While walking to the famous “Horseshoe” stadium at Ohio State, on an absolutely gorgeous early October day, I passed a group of people handing out tracts to those heading to the game. The tracts encouraged the reader to be saved. If you Admit that you are sinner, Confess that you need help, Believe on Jesus and Receive forgiveness and salvation from the Holy Spirit, then you receive eternal life. (To be saved according to the tract meant to be saved from eternal damnation in hell and for eternal life with God in heaven after death.) To many Christians, “salvation” is the goal, the end game of faith. You only have one of two choices; you have to make a decision before you die where you will spend eternity.
Admitting need, confessing fault, trusting in God’s love and receiving forgiveness are vital to a living faith, I am all for it! We do it as a community every Sunday with our prayer of confession. We are “saved” every week!
You have probably all received tracts in a grocery store parking lot or perhaps at your door when you are visited by a team of evangelists. This group at the Horseshoe was a friendly bunch, truly; no judgmental signs, no aggressive promotion – just standing there passing out their information.
I am always agitated by these tract passer-outers. For me what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ is not limited or constrained by a four step formula. Salvation is deeper and wider and larger than I or anyone else can fathom. I do not believe that the scriptures teach that where you go after you die is the primary focus of faith. So I disagree theologically and biblically with the contents.
But, truly, I respect their courage and commitment. They are not ashamed to claim Jesus Christ as Lord in public; they know what they believe and they believe what they know. I too want to challenge and comfort with the gospel. I too do not want to be ashamed to claim Jesus Christ as my Lord and my Savior in the public arena. Shall we let the discussion about what defines faithfulness be shaped only by one side as we sit in silence?
Furthermore, in the tract salvation is ALL about the individual. It says nothing about the transformation of culture. It is all about personal and individual choice and nothing about a larger vision of the kingdom of justice among us – and that is very biblical too – I would argue more so.
In today’s lesson there is a man who runs up and kneels before Jesus and wants to know how to be saved: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I think this young man is serious. He wants to know God – just like many of you do. He wants to how to balance his own life. That is a common concern among many today. He wants to know how to quell the uneasiness in his gut, how to “feel” something, have an experience of grace and peace. Who doesn’t want that?
A couple of things in Jesus’ response which are interesting to me: Jesus says; “Why do you call me good, only God is good.” Don’t get me wrong; as a Christian I know God because of Jesus. As a Christian when I want to describe God, I end up describing Jesus. Jesus is the expression of God for us. For Christians Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us. But Jesus isn’t into a cult of personality – Jesus is always aware, it seems to me, or redirecting things to not himself but to God, to Abba – the God of all Creation.
Instead of giving the young man the four step process of salvation, “Admit, Believe, Confess, Receive,” like the tracts, Jesus says: “you know the commandments … do them.” Just do what you know to be just, true, honorable and good – it isn’t rocket science. It might have been Jelly Roll Morton or one of the great jazz musicians who once answered the question of how he played his instrument so effortlessly with the words: “I just let it do what it do!” Jesus is telling the young man “let it do what it do.” Live authentically. Don’t over think, over worry.
But with God’s love always comes God’s agitation. God always wants you to go deeper; to get to the heart of the matter. And what really mattered, what really defined this young man was his possessions. He was possessed by his possessions.
And I don’t know if this is not the most important verse for you and for me to hear and for our culture to heed, for our children to pay attention to. We have shaped our identities by what we have, by our possessions – rather than by who we are.
Jesus loved the young man and Jesus loves you… I don’t believe that Jesus condemns or casts out – he is merely describing the Kingdom reality – folks who “get” the kingdom intuitively hold things loosely, are very present in each moment without expectation. The best examples of a kingdom moment, an eternal moment, that I have ever had occurred while fishing on a beautiful river – time stopped and went too fast all at the same time. Holding my kids when they were little – just such a powerful emotion of presence and fragility, walking in Forest Hill park the other day and the orange leaves on a solitary tree stopped me cold; finally freeing myself from my own self-consciousness to be present at a party with friends. Kingdom moments, eternal moments, saving moments are when I am least constrained by stuff and least aware of myself and in a paradoxical way – I am, at those moments my most true self – the way God made me.
People who get the kingdom in their gut, who live it, who are IN (so to speak) – are not those who cling to possessions, who do not identify themselves by status and power and prestige, credentials – because those things gets in the way. How can you receive God’s love with open hands when they are so tightly clenched around things and our own anxiety?
Jesus always used children and the poor as those who are in the kingdom – not because of any choice they made for or against salvation – but because of their powerlessness, their complete dependence on someone else. They are in because they have no status in the usual corridors, are not considered all that important, they are expendable, faceless, nameless, marginal: (Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.)
I am not any of those things as an educated white male with a respectable, good job.
I don’t know if I have to feel guilty about my entitlements (and I am very entitled) but at very least I had better pay attention to who I am called to be. I absolutely do not have greater insights into reality because of my education or status. In fact , I probably have less insight into what life is really about.
And you can see how this agitates our culture – for wealth and standing and things mean everything to America – Republican or Democrat – the way out of this economic stagnation is to make things. Creating wealth is paramount. Nobody would disagree. It is the way the world works.
I don’t think Jesus would agree, frankly.
I know I sound like an old fogy and trust me I love my HD TV when it is game time. But really, am I better off? Most of us would save over $200 a month if we didn’t have to pay for our phones and our cable – but truly we can hardly live without these things. I don’t have a choice anymore NOT to pay some service fee so I can get 4G (or whatever) on my cell phone – no wonder I am not saving. Market forces are forcing me to buy a blue ray DVD, go digital – no wonder we feel out of control and submit.
With the phones and the apps and computers (as wonderful as they are…I am not anti-technology) but I wonder if we have become possessed? The constant barrage of entertainment and noise – so that even the growing churches realize they have to be like MTV – maybe they do – I am not going to judge… but at some level I don’t know if I can hear clearly the voice of God amidst all the other voices. I can’t find myself when all I do is try to keep up with everyone else. I can’t be free because I am trapped by my own stuff. I get worried about where my kids will go to school and the “success” they will achieve and yet I know deep down that none of these will make them necessarily happier and it sure isn’t making me any happier either.
The most successful students from the most prestigious schools were among the leaders who got the golden parachutes that allowed them to drift off the scene as companies went belly up. The wealthiest wanted more and so dipping into the sub-prime lending market was all good, until it wasn’t.
Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t over mortgaged our best selves in the sub-prime muck of stuff. As Jesus said: “we gain the whole world and end up losing our souls.” We can hardly get out from under it. And it leaves me shocked and grieving because I have so many possessions, I have so much to protect that I lose my bearings and my identity. How am I going to be saved from myself and for that which God is calling me to? Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life? It isn’t about acquiring… more about divesting. And, it isn’t just about money… it is about anything that gets in your way.
Jesus just wants me, you – naked – I know that is uncomfortable. Jesus just wants you face to face – in your wealth or in your poverty, in your sickness or in your health, in your doubt and in your certainty – just you — just as you are without one plea.
So go home and consider your priorities. I am not going to tell you what you have to give up – I am not Jesus. Go home and dwell in whatever agitation you find yourself in. Imagine Jesus standing before you – what would he tell you to give up? What are you possessed by? What’s in our wallet?
I am not going to try to comfort you today because I have to find my own comfort. Look to the places where you are shocked and grieving – Jesus will tell you “let it go.” But will you?
Jesus is looking at you now as deeply as he did the young man and loves you, yes you – perhaps the shock of salvation will come not with 4 formulaic words (but maybe it will) but by seeing with crystal clarity what stands in your way. AMEN.