Let's say you are listening to this broadcast on Day1 because you are hoping to meet Jesus. I'm a preacher and that's my main job: to introduce you to Jesus. Now in my experience that's the major reason why people get up, get dressed, and go to church on Sunday--they hope to meet Jesus.
Now here is a story of a bright young man who met Jesus. Well, Mark doesn't actually say that he is "young." Matthew calls him "young," and Luke says that he was a "ruler." Mark just calls him a generic "man." In other words, let's say that this "man" stands there before Jesus representing all of us. He had "great possessions," but so do we, when we are compared to the vast majority of the world's inhabitants. We Americans, even in these challenging economic times, we have more stuff than we need.
Here is a story of a man who is met by Jesus. Not only is he met by Jesus, but he is called by Jesus. Jesus tells him that the way to "eternal life" leads through discipleship. Did you get that? Jesus invites him to be a disciple. "Come, follow me," Jesus says.
So many had come and followed Jesus. All of the disciples, standing around witnessing this encounter, had left much and had followed Jesus. The journey had not been easy for them. Read your way through the gospel of Mark, and you will discover how tough it was for them to follow Jesus, a perilous way full of misunderstanding, risk, confusion, and difficulty.
Now, someone else is being met by Jesus, face-to-face; someone else is being asked to become a disciple. And after hearing how much it costs to be a disciple, the man slumps down and walks away sorrowfully.
The story, then, is about someone like us being met by Jesus and asked to follow, but who decides that it is not a way he wants to go. He walks away. This, as far as I know, is the only call story in all the gospels in which someone refuses to follow Jesus. A person like us is being invited to be a disciple of Jesus, and this person like us walks in the other direction--and let us relatively well-fixed North Americans take note--the reason was money.
Can we not sympathize with this man? We can certainly identify with his materialistic encumbrances. Like him, all of us have many possessions, more than we need to live. We know how concern about all of our stuff tends to chain us to the stuff. Yet more than that, don't we all know how risky a matter it can be to be met by Jesus? Can we blame this man for walking away rather than following?
Sometimes I think we in the church have made discipleship such a small, trivial thing, that we have made disbelief look dumb. I remember the old joke about the evangelist who, after preaching a long sermon, gave an altar call. "Come to the altar and give your life to Christ!" he said. Nobody came.
In frustration, the evangelist said, "Come to the altar, as a way of saying that you love and honor God." Still nobody came.
In even greater frustration, the evangelist appealed to the congregation, "Come to the altar as a way of saying that you want to live a better life." Nobody came.
Finally, "Look, if you love your mother, come down to the altar. Okay?"
No. Today's gospel reminds us that there are good, understandable, reasonable reasons for not following Jesus. Jesus is too often presented by us, from the best of motives, as the solution to all our problems, the way to fix everything that's wrong in our lives. But this story reminds us that Jesus is sometimes the beginning of problems we would never have had if we had not been met by Jesus!
The story is told that Clarence Jordan, that great Southern, social prophet, visited an integrated church in the Deep South. Jordan was surprised to find a relatively large church so thoroughly integrated, not only black and white but also rich and poor; and this was in the early sixties, too. Jordan asked the old country preacher, "How did you get the church this way?"
"What way?" the preacher asked. Jordan went on to explain his surprise at finding a church so integrated, and in the South, too.
The preacher said, "Well, when our preacher left our small church, I went to the deacons and said, 'I'll be the preacher.' The first Sunday as preacher, I opened the book and read, 'As many of you as has been baptized into Jesus has put on Jesus and there is no longer any Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, males or females, because you all is one in Jesus.'
Then I closed the book and I said, 'If you are one with Jesus, you are one with all kind of folks. And if you ain't, well, you ain't.'"
Jordan asked what happened after that. "Well," the preacher said, "the deacons took me into the back room and they told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preaching no more."
Jordan asked what he did then. "I fired them deacons," the preacher roared.
"Then what happened?" asked Jordan.
"Well," said the old hillbilly preacher, "I preached that church down to four. Not long after that, it started growing. And it grew. And I found out that revival sometimes don't mean bringin' people in but gettin' people out that don't dare to love Jesus." (As told in Hauerwas and Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996, p. 103).
But, you know, maybe I'm speaking too negatively here. Is there any one out there who thinks that this story--in which Jesus seems so prickly, so difficult and demanding--is anybody out there who thinks this may be good news?
One night, in a college dormitory Bible study I presented this same story of Jesus and the rich man, just as I've presented it to you. I then asked the gathered students, "What do you make of this story?"
"Had Jesus ever met this man before?" asked one of the students?
"Why do you ask?" I asked.
"Because Jesus seems to have lots of faith in him. He demands something risky, radical of him. I wonder if Jesus knew this man had a gift for risky, radical response. In my experience, a professor only demands the best from students that the professor thinks are the smartest, best students. I wonder what there was about this man that made Jesus have so much faith he could really be a disciple."
Wow. Didn't think about that.
Another student said thoughtfully, "I wish Jesus would ask something like this of me. My parents totally control my life just because they are paying all my bills. And I complain about them calling the shots, but I am so tied to all this stuff I don't think I could ever break free. But maybe Jesus thinks otherwise."
Well, I was astounded. What I had heard as severe, demanding BAD news, these students heard as gracious, GOOD news.
Jesus invites people to be his disciples: divest! Break free! Let go of your stuff! Follow me! I believe you can do it!
Such is the peril, and the promise of being met by Jesus!
Let us pray.
Dear Jesus, when we are met by you as we probably will be, give us the guts to follow you, to have as much faith in ourselves as disciples as you have in us. Amen.