Here’s my sermon from this Sunday.
John had learnt and practised all the arm and leg strokes he needed for swimming. His muscles were well toned and his breathing regulated. He knew all about how to get off to a winning start, turning at the end of each length and how to pace himself. But one day John said to his coach “I know all about these things but still can’t swim. What’s going wrong?” The coach, took a deep breath and said, “Well, John, I think the time has come when you really do have actually to get in the water.”
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus has to deal with a man who has done all he needs – all, that is, except one thing. And like John it is, for him, the key thing without which everything else doesn’t achieve the desired result. The problem is that the one thing he hasn’t done is for him something pretty big and it shows up a big problem in his relationship with God. He comes to Jesus to find out what more he must do to inherit eternal life, and he hopes Jesus will give him the answer to his problem. The response he gets isn’t what he expects. The response he gets is rather like the response of the swimming coach to John – there’s one more thing you haven’t done yet. You think you’ve done all you need to do but at least you realise something’s wrong – well this is the one thing that’s missing, the one thing you need to deal with. And so Jesus says to the man: “You lack one thing… sell what you own… give to the poor … then come, follow me.”
Now, this isn’t at all what the man is expecting. Perhaps he’s expecting that Jesus will give him some magic formula that will enable him to gain the one thing he craves – eternal life. And the question that he asks Jesus highlights the very problem he has. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Two interesting things there. Firstly, what must I do? He sees it as being about something he can do rather than what he is or how he relates with God. And then there’s that’s an interesting word that he uses – inherit. He already has riches, and it’s as though he thinks that eternal life is something he is entitled to add to his existing portfolio. And he is certainly desperate. Jesus is about to set off on a journey and before he can go the man comes running up and kneels before him, desperate for an answer.
And Jesus questions him about the commandments. His response to Jesus is that he has kept all the commandments since his youth. And perhaps that is his real underlying problem – for him it seems to be about doing the right things, rather than living the right way – about actions rather than about loving. Perhaps he sees eternal life as a reward for having ticked off all the right boxes on the application form but there’s just one box left to tick. And the response he gets from Jesus is a shock – it’s not at all what he was expecting. Sell everything you have – give it to the poor – follow me. Perhaps he thought that his wealth was a reward for having kept the commandments. It was a common belief then, and is still around today sometimes – if you’re wealthy you deserve it, if you’re poor it’s your own fault. And here is Jesus saying, I’m afraid your wealth isn’t a God-given reward for good behaviour. Actually, it’s your wealth that’s getting in the way of your relationship with God.
And he can’t come to terms with the answer and walks away with a heavy heart. His wealth is important to him and he does not want to give it up. Now, interestingly we are not told what he ultimately did. All we are told by Mark is that he went away grieving because he had many possessions. Mark never tells us whether he was able to overcome that grief and give his possessions away or not. Perhaps he was, in the end, able to embrace that one thing that Jesus says he lacked. We shall never know. But this is what this gospel today is all about – embracing the one thing that Jesus says we lack in order to inherit eternal life.
Imagine that you are there, on that day, instead of the rich man. Imagine that you are before Jesus. You are there, just where the rich man was, kneeling in front of Jesus. For like the rich man, we too might kneel before Jesus and ask him what we must do to receive the assurance and certainty about our faith that we long for. Just as he looked at the man and knew what had to be done, so Jesus looks on you with eyes of love and knowledge and sees what it is you need. Kneel before him and say to him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus first establishes that you are already keeping the commandments, as he did with the rich man, because if you’re not already at least trying to keep the commandments that needs sorting out first. And then he says to you, “One thing you lack …” How do you think he might finish that sentence, speaking to you? “One thing you lack …” What might that one thing be? Only Jesus, and you if you are willing to listen, can know the answer. For his answer to us may well not be “go, sell what you own”, because it’s not just the fact that the man is wealthy that makes it difficult for him to follow Jesus. It’s the relationship the man has with his possessions that holds him back. What he owns gives him a sense of identity and security which is difficult for him to put aside.
The answer Jesus gives to us will be deeply personal. We might already know in our hearts what it is we’re holding on to for our security or sense of identity. Many things can become a kind of spiritual security blanket and stop us facing up reality. The particular problem that Jesus says you need to address might well be possessions as it is for so many. But it might be something quite different – memories of wrongs done to you that you’ve never forgotten or forgiven, pride in your own abilities, addiction or destructive relationships, something bad you’ve done in the past to and can’t bring yourself to confess or you cannot allow God to deal with your guilt. It might even be that feeling – and it’s a dangerous one but many Christians have it – that there is absolutely nothing in your life that you need to change or to deal with because actually you’re a good, upstanding, moral Christian already. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What is the answer Jesus gives to you?
We might feel that to acknowledge what Jesus says to us deep down in our hearts, to deal with whatever it is Jesus says is the thing we lack or have to deal with, would just be a step too far and we’d have to go away, like the young man, shocked at what is being asked of us and grieving because we believe it’s impossible and too costly. But, says Jesus, for God all things are possible. For the rich man it seemed impossible to give away all he owned and he had to go away bruised and heavy-hearted. But perhaps he thought more about the words of Jesus and struggled with his own reactions. Perhaps in time, and with God’s help, he did the impossible. Perhaps he came round to seeing that whatever he had to give up would be worth it in terms of what matters in the kingdom of God.
At least he asked, which so many never do. Kneel before Jesus, ask him what you need to address in your life, what you need to change, what you need to give up, what you need to take on, what you need to deal with. And hard though the answer may be allow God to achieve the impossible by letting his Holy Spirit come into your life to change it. Don’t do what the rich man did – he simply turns around and walks away. No conversation with Jesus, no more discussion, not even a “But…” He just turns and walks away without a word. Jesus was there, waiting to talk things through and to help him achieve what might seem impossible, but the rich man didn’t hang around long enough to find out that Jesus was on his side because, as Mark tells us, he loved him. Stay, kneeling at the feet of Jesus, and let him help you to achieve what might seem impossible, to help you deal with those things that seem impossible perhaps to deal with. Those things that Jesus has said to you when he said, “One thing you lack …” And then do what Jesus told the rich man to do – follow him. Follow Jesus with all that you are and all that you own at his disposal – with your whole life centred on him and the kingdom of God.