+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
For all the time and energy that is often spent talk about eternal life among Christians, it’s telling that the story before us is the only one in Mark’s gospel in which this phrase actually appears. Since this will likely be the only time we’ll have a chance to reflect on this topic during our journey through Mark, it makes sense for us to take the opportunity to talk about it. What do we mean when we talk about eternal life? Well, it seems to me that most of the time we’re talking about something along these lines:
Some bright morning when this life is o’er I’ll fly away!
To that home on God’s celestial shore I’ll fly away!
I’ll fly away, O glory! I’ll fly away!
When I die, Hallelujah by-and-by! I’ll fly away!
In other words, the idea of eternal life is wrapped up with our fate after death – that is, when we speak of eternal life, we’re talking about the promise of life that transcends the reality of death. This is undoubtedly an important part of what the Bible teaches about eternal life, but it is by no means the sum total of Biblical teaching. We need look no farther than this morning’s passage to see that eternal life isn’t just about some time in the future, but about the life we’re living now. That’s not always an obvious point to us as Lutheran Christians because we are raised to understand that salvation – often interpreted as “eternal life” – is a free gift of God, given to us through no merit of our own as a result of Christ’s obedient suffering, death, and resurrection. I’m certainly not denying the truth of that belief. After all, when the disciples respond to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, Jesus does say that human effort is incapable of securing salvation! Even so, it’s telling that Jesus doesn’t respond to the young man’s question in today’s text by saying, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got it covered!” Instead, he tells the man to sell off his possessions, give the money to the poor to store up “treasure in heaven”, and then to follow him “on the way”. What’s going on here?
The key, I think, has to do with how we understand the word “eternal”. We generally regard it as being synonymous with “everlasting”, and that’s partially right, but there’s more there if we dig deeper. The Biblical idea of eternity has to do with permanence, and it is tied up with the being and character of God. God was, God is, and God will continue to be as the ages roll on and on. In fact, the word we translate as “eternal” from the Greek has to do with the concept of “ages” of existence, and “eternity” is characteristic of something that lasts into the age that is yet to come. What does all this have to do with us? Isn’t this just theological gobbledygook? Well, if as Christians we believe that Christ’s coming represents the start of that new age – the advent of the Reign of God – then what does eternal life mean other than life that will last into that new age that has begun and will be brought to fulfillment when Christ comes again? And if that age has already begun, then doesn’t what we do now have something to do with the “eternal life” that the rich young man in today’s story asked about?
I think it does. We are introduced into that life by means of God’s grace – the invitation to follow, the gift of Holy Baptism that joins us to the family of God, the declaration of forgiveness and renewal, the meal of Holy Communion that sustains us on the way, the conversation and consolation of our brothers and sisters who are united with us in a bond that is stronger than anything that this world can bring against us – and in response to that grace, we follow Jesus in living lives of significance, lives in which we strive to pour ourselves out in service to God and our neighbors for the sake of the world that God made and loves. The rich young man in today’s reading wasn’t enjoined to give up everything he had simply so that he could be “right with God”, but so that by selling his possessions he could support those in need as a sign of God’s will for justice. In the same way, we live in obedience to God and in response to Christ’s call to follow not so that we can enjoy God’s favor, but so that we might be a blessing to others. To put it another way, we obey the call to follow Jesus so that the life that we live now – a life characterized by grace and love and peace with God – can resonate in the lives of others, and thereby last into the age that is coming.* Again, this is not something that we do for ourselves or that comes from within us – it is a gift of God, as the apostle Paul says, so that no one can boast. Yet it something that we can “work out” in our own lives once we’ve received it – through prayer and study, through turning our focus outward and seeking opportunities to give and share and extend kindness to others, perhaps through fasting from things that distract us from following the way that Jesus lays out before us.
This, in the end, is the problem that faces the rich young man. He has apparently been very successful economically, and – if his account of his obedience to the commandments is to be believed – very pious. Yet he has neglected the weightier matters of righteousness and justice, with the result that all his wealth and status, though they elevate him in the eyes of the world, have no lasting significance, nothing of the “eternal life” that he asks about to begin with. By contrast, the disciples, who leave everything behind to follow Jesus, have given up their claims on the things of this world and their desire to be first – although that desire sometimes rears its head, as we heard on Wednesday night – and so God has given them lives that resonate with the “eternal life” that Jesus offers to all.
Back to that question: What must I (or you or we) do to inherit eternal life? First, to return to our particular Lutheran Christian emphasis on grace, we recognize it as a gift, an “inheritance” that we cannot earn. But once we recognize that fact, we also recognize that we are invited to respond to that gift with lives that echo into “eternity”, touching others with the grace and love and peace of God that is ours in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The old song isn’t wrong – some bright morning when this life is over, we’ll fly away. Until then, let us plant our feet firmly in this world and follow Jesus on the way, confident that eternity is now, and that Christ will continue to lead us through the pain of sacrifice and death into the beauty and power of resurrection life this day and always. Thanks be to God! Amen.
*This idea of “resonance” is inspired by Rob Bell’s fantastic book “What We Talk about When We Talk about God” (HarperCollins, New York: 2013), particularly the first chapter, “Hum”. It’s a fascinating, challenging, and worthwhile read that I don’t think you will regret. Check it out!