The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s197g07 Sunday 30 28/10/2007
'to inherit eternal life' Luke 18.18
If Jesus was really clever he would have replied to this earnest enquirer: 'Sell all that you own and give the money to me'. What a wasted opportunity!
This person is concerned about his own salvation, and so often the Church that I have been a part of has been content to satisfy people's feeling of inadequacy and fear of damnation by suggesting that they give their lives and their money to the church. Of course the Church has never forgotten the poor, and when the Church has something left over, then the poor are most welcome to it. Some congregations pride themselves on their giving to charity, so that it comes as the first expense rather than the last. Every parish I have ever been in has had an ongoing debate about the priority of giving to outside causes. It is something that will never be resolved, which probably means that it is the wrong question. If a parish commits itself as a parish to support a priest or minister, it is a breach of that commitment if they give money elsewhere. Any giving to an outside charity must not be at the expense of the minister.
Jesus says to this earnest enquirer: 'Why do you call me good?' This immediately tells us two important things. Firstly neither God, nor Jesus, is influenced by flattery. So our worship of God and / or Jesus does not influence them to grant us eternal life. So secondly I take it that it is not in Jesus' power to grant to individuals' eternal life and to deny it to others. Again, the Church in its many forms, incarnations and denominations has sought to provide the definitive path for people to be assured of their final salvation. If Jesus distanced himself from being able to grant eternal salvation to individuals, surely the Church (which by definition 'follows Jesus') ought to do likewise!
As I have reflected on my sermon for last week, that God is overwhelmed by the pleas of the widows, to hear the bleating of those wanting justice in their own terms. The whole of the book of Job is concerned with precisely the same question does God reward the righteous apart from others?
The Church might provide a definitive path for people to be assured of their salvation if the Church itself were open to other people, open to other expressions of the faith, open to people of other cultures and lifestyles, but, sadly, the Church has defined the faith demanding compliance rather than being open to other expressions of it. Sadly the Church has been defined by their marginalisation of women and alienation of gay and lesbian persons rather than being open to people of other cultures and lifestyles.
Jesus only provides a definitive path for people to be assured of salvation as we see him open to other people, open to other expressions of the faith, open to people of other cultures and lifestyles. Indeed the definitive path for assurance of salvation that Jesus offers is about our acceptance of others. It is not personal it is always corporate.
Jesus invites the children to come closer, the rich ruler to come closer, for all to come closer to him and to one another.
As Jesus lists the commandments to the ruler, they are all about our relationship with others, not about our relationship with God. Adultery, murder, theft, bearing false witness and honouring parents are all about our human relationships. But these can be seen as spiritual. Adultery can be having a god who is demanding rather than loving. Murder can be regarding one's brother's offering to God as less than one's own. Theft can be the taking of other people's status as children of God (in the name of God) away from them. Bearing false witness can be about neglecting to convey that God is compassionate and merciful to all.
Time and again I have said in my sermons that our atonement with God is dependent on our atonement with other people, particularly the poor, the marginalized and the alienated. The direction to 'sell what you own' is a direction to be at one with the poor, the marginalized and the alienated. Indeed it is precisely the same as the direction 'come follow me' because this is precisely what Jesus did.
And our 'treasure in heaven' is not gold, silver or special 'A list' seats but we get back houses, wives, brothers, parents and children. Heaven is relationship with others, not superiority over others.
The topic of heaven is often brought up, yet as I read the scriptures, I see more and more that God wants eternal life to be something we enjoy in the here and now. If we are at one with other people, particularly the poor, the marginalized and the alienated, then we are at one with God in the here and now. Eternal life is not a reward at the end of time for those who measure up and toe the line, but something we invite into our own lives as we invite others into our lives.
This last week I have continued to reflect at how unjust Jesus was in his parables. We had God listening to 'thieves rogues, adulterers (and) tax-gatherers' last week (Lk 18.11) rather than the person who fasted twice a week and tithed. He noticed the widow giving her two mites and commended her - rather than the rich who contributed lots. He pays the ones who had done only an hours work the same as those who had slaved all day. He welcomes home the younger son who had taken his share of the inheritance and spent it. (Lk 15) He forgives the woman who anointed his feet with her tears rather than Simon who hosted the dinner in his honour (Lk 7).
God suspends his justice so that others, all others may be included. And it is God who makes this possible. Religions, faiths and denominations that define who is 'in' and who is 'out' are not of God. Eternal life is possible, indeed it is meant to be the 'norm' for all people, as we are open to those God has put around us.
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