s197g98 Somerton Park 25/10/98 Sunday 30
"the disciples ... sternly ordered them not to do it ..." Luke 18:15
The disciples have a long history of telling people what not to do, and what to do - what not to believe and what to believe ... I suppose the classic example of this is: "Stop it or you'll go blind!" - though my source (Morton Hunt in Australian Playboy March 1979 p152) says this actually originated in the advise of physicians of the 18th and 19th centuries.
We are told that "people were bringing even infants to Jesus that he might touch them ..." Clearly they were not just bringing infants, though it seems it was the infants to which the disciples particularly objected. And the thought came to my mind that the openness, goodness and generosity of Jesus were clearly self evident to all and sundry. Jesus did not have to run a publicity campaign. We have not one skerrick of evidence that Jesus ever said to anyone: "Please invite your family, friends and neighbours to this or that function." People came without being asked, cajoled or threatened. They brought even their children - a sure sign that they trusted Jesus, and knew him to be something of God.
Sometimes when I've read theological literature, I have got the impression that Jesus demanded acceptance - challenged people to make a decision for God or not. Certainly the person of Jesus did cause some people to turn away, just as many came to him. But that which caused people to turn away from him was that Jesus accepted others. The only discernible cause I can find that the religious authorities had for crucifying Jesus was that he accepted the hospitality of one and all, including those with no pretensions about being religious.
Jesus openness and acceptance of one and all was self evident, and unless we see that this is immediately followed by the incident of the ruler, and forms a backdrop to it, we will get the message of the ruler wrong.
But before we get to that, we have the saying of Jesus: "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:17). We always think this means that unless we become accepting and guileless like children we will be lost. This may mean that we have to change our personality - not an especially easy thing to do, and a bit sad for those who have disagreeable personalities. But I point out that it can also mean that if we accept little children we are accepting the kingdom - a much more possible task. Jesus himself was accepting the kingdom as he accepted the children and blessed them. We accept the kingdom as we accept even little children.
Luke's recollection is different to Matthew's and Mark's in that he recalls this incident following immediately after Jesus said these words. Matthew and Mark recall the man appearing after the words about receiving "the kingdom of God as a little child" were said. Luke's remembrance is that the ruler who poses the question: "What must I do ..." was actually present when Jesus said these words. The ruler was either not listening or missed the point, for the answer had just been given - accept those around you - even little children - in contradistinction to the rejection of the disciples. Simply accepting children is what brings eternal life.
Having not seen the answer to his question in the words Jesus had just said, the ruler asks: "Good teacher ..." Jesus denies the implication that he is "good" even though the ruler implies it. But good teachers are not likely to be influenced by flattery - that is a contradiction in terms. So flattery doesn't get us into the kingdom. It follows that our worship of God does not get us into the kingdom. I wouldn't worship a "god" who was influenced by flattery - mine as well as anyone else's.
But actually I wouldn't describe a "god" concerned with the keeping of the minutiae of regulations as "good" either. Keeping the commandments has as much possibility of excluding as including people. Keeping the commandments doesn't guarantee anyone into the kingdom.
It is only God's acceptance that has got us into the kingdom - that is why God is good. God's acceptance had already got the ruler into the kingdom. There is no test - for if there was a test, God would not be by definition - "good". This calls for a perception of the acceptance of God and a realisation that that acceptance is freely offered all else. The ruler had failed to perceive the import of the whole of Jesus ministry of acceptance of people, epitomised in the acceptance and the blessing of the children brought to him. As such he was left still trying to get what had already been given.
Jesus makes the point twice more, when he reiterates that it is our relationship with those about us that interests God, not overcoming perceived "spiritual" hurdles in an ascent to the divine. Firstly he bids the man to sell what he owns and give the money to those who need it, and secondly he tells the ruler to follow him.
The says in no uncertain terms that the important thing is not our wealth and what we give to God - but how we relate to others that is important. If Jesus was a charlatan, and charlatans there indeed are, he would have said "sell what you own and give it to ME".
But I think that the second needs to be unpacked, for it can come across that Jesus does accept us if we become a Christian, perhaps as an alternative to accepting those around us.
At this stage my words need to be grounded - by accepting those around us, I mean even those who have no pretensions to be religious. Or they might even follow another faith - the Jewish faith, the Samaritan faith, the Buddhist faith, or whatever. For that was why Jesus was crucified.
Following Jesus might lead some to protest the degradation of the ecology or the expansion of the use of nuclear materials for the generation of electricity, or a multitude of other good causes. Following Jesus, according to Jesus' definition, means accepting people, all people, in contradistinction to the disciples who wanted to follow Jesus and exclude others. So again it is our relationship with others that is primary.
The ruler still hasn't seen that he already has what he craves and he cannot bear giving up more in an endless pursuit of the mythical acceptance "out there" when the real acceptance had already happened "in here". He is sad, and Jesus can't make him see - that he already has what he craves - that there is in fact no needle with an eye to pass through - he accepts the ruler as he accepted the children. The ruler is sad, because in his ardent desire to find hurdles, hurdles he would quite willingly jump over, he fails to see the acceptance had already happened, right there and then, and Jesus would have rebuked anyone who would try to stop him.
Those listening are astonished "Who can be saved?" They too get caught up in the misconception of the mythical acceptance "out there" even though they have just witnessed Jesus' acceptance of the children right in front of them - even to him ticking off his disciples for trying to stop it.
It is for these consideration that I have always shied away from those statements like "Are you sure you are saved?" Assurance of salvation comes not through intellectual questing but through the touch of Jesus, and bids us accept others. On the morning I was preparing this sermon, I was sent a "Christian" newspaper and some words caught my eye. The words were: "This (program) has been successful in bringing kids into God's kingdom". The implication is that they weren't already - and that the program gave them something to make them so. The program can be seen as a hurdle over which people must jump. I would want to say that this program apparently had been successful in helping people see that they were already in God's kingdom ...
The blessing that concludes our gospel reading for today is not "the clearer vision of your heavenly glory" or "our perfect consummation and bliss" (AAPB funeral service p598, 599) - but more houses, wives (! :-), brothers, parents and children ... (the point is made plainer in Mark's account (10.30)).
Two final points. The first is that all of the exclusion, sadness, demands and confrontation originate in humanity - not in God or Jesus. We do not have to argue with people or educate them into believing the good news. The goodness is plain for all to see. What is less plain is that God's goodness extends to all of humanity - a lesson that the disciples - those of little faith - needed to see.
Which leads me to question - what about St Paul when he says: "proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2) - words from last week's epistle reading? Yet there Paul makes it plain all the persecutions he suffered - and what was the source of that persecution? Throughout his ministry his greatest opposition was from those who wanted to make a "good showing in the flesh" (Gal 6:12). He is only human when he expressed his frustration with these spiritual people: "I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!" (Gal 5:12). He too had to argue with those who wanted religion only to bless the religious.
The message is that God blesses people who come, and come they still do, quite of their own volition. They came to see Jesus, and people still come seeking God's blessing. We don't have to be "evangelical" or even "welcoming". God bids us not get in the way of God blessing all that he/she has called into this congregation, including ourselves. And it might bid us consider if, perhaps inadvertently, we get in the way of others being blessed by God, because things are done in a particular way here in the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Adelaide, or here in the Parish of Somerton Park. For Jesus rebuked the disciples then ...
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