What is the Secret to Eternity?

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann (1889) (From From Wikimedia Commons)
Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost / Twelfth Sunday of Matthew, August 23, 2015
I Corinthians 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

“What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?”

So asks the rich young man who approaches Jesus. He is looking for the secret to eternal life. He is looking for that good deed that he can do that will get him his spot in heaven. There has to be some key, some secret that, if only he can discover it and act on it, will give him eternal life.

We are all like this in one way or another.

For some people who approach God, it’s about paying “dues,” their “fair share,” which ironically is often a rather smaller amount than the church itself is spending on them. I paid my “dues,” so I should be good to go.

For some folks, this idea of “dues” is reduced even further—it’s about reserving a spot in the parish cemetery. Perhaps being buried in that cemetery is some kind of secret to eternal life.

Other folks regard the key to eternal life being much as this young man does—it’s about a good deed. If I perform some specific act of piety or service or make a donation of something, then I’ve got my place reserved on the wagon train to the streets of gold and the heavenly mansion on the hilltop. Everyone should remember that time I did that thing, or those years I put in, or that important thing I donated.

Or perhaps it’s about “being a good person.” If I refrain from committing a certain set of sins, then I should get eternal life. I didn’t murder anyone or beat anyone up or commit adultery or steal anything, so I’m good. Of course, we won’t talk about my gluttony, my judgmentalism, my pride, my pre-marital fornication, my anger or my sloth.

For other people, the key has to be coming to church every Sunday. That will get them eternal life. I never miss a Sunday, so I’m in good shape. I still recall the lady from my first parish, where I served as the assistant pastor, who used to comment how she had never missed a church service. But then her perfect record was ruined. The pastor started adding services at times other than Sunday morning.

This is the mentality of this young man who approaches Jesus. There has to be some one thing that he can do that should get him eternal life. So when the young man asks which good deed is required for eternal life, Jesus replies with this: “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

And then Jesus lists some of the commandments, and the young man says that he’s done them all. You see how Jesus knows his heart? Jesus knows that the young man is looking for the “secret” to eternal life, the one thing that he can do. But note how Jesus introduces His comments: “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good.” And Who is that “One”? He is speaking of the Source of all goodness, the only One Who is inherently good—God.

And that’s why Jesus next says this: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

In other words, there is no one thing you can do to have eternal life.

You have to give up everything you possess. And you have to follow Jesus. Your whole life has to change. You can’t keep living like you’ve been living. You have to leave it all behind and reorder your life according to the One Who is good.

One of my seminary professors had a saint as his spiritual father when he was growing up. The saint—who has not yet been officially canonized, but probably will be—was Elder Sophrony Sakharov, who had a monastery not far from London in the United Kingdom. One time, when my professor was a young man and was expressing his anxiety to Fr. Sophrony over upcoming school examinations, Fr. Sophrony said that it was indeed important to do well on exams, but then he said this: “The most difficult thing in this world is to be saved.”

I’ve heard the professor tell that story several times. And I must admit that it makes me uneasy every time. If being saved is “the most difficult thing in this world,” then how do I as a servant of God communicate salvation to people? I once said to him, “Professor, that’s a really tough sell. What do we say? ‘Come, do the most difficult thing in the world’?”

And that must be roughly what that rich young man heard from Jesus. How do we know that? He went away sorrowful. And Jesus made His famous comment about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

“Come, do the most difficult thing in the world.” That must be roughly what Jesus’ disciples heard, too. How do we know that? Because they asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” It just sounded impossible.

But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” How is it possible? And how can it be that “the most difficult thing in this world” should become attractive to anyone, that they would even want to do it?

Yes, of course, people want to have eternal life, but do they really believe in it enough that they would come and do “the most difficult thing in this world”? Do I believe it that much? Do you?

Jesus gives us the answer in this Scripture. And this answer applies to me when I ponder whether I want to go and do “the most difficult thing in this world.” It applies to others when I want to encourage them to do “the most difficult thing in this world.”

His answer here, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” is not to be read as though we just have to believe that God can do it, even if we can’t do it—even if we don’t want to do it.

No, this isn’t just about believing that God can do impossible things. Of course He can. But what does that have to do with me? Why should I or you or anyone even want to take up the task of doing “the most difficult thing in this world”?

Listen to what Jesus says here: “One there is Who is good.” “Come, follow Me.” “With God all things are possible.” He isn’t talking about some thing that gets you eternal life. He is talking about Someone Who is the key to eternal life. He is talking about God. He is talking about Himself. He is saying that there is One Who is good, the One we have to follow, the One with Whom all things are possible, even this most difficult thing in the world.

That is why he tells the rich young man to give up all his possessions. It’s because this was the path that he needed to follow in order to connect with God, to follow God, to get to know God, to be able to do impossible things with God.

The spiritual life isn’t about finding some thing that will get us eternal life. There is no amount of church attending, dues-paying, donating, serving, or even being moral that is the key to eternal life. The key is to follow Jesus, to know Him, to love Him, to dedicate ourselves to Him, to orient ourselves toward Him. And when we do that, of course we will do all those other things. But our hearts have to be with Jesus. And if they are, then with God, all things are possible, especially “the most difficult thing in this world.” And we will want to do that most difficult thing, because it will be about drawing closer to the Jesus Whom we know and Whom we truly love.

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

3 comments:

  1. “The key is to follow Jesus, to know Him, to love Him, to dedicate ourselves to Him, to orient ourselves toward Him.”

    Can one really do this and still be part of the secular work not having given up all your possessions and giving them to the poor?
    How does one dedicate themselves to Him and still be fully involved in the secular world?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *