The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach famously dismissed religion in general and Christianity in particular by pointing out that believers in God simply return the favor from Genesis 1. Rather than being created in God’s image, we’ve created God in ours.
As Karl Barth, who just as famously concurred with Ludwig’s critique, put it: when (liberal) Christians say the word ‘God’ they’re really just speaking of themselves in a loud voice.’
It’s an argument not without merit or supporting incidence, but it’s an argument that often founders on the shoals of the Gospel narrative for too often within the the Gospel we meet an unsettling, counterintuitive, offensive God that not one of us would ever choose.
Exhibit A: Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler.
He’s the only person whom the Gospels bother to mention Jesus ‘loved.’
And Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.
Not 10%. Not his IRS rebate. Everything.
It’s a text I’ve preached more than most over the years. Here’s a baccalaureate sermon I preached a few years ago. Since the rich young ruler is one of the few ‘youth’ in the New Testament, I thought it a relevant text for graduates.
As one of the pastors here, I want to welcome you all to Aldersgate Church. It’s a pleasure to be here. As a Methodist, I almost never get the opportunity to preach to people under the age of 65 (just kidding…but not really).
I want to thank you for the invitation. By asking me to speak here today you managed to remind me how long ago was my own graduation thereby reminding me how old I really am. So thank you for that (but not really).
During the week I was thinking about this service and I started reminiscing about my own high school graduation. I even looked up some classmates of mine on Facebook- something I never do- and, looking at their pictures, I thought to myself: ‘My God, it’s as if they’ve all swelled.’
Seriously, I’m thrilled to be here today.
One of the aspects of my ministry I most enjoy is the privilege to work with young people:
to get a glimpse at who they might become
to sneak a peek at the world through their eyes
and to learn what moves them and fills them with passion.
I mean- young people are the only way I manage to stay in touch with popular culture and fool church people into thinking I’m even a little bit cool. For that, I’m in your debt.
More than that, some of my most treasured and authentic friendships are with young people in the congregations where I’ve served. Some of them are here today. Both my ministry and my life is richer because of them. I suspect only your teachers know how that feels.
Now, I’m a preacher. I don’t really know how to speak to a gathering if it’s not in response to a text. So I bring you a story today. It’s from the New Testament, from the Gospel According to Matthew:
‘Then a young man came to Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ The young man replied to Jesus, ‘I have kept all of the commandments; what does my life still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to have life, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’
There are not many stories about young people in the New Testament. Sure, Jesus talks about a lot about children; he even brings one back to life, but there’s not much talk about you all: young adults, youth, young people.
Trust me. I looked all this week. By my count, this rich, young man in Matthew’s Gospel is the only young person ever to have been confronted by Jesus.
Remember, Jesus himself never lives past my age. So when the New Testament calls this rich man in Matthew ‘young’ probably he was about your age.
They meet when Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time. He confronts Jesus just outside the city, in the suburbs outside the nation’s capital. That’s probably where the young man grew up. By calling this youth ‘rich’ Matthew probably means that he comes from a wealthy family and a nice community.
I imagine he went to a good school and he has a bright future ahead of him. Probably, his parents spared no expense in raising him. He’s gotten good grades. He’s received more than a few acceptance letters. No doubt he’s popular among his peers. Most likely he’s led a comfortable life and now he’s about to set out on his own.
Probably everyone- his parents, his friends, his neighbors, his teachers- has expectations for what he’ll do, for where he’ll go and for who he’ll become, and I bet he has ambitions of his own.
Evidently, something bothers this young man enough that he approaches Jesus. Even with all he has and with everything he can look forward to- apparently, he has this nagging suspicion that there’s more to life than fulfilling his potential, there’s more to life than pursuing his own happiness and achieving his own dreams.
He asks Jesus about it.
And Jesus says: ‘If you want to live a good life, then follow the commandments: don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your parents and God…’
And the young man replies: ‘I’ve already been doing all that. What else? What is my life lacking?’
By my count, not only is he the only young person ever to confront Jesus, he’s also the only person in the Gospels who ever asks Jesus: ‘What’s missing…in my life?’
There was a young woman in one of the congregations I once served. Her name was __________. She was a straight-A student at an Ivy League school. She was nearing graduation, and her parents couldn’t have been more excited about what lay in her future: maybe a graduate degree at another prestigious school; maybe a career and no less than a six figure salary.
Instead she threw them all for a loop and one day, out of the blue, announced to her parents that rather than doing anything they hoped, she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in Venezuela.
I only found out about this when her mother burst into my office one day, clearly assuming I was the one who put the idea in her head. Red-faced and furious, she said: ‘Jason, you’ve got to talk to her. You’ve got to convince her to change her mind. You’ve got to show her she’s throwing her life away.’
Ever the obedient minister, I met with the daughter and communicated all her mother’s fears: she was being naive, she was being irresponsible, she was being idealistic, her education should come first, she shouldn’t jeopardize her career.
She looked back at me liked I’d disappointed her in some way. ‘Didn’t Jesus tell the young man to give up all his stuff and follow him?’ she asked.
‘Uh, well, yeah but…I mean…he couldn’t have been serious…that would’ve been irresponsible.’
‘At least tell me why you’re doing this.’
‘Everyone thinks I’m throwing my life away if I go,’ she said, ‘but if I don’t go it feels to me like I’m settling.’
‘Settling?’ I asked.
And she said: ‘There’s something missing from the life everyone else wants. That’s what I’m looking for.’
Then she narrowed her gaze at me and said: ‘When did you stop looking for it?’
‘Be quiet. What do you know? You’re just a young person…’
I think maybe that’s what’s so compelling about this young man who meets Jesus. He realizes you can fulfill everyone’s expectations and still be lacking, still not be living a life that’s bigger than yourself.
Near as I can tell he’s the only person in scripture who asks Jesus: ‘What’s missing? What else is there?’
When I think about it, that’s what I most appreciate about young people like you.
It’s that you keep adults like me honest. You get it in a way most of us have forgotten or ignore. You’re wise to the fact that the way the world is, is not the way it has to be. You know without anyone having to tell you that your life should have a purpose beyond yourself.
Your BS radar is too good- that’s what I love about you. You know there’s more to life than what we sometimes show you with our own lives. And you know that Jesus- whether you believe in him or not- isn’t one for compromise and qualifications and half-measures, that if God isn’t worth dying for then he’s not worth living for either.
Your program today calls me an ‘inspirational speaker.’ I asked them to change it, but it was too late. It makes me think of guys on TV with capped teeth, hair plugs and seven steps to something.
I don’t know- maybe inspiration is what your parents were hoping for today. But I’m a preacher and I’m stuck with Jesus.
The problem is Jesus never really inspired people. Mostly he irritated people. He agitated people. He made people uncomfortable with the compromises they’d made and he pushed for change. He insisted that the life they’d settled for was not the life they’d been made for. He persisted in pointing out what was missing from their lives.
Jesus wasn’t inspiring exactly. Mostly Jesus acted like, well, a young person.
When Jesus shows the rich, young man what’s possible with his life, the young man responds by walking away, defeated and depressed. But that’s just one man.
One day soon a challenge will be put to you too. One day soon you’ll get a glimpse at what’s truly possible for your life. It might frighten you. It might mean you give up everything you know or have or have been counting on. It might mean you turn your back on everyone else’s expectations for you.
And I, for one, can’t wait to see how you’ll respond.