“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
I think that this verse from Hebrews is a pretty accurate summary of all of our readings for today. From Amos’ dire prophetic warnings to Jesus’ disturbing conversation with the rich man, these are all very challenging texts. And like a sword, our gospel text for today cuts us open to our very core. Mark has been pulling no punches – we’ve been working our way through some very difficult passages together over the past few weeks, on hell and death and divorce, and the hits just keep on coming. Let me just say again for the record – I did not pick these texts!
This week’s gospel text is another hard one to read. I imagine that a lot of us see ourselves in this man who comes running up to Jesus. I know I do. Like him, we are good church-goers, faithful believers; we do our best to live good lives and to abide by the commandments; and of course we want to inherit eternal life! “Just tell us what we need to do, and it’s done!” And to this, Jesus says: “Alright. Go. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor.” Just like that. I mean, pause a minute to really think about this. Actually imagine selling everything you own. Think about the financial value and the emotional value of all your stuff. It’s hard to do. Our stuff is kind of part of who we are. And so it’s no wonder that the rich man goes away grieving.
The strange thing about this story is that it never actually tells us whether the rich man sells his stuff or not. It just says that he was shocked at what Jesus said and that he went away grieving. We don’t know if he was grieving because he couldn’t bring himself to do what Jesus asked of him, or if he was grieving because he was about to get rid of all of his stuff. And in a way, whether he did it or not doesn’t really seem to be the main point of this story. When Jesus tells him to get rid of his stuff, in that moment, we already see clearly what is most important to this man – and it ain’t following Jesus. Like our text from Hebrews, Jesus’ words are sharper than a two-edged sword. His words cut right through everything this man has said and done and they lay his heart wide open, showing him what his priorities actually are.
In Jesus’ hands, the sharp sword of the word is almost more like a surgeon’s scalpel. Like a surgeon, Jesus knows the human being very well. He knows exactly where to cut into us to reveal what may be broken and festering on the inside. It is impossible for us to hide any part of ourselves from God. As the writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “before God, no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” And these words from Jesus have the same effect on us as they did on the rich man. This story cuts into us – like a surgeon’s scalpel – and we too react with shock and grief as Jesus’ words reveal to us our own skewed priorities, and ask of us more than we are willing or able to give.
This is painful. But, as painful as it is, it is done with love, and with loving intent, even though it may not always feel like it. This is certainly true in our gospel story. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at this man and loved him – even after he makes his questionable claim that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth, Jesus loves him. And it’s worth noting that “love” is not a word Mark throws around lightly. In all 16 chapters of this gospel, he only uses the word “love” four times. Jesus loves this guy – he wants good things for him, just as he wants good things for us. And so even when he sounds harsh, Jesus is acting with love and compassion. “For,” again, as our writer from Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest [Jesus!] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Out of love for us, Jesus took on human flesh and lived a human life. He knows the struggles that we face, because he has lived them too.
And because he knows those struggles, Jesus knows what we need to find peace. Like a surgeon, Jesus cuts into us in order to heal what is broken inside of us. He renews us and brings us back to life. Like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, even the spiritual “treatments” that feel most difficult and most aggressive are actually signs that God has not given up on us. Jesus doesn’t hold back his most difficult teachings, but speaks challenging words to us out of love.
And at the end of the day, no matter what we do, no matter what we give away or don’t give away, we already know that these aren’t the things that save us. We are saved by grace. We already know that the rich man is asking the wrong question. There is nothing – nothing – we can do to inherit eternal life. There is nothing we can do to earn our way into the kingdom. It has already been done for us.
Salvation is ours through Christ, forever. We don’t need to earn it. Which is good news, because we can’t! We have been saved by grace through Christ, as a free gift.
Hooray, end of sermon, right?! Yeah… not quite.
We have been saved by grace, that much is true. But that doesn’t mean that we get to just stop trying. Salvation doesn’t mean that we’ve been given carte blanche to do whatever we please and to live however we want. It’s a little bit more involved than that.
Instead, if we think of the word like a scalpel and of Jesus like a surgeon, then we should think of salvation more like a heart transplant surgery. It’s an intensely invasive and disruptive procedure. It is painful and difficult, but it brings us back to life from the brink of death. So, yeah, it’s a little intense. And if you’ve had a heart transplant – or any kind of organ transplant – you know that you don’t just go back to living exactly the way you did before having the surgery. Because odds are that however you were living before is exactly what landed you on the operating table in the first place! A serious surgery like a heart transplant can save your life – and it is almost inevitably followed by a change of life: a change in how you exercise and how you feed yourself, a change of habits that will improve your life.
Christ has saved our lives – and he has saved them forever. He has replaced our stony hearts with hearts of flesh open to transformation by the Spirit. But it is up to us to make changes that will allow the transplant to stick. We have been freed to choose a better way. We have been given a new opportunity to learn to live a better life – a life marked by care for our neighbors, especially for those who have been marginalized, a life lived in recognition that we depend wholly on God.
In a way, we can think of our weekly worship and fellowship time as a kind of post-operative therapy. Just like you might go to physical therapy to learn to exercise your arms or back or legs, this is spiritual therapy where we learn to exercise our hearts. This is our follow up treatment, and a reminder that we have been given new hearts and a new chance to truly live. And we all support and encourage one another in our efforts to live new and transformed lives. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,” as the writer of Hebrews says, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
So I invite you to take advantage of this time and consider what treatments Jesus might be recommending to you this week. Where do you feel these texts cutting into you, and how might God be inviting you to live a new way?
You have been given a new heart and a new chance through grace. Use it well.