We started this mornings service with the reading of Hebrews 4 verse 12 to 16. For good measure Bonnie read the passage again as part of our lectionary readings for this Sunday. And I hope, by now, some of the urgency and power of those words will have penetrated through the mist of day to day piety and treacherous familiarity and made themselves felt:
"The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two edged sword, piercing until it divides the soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."
When did you last feel that?
Cut open and laid bare before your maker? Naked, uncomfortable, vulnerable and exposed?
If the answer is "not for a while" I suggest you havent been reading your bible properly and it may be time to join a bible study class or find a spiritual director for some fresh input and further faith development.
Doing the right thing, following the commandments and honouring tradition unfortunately is not enough if we want eternal life. For that more is needed, as the rich man in our other reading this morning finds out. As he kneels before Jesus and opens himself to his word he discovers indeed a two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; judging the thoughts and intentions of his heart to a level he has never experienced before.
With love Jesus looks into his heart and confronts him with what the next level of faith would demand from him.
And he turns around and goes away grieving......
Notice that Jesus does not beat about the bush, does not avoid the issues, does not apologise for the demand he is putting upon this man, but confronts him and allows him to leave - grieving?
In lives where we often confuse being "nice" with being Christian, this word alone should cut into us like a two edged sword.
Jesus is not being "nice", he is not diplomatic, he is not gently encouraging the man to grow just a little bit more, he knowingly asks the impossible. Jesus has looked into the mans heart, hes done this thing Hebrews talks about: he has cut him open and laid him bare and than goes in and pierces his heart with the two edged sword of Gods word.
There is nothing "nice" about this, and I think it is important for us to realise that before we even start looking for the "gospel", the good news, in this passage. The words of Christ cut into this man, even with love, and it hurts. It hurts not only the man, but also those of us who identify with him, who know that when push comes to shove there are things in our life, in spite of all the good and exemplary Christian lives we live, that even where we know they keep our lives from being fully fulfilled, may be too difficult to let go.
The man has done everything he should, he has lived his life according to the commandments from his youth, worshipped regularly, paid his taxes, donated to charity, and yet, in all his affluence, both in a material sense and a religious sense, he is still unfulfilled. In spite of everything he has and is, he still kneels at Jesus feet, hoping for more, for better, for deeper. What he gets is a two edged sword. Piercing his heart, laying him bare, making him aware that what he wants is outside his reach exactly because all those riches, material and spiritual, keep him from making the next step in growing closer to what he deep down knows is still eluding him.
So what is it? What is it this man needs to do? Give all his riches to the poor? Be prepared to let go of what constitutes his life, affluence, security, comfort, status, power, even faith as he knows it? Is that what it is? Would he be happy and feel fulfilled after that?
Unfortunately not. He would most probably still be as empty and wanting as he was before.
Being wealthy, and living lives not lacking in security, comfort, power and status, we might have focussed too much on Jesus asking the man to part with his possessions and relinquish his position as an esteemed member of the community avoiding another message, cutting even deeper into our lives of relative comfort than letting go of our material wealth.
It cuts into our spiritual security. If living ethically, following the commandments, doing the right thing, is not going to hack it, what will? If getting into eternal life is as difficult for us as it is for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle, who can then, as Peter exclaims near the end of the story, be safe? Nobody!
Gaining true fulfillment and entering into that quality of life Jesus calls "eternal" is not a matter of letting go of our material possessions, although they are baggage that will certainly not help us enter into it. It is not a matter of letting go of power and status either, although attachment to those things are incompatible with Kingdom values. It is not even a matter of living according to the commandments, attending Church and saying our prayers regularly, for even these things can become more of a hindrance than a help if we let them. No, it is a matter of letting ourselves be cut open, laid bare, taken apart, looked into, being judged on our every thought and intention and surrendering ourselves to the mercy of God, knowing full well that in only Gods grace can affect the next step of faith in us, towards a life that is bound to him alone.
When Jesus talks about eternal life he is not, at first instance, talking about heaven and the life hereafter. What he is talking about is quality, not chronology. What he offers the man who kneels before him is a quality of life beyond the riches both material and spiritual the world has to offer. He talks about a quality of life that is determined by a way of living no longer bound to affluence, no longer worried about security, no longer concerned with status or power, no longer busy trying to be good and do good, no longer busy "doing" and "trying" more and better, and further to be fulfilled.
But of a quality of life free of worry, of bondage, of concern with things that dont matter, with doing and trying that doesnt, in the end doesnt satisfy our souls, determined solely by trust and faith in God, by total surrender to the way of Christ, certain that what he will provide us with will be hundredfold more than the not inconsiderable riches we have gathered here and now. It is risking a free fall into faith without any safety net.
Are you prepared to step through that door Jesus is keeping open for you and see if he will look into you and lay you bare and cut you open? Or would you rather turn around and keep to a faith practiced in moderation that leaves you, at the end of the day, hungry and unfulfilled?
For our congregation I think it means we try to shake our obsession with the material, and the glorious days of the past. With money, and buildings, safety, and security, and hard work on or near the top of our priority list we never get round to having a good close look at our faith you see. And hankering for the past wont help us open ourselves up to Gods word trying to gain access to our hearts towards a different future. Good stewardship, faithful Church attendance, an ethical life wont get us anywhere if it doesnt come from a radical faith, from radical discipleship, from radical surrender to life and a community where Christ reigns. For that we need to shake our complacency about our faith, and realise that there is more and deeper than a harmless and comfortable faith practiced in moderation.
We work our socks off for the Kingdom, but when do we actually take time to kneel in front of Christ to ask him to look into us and tell us what it is we are lacking? We come to Church, follow the commandments, but how often do we really lay ourselves open for Gods grace to do its work in us? Or do we turn away grieving before this can actually happen because we feel it would be too painful to let Gods gaze penetrate that deeply into our being?
And there, finally, after this painful message has fully penetrated, is where we find the gospel, the good news, of both those passages. God knows just how difficult it is for us to turn from what we believe to be safety and comfort, security and certainty and give our selves up. And He will make up for our vulnerability and fragility, our lack of determination and interest, our deficit with his love if we turn to him.
He wont force us though. Even though he loves us, he will let us walk away if we so chose. He will treat us as adults, who can make their own decisions and establish their own priorities. Even if it breaks his heart seeing us do it.