Give it all: law or grace?

Sermon for 11 October

As we listen for the Word of God, let us pray:

Your word, O God, cuts through our pretence;
we are unable to hide from you.
Guide us to know our secret faults,
strengthen us to put them aside,
and make us grateful for all you give us;
this we ask for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Reading

Mark 10.17-31

Nearly every Sunday, we hear these words in church after we confess our sins:

Hear then Christ’s word of grace to us:
‘Your sins are forgiven.’

And we respond,

Thanks be to God.

‘Your sins are forgiven’: these are words of grace. They are words that convey a gift, a gift straight from the mouth of God. Forgiveness. Cleansing. Freedom from sin.

Our part is simply to say, ’Thanks be to God.’

We’re used to hearing these words as words of grace. Once these words are heard, they are able to convey grace. Part of growing into the Christian faith is to hear these words and to be thankful from our hearts.

Words of grace are not only heard in church, of course. A child hears words of grace from her parents too. Words like, ‘You’re a good boy!’ ‘You did very well!’ Or simply, ‘Thank you!’ These words are gifts from a parent to a child, gifts that help a child grow in grace themselves.

But there are other words of grace a parent speaks, words that might not be so readily understood as words of grace. Words like this:

‘Don’t touch that!’ when a child is about to put his hand on a hotplate.

‘Leave that alone!’ when a child is trying to pick up a cane toad.

‘Do your homework!’ when a school student would rather play games or chat on Facebook.

Believe it or not, these are all words of grace. They are words of grace because they show a child how to avoid the wrong way and choose the good.

They are warnings, commands; but they are gracious warnings, and generous commands. If these warnings and commands are heard, then they convey grace to us.

We sometimes hear words of grace like these purely as limiting words, words of judgement. And we miss the true meaning, the intended meaning, the grace.

Are these words of grace? Jesus says to the rich man,

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 you hear these words, do you hear words of grace?

Let me invite you to try. Try to hear them as words that show us that we need to turn away from the wrong way and choose the good.

Jesus saw the heart of this rich man; he had great wealth, and his wealth preoccupied his mind. He was trapped by it. To choose life, he had to let go of his wealth. The tax collector Matthew had already done this; Jesus had called him to let go of his money and follow, and he had. It was now this man’s turn.

This is a word of grace to a man trapped by his wealth. Unfortunately, he didn’t hear it as grace. He heard it as a hard word; it became a judgement for him.

What do we need to let go of so that we can follow Jesus? If there is anything that keeps our hearts from him, then we need to let it go. If the Holy Spirit of God tells us to let it go, then it’s a word of grace. It might be money; it may be looking for status, or the respect of others. It might be ambition, or a narcissistic preoccupation with ourselves; it might be a spirit of bitterness, or envy, or an unforgiving or critical spirit. Whatever it is, if we listen for the voice of the Spirit of God, we will find it becoming clear in our heart that we need to let thing go of it, so that we can follow the Lord Jesus more closely.

And whatever it is, it might be a hard word to hear—but it’s a word of grace.

And when Jesus says—

Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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—

can we hear these words as words of grace? Can we hear them as words that warn us of the dreadful consequences of putting other things—whatever they are—in place of God? The Old Testament calls putting other things in place of God by the name of ‘idolatry’. It’s still the right word, because we can be idolaters too. We can idolise money, ease of lifestyle, status, anything… We can put anything in place of God.

Can we hear these grimly humorous words about the camel going through the eye of a needle as words of grace?

The history of the way this passage has been played with suggests that Christians have been hard of hearing. The eye of the needle has been called a small gate in the Jerusalem city wall, and a camel had to bow down to enter through it. Just so, it was said, a rich person can only enter the kingdom if he or she is humble. Or, it has been said that Jesus wasn’t talking about a camel going through the eye of a needle, but a thick rope going through the needle’s eye.

These false understandings have the result of softening the effect of this saying. We are relieved that it’s not so stark as Jesus said. There seems to be some wriggle room. Maybe there’s a loophole in the eye of the needle.

But if we really want to make sense of this passage, we should look at the reaction of the disciples:

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’

The disciple were ‘greatly astounded’. There was no leeway, no softening of the saying. If what Jesus said were true, then how could anyone be saved? We only understand this passage when we too are greatly astounded; maybe even if it strikes us that our own place in the kingdom could be in jeopardy. If we soften it, we fail to receive its meaning.

What does Jesus say?

Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

Jesus doesn’t say to the disciples, Oh no boys, no need to be greatly astounded, stay calm. If you’re humble about your wealth, you’ll be ok. He says this: ‘for God all things are possible.’

What is there that stands between us and a fuller life in Jesus Christ? Whatever it is, that’s what we have to let go of. And this, my brothers and sisters, is a word of grace. It is a word that shows us the grace of God, that we may turn from the wrong ways and choose the good.

If we fail to hear Jesus’ words as words of grace, they may become for us words of judgement, as they did for the rich man. One of our difficulties is that wrong ways seem so good. How do we let go of whatever keeps us from God, when we’ve grown to depend on those things? That was the rich man’s problem.

A couple of times lately, we’ve heard Jesus speak of children and the kingdom of God. Jesus said,

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

Perhaps we can find an answer there, in the way children so simply accept the way of Jesus. When a child reaches out to touch something hot, and hears her mother shout, Don’t touch!, she doesn’t like it. But if she listens, she learns that it’s a loving word. It’s a word of grace.

Mind you, if she doesn’t hear it as a word of grace—if she keeps touching the hot thing—she might decide that it’s a harsh word, a limiting word, a word to ignore.

What kind of loving God would let us play with things that will only harm us, and never warn us? Jesus said to the rich man,

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.

Today, he says to us,

You lack one thing; go, let go of whatever is keeping you from living in the kingdom now; then come, follow me.

It’s a word of grace. Let’s not allow it to become a word of judgement.

We’re going to baptise AR soon, and we also will have an opportunity to recommit our lives to Jesus, to reaffirm our own baptism by coming forward to make the sign of the cross on ourselves with the water. In baptism, A is being brought into union with Jesus Christ. She is entering the Church, the body of Christ, the people whose call is to say Yes when Christ calls them to enter the kingdom of God now. Will she hear the call?

We have a part in answering that question, we who model what it means to be a Christian community for her. Will she hear this gracious call to let go of everything that stops her from following Jesus?

Let us model following Jesus for A. And for her big sister K, and for all the children who are part of our community. Let them learn what it means to follow Jesus from you and me.

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