Give, sell, follow…

Sermon for 10th October 2021

Today’s reading is from the Gospel of Mark. Chapter 10 verses 17 to 31… link here. Have you heard this Bible story before? What do you think of it? It is the one about rich men and camels through tight places. There is a conversation between a rich man and Jesus which goes like this:

  • Good Teacher, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
  • “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”
  • Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.
  • Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

When this person kneeled before Jesus and asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life”, he wasn’t asking because he wanted to know the answer; he was asking because he already knew the answer. Or at least, he thought he did.

  • “Teacher, I have kept all these (the laws) since my youth.”

That is some undertaking! Jewish law is not as simple as the Ten Commandments: there is a whole book of law that is wrapped around God’s commandments. Because we’re human. When God says, “You shall not lie”, the question humans sometimes ask is, “what, not even a white lie? Not even to protect someone’s feelings?”

Have you heard of Shabbat elevators?

Jewish law forbids those who observe Sabbath from undertaking various forms of work, including lighting a fire or, more recently, switching on electrical equipment. Some lifts, in Sabbath mode, will stop at every floor, allowing people to use them without pressing a button. These systems have been created for those who love God and do not want to offend God even slightly. Does this sound excessive? Or, like me, do you admire their faithfulness and dedication to God?

How many of us obey the commandment to “cease” once a week? Sabbath means cease: stop. We often call it rest, but that doesn’t do the word justice. I know I struggle to find time to “stop”. Due to a Christian conference this week, I haven’t had a day off work in the last 10 days. Jewish law is there to protect the nation from accidently transgressing the law of God. So, when this person said, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” he was almost boasting of his love for God’s laws. He was certainly doing better than I have.

It isn’t just Jewish law that does this. The laws of Islam are also intense. The Quran contains law and guidance for governments, to stop individuals and society sinning against God. Jewish law and Islamic law contain both the carrot and the stick. Do these good things and good things will happen to you / do these bad things and bad things will happen to you. And both of these religions share the God of Abraham as the God they believe in.

I have just developed a new friendship, and my friend is Muslim: so we spend ages talking about God. He thinks Christianity is a cheat. He thinks that saying, “I believe in Jesus” is a cheat way to go to heaven and that because Christians don’t obey Jewish or Islamic law they can’t possibly be a friend of God, or go to heaven.

I did say to him that following Christ is not as easy as it sounds. Take what happens in the story between the good Jewish person and Jesus:

  • ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

You lack one thing. Just one thing. According to Jesus, observing the commandments was not optional, it was a starting point. Then after that:

  • Sell what you own.
  • Give it to the poor.
  • Follow Jesus.

Does this sound easy?

Once upon a time I had a good job, I travelled the world, I had money and friends and a family and a good life. I had free-time. It was no problem for me to observe Sabbath: I had two days off a week and loads of holiday. Money made life easy and I was happy. Then one day I met this Bible passage.

I wasn’t strong enough to sell everything and give it away. Instead, I prayed. “God. All that I have comes from you, and all that I have belongs to you. I give you only what you have given me. There is nothing I can give you that you do not already own. All creation is yours and I am yours.”

I prayed, “The only thing that is mine to give you is my freedom”.

I prayed. “I have this stuff… money and things. I give it to you. I still have it, but everything belongs to you now. Take it when you need it. Use me when you need to.”

And now, many years later, here I am. Here in the Colne Valley. I tell people that ‘my lot has fallen in a fair and pleasant land’. I love being able to minister here: Marsden and Slaithwaite are beautiful and the people are warmly welcoming. I may be a lot poorer than I was but in return I get to share what I have, that God loves us, with those who need to hear of God’s love for them. My life has been transformed by giving things away. By giving my life, I get to spend time here with you, and with the people around us. I feel so liberated.

It is my experience that when we give our life to God, God gives us back such riches that are beyond our imagination. I may no longer have a lot of money, but I have everything I could possibly want from God. My life belongs to God. This is my experience.

If you take this Bible passage seriously, if you use your imagination to picture yourself stood before Jesus and say, “What must I do to inherit eternal life”, like the rich man, we already know the answer:

  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength
  • Love your neighbour as yourself

What do you reply? Have you done this? If not, then you have your answer: this is what you must do to inherit eternal life. However, if you believe you already love God and love your neighbour, what happens next? What does Jesus say next? Does he say, “Well done?” Or does Jesus look at you, love you, and say:

  • ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

Being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian, is no ‘cheat’ like my friend thinks. This is hard. Jesus said it was hard; ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ It made the rich man sad. Does it make you sad too? If it makes you sad, then take heart and remember the promise of Jesus, and remember what I told you about my experience:

  • “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age”

This is how I feel. Like I have received a hundred-fold. To me, the transformation of my life from rich man to being here with you is the most wonderful thing that could have happened in my life. It took time. God was gentle with me. So today I challenge you to listen to Jesus and to take courage. To know that Jesus looks at you and loves you and never takes from you that which you are unwilling to give freely.

Why not take this moment of silence to trust and ask for yourself:

“Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”