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Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost
2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Not an easy question for the rich young ruler. And by Luke’s account, the answer is no easier either.
How easy a question is it for us? And how do we cope with the answers Jesus offers? Not many of us have gone out to sell all we have and distribute it to the poor. Is that what Jesus means, literally?
And, I wonder, what do we imagine ‘eternal life’ to be, or to be like? And why do we seek it so fervently? Well, it is the promised inheritance of the faithful. We, as Christians, want and expect to go to heaven, whatever we might mean by this. And the rich young ruler would expect something of the same. As a Jew of Jesus’ day, he sees it as an inheritance, Paradise and the World to Come, and he wants to be sure of his inheritance, dependant on what he has achieved in life.
In our own pilgrimage, we want the same assurances. We ask ourselves, if not God, what will enhance and enrich our prospects of eternal life. We seek to be confident of salvation.
The challenge of the Bible is that we all know what it says – but we don’t agree on what it means! Now I don’t want this morning to get bogged down in an exegetic and hermeneutic wrangle about what the Greek might mean, but there is some continuing debate about the concepts of eternal life, the afterlife, heaven and the kingdom of God. Do they all mean the same or have we telescoped them all into a simple understanding of what happens to us when we die? The scholars suggest that it is a bit more complex than that.
May I refer you to Bishop Tom Wright, one of the world’s pre-eminent NT scholars, an evangelical who doesn’t believe in the rapture, in that notion that we shall all be carted of to a sunny place in the sky in some apocalyptic climax. (See, for instance, Surprised by Hope). He does not reject the idea of an afterlife nor even of a heaven as we understand it, but his thesis is that heaven is not just some timeless place light years away. It is here and now, especially and specifically tied into our own experience of earthly reality. Wright talks confidently of ‘life after death’, but also of ‘life after life after death’. This, for him, is eternal life very much in the physical realm. Something to think about!
I worry profoundly about those of our fellow-travellers who believe that the sole purpose of God in our lives is our salvation alone, that the only sense we make of the Christian journey is our personal destiny. We are not here simply to book a front seat in heaven and not to worry about the rest, including the present.
Yes, salvation is ours and it is promised. But salvation for what? I contend that we are released from the consequences of our human frailty in order to free our energies and our time to work for the imperatives of God’s kingdom – on earth as in heaven as we pray constantly – ‘Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven’. It’s not all about heaven. It’s here and now, and never far off.
Rowan Williams says:
The neighbour is our life; to bring connectedness with God to the neighbour is bound up with our own connection with God… We love with God when and only when we are the conduit for God’s reconciling presence with the person next to us. It is as we connect the other with the source of life that we come to stand in the place of life, the place cleared and occupied for us by Christ.
Silence and Honey Cakes, p. 40
Some think that ‘the life of the coming age’ may be a better translation of ‘eternal life’; a fulfilment of the promise that the perfection of God’s creation can be, will be restored. And we are part of the plan.
With that in mind, let’s rephrase the question of the rich young ruler on the brink of disillusionment.
What must I do to invest in the life of the coming age?
And perhaps we might paraphrase Jesus’ response. Stop investing in the priorities and the obsessions of the present world.
In other words, as he says, ‘Lay not up for yourself treasure upon earth’.
And while you are about it, do something for the downtrodden, the poverty-stricken. Don’t just sell your possessions – share the proceeds with the poor. Rearrange your priorities.
As we rethink the point and nature of salvation, we may do well to direct our rethinking to the mission of the church. Mission is critical to the life of the church and its future, but there is far more to the mission of the church than bottoms on seats on a Sunday morning.
We need strength in the church of God, numerical strength as well as fortitude, resilience, courage and commitment in our faith – but not for the sake of numbers alone.
It is a simple truth and we are often blind to it. The church must be strong and exert its confident presence in the world; and the more of us there are, the greater the critical mass, the more cogent is the message we can bring. And that message is one of renewal, of working for God’s kingdom to bring healing and hope in this world, not just in the next. It is a message of salvation for this present life.
I wonder if we lose sight of this because it all seems too much. We long for the Reign of Christ. Remember, the feast of Christ the King is the final chapter in our yearly cycle of seasons and festivals. It is the climax, the point of arrival in our annual rehearsal of the gospel message, the Sunday before Advent begins when we begin again to wait and prepare.
And we wait and wait. Perhaps we wait a little too passively, confident in God’s goodness and grace and we overlook our own capacity, our own obligation, to help God make it happen; which is perhaps why we wait for the hereafter. We get dispirited like the rich ruler who retreats in the sadness of impotence, born of the realisation that it is all too hard, rather than working in and for the here and now.
After all, we are the body of Christ. God has no hands but our hands, no energy but what we exert; the oppressed and the victimised have no voice but ours; God’s love is known in the love we offer.
Tom Wright refers to the church not as a ‘retreat from the world but a bridgehead into the world’, a means of reclaiming all creation for the one who is its Creator, its Redeemer and its Sustaining Power. I call it Monday church.
And how are we to equip ourselves for this work? Well, look at the juxtaposition of the story of the rich ruler with Jesus’ response to the little children, for ‘it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’.
And why? Because they are young and unblemished, they are dependant, uncorrupted in their innocence by the imperatives of this temporal life. The rich man, by contrast is burdened, weighed down by the magnitude of his wealth. And we need the gift of humility, as our collect says, to rely on the gift of God’s grace, rather than trust in our own resources.
In that grace we can be unburdened, set free, so that through us the message might be fully proclaimed, in word and in action.
My wife and I have been busy trying to telescope two houses into one. Any of you who have done the same, or who have downsized know the appalling realisation of how much stuff we have accumulated and of what encumbrance it is. We understand how liberating it is, how cathartic, to let much of it go.
There is in this a parable for our spiritual lives where decluttering is invariably needed and too often neglected. It is a practised art, one that needs to be learned.
No, it won’t be easy. But we were never promised that but the life of the coming age is what God calls us towards. Let’s get to work. After all, we are a Resurrection people.