Sermon: Sunday 11 October 2015
The Reverend Pete Hobson
What really matters?
Have you ever wondered what happened to the rich young man, who, along with sundry fishermen, tax collectors and other lower classes, Jesus invited to join his band and follow him? The story ends with him going away sorrowful – but was there more to come?
I recently paid a visit to Alfreton, and to St Martins church there – where 100 years ago my grandfather, Allen Moxon, was vicar until he left to drive ambulances for the Red Cross at the Battler of the Somme. It was moving to stand where he preached from, sit where he prayed – and to see the place where he met my grandmother, oldest of three daughters of the local bank manager, whom he married in 1917. He died 10 years before I was born, but she, 14 years younger, lived to be 97 and was a strong part of my childhood and growing up. So I have in my possession a monograph of his dated July 1929 titled: ‘Did St Paul meet Jesus Christ in the flesh?” In it he conjectures that the rich young ruler of mark 1o is in fact none other than St Paul.
He doesn’t claim to have proved anything – it’s more in the nature of an intriguing hypothesis. But he does make it sound very plausible: – the timing, the riches, the calling, the hints in Paul’s own letters (“Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord?” – 1 Cor 9.1). And then there’s the psychology of conversion, whereby often we struggle I or inner being against something we ultimately know to be true. It may be only a hypothesis, but it takes me into the nature of the challenge of today’s gospel – core to Jesus’ message. What really are the values we live our life by?
And to debate whether the saying about the camel and the ‘eye of the needle’ refers to an entrance gate to Jerusalem is only a distraction: Jesus clearly said you can’t serve both God and money. He told this young man to “sell all you have and follow me.” He called the fishermen to “Leave your nets”. He told another would-be disciple “Let the dead bury the dead”. He told them all “You must lose your life to save it.” It’s all very uncompromising stuff. We prefer to compromise: it can’t really mean that. There has t0 be a sense of proportion. It’s a calling for some, but not all. There may well, of course, be some truth in all of that. Jesus’ disciples were on a 2-3 year time-limited mission. He had other followers who supported him without going ‘on the road’. As the early church got under way, it rapidly grew amongst those who were grounded in their own communities and responsibilities, as well as those called to a far less settled life. Not everyone’s discipleship, we can reasonable infer, is expressed in total poverty. But the core challenge remains. What do we really live our lives by? Who do we truly serve?
Indulge me a bit: suppose this ‘rich young man’ really was Saul of Tarsus. What do we know about how he lived his life? He tells us in his letter to the Philippians: chapter 3v4-6. “If anyone else thinks he has reason to put confidence in the flesh – I have more!” As far as social, educational and religious status goes, in his circles he was unimpeachable. The sort of person you wanted to be seen with if you wanted to be noticed. But something happened to make him turn his back on all of that. He goes on in his letter to the Philippians (3v) to say that “I consider everything a loss, compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus m Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I mas gain Christ, and be found in him.” The word translated as ‘rubbish’ is in fact rather stronger. Indeed a closer translation might be ‘so much shit’. He viewed his past social, academic and material capital in such a light.
So what caused that change-about? We speak of his ‘road to Damascus experience’ because that’s how it’s told in Acts chapter 9. That was his moment of choosing. But what led up to it? Certainly the sight of Stephen, martyred by stoning whilst he stood by and held the coats, must have made an impression. Initially one of rage – but beneath the surface, something else was clearly going on. And his insistence on his personal call to Apostleship might make us conjecture something more. Was it that personal encounter with Jesus a bare year or so earlier, when the challenge to turn his back on all he had, sell it and follow was first made?
Whether it was that that lodged in the mind of the Pharisee Saul, eventually turning him into the Apostle Paul is unknown. But the challenge faces us still.
In this week’s notice sheet is a reminder from David that it is timely to review our giving, to God and to his church. As we do that, maybe we could do with reflecting on what we make of this challenge of the camel and the eye of the needle. Maybe we could do that with Hebrews 4.12-13 in our minds as well? “The word of God is living and active … it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”. They do say the last part of a person to be converted is the pocket. Is that true of you and me?
For when we consider the world community, every one of us here is rich – beyond the dreams of many. That comparison is neither to our shame nor our credit – it simply follows from our place and time of birth. But how we view those riches is something we can be challenged on. Do we see that random good fortune as cause to hold onto what we have for grim life, for fear it will be snatched away by someone or something – immigrants, fraudsters, governments or whatever? Or are we ready to step away from the wealth – in order to step into the kingdom – whose values are topsy-turvy and upside-down to the world? Where the last end up first, the outcasts enter the kingdom before the religious, and a carpenter can save the world?
If so, the words of comfort Jesus offered to Peter and the other is also ours. Whatever you have stepped away from to follow Jesus, we will know our reward – both in the here and now, and in the age to come. But it’s not the sort of reward you can put in the bank, or even perhaps appreciate from the vantage point of still sitting outside the kingdom. It’s the reward of life lived rightly, in community. Of purpose fulfilled. Of knowing we’re citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and not of any other place.
I think my grandfather was perhaps right when he imagined that Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, was started on that path of transformation by the encounter he had in the flesh with Jesus. But even if he was wrong, the fact remains we have to face the same challenge. Let go of what holds us back. Step out into the arms of Jesus, and onto the path of the kingdom. It took Saul maybe a couple of years to realise that. It takes some less, some more. But what matters is that we take those steps – and keep walking. Maybe today is a time for some of us to step out?
© The Reverend Pete Hobson