Monday, March 20, 2017

Mission Impossible: The eye of the needle and the cross (Luke 18:11-34)

In the passage, we had read out this morning, there are two symbols that speak of impossible missions, or mission impossible, to quote a 1970’s Tv show and movie series: the eye of the needle and the cross. The first is a symbol that with man it really is impossible to enter the kingdom of God and the other is that what is impossible for us it is possible for God.
Lately I understand more and more how the eye of the needle can be a symbol of mission impossible. AS I’ve got older my eye sight has got worse focusing on a needle to get the tread through it, has become mission impossible.
Jesus uses it as a saying about entering the kingdom of God ‘that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’. A saying that shocked Jesus disciples then and now. A saying that possess questions about Jesus and wealth.  A saying that begs the question who can be saved? 
The other symbol is the cross, as Jesus had talked about entering the kingdom of God being impossible for human beings, he pulls his disciples aside and tells them again of his coming suffering, death and resurrection. Our hope is not in who we are or how much we do or do not have or are willing to give up, but in who Jesus is and what he has done for us: God’s mission impossible in Christ.
We are working our way through Jesus journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel, it’s a journey that takes up the middle third of Luke’s gospel, and the narrative of that journey focuses on Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God. It’s a journey that leads us into Easter as it is journey that leads Jesus and us to the cross.

The last part of this journey focuses on how we enter God’s kingdom and respond to Jesus. It started with a parable about two menwho went to the temple to pray. A Pharisee who thought he was righteous and looked down on other people and a tax collector who knew his need for God’s mercy, and Jesus said it was the tax collector who went home justified; put right with God. Then we see that lived out in a series of four encounters with Jesus, two that have a negative response, the disciples trying to stop the children coming to Jesus, and the rich ruler, who starts by calling Jesus good but then goes away sad. Then two positive examples; the blind beggar and the short tax collector Zacchaeus. Then the whole journey is finished with another parable to correct peoples thinking about the kingdom of God. (click) Right in the middle of this Jesus pulls his disciples aside to tell them of his immanent death and resurrection. In the middle is the central ingredient for entering the kingdom of God. What Jesus has done for us, God’s mission impossible in Christ.
Today we focus on Jesus encounter with a man whom Luke tells us was a ruler, most likely a leader in the synagogue, and who we later discover was very rich. In Matthew’s account his age is also mentioned as Matthew tells us  that he was a young man. That why he often referred to as the rich young ruler.
He asks Jesus, “good teacher how may I inherit eternal life?”. we need to unpack that, because we  can see it as simply asking about life after death. The word we translate eternal can also be translated age, so he is asking how can he inherit the new age. In How Jesus responds to this man we see that Jesus equates it with the kingdom of God, that he had come to inaugurate.  In Jewish thinking this was a time that they equated with the prophecies in the Old Testament about the reestablishment of Israel. As NT Wright summarises it ‘ a time when everything will be fresh and new, free from corruption, decay, evil, bitterness, pain and fear. A time of new opportunities, new joys and delights, because heaven and earth would be joined together and God and his children would live together.’ It is the present-day hope of the rule of God, which has an eternal element because it is lived in relationship with the eternal God. Christian’s have the same hope best captured in the Lord’s prayer “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  
In Jesus response, we see that he is more concerned with the man calling him ‘Good’ this is a title that can only be used of God. Only God is totally Good. There are many people who are willing to acknowledge Jesus as a good teacher, a great ethical teacher, but that does not bring the transformation and change Jesus calls for, it is only when we see Jesus as God’s son and Lord, that we are enter God’s kingdom.
Jesus then goes on to talk about keeping five of the commandments, don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and honour your mother and father… they are not the commandment that are about relating to God but are about how we relate to the people around us in light of who God is, they put the Kingdom of God in terms of right relationship to others. Remember for Luke how much we love God is shown in how much we love other people. That is often shown in how deep that love reaches into our pockets.
The commandments are about setting the boundaries of that right relationship, they are there to limit evil and wrong and harm. Only the middle one, don’t steal, deals with wealth.  The Rich young ruler can honestly tells Jesus he has kept those commandments since he was a boy. He is talking about all his adult life since he was thirteen and had his ‘bar mitzvah’, so became responsible for his own actions.
Jesus then asks him to do one last thing. Sell all he has and give it to the poor, because there is better treasure in heaven, and that he should come and follow him. This is a gracious invitation to discipleship, Jesus always offers a sincere invite to all, he spends so much time countering the Pharisees because his hope is that they too may know God’s grace. In Mark’s Gospel it tells us Jesus loved the rich young ruler.
  Neither is Jesus asking this man to do more than his other disciples, remember when he called them they left their nets, boats and followed him. They had their livelihoods and identity and even family responsibilities and relationship tangled in those nets. Peter, as the spokesman for the twelve, responds to this encounter by asking Jesus what about them haven’t they given everything to follow Jesus. And Jesus assures him they will be rewarded in this life and the next. As we’ll see next week when Zacchaeus meets with Jesus his spontaneous response to God’s generous grace is to use his wealth to make amends for wrong doing and give the other half to the poor.
The man we are told, becomes sad because he is very wealthy. All the way through Luke’s gospel there is warning about the danger of wealth. In the parable of the sower, the worries and concerns of this life are like weeds that grow up and chock out the seed of faith.  Jesus warns that you cannot serve two masters God and money you will love one and hate the other. The rich young ruler finds himself in that dilemma.
One of the dangers of wealth is that it can become more important than the people round you. We saw that In Jesus parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In the Old Testament, there are two traditions one is that Wealth is a blessing from God. That G od allows people to become wealthy. The other is the challenge of the prophets, like Amos, that God’s people are to care for the poor and the needy. We are blessed to be a blessing to others, we are blessed for the sake of all God’s people. It’s one of the big challenges in the world today, where so much of the worlds wealth is in the hands of so few… It’s a challenge to us Christians in the relatively rich west when we are confronted by abject poverty in the developing world and that is entrenching itself in our country and city and community.
IS Jesus anti wealth? Well I looked for an exciting illustration to try and explain this passage, and I’m sorry but instead I ended up on a government immigration website. I wanted to know if the New Zealand government allowed dual citizenship, and the answer is yes it does. You can be a citizen of New Zealand and a citizen of another country at the same time. A foot in each camp. There are some countries however who will make you renounce your New Zealand passport before you become a citizen of their country. The rich young ruler wanted a dual citizenship, he had so much of his identity and security and status invested in the kingdom of this world, in his wealth, that he wasn’t prepared to give it up to become a citizen of the kingdom of God. To trust solely in God, to have the faith of a child and know he was totally dependent on God. There are a lot of things that can hold us back and turn us away sad as well. What you could call minor idols that we might want to cling on to. Our society is full of them. In an Alpha testimony that Nicki Gumble shared, a young man who was an ardent atheist came to alpha to discredit those unthinking Christians, he had confidence in his own belief system. He did the alpha and when he finished Alpha he said he was captivated by Jesus.  A few months later when he was baptised he talked of now being free, ‘he had been a slave to his society, a slave to his peers, but now he was free’. There are many things that can hold us back from Following Jesus.
For the crowd round Jesus, this rich young ruler would have been a definite candidate to be a follower of Jesus to make it into the kingdom of God. When they hear him say ‘ its easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than a rich person get into the kingdom of God’ and that the rich young ruler  goes away sad they are disturbed and shocked “who can be saved”. He kept he commandments, he was blessed with wealth, he was a ruler in the synagogue, if he can’t and wealthy people can’t then who can? It’s mission impossible.
Jesus response is that what is impossible with man is possible with God’.
As I said before the disciples are worried and they ask Jesus for reassurance as they had given up everything to follow Jesus. Jesus assures them that anyone who gives up home and family for the sake of the kingdom of God will receive many times as much in this age and in the age to come, eternal life. the mention of giving up family and receiving that back speaks to us of being a family together in Christ, that we are that family together, we are there for each other in times of joy and in times of hardship. As we’ve left our place for Jesus there is the promise that he will be with us and welcome us back to his father’s place when our journey and mission are complete.
Finally,  Jesus calls his disciples apart and talks to them of what will happen to him when they go to Jerusalem. Here is God’s mission impossible. Here is how people may be saved. Here is how people may come into the kingdom of God. Here is God’s plan for our salvation.  Here is God’s plan all along foretold in the prophets and scriptures that Jesus would go to Jerusalem he would be handed over to the gentiles, he would suffer, be spat on and insulted flogged and finally killed. But on the third day he would rise again. It is impossible for us any of us to enter the kingdom of God. But the good news is that it is possible with God.  That in Jesus death on the cross, our sins can be forgiven, he will take the guilt and punishment for them. In Jesus rising from the grave we may find new life, we will be find ourselves coming into the new age, finding eternal life in Christ. God’s mission impossible in Christ.
In the passage, we had read out this morning, there are two symbols that speak of mission impossible: the eye of the needle and the cross. The first is a symbol that with man it really is impossible to enter the kingdom of God and the other is that what is impossible for us is possible for God.
We need to respond. We can stand trying to get our stuff, whatever it is, through the eye of the needle or we can turn to Jesus and the cross, knowing our need for him and with a childlike faith be prepared to give it all up and follow him. 

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