Back in the 4th Century there were these small colonies of people who populated the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Persia. They were made up of men who abandoned the pagan world, and all the stuff that came with it. Their reasons for doing so were various, but in a word they all sought “salvation.” They each desired to have a true relationship with God one that was not dictated by the dogma that had begun to flourish within the church.
These Desert Fathers, as they are known today, lived a life of solitude where they contemplated the mysteries of God, and sought their own true self in the selfless love of Christ. But living a simple life...would prove to be not that simple. Many tried to join these communities, but only a few were able to let go of those things that stood in their way of fully committing.
Thomas Merton recalls the story of a young monk who took the first step by renouncing the world and giving the things he owned to the poor. But he kept a few special things in his possession. When an elder heard about this, he said to the young man, “If you want to be a monk, go to the village and buy meat, and place it on your naked body and return here.” The brother did what he was told. Upon his return, dogs and birds of prey tore at his body. Later, when the elder asked if he had done as he was instructed, the brother showed him his lacerated body, to which the elder said, “Those who renounce the world and want to retain possession of money are assailed and torn apart by devils just as you are.”
It’s one thing to want to follow Christ into the Kingdom of God, but it’s another thing to actually commit to do as Christ instructs.
We have all taken difficult first steps: our first day of school, our first date, or our first day on the job. These experiences empower us to face more difficult first steps like going to an AA meeting, seeing a marriage councilor, or being the first to try a new, experimental treatment for a life-threatening illness.
These steps often transform who we are...they make us, and the world around us, better than before we took that leap of faith. Isn't that the promise Jesus makes to those who follow him? That we will be transformed...made anew...be born from above by the spirit. Faithfully committing to God is difficult, because it is truly life changing. It requires real faith, complete trust, and full commitment. God doesn't want half of our dedication anymore than we want half of God's. We want it all. And so does God.
In this morning's reading, the man who wants eternal life discovers what true commitment entails. If he wants to take that first step into the future...then it's going to cost him. Like so many characters who come to Jesus, we hardly know anything about this guy. Mark tells us he’s a wealthy man. Luke says he’s also a ruler. And in Matthew’s gospel we know him as the rich “young” ruler.
In spite of his age, he is a man of means and a person of power. Perhaps he inherited his wealth. Or perhaps he worked hard to achieve success. What we know for sure is that he says he follows God’s law to the ‘T.’ Of all the stuff he has acquired in his life, he still doesn’t have the one thing his heart desires the most.
In testing his commitment, Jesus tells the man, “Sell everything, and give the money to the poor. And follow me.” I’m sure in hearing this he is just as shocked as the disciples who are listening. The 12 have already given up everything to follow Jesus. Yet they scratch their thick-skulls and wonder, “if a rich person can’t be saved, then who can?”
To us, this might sound like a ridiculous question. But in the ancient world material prosperity was widely seen as a reward or byproduct of spiritual virtue. By this standard, the rich man was obviously blessed by God. One would easily assume eternal life was rightfully his, right? Yet Jesus teaches us that participation in the Kingdom of God will require a new way of living. Everyone who wishes to take the step into the future will have to make a sacrifice. No one knows this better than Jesus himself.
So what is the cost of discipleship? For the rich young man, it means letting go of his money and possessions. Think about it for a second. Could you do it? Give away everything you own and keep nothing for yourself. Without his wealth the man is left vulnerable and powerless. No identity. Or social status. Completely naked in the eyes of the world he knows.
Why would Jesus demand such a thing? To free him. You see the stuff that he possesses keeps him from relying wholly on God’s grace and mercy. And what more do we need to inherit eternal life?
I don’t know about you, but I identify with this man. There were certain things I had to let go of in order to dedicate my life to God. And there were many material objects I had get rid of before we could move into a wonderful, new future here in Greenville. I’ll admit, my heart sank every time I watched my stuff drive off in the back of someone else’s truck.
What I learned by letting those things go was all that stuff I had been carrying around in my life was nothing more than false idols. I had given them too much value. I had allowed them to define who I was. Giving them away freed me to be who God has called me to be. Now it’s God who defines who I am.
When we allow our possessions to get in the way of our relationship with God, they become like those stumbling blocks we spoke about a couple of weeks ago. And if anything causes us to stumble and fall away from God, Jesus says, “cut them out, let them go.”
Now Christian tradition has assumed that the rich, young man went away sorrowful because he did not want to give up all that stuff. But I believe he walks away really ticked off because what Jesus is asking him to do is bound to trigger some crazy emotional feelings. Let’s face it, this is more than letting go of some old pots and pans, or sports memorabilia.
This is real. He has to make a painful life changing decision; one that will possibly affect more than just him. If you’ve gone through a divorce, you know what it's like to lose family and friends, your social community and perhaps business network. He walks away distraught because if he chooses to follow Jesus his life will never be the same again. But isn’t that the point?
Jesus frees us from our past, and gives us a future. But here in the present moment, we've been given a new purpose and new responsibilities. If the man wants to participate in the Kingdom of God he must take that first step into the future no matter what the cost.
So does he? Does he commit to being truly free? Does he make himself vulnerable and weak? Will he rely wholly on God's mercy and grace? I believe he does. And I believe he was transformed as a result. A few chapters later, when Jesus is arrested in the garden and his disciples have fled from him, Mark tells us of an unknown follower.
In Mark 14:51, we read, “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” Talk about bearing it all for Christ. Either this stranger is the first recorded streaker in the Bible, or it’s the rich, young ruler who literally gave up everything he owned. Again, God wants our whole being. All of us. Not part of us.
Here's why this is important for us today: If we can be truly committed to God, then we can be truly committed to one another. If we can have a real relationship with God, one that is based on mutual faith and trust, then we can form real relationships with our neighbors...where being vulnerable and powerless isn't a liability.
Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God is here. It is literally here in this very sanctuary. This is where we gather to be strengthened and fed, and where we learn how to commit ourselves to be a part of the kingdom. For it’s in the Kingdom of God communities are strengthened; war, violence, poverty, idolatry, and greed no longer control us; we are free from all the stuff that gets in the way of our being fully and wholly with God.
When we take the first step into the future...and commit ourselves to following Christ, we are able to truly love one another and share our peace and joy and prosperity with everyone. The very blessings we receive from God become the blessings Jesus has called us to give freely away. And it's in this new way of living...we find our salvation.
Works CitedBartlett, David. L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year B. Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Mark 10:17-27
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”