What if?

Mark 10:17-31

Jeremy Richards

So, as I have said at the beginning of every sermon for the last few weeks: Jesus’ teachings have been especially hard lately. In this section of Mark’s Gospel Jesus is describing what the life of discipleship looks like.

It’s occurred to me that, for some of us, this word disciple and this idea of discipleship might be new to some of us. You may be thinking, I thought the disciples were those 12 guys (and a number of women who really don’t get the credit they deserve) that followed Jesus when he was on this earth. What does that have to do with us?

Well, at the end of Matthew, before he’s taken up to heaven, Jesus gives his followers what’s called the “Great Commission.” He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

So disciples weren’t just the first dozen that followed Jesus. All Christians are called to discipleship. The first 12 were just the model for all future disciples. They are the model for us. To be a disciple is to follow in the way of Jesus, which is the way of love. But, as we’ve seen the last few weeks, it’s a love that costs us something. There’re no part-time Christians, no amateur disciples. To be a Christian is to dawn the cloak of the disciple. If you’ve confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, you’ve committed to discipleship.

It could be argued that discipleship is the focus of Mark. You might say, “Hold up. Jesus is the focus of Mark (and all the Gospels),” which is true, but we don’t just read these stories for intellectual gain. We read the stories of Jesus so that we know who he was, so that we can learn from him, and so that we can follow him. One commentary says, specifically about the Gospel of Mark, “The Gospel is written for disciples of every age and a concern for disciples pervades the entire Gospel from the call of the first four to the final message to the disciples and Peter…In Mark, the disciples often stand for the evangelists’ church or simply the Christian community.”[1] In the Gospel of Mark, the author is describing the way of Jesus so that his current community, as well as later readers (like us) will know what it means to follow him.

And in the texts from the last few weeks, Jesus does just that. Peter sums it up pretty succinctly in our reading from today: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” To be a disciple is to surrender all of our lives to the way of Jesus. Throughout the New Testament, when people ask what they should do if they want to follow Jesus, the first thing they are usually commanded to do is repent. We often associate repentance with sin, which it is, but it’s much more than simply turning away from harmful behaviors in our life. It’s a complete reorienting of our lives. It’s a turning away from what Romans 12 calls the “pattern of the world” and turning toward Jesus, following in his way, which, as we’ve seen these last few weeks, is counter-cultural to say the least.

Some of us may be a little shocked by all this. Maybe you feel kind of duped by whoever introduced you to Christianity. Maybe you weren’t told just how demanding this following Jesus is. Maybe it wasn’t presented to you as a counter-cultural decision but the very opposite – a decision that was very much part of your family and social culture. Maybe in the context you grew up in, to be a Christian was just expected. In our culture, most people profess Christianity, at least nominally, though that is quickly changing. But, as we’ve been learning in Sunday School with Ben, that wasn’t the case in Mark’s day. To be a Christian was to become an outcast, to risk persecution and even martyrdom.

This is why we don’t baptize infants here (though we do honor infant baptism), because the path of discipleship is so demanding, so life-altering, so dangerous, that we believe no one can make it for you. Only you can pick up your cross and follow Jesus. And that is what baptism symbolizes: through baptism we die with Christ so that we can be raised to new life with him (Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12).

In light of all this, I’ve been a little nervous about the baptisms I’ve performed since being here. I don’t know if I adequately warned Kaitlyn and Julien about what they were getting themselves into!         

So Jesus is clear in the passages we’ve been studying, discipleship is hard. Faith isn’t something that we add to our life, it is our life. It demands all of us.

But while these passages have been difficult, they’ve also been really exciting. We believe this is, after all, good news. In light of our recent Gospel readings, Brie and I have actually been talking a lot about discipleship. We’ve been reevaluating our lives based on what we’ve been hearing the past few Sundays. We both remember times in our lives, like in college, when we would both legitimately pray, “God, just tell me where you want me to go and what you want me to do. I’ll do anything,” when we were genuinely ready to give up what we had, to follow Jesus wherever he led us.

Of course, this is easier when you’re in college. You’re looking ahead and the world seems full of possibilities. You don’t have as many things tying you down. You don’t have the same obligations. But that’s just the point. As Brie said the other night, “The more you build up your life, the harder it is to follow Jesus.”

It’s so easy to fall into society’s expectations of what’s required of you. Brie and I have been guilty of that. Even as a pastor, my life doesn’t look much different than anyone else’s. I work something like a 9-5, and when it’s over I go home, eat dinner with my family, put Esther down, and, if I’m lucky, watch a show on Netflix. As Brie and I discuss the future, it’s not so much marked by a sense of excitement about what God could do in our lives, and more by a sense of anxiety, “How do achieve what’s expected of us? How do we keep up with the Joneses?” As we “build up our lives” Jesus becomes something we try to fit into the confines of the structure we’ve built.

This is just what happens to the rich man in our reading today. He wants to know how to fit eternal life into the life he’s already built. Or maybe how to enter into eternal life, but bring the life he’s built up with him. But Jesus says he has to blow the whole thing up. He’s gotta get rid of everything, because it’s holding him back.

To understand this passage we must understand that this isn’t a question about the future – or, at least, not just about the future. This isn’t about the next life. The eternal life spoken of in the Gospels is a life that we enter into now and also extends into the next life. The kingdom of God isn’t the kingdom we’ll enter after we die. It’s a kingdom that’s accessible now, here, today. In Luke 17:21, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you.”

In other words, the point of this passage isn’t, “How do I get into heaven when I die?” with Jesus responding, “If you want to get into heaven later, you’ve got to give up your stuff now.” Growing up, I sometimes got the impression that being a Christian meant living a very serious, joyless, boring life today so that I could have a good life in heaven. But that’s not the case.

Jesus is telling this rich man, and us, how to begin to live into the kingdom now, today. It means letting go of the life we’ve built, and trusting in the kingdom Jesus has inaugurated through his life, death, and resurrection. It means following Jesus. Jesus’ words from a few weeks ago may be echoing in your head, the ones about saving our lives by losing them. When we let go of our own plans and expectations for this life, we are open to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

It’s important at this point to differentiate between voluntary poverty and involuntary poverty. This passage is pro-voluntary poverty and anti-involuntary poverty. Jesus encourages the rich man to give his money to the poor, those who don’t have enough. Jesus isn’t commending destitution. He’s advocating for a kind of generosity in which everyone will have enough, but that requires those who have more than they need to give to those who don’t have enough.

Yesterday morning I opened my Thomas Merton book, and – what do you know – the chapter I was on was about voluntary poverty (it’s amazing the way God works). The book’s about how to be a good contemplative, but Merton thinks every Christian should be a contemplative, so, as with discipleship, none of us are off the hook. After advocating for voluntary poverty, Merton clarifies:

It’s true, however, that a certain degree of economic security is morally necessary to provide a minimum of stability without which a life of prayer can hardly be learned. But “a certain degree of economic security” does not mean comfort, the satisfaction of every bodily and psychological need, and a high standard of living. The contemplative needs to be properly fed, clothed, and housed. But [they] also [need] to share something of the hardship of the poor. [They need] to be able to identify [themselves] honestly and sincerely with the poor, to be able to look at life through their eyes, and to do this because [they are] really one of them. This is not true unless to some extent [they] participate in the risk of poverty; that is to say, unless [they have] to do many jobs [they] would rather not do, suffer many inconveniences with patience, and be content with many thing that could be a great deal better.[2]        

That’s what Jesus did, right? Jesus was God become one of the poor. Jesus said, “The birds have nests and the foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Now, let me just state the obvious: I’m not doing this. I haven’t given everything I own to the poor. And I’m not sure how I would do that, now that I have a family. But, like I’ve said, Brie and I are having conversations about how we might start down this path. Because we want to take Jesus seriously.

And the kind of crazy thing is, Christians have done it. I spent a good chunk of time this week researching Christians who have really embraced voluntary poverty, living their lives in solidarity with the poor. People like Anthony, the “father of monasticism” from the 3rd century, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and William Stringfellow. But I don’t have time this morning to tell you about all of them. Instead, I just want to tell you about one person, who’s much closer to us than all those others. In fact, just a few blocks away.

This past Monday, Esther and I drove to NE 18th and Tillamook to visit John Schwiebert. We pulled up to a big, beautiful house. Prayer flags hung above the door and political signs were posted around the front of the house. After a few unanswered knocks, I opened the door and called out, “Hello?” John came down the stairs and greeted us. He led us into the beautiful,  large living room. There were comfy chairs and couches arranged in a circle. And best of all, a warm fire burned in the fireplace. Esther was mesmerized. I think it was the first time she’d seen fire. The chairs and couches were undoubtedly still there from that morning’s morning prayer.

John lives in this house – called the Peace House – with 8 other adults (one of whom is his wife Pat), 2 adolescent boys, 1 (sometimes 2) babies, and one cat. They’re what’s called an “intentional community.” They eat meals together, share their resources with one another, serve the community together, and pray together 6 mornings a week.

I first met John awhile back at an IMIrJ meeting that was held at the Peace House and immediately became interested in what they were doing. I’ve always been interested in intentional communities. I saw John again at the ICE protest that took place during the Sheridan to NORCOR pilgrimage. John, who’s an 80 year-old retired Methodist minister, walked the whole pilgrimage.

Before the protest officially started that day, one of the organizers said, “We’ve been saying ‘no’ to a lot of different things, but I want you to turn to the person next to you and tell them what you’re saying ‘yes’ to.” John turned to me and said, “Jesus. I’m saying yes to Jesus.” He went on to say that so many people have so many lives. They have their work lives, their social lives, their family lives, and their church lives. And, he added, the church life is usually an itty-bitty part of their life. “It seems to me,” he said, “that discipleship is your whole life.”

John gets it. When I read our passage for this week, and tried to think of real-life disciples who actually embodied Jesus’ difficult teaching from today, I thought of John and the rest of the Peace House residents. So I called him and asked if we could chat about the Peace House, since he and Pat are the only founding members who still live there. And that’s how Esther and I found ourselves sitting across from John, in front of a warm fire, on Monday morning.

The Peace House was started in 1986. John and Pat, a man named Howard Willits, and, would you believe it, two Grant Park Church members, Brant and Lynda Moore, moved in that year. Brant was the custodian at Grant Park. Soon after, another couple, Bruce and Ann Huntworth moved in as well. This initial group legitimately shared everything in common. They gave every paycheck and all they owned to the community. Today, some members continue to do so, while others commit to giving 30% of their income.

Some members of the house are educated, some are not. Some make good money, other don’t. But they are all a blessing to one another. They’ve given up the idea that life is about owning things, and have turned instead to the way of Jesus. They’ve given up personal property. They’ve given up, to a certain extent, autonomy. They aren’t perfect, but they’re doing their best to live into the kingdom of God now, to enter eternal life today.

The pull towards wealth and excess is just as relevant today as in Jesus’ day. The US ranks 40th highest in income inequality. Despite unemployment being lower than it has been in a very long time, many workers don’t make a livable wage. On average, CEO pay is 271 times that of workers.[3]  Giant corporations pull in billions of dollars while their workers aren’t paid enough to live. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon is worth $141.8 billion, but until outside pressure forced him to up his workers’ wages to $15/hour, he wasn’t paying them enough to live on. Some of his employees were even living in their cars. According to one source, the median yearly Amazon salary is $28,000 and Jeff Bezos makes that much every 9 seconds.[4] Imagine if Jeff Bezos shared his wealth with his workers? But that kind of generosity doesn’t come naturally. It has to be learned, and not without sacrifice. The more we build up our lives, the harder it is to follow Jesus. The more we own, the harder it is to let go of what we own.

Jesus’ teaching applies to more than just monetary wealth. As I’m sure many of you saw, the UN just reported that we must make drastic changes to the way we live if we’re going to prevent a catastrophic environmental crisis. Like the rich man who must let go of his possessions if he’s going to enter into eternal life, we must let go of some of our modern conveniences if we want to leave the world a healthy place for future generations.

Entering the kingdom of God means holding all we have with an open hand. It means letting go of the things we think we deserve, we think we’re entitled to, so that we can share in God’s abundance with everyone.

On Monday, before I left the Peace House, I asked John if he had anything else he’d like to share, any final thoughts. He said, “What if? What if Jesus actually meant what he said? In the passage for this Sunday Jesus says, ‘…no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…’ What if God really will take care of us?” He then pointed out monasteries. He said, “You know, historically most monasteries actually had a lot of money. It turns out, when everyone gives everything, there’s more than enough.”

What if? What if Jesus’ words today should be taken seriously? What if we don’t try to fit them into the lives we’ve already built up? What if we let them blow up all our expectations of what our lives “should” look like? What if we genuinely ask Jesus to show us a new way, and we commit to actually following him? What if we lived a life of discipleship? What if we entered eternal life today?

[1] Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 14.

[2] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 255.

[3] http://time.com/money/5388686/jeff-bezos-worlds-richest-man-net-worth-doubled/

[4] http://time.com/money/5262923/amazon-employee-median-salary-jeff-bezos/