Blessing in Disguise

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Not much “news” these days is good news. Announcements of wars and refugees and drugs occupy the headlines. Every morning seems to bring word of another tragedy. Yesterday morning when I got up there was news of a terrible bombing in Istanbul.

And our personal news may not be good, either. Friends get sick or lose their jobs or feel depressed. Carefully-made plans fail. The tide seems to flow against us. Too much bad news.

Now the word “Gospel” in the Bible is a translation of a Greek term for “good news.” Whenever you see that phrase in the New Testament, you can bet that it’s shorthand for the message Jesus brought to the world—the message that God loves us and wants us to be part of his Kingdom.

But the expression seems a bit jarring in today’s Second Lesson. It appears after a conversation Jesus has with a pious young man about eternal life.

The man claims to be following the basic rules of the Hebrew religion. But Jesus says that he still has to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor. The man is well-off; that challenge is too much for him. So, the text says, “he was shocked, and went away grieving.”

The disciples who listened to this dialogue must have been equally shocked when Jesus told them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

How can this be? How can Jesus tell us that we have to give up our jobs and our families and our wealth and at the same time expect us to take that message as “good news?”

Granted, the text indicates that some people might be rewarded for their sacrifice in this life—and all his disciples will be rewarded in the age to come with eternal life. That’s certainly better “news” than being consigned to eternal punishment or infinite nothingness.

But the abiding impression from this teaching of Jesus remains: striving for the Kingdom of God means giving up things. Giving up possessions, as in the case of the rich young man, or giving up one’s home and family and occupation—as was the case of the disciples.

Giving up all that is precious to us for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the Gospel: this seems like way too much to ask! In fact, it almost sounds like the other use of the expression: when we “give up” trying to do things we ought to do.

So is Jesus asking us in effect to give up on life? Unbelievers have often gotten exactly this impression of the church. Skeptics think that the Christian religion seeks only to provide escape from this world.

And it’s true that we Christians can seem to want to avoid the challenges of life. We Christians have lots of rules to govern our actions—as though we’re afraid to make decisions for ourselves. We can be very quick to condemn behavior in others that we don’t agree with—as though we didn’t want others to exercise their freedom, either.

And there’s also our contention, as the Gospel states, that we seek “eternal life.” Now skeptics may find nothing wrong with this belief; even atheists are afraid of death and might hope for something more.

But unbelievers don’t find this idea attractive when eternal life is seen to be a flight from this life. For example, if life with God is construed as simply a long rest from the labors of the material world.

One Manhattan church has the unusual name: “the Church of the Heavenly Rest.” Members of the parish joke about their name; some call it, “the Church of the Celestial Snooze!”

But I don’t think that the rewards Christ promised his disciples included a “celestial snooze.” After all, at the same time he claims that they will receive the reward of “eternal life,” he also remarks that some of his disciples may receive rewards in this life: “houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields.”

Granted, the text indicates that these earthly rewards will be accompanied by “persecutions.” And the important context for us reading this lesson today is just this: persecution.

To really understand the commitment Jesus is asking for, we might imagine that we were Christians from Syria. We have seen relatives beheaded by Islamists. We have been so afraid for our own lives that we’ve left our homes and possessions and jobs behind, and we’ve made our way out of Syria.

Now we are penniless refugees who are trying to find some country where we can be safe. We want a place to raise our children and practice our religion in peace.

Christ’s prediction that his followers would suffer for their faith has come true many times in the past 2000 years. The quest for eternal salvation under the banner of Jesus Christ is a sobering challenge.

But I think it’s also possible to see a comfort in his words. It’s possible to see that this teaching about sacrifice is a positive lesson that introduces us to abundant life in this world.

At the Men’s Group this week, we discussed the Christian doctrine of “grace.” One example of a grace-filled life that we considered was the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who supported the resistance movement to Adolf Hitler. At the age of 39, he left a teaching position in order to join members of his aristocratic family in a daring plot to assassinate Hitler.

Unfortunately, the bomb they planted failed to go off; and the conspirators were quickly arrested. Bonhoeffer himself languished in prison until he was hanged—just a few days before the Nazi regime fell.

But the faith he had cultivated for so long sustained him in his last dark days. A collection of his Letters and Papers From Prison published after his death became a best-seller; the book exudes the inner peace that he had been given by the grace of God.

Following Christ brings challenges and hardships. But it also brings new strength and courage—blessings in disguise.

Let’s conclude with one of the last prayers that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote before he was executed. As you sit, let us pray.

Bonhoeffer writes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Thou wast poor and in misery, a captive and forsaken as I am. Thou knowest all man’s distress; Thou abides with me when all others have deserted me; Thou doest not forget me, but seekest me. Thou willest that I should know thee and turn to thee. Lord, I hear thee call and follow thee; Do thou help me. Amen.

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