What do we have confidence in? The lectionary readings seemed to me to be exploring that question this week. I was preaching in another church in the deanery, as part of a ‘pulpit swap’ which is always a bit of a challenge; not least because in some ways it’s harder to preach if you don’t know to whom you are preaching…
Tom Wright’s For Everyone commentaries were helpful, as was the conversations I’ve had with the vicar where I gave this sermon. It seemed to go well!
Jimmy Savile has been much in the news this week. Here was a man who seemed to have pretty much everything that you might think you could wish for – fame, money, success. Here was a man who raised millions for charity, who made people’s dreams come true. But, if what is being said about him is true, and we don’t know that for certain yet. But, if those ever-increasing number of allegations are shown to be true, here too was a man who it appears, had a dark centre to his life, a destructive secret which seems to have damaged tens if not hundreds of people.
Jimmy Savile is perhaps a modern example of someone who seemed to be a success, who seemed to be someone who you might admire, might look up to. So, people are pretty horrified to discover that he perhaps isn’t, that perhaps he was far more flawed than we would have dared think.
And in the gospel reading we heard the disciples are puzzled and perhaps a bit horrified too to discover that someone that they perhaps looked up to, admired, wanted to be like, wasn’t all that he was cracked up to be.
The disciples are confused and scared by what Jesus says. Jesus tells a rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor. The disciples are confused and scared because they believed that riches were a sign of God’s blessing, that success was part of how you could measure how close to God people were. And this belief was reinforced by the rich young man’s response to Jesus’ statement.
Jesus tells the rich young man to follow the commandments: “do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.” And the rich young man tells Jesus that he has kept all these. And we have no reason to doubt him. Jesus, we’re told, looked at him and loved him. So, when he told Jesus that he’d kept them, we need to believe him. I’m pretty sure that if Jesus thought he was mistaken or lying he’d have made that clear. Unlike what we’re hearing about Jimmy Savile this wasn’t someone who appeared to be one thing and is something else. No, the rich young man had kept those commandments, had walked close to God. But, this wasn’t enough for Jesus.
It wasn’t enough for Jesus not because he was rich, but because of his attitude. The reaction of Jesus’ disciples shows us about what was going on. I think that we can assume that the rich young man was relying on his wealth rather than on God. Like the disciples he was relying on the belief that his wealth, almost certainly his inherited wealth, was a sign of God’s continued blessing. And this is what Jesus cuts through and then reinforces for his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.
And the disciples are amazed and say “Who then can be saved?” Who then can be saved? If it’s not the young rich men of this world, the ones who have got all that the world can give, the ones who seem to be so blessed, then who is it? What does God’s blessing look like?
So Jesus says to his disciples then and says to us, his disciples now: Look around you. Look at your fellow believers. They are part of the blessing God gives you. They are your new, ever expanding family. Here are your blessings.
That can be a challenging way to look at your fellow congregation members, let alone members of other churches. And that can feel hard and perhaps, well why bother then? But, it can feel hard if we’re trying to do this on our own. Frankly, unlike the rich young man many of us won’t be able to say “all these I have kept” when Jesus tells us “do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.” We won’t be able to say “all these I have kept” particularly if we’ve been listening carefully to Jesus and heard him say that what we think is as important as what we say and do.
And that’s where our reading from the letter to the Hebrews comes in. Hebrews is one of the books that has really spoken to me down the years, with its amazing imagery and sense of history and purpose. It was also the book that we looked at on the weekend retreat before my ordination, not least because of passages like the one we heard read this morning.
It might not seem very promising at first, as it begins with the challenge “the word of God is living and active. It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.” So, this extends the challenge that we heard Jesus give to the rich young man. It extends the challenge from someone who perhaps isn’t very like us to ourselves. It challenges us to realise that God isn’t simply concerned with us here on a Sunday morning. God is concerned with what we do, who we are, on a Monday morning, a Saturday night, and every part in between.
And the challenge of this passage is to let the Word of God affect the whole of our lives, to become salt and light where we live and in what we do. And that would be a terrifying, impossible challenge if that’s all there was. But there’s more, so much more, which was why it was a good choice to look at before being ordained. Because we are told we have a great high priest who is on our side. We have a great high priest who knows our struggles, understands our struggles, and wants to help us in our struggles.
As part of my training to become an ordained minister I spent a couple of weeks with the chaplaincy team in a sex offenders’ prison. I met rapists, paedophiles and the like. Some were in denial and some were incredibly damaged people. Many sex offenders have themselves been abused. They were broken, and in their brokenness they damaged and destroyed other people. The chaplains and the counsellors had to understand their struggle, understand their brokenness so that they could help them properly. Not because they thought that what they had done was excusable or acceptable. Many people who have been abused don’t go on to abuse others. The chaplains and counsellors knew what the offenders had done was horrendous and wrong. And an important part of not reoffending is offenders recognising the damage and destruction that they have done. But, so that the chaplains and counsellors could actually help people not do it again, so that they could repair in some small way the damage done, they needed to understand. And some of these people, like Jimmy Savile appears to have done, had in many other ways led lives in which they appeared to be productive members of society, or whatever the phrase is.
The problem is that these extremes, like the rich young man, can make us miss the ways in which we’re similar, the ways in which our struggles, like that of the rich young man, mean that there’s a disconnect between parts of our lives, parts of our lives don’t join up and affect each other. Particularly that the parts of our lives to do with God don’t affect the other parts. But we have a high priest who understands our struggles.
The previous high priests passed through the temple courts to pray for people on particular days. We have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, who has broken down the barrier between us and God. And because that barrier has been broken down we are able to approach the throne of grace. In other words, we are able, ourselves, to go directly to God. We are able to approach the creator and ruler of all that is. And we are able to approach God with confidence. We can go to God who knows everything about us with confidence because of Jesus.
Because of Jesus we can approach the throne of grace with confidence and we can ask for and receive mercy and find grace to help us. We are not supposed to do this on our own! We are called to follow Jesus, to put aside all those things that get in the way of us relying on God, to follow him. But we are given the blessings of each other to help and support us on the way. And we are given the mercy and grace of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit to help us.
The letter to the Hebrews goes on to tell us that Jesus is continually praying for us, is continually at the side of the throne of grace asking for God’s mercy and grace for us, praying that we are sent the Holy Spirit to help us in our struggles and to show us the way. We have God’s blessings and we have God-given confidence and we have God-given help.
So, let us thank God for his love for us, let us thank God for the adventure that he sends us on. And in a moment’s quiet let us ask God for his grace and his mercy in our lives, so that we can follow Jesus a bit more in our everyday lives. Amen.