Sermon for Sunday 11th October 2015
Abandon religion! Jesus loves you! Follow Him!!
‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid;
then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.’
It may be entirely co-incidental, but ‘Christianity’ as we know it has pretty much died at the peak of the ‘you can have it all!’ generational myth. Interestingly, any resurgence we see is amongst the young, those who have woken up to the fact that ‘the party is over’. True there are one or two ‘mega churches’ out there, but their message is pretty much along the lines of ‘you can have it all and Jesus is the cherry on the cake’. Church as it were for ‘those who seem to have it all yet have that strange sense that something is missing.’ and all you are lacking is ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’ (Perhaps one of the great heresies of our this or any other age)
Repentance? Well that’s just ‘changing your mind’ ‘Seeing the world differently’ ‘promising to be a moral person’, and if you’re doing these things, well then Life is Good, AND I am a Christian. What more could one want?
We’ve all known this ‘Christianity’ well. ‘You know my life is so blessed – I am surrounded by so many lovely things and I have my wonderful family . . .’ or ‘you know so and so, they are so lovely, and have such a wonderful life, what a pity they’re not ‘Christian’’, or ‘you know the other day I was rushing to get to an important business meeting, and I prayed, Lord I SO need a parking space, and do you know one opened up right in front of the building where my meeting was. Jesus makes my life complete . . .’ In such a ‘faith imagination’ Jesus’ words “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.” are as shocking and confounding to us as they were to the man and Jesus’ disciples . . .
After all, didn’t Jesus say ‘You lack one thing’? Surely that was what he meant?? A personal relationship with him, so I can pray to him when I need to, when I need a little help through the tough moments we all go through in our lives?? After all, isn’t that it? Filling up that God shaped hole we’re all created with?? That’s the message we need to get out there – And Look! Along comes a buyer!! ‘As Jesus was setting out on a journey man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ This is the stuff of a modern evangelists dreams!! Hey Jesus! Someone wants to be ‘a Christian’!! I mean look! You haven’t even had to go and find him, or develop a relationship with him, he’s just like a fish dying to jump into the boat with you. And he asks The Question!! Wow!! ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life. You didn’t even have to talk him round to spiritual matters!!!
‘What must I do to inherit . . .’ and therein lies his misunderstanding, and perhaps ours also – like the person who has got everything and lives a good life whom we may well know – perhaps they are our neighbours? Or our children? They’ve put in the hard yards in life – a life of ‘doing and getting, and if you’re lucky, inheriting ‘ and are enjoying the rewards, but something is lacking, or we think there is . . . surely they just need this something extra, and all will be well??
This man in front of Jesus has Success written all over him . . . until he gets down in the dirt before Jesus . . . because he thinks that there is something missing. ‘I’ve navigated life pretty well, by the standards of my religion – why else would I be wealthy after all unless I’d lived a ‘good life’ – I’ve kept all the commandments since my youth . . . yet somehow it doesn’t seem to add up. What must I do to inherit eternal life??
‘You see it’s like there is a hole in my life . . .’ and the evangelist thinks – he’s put it so well, puts his arm round him and says. ‘Don’t you know that God has made us all with this little hole in our lives and we just can’t be content until we have that relationship with God as well. God completes our lives . . .’ It is highly seductive . . . and, after all – isn’t it true?? Lets face it, aren’t the people we look up to the one’s who have made it And are Christians? They’re the ones who have made a Real ‘success’ of their lives?? Those poor Christians with their chaotic lives, well they really rank somewhere below successful non Christians . . .
So far, so religious. To this point, this is pure religion. A spiritual seeker looking for some deep truth which will complete his life – give him a sense of peace when his life isn’t going too well – like a beautiful sunset, or the smile of a child . . . And this is the problem with religions as the ‘church’ is now finding now to its cost, religious people that we are – there are many things that will do just as well as a means to having our own version of ‘The Good Life’. Give us our own version of ‘Peace and contentment with life’ – ‘Bhuddism does it for me’, or Islam (the polite version that you’d be happy to take to tea with your elderly aunt of course), or . . ‘I’ve really got into mindfulness – it gives me such a sense of the spiritual, of peace’. Or for so many of our fellow Kiwis, the three B’s – the BMW, the Batch, and the Boat . . . fire up the fourth and fifth, the Barbie and the Beer . . . Why would I want to be a Christian? After all, isn’t it just an accident of our birth? And after all religions cause wars don’t they – and they do . . . I mean you pretty much can have it all in life, and so, understandably folk drift away, having found pretty much all the fulfilment in life they need, thank you very much.
And we hear these things and wrestle with them and think that there is so much truth in all of that, why bother with ‘Christianity’ after all. Isn’t there ‘Truth’ everywhere in all these other religions, and ‘as we know’ ‘Christianity’ is just one religion amongst many, one story we use to make sense of ‘our life; – indeed if we’re being honest even atheists have a hook on the Truth???
But there is something about this man, which perhaps isn’t quite like our condition. His ‘Religion’ isn’t doing it for him, he’s not content, and he knows it. I must admit I’d not previously noticed the urgency of the man’s request – he runs up to Jesus – he gets down on his knees before him in the dust – and he flatters Jesus – ‘Good teacher’.
As a man of substance in the community, like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal he has demeaned himself by running to Jesus – he goes further, he abases himself and gets down in the dirt before Jesus, and then tries to twist Jesus’ arm, this is how the World works, this is how you get by in business, making the right connections, flattering your targets, and it is also the classic stuff of religion – working out the trick to persuade the gods to come up with the goods. ‘Good teacher’ He is VERY religious. He is an expert in getting what he wants – just let me know what do I have to do to inherit eternal life . . .
“I Must Know how to inherit eternal Life. I’ve got everything else in my life sorted, but I haven’t got This – I seem to be locked out on ‘the big secret’” – He is desperate . . .
“You lack one thing; Jesus names his condition – and you can almost here the man screaming inside – YES!!! He knows!! I’ve found it. As I said, he is an evangelists dream . . . But you will look in vain through a thousand manuals on ‘how to share the Good News’, mine a million books on ‘Spirituality and truths for life’, follow any and all Religions and nowhere will you find what Jesus says next . . . go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, take up your cross and follow me.” Whatever Jesus is about, it’s neither ‘Spirituality’, nor ‘Religion’.
For about three hundred and fifty years or so, there was no such things as ‘Christianity’ as we know it. There was a marginal, disparate, often oppressed and persecuted people – who served as a distraction when the government was falling down on its duties to the citizens of Empire – or rather were served up as dinner for hungry lions, or slain by gladiators for the entertainment of the public. . .They were mocked as atheists – the very term ‘Christian’ was one of abuse.
Rome knew what religions looked like – it was flush with them, they abounded everywhere, statues to this god and that. People often had many gods, one for having happy family, one for success in business and no doubt one somewhere or other amongst the ‘Pan Theon’ who could be called upon to find a parking space for your chariot when you were on your way to an urgent appointment with a Senator. Rome knew all about Religion – and these followers of a Crucified Jew didn’t fit the bill. Whatever else it was, this huddled community of Christ followers wasn’t a religious group. ‘Respectable Christian’ was an oxymoron – they didn’t fit into polite and civil society – and the world has an often brutal way of dealing with those who don’t fit. But the more they were persecuted, the more they were mown down, the more they sprang up!! It was as if this Life was Indestructible
. . . and so one might say it was a stroke of genius on the part of Constantine – following a battle where despite the fact that these Christians steadfastly refused to draw a sword and wouldn’t allow soldiers to join their number, he’d prayed to the ‘Christian God’ and won . . . . . . rather like praying for a parking space and finding one, when so many Christians are praying for a square meal . . . Constantine opened the door to the new religion!! ‘Christianity’ – and everyone was to be a Christian, because obviously the Christian God was the truly powerful one . . . and then, because the words of Jesus are just so useless for living life as we know it, all this stuff about the rich and camels, after all if the Christian God is the God of everyone, surely no one is to be excluded?? So the sophists, the sophisticated – those clever people – went to work and turned it into a ‘Spiritual message’. You see if its spiritual, then you can carry on business as before, turning an honest profit, going to just wars for Caesar, or King and Country. We were taught to prefer Matthew’s beatitude ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, to Luke’s naked ‘Blessed are you who are poor’, brushing away the inconvenient fact that to Jesus’ hearers they were one and the same . . . Rome had been troubled long enough by this odd Jewish sect, but they found a way to coping with it – turn it into a religion – for in general it got along just fine with people with their ‘religious practices’ and points of view. Or as we are now discovering, the World can do remarkably well without them . . . the World in many regards is ‘abandoning religion’ and perhaps we of all people should do too?
Mark’s account of the wealthy man is sparse. Matthew says he is young, Luke tells us he is a Ruler. To Mark a mere ‘man’, but Mark tells us something which Matthew and Luke omit. ‘Teacher’, the man says ‘I have kept all these since my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him. Peddlers of religion want us to buy – they discount, they offer two for one, they want to close the deal. And of course they want our money to keep the religious enterprise going . . . An eager ‘Spiritual Seeker’ is easy meat for a ‘Spiritual’ message, as the sellers of a thousand books on ‘Spiritual’ matters know.
But God alone is Good, Jesus alone loves us enough to tell us the Truth. He engages in no sophisticated arguments, he just announces the Reign of God and calls us to follow him – he does this because he loves us. He cares enough to tell us the Truth us that Eternal Life is about an exchange – the life we have made for ourselves, with its Religion as an ‘enhancement’ – which moths eat and rust decays, which ends in the dust from which we came – or the Life in abundance which is found amongst those who have given it all up to follow him.
Perhaps it is good news for the poor because the poor more often have woken up to the lies of the world. Hard work and keeping your nose clean only works for a lucky few, not a tiny few, enough to keep people thinking that it might be worth a try, but – as someone put it, if hard work brought wealth, then the women of Africa would be pluotcrats. Those who have succeeded in the world’s view have most to lose . . . and hearing the words of Jesus, rather than the slick evangelist, often go away grieving . . . looking for another way, another gospel.
Jesus doesn’t come to us with ‘a spiritual message’, or a nice ‘thought for the day’ – rather he comes to announce the Reign of God and locates it in himself, in his body, and thus amongst those who have left all to join their lives to his. ‘The Kingdom is amongst you’ Religion says, You have your life, and there is a ‘Spiritual’ dimension to it, a ‘God shaped hole in your life. Jesus comes into the world and announces ‘There is no God shaped hole in your life, there is a You shaped hole in the Kingdom of God. Follow me’
Perhaps the man is a bit to close for comfort?? How can we be sure he was engaged in flattery when calling Jesus ‘Good teacher’ ? Because if he believed it, he’d have done what he said – And so would we . . . ( but that’s another sermon )’
That Kingdom Jesus calls us to finds perfect expression in His obedience to death, even the death of the Cross – and will again find expression amongst those who have abandoned the world with its lies, and followed him, the one who loves them . . .