Doing and Life

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 26:40 mark.

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

Does anyone like moving? You might like getting to a place, settling in in a new place, the new opportunities that you are pursuing in that place, but I’ve never met anyone who likes the actual process of moving—unless, maybe, you have professional movers do all the work for you. One of the things that happens is you get near the end of packing things up, and you think you’re pretty much done, and then you find a closet, or a cupboard, or a room that still needs to be packed up. The longer you live in a place, the more you accumulate. The longer you live, for most of us, the more you things you have.

This man in the Gospel reading has accumulated a lot of things, a lot of possessions. He comes running to Jesus and falls down on his knees, and says to Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a little strange, because you can’t do anything to inherit something. You can’t work your way into being an heir. Whether you are family, which is the usual way, or not, it has to be given. You have to be made an heir. You have to be given the inheritance.

But hear the two main words here: do and life. What must I do to inherit eternal life? As He does when the Pharisees want to know about divorce and the law, Jesus goes to the place that talks about doing and life. As it says in Leviticus 18, the one doing these things, these commandments, will live by them, or from them. And three or four times in Ezekiel 20, God talks about the people refusing to do His commandments, and so refusing life. And Paul in Romans and Galatians summarizes this with “The one who does them will live from them.” If we’re talking about doing and life, you know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.

The man says, all these things I have kept since my youth. I don’t think we should hear him saying that he has kept all these commandments perfectly, that he has never sinned or something. He is saying that he has kept them in mind, kept them in front of himself, in view. He has guarded them. And Jesus doesn’t correct him. He doesn’t say, No, you haven’t really kept all those. What He says is, you have kept all of these in mind, but one thing you haven’t kept in mind. One thing you’re lacking. You forgot a closet, you forgot a room. You may have all these other things ready, but you forgot this; you lack this. Jesus looked at the man and loved him, and said to him, Go sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come and follow Me.

But he has acquired and accumulated all these things, and he can’t get rid of them. He hears the first two things: sell everything you have, and give it to the poor, but Jesus is really telling him that to get to the most important thing: you will have treasure in heaven; come, follow Me. But the man only hears the “doing” and not the “life,” and his face falls, and he goes away saddened, sorrowful, because he had many possessions.

But that’s not really the end of this story, as it seems in what we read. Stopping here is like leaving halfway through a movie and not staying to find out what happens. It is more like leaving in the middle of a sermon and only hearing “Do this and you will live.” This is only half the story. We don’t know what happened to this man after he left. Maybe later he came back and found Jesus and said, I don’t know how to give up what I have, but I want to follow you. And Jesus would have received him. Jesus will take almost anyone, you know. And slowly, step by step, Jesus would have loosened the grip that all the things he had had on him. But we don’t know what happened to that man.

Even so, it’s not even the end of the story here in Mark, chapter 10. Immediately after the man goes away, Jesus looks around at His disciples and says, How difficult it is for those with wealth to enter into the Kingdom of God! And His disciples are amazed. Maybe they think that it ought to be easy for the wealthy to get into heaven. Maybe they thought that wealth proved that they were blessed by God. Maybe they thought that those are exactly the sort of people God would want in His Kingdom. But then Jesus takes it one step further: Children! How difficult it is to enter into the Kingdom of God! Not just the wealthy, although that’s a particular obstacle, and this man’s possessions act here as a good example of how our idols keep us from the true God. How difficult it is for anyone to enter into the Kingdom of God!

Peter gets the point: Who, then, can be saved? Who, anywhere, at all, can be saved, if this is the way it is? Now you’re getting there, Peter. With people—as far as people are concerned—this is impossible. The rich man realized it. The one single thing that Jesus told him to do was too much for him. It was impossible for him to do so that he would live. But with God—as far as God is concerned—anything, all things, are possible. All things are possible for God to do, even to save people who are as likely to be saved as a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. He could save even that man who went away saddened by what he had to do but could not. He can save even me and you.

So Peter tells Jesus, Look, we have left everything and followed You. And, again, we might want to question Peter about that, but Jesus doesn’t disagree with him, as He didn’t disagree with the rich man about his keeping of the commandments. Jesus just says, There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for My sake or for the Gospel who will not receive, now in this time, a hundred times houses, brothers, fathers, mothers, children, lands—with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. Jesus comes back to the very question that the rich man asked, about eternal life. It is not in the doing that you will inherit, it is in the following of Jesus on the way that He is walking.

Maybe you have given up things. Maybe you’ve given up a higher paying job, or not taken a job that is going to interfere with you hearing God’s word and receiving the sacrament. Or maybe you’ve been divided from your family because they do not believe Jesus. Maybe there are things that you don’t even know you’ve given up. But, of course, eventually you will give up everything. You can’t take any of it with you when you go. And for those who are following Jesus, we know we can give and not worry about what happens to it, because it’s all God’s anyway. And sometimes we have to discipline our flesh and our selfish desires by giving when we don’t want to.

But no matter what it is, you are part of the family now. You are the children of the living God, baptized into Jesus Christ. You have a family beyond time and space, with the whole communion of saints in all the company of heaven. Whatever you have lost, you have 100 times more now, with persecutions and the cross, and you will inherit life eternal in the age to come. You’ve been written into the will; it is a gift; you’ve been made an heir of God in Jesus Christ.

It is not a coincidence that Jesus calls His disciples “children” here, after receiving, embracing, and blessing children. Those who receive like children will enter into the Kingdom of God. The littlest children are only receivers. They haven’t accumulated all the wealth and possessions that make them think they are self-sufficient and dependent on no one. Children, God gives you everything you have and everything you will have. You are not the slave attempting to do impossible things. You are the children of the only good God, Jesus Christ, who has sold all that He had, given it all up and given it all to us poor, miserable—in need of mercy—sinners. He became poor that we might become rich in Him.

All of this is impossible as far as our doing and earning, but it is all possible for our good God, who receives, welcomes, embraces, and blesses with salvation and eternal life.

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, 10/9/21

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