What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
Most of you now that I like a good movie - but the best kind of movie is the one that tells more than a good story and goes deeper, challenging us to connect the dots of life.
In 2006, the movie Akeelah and the Bee came out to rave reviews, the story of a young girl from South Los Angeles who has a natural gift of words. The plot of the movie follows her long journey and competition to the Scrips National Spelling Bee, having to put up with a cranky tutor, economic challenges, and peer pressure along the way. She has to learn to dig deep. Not to ruin the movie for you but she does win the Spelling Bee following round after round of spelling - and something about the closing captures what is at the heart of our scripture this morning.
Akeelah’s triumph is not just about her hard work and her incredible gifts - but it is about her community.
A community that embodies love.
In those images from the end of the movie, I can’t help but think about heaven - about what I hope eternal life is like with God - love. Love embodied. Loving family. Surrounded by the people who shaped me and cheered me on. Present with God who seeks the best for me.
In our scripture this morning, a rich man approaches Jesus, and it is clear too that he is concerned about punching a ticket in the right direction once his life is over. Maybe he is longing for certainty. Maybe he had maximized his retirement plan and savings accounts and wanted to start investing in his eternal future. Maybe he wanted to know if his life was on the right track.
This rich man kneels before him and asks:
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus liked big questions, because he stops on his way out the door and answers him. “You know how - follow the commandments. Don’t murder your neighbor. Stay true to your family. Don’t take what is yours. Don’t hack into other people’s Facebook accounts. And treat your parents right. When was the last time you called your mother, anyway?”
The young man responds, “I’ve been following those rules, that way of life, ever since I was little.”
And scripture says that Jesus loved him. His heart moved with compassion for this man. And perhaps out of that space of love and compassion, Jesus takes this man’s question a step further. “‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Our scripture this morning is not for the faint of heart - most pastors would be the first to tell you. It is one of the hardest passages to preach - because it involves money. And not just that - but our context is the United States of America, one of the wealthiest countries in the human history. We have a long history of preachers taking this scripture and spiritualizing it, making it so that Jesus wasn’t serious about money - he was being symbolic or simply identifying that money was a problem for this rich man - but it probably isn’t a problem for you or me, right? We can follow Jesus and keep our nice cars, houses, bank accounts, and tax loopholes, right?
But Jesus is clear. He says in verse 23 as the man pouts and walks away, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
Jesus is not speaking figuratively. He is being plain in his truth - speaking truth in love.
Rev. Karoline Lewis, reflecting on this passage on her blog, makes the case that it wasn’t a problem that the rich man was interested in leading a good life or even wanted to know where he would spend eternity - rather, he seems only concerned about his salvation. “What must *I* do,” he asks. He is unable to see that the potential to experience eternal life might very well lie outside of his own doing.”
The man probably had worked hard for what he earned in life - and now felt like he had worked hard enough to earn something in the life to come.
Maybe he was a self-made millionaire.
Maybe he had pulled himself up by his bootstraps.
Maybe he had too many accomplishments to account for.
“What must *I* do” - he asks, like eternal life was something you might order with One Day free shipping from Amazon.
In other words, this man comes to Jesus with an interest to secure his eternal wealth alongside his earthly wealth, and Jesus refuses to draw a distinction between the two.
Jesus’ invitation to this rich man tells him that what happens on earth makes a difference in heaven. Remember, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by saying: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Heaven and earth are not two separate and distinct realities - but they are connected. When Jesus announces to his followers, “the Kingdom of God is near”, he is saying that heaven is coming down close.
And if you want to be a part of God’s eternal kingdom and secure your place, you must be prepared to go and make this world more like heaven right now.
Yesterday at our regional assembly closing worship, my friend Rev. Yvonne Gilmore preached to the gathered crowds reminding them, “You can’t care about heaven if you don’t care about earth!”
You see, I grew up believing some of those popular images about heaven - that heaven is this place full of clouds, where everything is fuzzy, and there is a choir singing in the background. Heaven would have no problems. No bad cellphone reception. No credit card debt. No traffic. No human trafficking. No racism. No hatred.
But heaven is not just like earth without bad things - the truth is this - heaven is that place where God is fully present with God’s people.
Legendary German theologian Jurgen Moltmann says it this way: “Heaven is that side of creation that totally accords with God and glorifies God.”
The way of Jesus Christ is then not simply about going from earth to heaven but creating heaven here on earth - so that all the earth, all of Creation, might accord with and glorify God. Religion also thus becomes not simply about going from earth to heaven - but it becomes about creating heaven here on earth.
Jesus was not asking the rich man to give up his wealth just to show how committed he was to the way of Jesus - he asked him to give it away so that others, specifically those who were struggling and on the bottom side of history, would be lifted up. That their lives might for once feel a little more like heaven.
Friends, I don’t know how many times I’ve read this text and focused purely on the command to give up your wealth, but now, I can’t unread this text without seeing the call to community - without seeing that my way to heaven involves more than just a life of personal piety, doing the right things, talking to my parents the correct way, not being a bad person. It involves community - how I treat others.
We create heaven on earth when we tutor young people who are trying to use their brains to win spelling bees or improve their grades or get through a driver’s education test.
We create heaven on earth when we stand with those who are about to have their immigration status revoked or work with neighbors to make our communities a little safer or make space for addiction counseling.
We create heaven on earth when we risk giving up or sharing the power we’ve been blessed with, using our voice
We create heaven on earth when we weep together and sing together and dream of life together.
And yes, there are days when the clouds are dark, and people are selfish, and it seems the way of Jesus will cost us everything. Even our lives. It is those moments when we remember that with God, all things are possible. With God, even what seems an impossible thing can become something very possible.
For when we give up something for Jesus’ sake, we gain other things. While we may give up something of value, through the community of God we gain more… more friends, more hearts, more joy, more hope.
From David Lose:
My goodness, but if that’s true, then maybe God’s gift of salvation can actually free us to do something: to love each other, to care for God’s people and world, to share the good news…right here, right now, wherever it may be that God has placed us. Not from any hope of winning God’s favor, but rather from a spontaneous kind of basking *in* God’s favor.
Our story as a church is one of making heaven on earth on our little intersection. We may not be perfect at it, and sometimes, it doesn’t feel like we have enough to offer the word. But we keep at it. We keep coming back to the table, stubbornly, even when we get each other’s names wrong and get worn out. We show up and stand together. I am so grateful for all the lives that we have touched for over 50 years of ministry - and the many lives we will continue to connect with.
What if our prayer was so that when our young people, kids like Akeelah or Penny or Diane or Evan, look back at our church - they too claim that what they saw in and through us was L-O-V-E. Love. And that gift might point them to the eternal life made available through Jesus Christ our Lord.