“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Countless people all over the world and of many different religions have wrestled with this question. The premise is that there must be a heaven, an afterlife, eternal life, something that we can look forward to as we live our lives here on earth with all its trials and tribulation. If there is a God, who is good and just, there must be something better than this waiting for us. Life often is unfair, after all.
Now we today and in this part of the world may think, well, life here on earth is not that bad – we have everything we need, and then way more than that in many cases – but life throughout history has been hard for the vast majority of people; it is still for the vast majority of people today. People throughout history have had to deal with a lot of calamities: famine, diseases, grueling work, wars, oppression, natural disasters, genocide, injustice at the hand of despotic rulers – there is a reason why the world religions have a dream, a longing for leaving this earthly vale of tears behind and to move on to a realm where mourning and crying and death are no more.
If you browse through our hymnal, you fill find many hymns that talk about the hope and joy to leave everything here on earth behind and to move into the loving arms of God, and into a kingdom of peace. The most powerful witnesses of this longing and this faith we find in African-American spirituals, where ‘crossing the Jordan’ and ‘entering the promised land’ are code words for finally leaving the cruelty of a life in slavery behind and to be embraced, finally, as God’s beloved child – and to experience freedom and peace.
There are still people in this world today who willingly give up their earthly existence, believing that paradise waits for them on the other side. Christian martyrs (especially the martyrs of the early church, who were seen as a threat by Empire) more often than not died gladly, making bold statements of faith as they did, because their hope was in eternal life.
And so maybe we can understand this question a little better now: Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
This question comes from a young man who turns out to be quite wealthy, and since we are now in the stewardship season, I could take the simple way out and say unto you, well, in order to inherit eternal life, sell all your possessions, or, since this would be a little too radical (Jesus, what were you thinking?), at least up your commitment to the church and your support to other charities. Which, by the way, is important if we want God’s work in this place and in this world to continue. Amen.
But there is more to today’s gospel than that. Jesus is very much aware of the idea of an afterlife. As he is dying on the cross, he says to the repentant criminal next to him, truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
And then Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, a lot. Now this often has been interpreted throughout church history as something that is yet to come, some sort of heaven with St. Peter at the pearly gates. It is often interpreted as a place, somewhere over the rainbow.
However, if we look closely into what Jesus says, and especially into all his parables which talk about the miraculous and mysterious growth of the kingdom of God, we see that Jesus talks about something that hits us already in the here and now. Jesus is quite radical in that sense – instead of simply offering the consolation prize of a good life in some heaven far away for a life lived in misery here on earth, like many other religions did, Jesus had the audacity to offer something new: the realization that God’s reality is breaking into life right here and now.
Peace, justice, the equal distribution of food and goods, today – this is the vision God has for creation.
The catch: we won’t realize this if we don’t follow Jesus’ invitation, the same invitation he offered to the rich young ruler. And no, I am not talking about the sell your possessions part, but about the part that is even more important: come, follow me.
The reader’s digest version of today’s gospel could be: Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Come, follow me – and see.
Eternal life is not something we ought to long or yearn for, as we disregard the importance of our life – and all life for that matter – today. Eternal life starts here and now! We experience eternal life as we follow Jesus Christ, and as we, in the wake of his footsteps, see God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, grow all around us.
What made the early Christian movement so successful is the fact that those, who claimed Christ as their Lord and Savior, who gathered in his name and followed him, were different from the societies they lived in. They, at least initially, embraced everyone as if there was neither master nor slave, male or female, Greek or Jew, black or white or anything in between. Heck, even the Ethiopian eunuch, a man with a very complicated gender and sexual identity, found a place in the early Christian community – and very likely became the founder of the Christian church in Ethiopia, which still exists to this day.
The young Christian community would often fast, go hungry, for one day a week in order be able to feed the hungry. The initial followers of Christ would live non-violently, turning the other cheek. Through them, people would experience something new, something special, the kingdom of heaven breaking in here on earth – and, yes, this kind of life was threatening to the worldly powers, because it turned all rules and values upside down.
The special thing about Jesus’ teachings and Christian life is: the focus is not so much on how life will be better after we die – life is already so much better for us, for others, if and because we allow God to be in our midst and to work through us.
And this is not just empty words – there is the powerful witness of people from this Synod, who have had the chance to visit our partner synod in Rwanda, a country still recovering from the horrors of war and genocide – almost 25 years after the atrocities happened – a country still fighting a battle against hunger, AIDS, and malaria, among other things. And the Northern American Lutherans always come back, amazed at the joy and faithfulness of the sisters and brothers in Rwanda, their willingness and ability to forgive – God’s kingdom is right there, though we would consider the life circumstances in Rwanda dismal. Life IS better when we allow God to be in our midst. Life IS better when we follow Jesus. Eternal life starts now.
And great is our reward in the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom of heaven in our midst. The reward as we share with others this which we have been given so generously by God. The reward as we do our part to work toward social justice. The reward as we do our best to love and forgive when we encounter hate, ignorance, and indifference. The reward no money can buy.
The more we share of ourselves – the more we receive. Call it a good feeling. Call it blessing. I call it the kingdom of heaven. It is here. It is now. We are not only stewards of material goods. We are stewards of God’s kingdom, called to embody it boldly with our eternal lives, this precious gift from God.
Photo by NeONBRAND on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German