Sermon ' "The GOOD Life"
Series "Here to There" Lent week 4 of 5 Preached March 22, 2020, at the 9:30 am Worship
Presbyterian Church of Chestertown
Its still Lent, the season of 40-plus days from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter, where Christians are called to be honest about where we are, to make changes, and to commit to the journey toward where God is calling us to be.
Caitlan and I decided long before CoViD came among us, we would be preaching from Matthew 17 to Matthew 21, and calling this Lenten sermon series “Here to There”. How did Jesus get from the Mount of Transfiguration, where everything was bright and shiny and amazing, to Palm Sunday, where everything was about to turn.
We are now finding ourselves on an odd journey, from a place where things were brighter and exciting, into a season of unknowns. What can we learn from Jesus and his journery from Mount to Palms as we go through our own Lenten journey from here, where we are, to there, wherever it is God is calling us?
Let’s pray, and listen for the Word of the Lord…
Scripture Matthew 19:13-30
13 Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one WHO is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to Jesus, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; (in other words), You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
27 Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
This too is the word of the Lord…
This good person wanted eternal life, and wondered WHAT he could do to get it, eternal life. That’s the English translation of what he was looking for. In our culture, in modern Christianity, eternal life is often taught as meaning life after death. This man who came to Jesus, and many others around us, perhaps even including some parts of ourselves go to Jesus wanting to make sure we will get the heavenly side of life once the earthly side is over, that we will inherit some future existence when our current existence ends. We will try to avoid and prolong death as long as possible, but what must we do to make sure this isn’t the end?
I’m not exactly sure where we learned about life and eternal life in that way. Whenever Jesus talk about heaven, he talks mostly about the Kingdom of Heaven as a current reality. “The Kingdom of heaven IS…” He speaks far less of the Kingdom as some future situation. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven already is, and is not something just for the dead after they (or we) are dead, but is also something right now, for the living and for us while we live.
We tend to think of heaven, the kingdom of heaven as something we inherit at a certain time in the future, after death. But for Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is timeless, eternal, not just sometime in the future for those who no longer live, but something then and now and always, including all the pasts, presents and futures combined.
There’s another difference for Jesus regarding Heaven. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven was not some far off place where God’s power and reign was evident, as opposed to this fallen infected world where God’s powers are weaker, and God’s reign is in doubt. The Kingdom of heaven includes this world, this space right now all around us. If God is (and we believe and confess God is) all powerful, all knowing, and the great creator, then there is no realm, not even this one, where God is not Lord.
So for Jesus, heaven, the kingdom of heaven included this time, the living and the dead, the here and the now as well as the before and the hereafter, AND included this space, not just some celestial, other space beyond here, but also here. All of it, all of time, all of space is God’s kingdom of heaven, and without understanding this, we will not correctly hear Jesus’ response to the person’s question… “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Like the man asking the question, we Americans often tend to center our heavenly concerns in some future time and a different space, hoping that life goes on here as long as possible, and after this life here is over, we inherit eternal life somewhere else in the future.
Jesus has a much bigger understanding of life than that. For Jesus, it isn’t just about life extending forward through time, eternally. It is also about life being bigger, larger, fuller now. For Jesus, it isn’t just about life extending beyond this world. It is also about life here in this world, right now, being full to the brim, overflowing, abundant, amazing.
The person’s question not only reveals he is interested in life in the future somewhere else, but he also assumes there are things he must do in order to find his way to that place in the future. He wonders what “good deeds” he must do. Here, the word “good” means more than “good.” It means honorable and upright, useful, important, productive, holy. And “Deed” means something he can do, make, produce, construct, create, write, declare, decide, promise, etc… He’s grasping for anything he can do, any decision, any good deed, any choice or attitude he can embody. “Jesus, what good, holy thing can I say, do, decide, in order to insure my life extends beyond this world when I die?”
Jesus comes back with “Why are you asking me about WHAT is good? There is only one WHO is good.” The man is looking for a ticket to heaven in the future based on his actions or decisions in this life. “What can I DO?”
Jesus doesn’t immediately correct him, but stands with him inside his bad assumptions for a bit. “Okay, so you think it’s all about WHAT? Fine. To even begin to ENTER, full, amazing, abundant life, keep the commandments.” The man asks, “Which ones?” He wants a checklist. He wants to go away knowing exactly WHAT he needs to do. “If I do this and do that, and say this and believe that, then I will get in someday!”
Jesus reads back five of the ten commandments… For some reason, he totally skips over the first four, the God-centered commandments… Have no other God before me, do not make idols, do not use the Lord’s name improperly, and remember the Sabbath. Jesus jumps to the communal commandments. You can almost see the guy whipping out his iPad or pen and paper to write this down so he will have the list, and then he can go get busy working on it, and know, someday he will move to a new place with eternal life.
Jesus includes commandment Number 5 – honor your father and mother, Number 6 – do not kill, Number 7 – do not cheat or be unfaithful, Number 8 – Do not steal, Number 9 – do not lie. Then he doesn’t mention number 10, but gives the man a cheat sheet, “you know, love your neighbor as yourself.”
The man pauses and looks over the list again. “Wait, I already do all these.” He could have thrown a party right there. Jesus tells him the list of things to DO in order to “enter” infinite life. The man believes is it WHAT he does that brings eternal life someday, and he truly believes he is already doing everything on Jesus’ list. So why doesn’t he celebrate?
The man knows in his heart something is still lacking. He’s been working hard and working honestly on the assumption that eternal life will come someday if his works are good. He has come to Jesus asking questions based on that assumption, “What good works must I do to have abundant life someday?” But he already knows inside himself all his working is not filling the hole. Something is lacking.
I’ve met good people, people who are honest, loyal, honorable folk. They are spoken well of by family, friends, and colleagues. They have a moral center, a fair and just way of treating others and living this life. But sometimes, many of these folk feel something is still missing. It’s the conversation a pastor sometimes has in a hospital from one of these good folk who find themselves looking back over their life and worrying did they do enough good works, and if so, why are they still worried? I’ve had folk say something to me like, “I’ve always tried to be a good person.” And I can say back to them, “Yes, yes you have.” And they will still ask me, “But did I do enough?”
Without doing life honorably, fairly, justly, life would be miserable, unbearable. We enter life through doing things the good way, with integrity and honesty, with justice and love for all. But what we seek is fullness, wholeness, boundless, infinite life, not just later but NOW. And there is nothing WE can DO to insure we get that. Getting that kind of life is more than any WHAT we do. It is a WHO. It is a person, a relationship between us and the one and only WHO is good. Our trust, and commitment, and loyalty in relationship with God in Christ, and our relationship with one another as God’s family, that is what bends our lives toward fullness. We can stick our toes into the fullness of life by obeying the commandments. We get closer and closer to fullness of life now the more we find ourselves leaning on and trusting the God we know in Christ.
Even now, fullness of life seems so far away. We are separated from one another, to prevent our medical systems from being flooded. We are unable to hug or share meals or even share space. We’ve been told the basics of what we can do to have and preserve life, and we are doing it. We are washing hands, and staying apart. Bu there’s this strange emptiness right now as well, because we aren’t able to have the fullness of life we want.
As long as we seek fullness of life is what we can do, we will never find it. We will follow the commands that keep people safe. That’s a start. That lets us enter the basics of life. But beyond the basics, we will find fullness of life not in what we must do or in what we are forced to do, but in WHO is our God through this season.
The man looks up at Jesus, realizing the situation, feeling disappointed, and maybe a bit duped. “I’ve done all the things Im supposed to do. But inside, I’m still don’t feel it. I thought you said if I did these things I would inherit eternal life.”
Jesus only promised he could enter life through those things, not find life’s fullness. To find life’s fullness is something more than any what we can do. It is a WHO. For life to truly overflow and be as abundant and infinite as we imagine it can be, right here, right now, despite our social distancing and quarantine, it begins with the WHATs we can do and are doing, but continues through a WHO, the risen Lord we worship and know in Jesus the Christ.
The man went away sad, sad because what he most wanted was not found in a checklist he could accomplish, sad because his lifelong assumption of working hard and being a good person had been revealed as not enough. Brothers and sisters, please continue to do the good works of compassion by honoring social distances, self quarantining if sick, supporting businesses as you can to prevent layoffs, and demanding justice and generosity from our leaders. Those things will help us enter life. But to find more life, more fullness and abundance, walk with Jesus, listen for him, follow him. He is the WHO that delivers all humanity into wholeness, healthy, infinite, eternal life.
To this God be all the glory and honor, now and forever more. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown