Summary: We can hold back and miss out on God's blessings, or we can devote our lives wholly to Christ and experience the blessings of abundant life.
What makes Christianity special? What makes Christians unique? Those questions are both simple and challenging at the same time, aren’t they? Christianity is special because of salvation through Jesus Christ, and Christians are unique because (at least in theory) we follow in the example of Christ in our own lives. We seek to live like Christ. And yet, it’s often difficult to distinguish a Christian from any other upstanding person, isn’t it? If we were to sit in the Hamilton Place Mall for a day and watch people come and go, would we be able to point out the ones who are Christians? To be very honest, I think this would be pretty difficult. And the reason this would be difficult, I would like to suggest, is because of the fact that our modern American Christianity doesn’t really demand anything of its adherents. We’ve softened the commands of Christ and the gospel to such a degree that we don’t really have to DO anything, at least not anything difficult. As long as we attend worship, pray a little, and give some money, we’re set. We don’t have to sacrifice anything.
A perfect example of how we have softened the demands of the Gospel is this story of the rich man, who we also call the “rich young ruler” based on his identification in Matthew and Luke’s gospel. Here is a man who wants life and life abundantly, and he wants it for all eternity. And he thinks he’s got it made! He’s followed all the commandments of the Law since he was a child. But then Jesus says, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” Upon hearing this, the rich man turns away, disappointed “because he had many possessions.” You know, if Christ had meant anything less than what he said, the man would not have left disappointed. He would have enthusiastically continued his pursuit of eternal life. Yet, we try and mitigate this instruction from Jesus. We tell ourselves that Jesus didn’t literally mean for his disciples to give everything away, that we don’t have to go to that extreme. So instead of going and giving away, we head off to the mall to do a little something for ourselves, and we look like every other person in the world…No wonder Christianity is floundering. What is Christianity if not a life of sacrifice and generous love?
So what should our lives look like? What does it mean not only to BE a Christian, but to live as a Christian? For the rich young ruler, devotion meant giving up the greatest pride of his life, that wonderful privilege of riches; selling it, giving the money to the poor, and then following Jesus. Is Jesus’ demand of the rich young ruler about money? Sure it is! Should we do all that we can to give from our abundance to those with nothing? Absolutely! But Mark’s story of the rich young ruler is about more than money; it is about more than any one thing that we can or should do to inherit eternal life. You see, the gospel tells us that it’s never too late for the sinner to come home; it’s never too late to join in the banquet table of grace. But that is cheap grace if not for the fact that every now and then a window opens in life, and there is God present and active in the world; there is our chance to be a part of that work, to be the human we are called to be. But then the window closes and it’s too late. In his words to the rich young ruler, Jesus reminds us that when that window opens, we have to run through just as the young man ran to Jesus. We have to put Christ first. The story of this rich man is about an all-out devotion to Christ; being “sold-out” for Christ; putting God above all else in this world.
The rich young ruler thought he had done that. He thought he had it made. When he asked Jesus that question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” he was probably just seeking affirmation. He thought he was in. But Jesus told him otherwise, and he couldn’t handle the truth. So the man walked away. You can almost see it in your mind’s eye; head drooped, shoulders sagging, feet dragging; quite the opposite of his rapid entrance a few moments before. And I imagine that years later that man was sitting on his throne feeling empty, unfulfilled, and thinking, “If only I had listened to that man Jesus all those years ago.”
I suppose the rich young ruler was a good and decent man; a fair ruler. It would only seem logical considering his self-proclaimed faithful adherence to the Jewish law. But adherence to the law does not gain salvation; only devotion to Christ can do that! And devotion to Christ must be complete. Christ asks that we surrender all of ourselves to his power—all that we have, and all that we are. Nothing less. Our greatest weakness as individuals and as a church community is that fact that we can be upright, decent citizens of society without ever going on to become disciples of Jesus Christ, with his peculiar flavor of love and costly self-giving. We have a choice. We can devote our lives wholly to Christ, putting aside all that hinders our devotion, or we can be “decent citizens,” never quite able to go “all-in.” So we shuffle away; heads drooping, shoulders sagging, and a great chasm opens between us and Christ.