On and Off the Way

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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are lots of good things about the lectionary, which is that series of readings assigned for each Sunday of the Church Year. For example, the lectionary protects you from me. If I had to come up with readings for each week, or a series for several weeks, I might very well be tempted to pick the texts that I wanted, that said the things I want to say. Week after week, you would be subject to my opinions, my whims, my blindspots. The lectionary forces us all together to hear what the Scriptures want to say to us, and not only what we prefer. Another good thing about the lectionary is that it helps us make connections we might not make otherwise. The lectionary usually contains an Old Testament reading, a reading from a letter—the Epistle—and a reading from one of the Gospels. Very often, the Old Testament and Gospel readings are connected. Sometimes the connections aren’t as clear, but almost always they make connections between the Old Testament and the life of Jesus that we otherwise might not see. Another good thing about the lectionary: it helps us proceed in an orderly way through the Gospels, in particular. This is helpful especially if we are present to hear God’s Word every week, because then we hear the story as each Gospel wants to present it to us. Another good thing, and this may be the greatest thing about the lectionary: it shapes and forms us according to the life of Christ, repeated each year according to one of the Gospels. We don’t take bits and pieces from here and there and try to wrench them into relevance for our lives; because Jesus is alive, that is their relevance, and we are shaped and formed according to His life, and not vice-versa. And one more good thing about the lectionary is that because many churches follow the same series of readings, we can be reminded that we are not an isolated congregation, but we are joined to other Christians here and around the world. We are hearing in this place the same Scriptures as Christians throughout the world, joined to them as we hear the same words of Jesus.

There are lots of good things about the lectionary, but it is not perfect. Nothing produced by a committee could be! For the most part, it does a good job, but today’s Gospel reading is a prime example of a problem with the lectionary: that it can sometimes, for whatever reason, cut a story in half, or keep us from hearing the whole story. I think that almost always, the lectionary keeps individual accounts together. The individual stories are called “pericopes,” which is Greek for “to cut around.” Now it’s necessary to have pericopes, because unless you’re hearing the entire Bible read every Sunday, or an entire book, then you’re never going to hear the whole story. But the lectionary usually can keep discrete accounts whole. Not today. Our Gospel reading today begins with a rich man who comes up to Jesus and asks Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus gives him an answer, and then the man, who is shocked or disheartened at Jesus’ answer, goes away sad, sorrowful, because he has many possessions. But that’s not the end of this story. The man asks about eternal life, but Jesus’ answer about eternal life isn’t finished until verse 30, which is the next time “eternal life” is mentioned. We are going to hear the second part of this reading next week, but, in this case, that’s too long to wait. We need to hear the whole thing at once to understand what happens here.

But even verse 30, which contains the end of Jesus’ answer to the man’s question—even after he’s gone away!—is not quite the end of the story either. When the man runs up to Jesus, Jesus is “proceeding along the way.” What “way”? Well, when we get to the end of chapter 10, right before Jesus enters Jerusalem, He heals a blind man named Bartimaeus. And after he is healed, Jesus tells him, “Go, your faith has made you whole” (10:52). But when he can see again, does Bartimaeus go on his own way, in joy because his sight has been returned? No. It says, “And immediately he saw again, and followed [Jesus] on the way.”

Notice the difference between Bartimaeus and the rich man. The rich man comes to Jesus while Jesus is on His way—on the way to Jerusalem, to the cross, through death to life. But when Jesus gives him a word that he can’t handle, that shocks him, that makes him sad, he goes away. He does not follow Jesus on the way. He goes his own way, back to his wealth, back to his possessions, back to everything he calls his life. Jesus tells him to go sell everything, give it to the poor who need it, and follow Him! But the man refuses to follow Jesus on His way. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, the chief of which is unbelief. Ecclesiastes 5 tells us that the one who loves money will never be satisfied with his money; and the one who loves wealth will not be satisfied with his income (5:10). The man would rather cling to what seems to give him control and self-sufficiency, than give it up for the eternal life which Jesus is. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is not satisfied with just getting his sight back, with that temporary blessing. As soon as he is healed, he knows there’s only one way: the way that Jesus is going, out of death and into eternal life.

It’s not a coincidence that the healing of Bartimaeus is the last miracle that Jesus does in the Gospel of Mark. Bartimaeus becomes a picture for us of what actual sight means; of what it means to believe and follow Jesus, no matter where it leads. Bartimaeus is a picture for us contrary to nearly everyone in the Gospel. He follows “on the way,” which Mark makes very clear is the way to the cross. Whenever Jesus tells His disciples about the way that He is on, and the way on which anyone following Him must walk, they miss the point. The first time Jesus promises His impending rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter “begins to rebuke Him”! No, Jesus, this can’t happen to You! (8:31-34). The next time He tells His disciples what’s going to happen, the Twelve argue about which of them is the greatest (9:30-37). Then Jesus welcomes and embraces little children, as a picture of those who receive Jesus in faith, and the disciples rebuke parents for bringing little children to Jesus (9:36-37; 10:13-16). And then, the third and final time that Jesus promises His death and resurrection, James and John ask Jesus if they can sit at His right and left when He is glorified (10:32-40). And then here, this man comes running up to Jesus while He is on that way to the cross, and he asks about inheriting eternal life. But instead of following Jesus on the only way to eternal life, he goes away sad.

So it goes, Jesus says. “How difficult it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God!” And again, “How difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” And then the disciples say, “Well, good thing we’re not rich, then.” No. They say, “Who, then, is able to be saved?” And Jesus looks at them with the same love with which He looked at the rich man, and He says, “With people this is impossible.” Salvation from people is, literally, impossible. There is no salvation—no one can be saved—if it comes from people. But with and from God, all things are possible. Is it easier to be saved if you are not rich? If you have no earthly possessions, if you’ve lost everything, is it easier to be saved than if you were rich and had a lot of stuff? Possibly. But it’s only easier in the sense that it’s easier to get a mouse through the eye of a needle than a camel. A mouse is smaller, but it’s still not going through the eye of that needle. Salvation and eternal life come in only one way: the way that Jesus walks. It is possible only for Jesus, both God and man, to get through the eye of that salvation needle. Anyone else has to be in Him. Even if they leave everything behind, as Peter begins to say to Jesus.

Did you hear the question of the rich man? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Have you ever tried to do something to get an inheritance? That doesn’t make any sense. Only the rightful heirs, the true sons and daughters, can get the inheritance. You can’t do anything to get an inheritance; you have to be born into it. And that’s why Jesus is the only way to eternal life: because He’s the only true Son, the only rightful heir. And it is only through that cross to which Jesus is going that you can get the Spirit of sonship that makes you a son or daughter of the Father. But you have died with Christ. You have risen with Him. And that means that you are an heir of God and a co-heir with Jesus. Think about that for a second: you get to inherit everything that belongs, rightfully, only to Jesus. And because you’ve been adopted into the family of Jesus, whatever you leave behind is nothing compared to what you get. Peter begins to say to Jesus that the Twelve have left everything to follow Jesus, just like He told the rich man to do. And Jesus says, “Well, Peter, you don’t quite get it yet, but let Me assure you that whoever has given up, left behind, been cut off from possession or family because of the Gospel will receive a hundred times what they lost. Lose houses? The Church has a thousand houses. Lose fathers or mothers or sisters or brothers or sons or daughters because you are following Christ? Look around you! Here are your fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers? Lose money or jobs or anything else? Don’t worry; God will use the Church to take care of you. Guess what? God has everything anyway. No need to worry. Oh, yeah, and there will be troubles, afflictions, problems, suffering, because you are a Christian. But in the age to come you will have eternal life.” You’re not there yet, which is why death still comes, and we can only believe in life. But Christ is life, you are His brothers and sisters, and nothing else will matter or can matter on the resurrection day. Don’t go away sorrowful because Jesus says things that are hard or make you sad in this world. What is the world to us? We are heirs of all creation, for Jesus’ sake.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/10/15

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