersen’s “The Message” translation of the Bible for some clarity and I sure found that.
[19 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness;
20 trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits;
21 the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.] Putting it in those terms, we don’t want to fall into that kind of life – and our faith, the Holy Spirit working in us, is what helps us not to.
When the ruler asks Jesus about the way to eternal life, he would not have been surprised by the first part of Jesus’ response – in which he says, “just follow the law.” But he would have been shocked by the second. What we see is a clash between the accepted ways of this world and the upside-down ways of the Kingdom of God.
This fellow who confronts Jesus with his question is described as a ‘ruler’, an important man, and a wealthy one. In his world, might is right. In his world, only certain people of rank are welcome at the dinner table, servants and children, are not of great value, women even less so. In his world compassion is only given to the deserving. This is the world that he rules over. And additionally, he has such an attachment to his riches and possessions that he cannot even imagine giving them up.
It remains the case that having possessions is not a spiritual problem unless they become an idol, an object of worship for us and something that we use purely for ourselves – our own enrichment and enjoyment even in the face of others’ poverty.
What was Jesus’ attitude to these things? In our reading just before this encounter with the ruler, people were bringing little children to Jesus so that he could touch them and bless them.
In bible times children didn’t always manage to grow up. One resource I looked at said that at this time in history, infant mortality was about 30% of births. Another 30% of the children who survived birth were then the victims of disease, famine, or war. And many after that did not make it to 16 years of age.
So perhaps it was in the minds of those bringing their children to Jesus that one touch from him might save their lives.
Initially we see that the disciples were of a similar mind to the culture of that day. Children were not important. Jesus should not waste his time on them, surely the adults awaiting his teaching were the ones to whom Jesus would give his priority.
But in the Kingdom of God, where the love of God fashions laws which are the opposite of what human beings construct, the children are the ones to whom Jesus gives his attention first and foremost.
He says these most remarkable words which are always so precious and loving and amazing.
‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Luke 18:16
It’s a familiar pattern of Jesus’ behaviour and one that Luke often highlights for us. It’s always the least likely person who Jesus will care for… the despised Samaritan, the sinful woman, the blind beggar, the leper, and here the little child. These are the ones that Jesus blesses and points to. These are the ones that Jesus reminds us that God loves amazingly, not despite their illness or their lowly status but because of it.
This attitude is foundational for us as we minister to a world where its values continue to be those of the ruler. We could list those in our community today who are not valued as they should be. We walk past them in the streets lying on blankets and sleeping bags; we see them in parks or on public transport. And there are those whose lifestyles are different and rejected by many. These are the ones to whom Jesus showed special care and attention. And we are duty bound to follow.
It rings so true that his hearers, who included the disciples and others, were shocked by Jesus words about the difficulty for those who are rich to find a way into God’s Kingdom. I can just see them throwing up their hands as they say to him “then who can be saved?” If the rich good respectable people can’t be saved then who? If it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of an needle than a rich person making it to heaven, then what hope is there for us in this very rich country and well off society?
We find the answer in God. God sent his son Jesus into the world to teach and heal his people, and to go to the cross and be raised. We could not overcome the false values of our crazy world, without the work of Jesus Christ, his life, ministry death resurrection and exaltation and the sending of the Spirit.
This is how we are saved. No by our own merits but through Jesus.
In 2 Timothy, the author tells of his life, his trials and how he has tried his best to be to be faithful. Unlike the ruler, he is able to be confident about entering the Kingdom of God because he has lived a life of Kingdom values, even though it hasn’t always been easy. He shares with us his life’s struggle:
7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness,
There is no question in his mind about what more he needs to do.
May the gospel values and priorities of Jesus be ours. May the Holy Spirit give us the strength to live those values especially when it is hard, and so may the crown of righteousness be ours also.