“How Do I Get Eternal Life?”
To listen to the sermon, click here.
Let us pray…In our lesson, Jesus is asked one of the most profound questions of the human soul. How do I get eternal life? He is asked by an earnest man who had done most things right. No late bloomer or teenage rebel, he had taken his faith seriously and Mark tells us he has fulfilled the law since he was a youth.
Commentators have long debated about what is meant here by “eternal life.” Does it mean a long lasting afterlife? Does it mean living in a way that has eternal significance? Does it mean living a meaningful, hopeful, abundant life starting now? Or all three perhaps?
Jesus invites the man to give up his dependence of what he has and what he has achieved and place his trust in God. Yet the man goes away disappointed, frustrated and grieving. This is a unique moment in the Bible because if you think about it, just about every time Jesus invites anyone to do something with him, they do it. This passage reminds us it’s possible for us to say no to following Jesus. It’s possible to miss the mark of what’s important in life. To miss that what we do can have eternal significance and that by our faith, not our works, are we saved. To miss that an abundant life starts now. To miss that what gives us real meaning in this life and in the life to come, may surprise us.
Then Chancel Players drama, Security Check by Sharon Sherbondy.[i]
In 1962, famed New Testament scholar Paul Minear wrote of today’s scripture from Mark, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of keeping laws nor of amassing credits. It is a matter of receptivity.” Minear wrote, “One does not need to develop special credits to present as a ticket of admission. Rather, we need to be content with no such credit. (that is a kind of) childlikeness…..”[ii]
Like Roy in our drama, the rich man in Mark 10 was as much confused as anything. He had done everything right by the standards of society and yet Jesus wanted something more. It’s a lesson that Jesus teaches over and over again. The first shall be last and the last first. If you want to gain life, lose it. It you want to be rich, give what you have away. It you desire eternal life, focus on the kingdom now. Jesus turns expectations on their head. The rich young man was not ready to be a disciple because of his dependence on what he had.
In his classic book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, business guru Steven Covey writes that people who live meaningful lives share several characteristics.[iii] He suggests they are proactive. They have their priorities straight. And they begin with the end in mind. Whatever they’re doing, they’re going to ask: “what is the result going to be?” Covey writes, “To begin with the end in mind is to begin with the image, picture, or paradigm of the end of your life as your frame of reference or the criterion by which everything else is examined. To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination.” That, Covey concludes, changes how you live.
Roy and Sue in our drama had the end result in mind. However, they acted in different ways in preparing for it. Likewise, Jesus was trying to tell the successful man to make sure he is climbing the right mountain in life.
British playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maughan wrote in the 1930’s, “If one puts aside the existence of God, one has to make up one’s mind as to the use of life. If death ends all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what I am here for….(If there is no God and no hope for good), life has no meaning.”
What Jesus was suggesting is that the greatest meaning and highest satisfaction in life is found not in things of the world, but in an eternal relationship with the God who gives life to all, who knows the reason for our creation and whose time horizon is never-ending. Our relationship with God gives meaning to everything in this life and in the life to come. If eternity is always it includes now. It doesn’t wait for death for meaningful life to begin. So our calling is like the rich man’s, to make sure nothing gets in the way of our relationship with God, for that is the source of our abundant life.
In the church we often talk about how there are different Greek words for love, such as eros and agape. Commentators also note that Greek has several words for life.
There is bios, as in our physical life. Your physical body and mine and our ability to breathe and live. We know from Paul’s letters, such as 1 Corinthians 15, that God promises a bodily resurrection for us. From that we know the human body is important to God. Perhaps that is why Jesus healed so many people physically. The subject of biology, the study of life, comes from this Greek word.
A second word for life is psyche. Meaning mind, spirit or breath. Psychology is the study of the mind; the conscious and subconscious parts of our spirit. Our thinking, feeling and emotions, but the parts of us we cannot really see. Plato and Socrates argued that after death the psyche is freed from the body and able to achieve greater wisdom and development as a result.[iv] Aristotle wrote a book called On the Soul in which he further developed the idea of the psyche as having three parts itself separate from the body. The Greeks revered the psyche and didn’t hold the body in as high regard as did Paul. The Platonic focus on the psyche was about the quality not the quantity of life. As we watched good friends in this congregation near the end of their lives this past month, it was clear that what the philosophers write about is true, that deeper life, psyche life, is about more than our bodies. While formal religious attendance may be waning in America, the desire for real meaning has never been greater. Studies show the Millennial and Gen Y generations or even the Baby Boom generation for example, are far less interested in routines and obligation than say the World War II generation was. But all are interested in deeper meaning.
So was the rich man. What he asked Jesus for was not bios or psyche. He specifically used a third word for life in Greek. Zoe. It’s a word the Apostle Paul often used, to the Philippines and others, to mean real life, purpose and meaning found in Jesus Christ. Zoe is believed to be a Hellenized version of the Hebrew word Eve, meaning life, of the first of God’s creations. Zoe means the connection between eternity and our lives now. It means the fullness of life connected to Christ. The young man doesn’t use bio, he wasn’t interested in just his body living forever like Lord Voldemort is in the Harry Potter books. He isn’t interested in just continuing in his mind, conscious or subconscious, which psyche would imply. He is interested in life with God. This is why the young man protests so fervently to Jesus that he has fulfilled the laws of God. For he had been taught that those were intended to bring people closer to God.
His fulfilling the law could give him spiritual satisfaction. Yet what Jesus points out is that only zoe, only Christ, could give him eternal life. Our minds and dreams fade. Our spirits and bodies fail. But Zoe is as eternal as the one who offers it. Zoe is not only something we get after we die. Eternal life means something which can occur at all times, it doesn’t start next month, next year, or 50 years down the road when we die. It begins the moment we say yes to Christ’s call.
The rich man had physical life, spiritual strength and mental stamina to fulfill the law. What he lacked was the capacity to trust God and seize new life. An overdeveloped physique and psyche can get in the way.
In that way he could benefit from Jesus’ advice about the little children. We are told that to enter the kingdom of God was must become like little children. That is to be trusting and humble.
Jesus invites us all to find life in the love, grace, and fellowship of God. To do the hard but necessary task of bringing a childlike attitude into adulthood. While that is hard for someone with much to put aside, with God all things are possible.
Children teach us something else. They look forward towards the future but they live in the moment. They cannot wait to grow up. A childlike attitude looks forward to the next stage of the journey at whatever age it comes. Yet because children know someone else holds their future, they are able to live in the present.
Note that Jesus is loving towards and hopeful for the young man. The young man almost has it right. He wants to be with God. In his heart he knows God’s kingdom is not something we ultimately earn. That is why he asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” An inheritance is not something we earn. It’s something we receive.
The future of your life and mine belongs to God. In Christ, God shows that death is not the end. The one who defeated death calls us to discipleship so that when our times comes we don’t have to worry about what comes next. We are freed to begin living in it now.
Jesus calls us to follow him and in doing so we experience meaningful, joyful, eternal life.
Scottish theologian William Barclay once wrote of a passage, referring to the afterlife, which we often read at memorial services, “When Jesus says (in John 14) that where I am, there you will also be,” he means that heaven is wherever Jesus is. (Where we find Jesus we find heaven.) We do not need to speculate on what heaven will be like. It is enough to know that we will be with God forever.”[v] When we love someone, as verse 21 of our scripture tells us Jesus loved the rich young man, as God loves the world and asks for love in return, we are “really alive only when we are with that person.”[vi] So it is with Christ. Jesus asks for a priority shift from the rich man, to identify with Jesus first and foremost, and thus begin the path towards zoe life in this world and the next.
As noted on our bulletin cover, when Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God beings, he answered that the kingdom of God is not just in front of us, Jesus said the kingdom is within us. It is not just where we go after this life, but our motivation and calling for grace filled life now.
As I mentioned, this past week our founding pastor, Lloyd Brown died. I had the honor to speak at his memorial service Wednesday. In 1995, Dr. Brown wrote some thoughts he gave to his family to help them prepare a potential service someday. He wrote, “I hope the service will be a living expression of the joy of living eternally with our Lord.” Dr. Brown knew the connection between eternity and abundant life now. And how our lives should strive to be a living expression of that faith.
Dr. Brown wrote that letter in 1995 when he was 77 years old and he had nearly another 20 years for his life to express his faith. He was a very accomplished man in education and in his profession. Yet in the end, his obituary at the service didn’t list a single traditional accomplishment. His obituary at the service simply listed only his love for his family and that he had gone home to be with the Lord.
When our time comes to return home to God, we know that the price has already been paid for our admittance. The question is will our lives in the meantime be a living expression of the joy we will and can know from living eternally with the Lord. May it be so. Amen.
[i] “Security Check” is a classic sermon sketch from the renowned Willow Creek Community Church drama ministry. Chancel Players have previously done showcase performances of this piece at the Christians in Theatre Arts organization’s national and regional conferences.
[ii] Paul Minear. The Layman’s Bible Commentary. Mark. Louisville: John Knox Press. 1962. P. 106.
[iii] Stephen R. Covey. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. 1989.
[iv] Plato. Phaedo pp. 60-68.
[v] William Barclay. The Gospel of John. New Daily Study Bible. pp. 181-182.