Onaway & Millersburg UMC
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors
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Sermon

ONAWAY / MILLERSBURG UMC
LATEST SERMON (Updated Tuesday)

October 10, 2021

One of the most famously wealthy individuals from American history is of course, John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was in fact America’s first billionaire, and he made so much money, that one day, a reporter famously asked him, “How much money is enough money?” His reply? “Just a few dollars more.” Many of us, I think, have similar questions when we look at today’s business tycoons and other billionaires who have made so much money that we can barely even imagine it. Names like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and yes, John Rockefeller are all synonymous with people who have excessive wealth. And while some of them spend it well, investing in charities and attempting to make the world a better place, others we read about how they decide to squander it on flinging cars into space, or trying to simply build larger and larger corporate empires.

So when we come to the rich man in this passage, we don’t know exactly how wealthy he might be. But we do know that he is referred to in the synoptic gospels as the “Rich Young Ruler.” Now, being a ruler, of course, suggests that he was part of the upper crust of society in his day and age; and while he may not have had quite the share of power as an emperor, or perhaps even the wealth of the business tycoons that we think about today, we do know that relative to most individuals, he did very well for himself. This was presumably both through his own hard work, and through inheritance, as was common in his day. But regardless, we know he has great wealth; and here he comes to Christ and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, this starts out as an encouraging exchange for this rich man! Christ points him to the commandments; “You shall not steal, murder, commit adultery, give false testimony,” and on down the line. and so the rich man, excited, says, “Wonderful! I have kept all these commandments since I was a child.” But this is where things go downhill. In the next verse we read that Christ looks at the man and says, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

And the tragedy of this story is that the man is shocked by what Christ has to say, and went away in grief, for he had many possessions. But he is not the only one to be shocked by this in this story; as a matter of fact, just after the so-called rich young ruler leaves, Christ laments not just once, but twice the difficulty for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. And both times, we read that the disciples are shocked at Christ’s words, to which they ask, “Then who can be saved?”

It’s important to note that culturally, there is something else going on here. It was the assumption back in those days that people who head wealth also were the ones with God’s favor; to have wealth meant that God has blessed you with it, and therefore, it was a sign that you had lived a good and moral life, at least in the eyes of the people. Likewise, the people assumed that if you lived a life of depravity and poverty, it was because God was pronouncing some form of judgment upon you. Now, in today’s world, we’ve had a lot more theologians to talk to us about the topic of evil in the world, and we also have a greater understanding that bad things do in fact, often happen to good people. And even among social classes, it was understood that there were good and bad eggs at all levels of wealth and status.

But my point is this: this young man would have been assumed to have lived a good, moral life, and that God had granted him success and wealth. This young man was clearly a standout in his society; so when Christ says that it’s easier for a wealthy man to enter into heaven than for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle, their hearts probably sank. They thought, “Here is a man whom God has blessed and is pleased with, and now we see that even they are unable to be saved.” And so they ask, “If not him, then who? Who can be saved?”

And to put this into a modern perspective, let’s turn back to the example of John D. Rockefeller. According to the Wikipedia article under his name, John D. Rockefeller was a Christian man, a Baptist, who considered his religious beliefs to be a guiding force throughout his life, and in fact, he credited God with his success. And in many ways, we can see that he didn’t just say this, but lived it out. Rockefeller was also a famous philanthropist; and his contributions to the medical field helped eliminate many diseases in his day, including hookworm and yellow fever. Rockefeller taught Sunday School, served as a trustee, clerk, and occasionally, even janitor. This is exactly the kind of man in our minds who, even though he may be rich, seems to be blessed by God. And so imagine that the rich young ruler that’s come to Christ is Rockefeller himself; and this is the man that Christ laments, saying, “It’s harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

Now, I’m not here to guess at Rockefeller’s salvation; that, after all, is God’s business, and his alone. But I hope that this highlights how much of a shock that this is for the disciples; so much so that they lament and ask, “Who then can be saved?” And I think today still, we would ask, if Christ was to tell us that the life of this man, or any man, who appeared to be humble, and successful, and involved in their church, was not enough for us to enter into the Kingdom of God, “who then can be saved? If they didn’t make the cut, then surely neither do I.”

But it is Christ’s next words that I believe are the most important part of this passage: “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for with God all things are possible.” Christ’s response reminds us that it is not, in fact, our own doing that leads us to salvation. And here’s the good news and bad news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we’ll start with the good news first: You can’t do anything to earn your place in the Kingdom of God, it is something that purely comes from the grace of God. Now here’s the bad news: You can’t do anything to earn your place in the Kingdom of God, it is something that purely comes from the grace of God.

I think that what we see here is not just a story that focuses on the fact that this young ruler has great wealth. Because money on its own does not carry with it inherent evil. And I can guarantee you, there will be no entrance exam on our way into heaven that says, “How much money was in your possession when you died?” So if it’s not just about money, what’s this about? I believe that the answer to this question in the story is the young ruler’s question from right from the beginning: “Good teacher, what must I *do* to inherit eternal life?” See, what this rich young ruler is asking for is some means of sufficient action that guarantees that he will be granted eternal life. And so when Jesus first asks him about whether or not he has kept the commandments, for that brief moment, he is overjoyed, because he thinks that he is being affirmed in all that he has done in order to live a good life; that his life of virtue will be enough to bring him into the Kingdom. But for humankind, it is impossible.

The great human temptation that is buried deep down within all of us is to want to be self-sufficient, to have no need of God in our lives. This is in part why the vice of Avarice, more commonly known as Greed, is such a powerful temptation. Because far more than being about hoarding wealth and possessions, the desire of avarice is to pridefully say, “I can provide for my own needs without God; I have no need of him in my life.” It’s greed that tells us, “I don’t have to trust God; I can trust myself.” Greed isn’t just about how much you own. It’s about whether what you own dominates where your hope and trust is found.

Last week, I talked about looking at the heart behind Jesus’s words on divorce, and so this week I want to invite you to also consider the heart behind what Christ is telling us here in this passage. And I think that if we were to read this passage very literally, then all of us would find ourselves asking questions of “how rich is too rich?” and for some, we may perhaps then begin to create a spreadsheet, and we figure out, based on the poverty line and income, what defines “rich,” and we make sure that we don’t live above those means. Or perhaps, for some of the more zealous, they may begin to consider how and where they can begin to rid themselves of their possessions, and perhaps even leave themselves destitute in a show of faith that they will sacrifice everything in order to follow Christ’s commandments; but I think that both of these responses miss the point. Because in both cases, even though these are methods by which we could in fact ensure that we are by no means “rich” in our own society, we are still, by our actions, attempting to prove to God that we are worthy of some sort of place within the Kingdom of Heaven. And again…for man, it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.

We can’t buy our way into the Kingdom of Heaven. But the trouble is, that we can’t give our way into the Kingdom of Heaven, either. There’s a great lie in today’s world that you can be good without God, and in the arrogance that only mankind can achieve, there’s even an entire website that celebrates all the humanitarian accomplishments of atheists, and after listing what they have done, declares that that individual is “good without God.” But the best of intentions, the noblest of research, and even the most humanitarian of actions cannot save us. It is by faith in Christ, and faith in Christ alone that we find salvation. As Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10-12,  “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” And again, in Romans 3:20, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” But in Romans 3:24, Paul then pivots, and he tells us that “all are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that came in Christ Jesus.”

So Christ, by his words in this passage, I believe desperately tries to steer this rich ruler toward a dependence, not on what he can do or accomplish through his own works, but to a dependence and trust in Christ himself. And for this man, it meant that he had to be willing to give up his possessions, not because Christ needed to test his devotion, or because his wealth in and of itself was evil, but because avarice lived deep within his heart, telling him that he could be responsible for his own salvation. And this, I believe, is at the heart of this passage: it demands that we examine ourselves and ask: “Where do we place our hope, and our trust?”

And so my question for all of us this morning as we come before the Lord, is this: Are we truly trusting in God and relying on him to provide our salvation, or are we still trying to earn it for ourselves? Do we truly believe that God is the source of all our gifts and blessings, or do we believe that through our own shrewdness, we have acquired our wealth, and therefore our security? Do we believe that we are saved because of our belief in the name of Jesus Christ, or do we believe that by our gifts of charity, our virtuous living, and even by our participation in the church, that we are earning our right to be in the Kingdom of God? And if it meant finding salvation, would you indeed be willing to give up those things that you cling to as your security?

Now, there’s one last piece to this passage, and I’ve gotta say; you have to love Peter here. Because just after Christ has just asked someone to give everything away, and Christ laments how difficult it is for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of heaven, he pipes up and says, almost as if to remind Jesus and ask for assurance, “We left everything to follow you!” And again, leaving everything means nothing if it is the means by which we attempt to earn our salvation. But Christ in this moment, I believe has compassion on Peter, and he gives an assurance and a promise, saying that those who leave their homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, or fields for the sake of Christ and the gospel will receive a hundred times as much, as well as eternal life. And I don’t think what Christ is hinting at here is a prosperity gospel “get rich quick scheme,” but rather, I think that what Christ is affirming here is that while the cost of discipleship is great, its reward is far greater. In order for us to faithfully live a life that glorifies God, it may require that we are willing to make deep sacrifices, and give up many things that we may realize that we have found our own comfort and security in. And in fact, Christ says that one of the things we will likely find in return for our sacrifices is persecutions.

But what Christ also assures us of here is that it is an investment well-made. When he promises that we will receive a hundred fold what we have given up, it is a promise that we will have brothers and sisters in Christ, a promise that we will have the presence of God in its fullness, and a promise that we will have abundant and eternal life, now and in the world to come. And when we ourselves are sure of that abundance, so too will we act and live out of the abundance that we have in Christ.

One final piece of encouragement as I close today. I think it’s important for us to know that the answer to the question of “Who can be saved?” is, in fact, everyone who is willing to trust in God for their salvation. And while this is a challenging thing, I think it’s important that we realize that God meets us where we’re at. I think what we can see from the example of both Peter and the rich young ruler is that Christ still looked at them with love, even when they were not complete in their understanding, and even when they fell short of total dependence on God. Christ never rebuked either one of them for their hearts which, although they may have been misguided, or even selfish in their desires, still sought to live in harmony with God, and to live a life that was pleasing to Him.

 

Because as I said before, the good news is this: You can’t do anything to earn your place in the Kingdom of God, it is something that purely comes from the grace of God. So it’s my prayer that we would all invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, and that God would meet us where we’re at; and even if we’re not perfect, let us pray that God would continue to perfect us, and help us to have hearts that learn to trust and obey Christ. Not just for our provision, but for our salvation. And as we come to the table and to confession this morning, let us come in the expectation of His presence, that we may be transformed into those who would fully trust in God. Amen.