THE TROUBLE WITH JESUS
October 11, 2015
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
The question Chris Harper Mercer put to his classmates in Oregon highlights the challenge of following Jesus. It’s costly. When his classmates identified themselves as Christians, Mercer replied, “Good, because you’re Christian, you’re going to see God in just about a second.” Mercer executed them on the spot. Sometimes the trouble with Jesus is identifying with him or doing what he asks. Doing so may cost us our very lives.
In today’s scripture, facing those who identify with Christ is not a death threat like in Oregon. What’s at stake is their fate after death. Will life after death be in heaven or Hades, with God or without him? That’s a real issue for them, for us. This uncertainty, an existential angst, describes what I am trying to capture in the words of our sermon topic namely The Trouble with Jesus. Following him is costly, difficult and troublesome. The matter reveals itself in three short stories.
On the road, a rich man runs up to Jesus asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Follow the Ten Commandments is the answer. “Don’t kill, commit adultery, lie, defraud, honor God and your parents,” Jesus says. “Been there, done that” rings the confident response. Undaunted, our Lord wants more. “Sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, take up the cross, come and follow Christ,” Christ demands. Shocked by Jesus’ ultimatum, the rich man walks away. Parting with his prized possessions is something he is not willing to do. Eternal life versus possessions, avoiding any possibility of an eternity in Hades, having every need met without work, no sickness, pain or death; that seems like a no brainer. What is this rich young ruler thinking?
Before we refer to his turning away from Jesus, let’s speak about his allegiance to the Lord. He is rich and principled. Lying, defrauding others, committing adultery do not mark his life of privilege. Sounds like someone who works hard and is good husband/father material to me; what about you? To the extent that he can, the rich young man cares for his parents and honors God. The writer is silent regarding his prayer life. But one can assume the young man knows something about prayer. Again, what is the young man thinking? He turns away from eternal life. His possessions have a hold on him. To tell the truth, the young man’s behavior reflects our thoughts and actions.
This summer I led a Spiritual Growth Study for the United Methodist Women entitled “Created for Happiness”. One chapter talked about the choke hold that possessions have on us. Often, we’ve purchased what we don’t need or use frequently. If the truth be told, advertising has convinced us that things make us happy. Even now Christmas books, pamphlets and papers have arrived in the mail. For the zillionth time, we’re encouraged to buy a new car for the wife, a swing set for the kids or exclusive furniture sets for every bedroom to dress up the house. But such purchases don’t take us to the heights of happiness because we’re loaded down with debt. If the truth be told, our basements, garages, attics, storage sheds, and closets are jammed with stuff we’ve not used in years. To the plea from loved ones to get rid of it, we just can’t. Holding on to possessions too tightly can cost us big time as it did the rich young ruler.
When you can, find the TED TALK on the internet by Graham Hill. Graham Hill shared a talk which reflected Jesus’ way of thinking. Titled “Less Stuff, More Happiness”, Hill shared three simple rules: 1.) Edit ruthlessly. Get rid of all the stuff you don’t need. Stem inflow 2.) Think small. Bigger is not always better. 3.) Think multi-functional. Multi-purpose is the way to go. Also, Graham mentioned a statistic that convinced me that we are just like the rich young ruler. According to Hill, we have three times more space than our folks had 50 years ago. But our living space can’t hold it. Instead of getting rid of it, we buy and store. Storage has become a $22 billion dollar industry in America today. Until it rots or we die, a lot of our stuff stays in storage. Like comfort food, we have to have our stuff right by our side.
For Jesus, the route to eternal life began with less stuff and following him. The rich young ruler leaves behind eternal life because he cannot get what he owns off his mind and out of his spirit. That’s troublesome. Why? While he keeps his stuff, he risks leaving behind eternal life on the other side of the grave. Unless, we can break the chains our stuff has on us, we cannot and will not give proper focus to him who comes to create the abundant life now and in the age to come.
The second narrative is even more troublesome. Its most memorable aspect is an oft stated quote from Jesus. “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Over the centuries, two translations have arisen. Supposedly, ancient cities like Jerusalem built small entrances for defensive purposes. No huge army could storm the city and destroy it. Narrow passageways limited the number of entrants. To enter the city, a camel had to get on its knees thereby lowering its hump to enter. Other scholars said the eye of the needle comment was simply a powerful image. Christ used it to illustrate the difficulty to getting into the kingdom of God particularly for those with great riches. In passing, I can tell you that the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem, which encases Jesus’ birthplace, does have a small entrance. Unless one bends over or is three or four feet tall, one cannot enter the Church of the Nativity.
After the rich young ruler leaves Jesus and his disciples alone; our Lord shares a commentary. How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. His position stuns the disciples. Just as quickly, our Lord rephrases his comment to address their situation. How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. Then, he adds a familiar example. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus’ disciples were shocked even more. Then, “who can be saved”, they asked? Our Lord provided an answer that ought to be part of everyone’s affirmation of faith, “All things are possible with God.” Because something is hard or difficult does not mean it is not attainable. We serve a God of amazing grace, a God in Jesus Christ who says “All things are possible with God.” Even the Cubs can win the World Series.
Rich or poor, gaining entry to God’s presence forever requires that we break the chains that imprison us. To do so means putting our whole trust in God. Yet, other things are always competing for our trust. For example, as retirement approaches, my wife and I are living through days when retirement experts fill the air with talk about money, money and money? IRA’s, 401 K’s, insurance for long term care, and a six month emergency savings account take money. Then, the questions start flying. Do you have enough to retire on? Have you been saving? Will you and your wife have a pension through the church? Yes. Swell, but that may not be enough especially if you live another 20 to 25 years. You might have to get a part time job. I don’t mean to pry. How about Social Security? Yep. How about life insurance? Yep. If it’s only $10,000 sir, that won’t go very far. Once we factor in the cost inflation and/or an unpredictable stock market, you won’t have enough money for a “pig in a poke”. But we have some financial instruments that can help you have a glorious retirement. Costs are very reasonable. One more thing, will you be buying a house? Enough!
If I really get caught up in providing for every contingency in retirement, I may not have much time for Jesus. Morning, noon and night, financial questions will be pursuing me on email, Facebook, texts and cell phone. At such a juncture, Christ who called me into a life of ministry and service will observe my behavior even more closely. Will I get to the fourth quarter of my life and function as if I do not need him, that my financial house in order is all I need. Christ will want to know; where is my heart in retirement? Will I still follow him? Will I do his will? Will I serve the least of these? Will I keep faith in Jesus Christ regardless of my financial condition knowing full well that three score years and ten minus one have taught me, I cannot make it without God’s help! There is no wonderful retirement, no abundant life without his presence in my life.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raises the question that is implied in his comments about rich folk and the kingdom of God. It is difficult to enter the kingdom of God because what we treasure defines our priorities and concerns. “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.” Is there any real danger in being rich? Yes there is. Regardless of our best intentions, the love of money turns us away from God. An internet article cites four reasons. 1.) For some, love of money brings depression. They are never content with what they have. Only more money will satisfy. 2.) Other gods are worshiped. Whatever comes to mind, do it. 3.) When money becomes that in which we trust, God, church, discipleship, prayer are no longer necessary components in our lives unless tragedy strikes and it becomes clear that the green stuff cannot do what God can do. The London based Beatles were correct in singing “I don’t care too much for money because money can’t buy me love,” human or divine. 4.) Love of money creates the Big I and everyone else. That trouble with the love of money is this: Money becomes a god. That’s a No-No. The First Commandment is clear. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” God says. “I’m jealous.”
In the third scenario, the disciples reached the end of their emotional roller coaster. They grieved over the departure of the rich young ruler. They were astounded that it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus’ decisions on eternal life troubled them. Peter the leader vented his frustration saying “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” I imagine Peter wondering what Jesus thought about them. Had he put them in the same boat as the rich young or the rich who less chance of getting of getting into the kingdom of God than a camel through a needle? We were never rich. And certainly aren’t now. I imagine Peter documenting his passionate testimony with cold, hard facts. “Look Jesus, we have left everything. We left houses and businesses behind. We left bank accounts and our place in community behind. We left spouses, children and extended family behind. We’ve left our synagogues behind. Look Jesus. Can’t you see?” I imagine Peter saying, we answered the call to ministry you placed on our lives. You came by when some of us were fishing, collecting taxes, or pursuing other vocations. With no excuses and long explanations to our families, we took up the cross and followed you immediately. “Look Jesus we have left everything and followed you” required an answer. And our Lord gave him one. Christ assures Peter that “no one”, even in Hillsboro, who gives up everything for the sake of Christ and the gospel Christ will go without reward, a hundred times over. Fear that one will lose his /her family in responding to the call is false. Houses, family with children (single, nuclear, extended etc.) property etc., will be part of the reward in this life for following Jesus, along with trial and tribulation. Even better, Christ promises that all those who give themselves fully to him, the rich included, will inherit eternal life in the age to come. If we can trust in that promise, the crosses of this life will fall into perspective. A newborn can put pregnancy and labor into perspective.
Our scripture for today literally calls for the creation of another scenario. Suppose the United Methodist Church encounters Jesus on the road like the rich young ruler. Instead of asking for eternal life, United Methodists ask Jesus “how can we grow the church?” Christ answers. Implement the Great Commission. Been there, done that. “It didn’t work,” claim United Methodists. Do you have any other suggestions, Jesus? No, not really? I do repeat. “Trust in my Word and implement the Great Commission.” Stymied, United Methodists go away sorrowing and shaking their heads like the rich young ruler. Later our Lord comments, “It’s hard to grow the church when my people don’t believe in my word and do my will. Astounded observers who believe United Methodist have tried every church plan including the Great Commission in the past 45 years cry out, then who can make the United Methodist Church grow? Jesus the Christ, the spirit of Pentecost and the Acts 2 community can grow it. “All things are possible with God.”
Over the past few months, I preached the 170th and the 150th Anniversaries of two of your sister churches. One church began its growth spurt from a Sunday School class that met in a home. They studied scripture, prayed, sang, broke bread and heard the word “go, make disciples.” Generation after generation has done so for 170 years. The other church began because the 2nd President of Illinois State University at Normal instigated its creation. President Edwards felt his students needed the church to care for their spiritual growth and development while away from home. No church of any denomination was in Normal. President Edwards, a Presbyterian, asked for time to speak to the Illinois Annual Conference. After his spirit filled presentation, the conference started First UMC in Normal, Illinois. In 1920, First UMC began a Wesley Foundation on that campus - a church home away from home for students. None of that growth occurred without sacrifice, trial and tribulation. It was the same with Paul’s New Testament experience. The church grew in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Colossae and Ephesus. The Late Harry Emerson Fosdick, who pastored Riverside Church in New York City summed up the trouble with Jesus in his hymn about church life during the Great Depression.
“Cure thy children’s warring madness; bend our pride to thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness; rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom; grant us courage, lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.”
The trouble with Jesus is the cross. Not many want to carry it. Not many want to be nailed to it. Not many want to hang on it. Not many want to cry out “I thirst” or “I’ve been forsaken.” Not many want to leave parents and loved ones behind. Not many want to die as so young an age for the sake of the kingdom.” It’s just too much trouble. But that is the way of Christ. He redeems the world, makes life worth living through redemptive suffering and glorious resurrection. Come follow him. Get in touch with the way of the cross. And remember trouble in this age from following Christ will become a mighty triumph at the resurrection and in the age come in the age of come when we are born to eternal life. Amen.