Derek Starr Redwine
Sunday, July 14, 2013

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

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What must we do to inherit eternal life?

 

For some people of faith this is the question that matters most.

 

Compassion for the poor,

            care for the environment,

                                                worship,

                                                            the arts,

                                                                        they all matter,

                        but not as muchas where you go when you die.

 

                                    For some, it’s all about eternity.

 

There are entire organizations,

            websites,

                        and blogs

                                    dedicated to training people

to walk up to strangers in public

and ask them,

 

                        “Do you know where you will go when you die?”

 

                                    Yikes.

 

Just today in my drive up from Akron, I saw a church sign and a bumper sticker that both asked “Do you know where you will spend eternity?”

 

Now, with all this anxiety about how one gets into heaven,

            the lawyer’s question in today’s reading

                        presents the perfect opportunity

                             for Jesus to give a clear, straightforward answer

                                                to a question that matters so much

                                                                                    to so many Christians.[1]

           

And in a moment of surprising clarity, Jesus does just that!

 

                   It takes him a moment to get there;

we have to hear a story first,

                                                but for once Jesus tells us

                       exactly what we have to do.

 

 

A man died and went to heaven. When he got there, Saint Peter gave him the nickel tour. Peter showed him the harps, the streets of gold, and the cherubs.

 

As they walked around, the man noticed that there were groups of people scattered here and there. He was curious and so he asked Peter who they were.

 

“Well, those people over there,” Peter said, “sitting quietly and looking very serious—those are the Presbyterians.”

 

“And the folks over there eating the big potluck meal—those are the Methodists.”

 

“The ones with all the tambourines, those are the Pentecostals.”

 

As they went on, the man noticed one group set apart from the others. “What about them over there?” he asked.

 

“Shhh. Keep your voice down,” Peter said. “Those are the Baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.”[2]

 

 

What must we do to inherit eternal life?

 

In response to this question, Jesus asks a question of his own.

 

            “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

 

And the man,

who we are told is a student of the law,

quickly gives an answer: Love.

 

            “Love God and your neighbor, with all you are, and you will live, forever.”

 

                        And Jesus says to him,

 

                        “You have given the right answer;

do this, and you will live.”

 

                                    Wow! How often do you hear Jesus say that!?

                                   

                                                You have given the right answer.

 

Unfortunately, this man’s moment of clarity doesn’t last long.

            “Jesus,” he asks, “just who ismy neighbor?”

 

What follows is a story we’ve all heard before,

            it’s story of the good Samaritan showing compassion to someone in need,

                        but today I want to shift our focus from the story

To the conversation that frames it.

 

 

You see, when the lawyer asks about inheriting ‘eternal life’,

          he isn’t asking how to get into heaven when he dies.

 

                   That wasn’t a concern for the man or for Jesus.

                  

“Heaven” or “eternal life” for Jesus and his Jewish followers was deeply connected with the idea of a coming age that the Messiah would usher in.  We might call them “eras” or “periods of time.”

                                   

There was this age,

and the one that is to come.[3]

 

Which means that Jesus didn’t come to sell us fire insurance.He came to show us how to live. in this time

                   and the time that is to come.

 

 

Ittetsu Nemoto is a Buddhist priest with a very interesting job. Nemoto conducts death workshops at his temple for people in Japan who are suicidal. At these workshops Nemoto tells attendees to imagine they’ve been given a diagnosis of cancer and have only three months to live.

 

He instructs them to write down what they want to do in these three months. Then he tells them to imagine they have one month left…then a week…then ten minutes. 

 

                      Most people start crying in the course of this exercise,

including Nemoto.

 

One man who came to a workshop had been talking with Nemoto for years about wanting to die. He was thirty-eight years old and had been institutionalized off an on for a decade.

 

During this exercise the man just sat and wept,

staring at a blank page.

 

He had nothing to say in response to the Nemoto’s questions,

because he had never considered them.

 

All he had ever thought about was wanting to die;

          he had never thought about what he wanted to do with his life.

 

                        Then it hit him…the realization that changed his life:

                        if he had never really lived,

                                how could he want to die?[4]

 

 

You are here on a beautiful Sunday morning in Northeast Ohio, so I’m assuming that you want to live fully and deeply.

 

You want more from this life, not less.

 

          You want life, everlasting life,

and you want it now.

 

                  

The first time John decided to get help for his alcoholism was after his drinking nearly killed his son. After the car accident, John started attending AA meetings, and for about a year things were good, but then he stopped going. The meetings were getting annoying, and he was tired of hanging around a bunch of drunks.

 

Then John’s mom got cancer,

            and she called him at work to tell him the news,

                        and the first thing John did after he hung up the phone was find a bar.

 

He was pretty much drunk for the next two years.

 

The combination of his wife leaving him and another car accident drove John back to meetings again, and this time it stuck – something had changed.

           

The first cracks in the theory that AA succeeded in rehabilitating alcoholics solely by reprogramming their habits started appearing about a decade ago.

 

Stories like John’s were becoming more and more common.

 

Researchers began finding that habit replacement worked well until the stresses of life got to be too much, at which point alcoholics often fell off the wagon.

 

Academics wondered why this was the case. If habit replacement is so effective, why did it often fail at such critical moments?

 

As they dug into alcoholics’ stories to answer that question, researchers began to notice a pattern. Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines wasn’t enough.

 

            The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.

 

Researchers of course hated that explanation. God and spirituality are not testable.

But study after study proved the same thing, alcoholics who believed, like John, that some higher power had entered their lives were more likelyto make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact.

 

Belief that their life could be better

made all the difference. [5]

 

 

The kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus says time again.The life you have been longing for is here. Repent and believe the good news.

 

 

Did you notice that after he finishes the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus doesn’t ask the lawyer whowas the Samaritan’s neighbor; he asks, who acted like a neighbor.

 

The answer, of course, is obvious: it is the Samaritan, which means that the neighbor isn’t simply the one in need.

 

          The neighbor is also the one who provides for our need,

                             the one who takes care of us

                                      regardless of who they – or we – might be.

 

          Do this, Jesus says, and you will live, forever.

 

 

Many years ago a preacher gave a wonderful sermon on the life that is to come. In his sermon he made the impassioned argument that heaven is for all people. With well chosen words he painted a beautiful image of both sinners and saints sitting together at a God’s heavenly table.

 

            In heaven, he argued, all receive the mercy they need.

 

After the sermon, the pastor stood in the back of church and greeted parishioners as they left.  At the end of the line was Brent – one of the faithful attenders – and he looked angry.

 

Pastor, you know I respect you,

            but I simply refuse to believe that in heaven

                        I will be sitting at table with people who have wronged me,

                                    disregarded God,

                                                and lived in ways that are contrary to God’s law.

 

                                                That is simply not heaven to me.

 

                        “No Brent,” the pastor said,

                                    “That would be hell for you.”

 

 

Jesus spends most of his ministry telling us that the kingdom of God is at hand, and yet we resist the message. We resist believing that eternal life is available now

                                    because the defining characteristic of the eternal realm

                                                            is something we have VERY hard time accepting.

 

                        Eternal life is a life defined by unmerited mercy

                                                and undeserved grace.

 

When the Samaritan helps the man who is left for dead, he doesn’t try to figure out how he ended up there, pr whose side he is on;

                        he simply cares for the man,

                                    as he would have wanted to be cared for.

 

Which got me wondering…if Jesus chose this story, of all stories, to show us how to inherit eternal life, could it be possible that heaven isn’t a place where people have it all together?

 

Could it be that eternal life isn’t all that different from this life,

        except for the fact that mercy is as common

                                        as the air we breathe?

 

While many make the argument that heaven is a place free from sins, mistakes, and miscues,

I hope it isn’t, because you can’t live, and love, and learn

                                                without making a few mistakes along the way.

 

What if in eternity we are defined not by our mistakes, but by Gods grace?

What if heaven is perfect in that there are no dead ends or lost causes?

What if the kingdom that is to come,

          a kingdom that is at hand,

                   is a place where mercy is extended to anyone and everyone.

Over and over again.

 

Eternal life is NOT a place where we go IF we get it right…or a destination for a select few.

 

Eternal life is way of life defined by never ending second chances

                                                new beginnings

                                                           and fresh starts.

 

 

            What must we do to inherit eternal life?

 

          Extend and receive mercy – to everyone who needs it.

 

                        Do this, Jesus says, and you will live,

                                                                                                forever. 

 

Amen.

 

 


[1] This perspective and insight come from the book, “Love Wins” by Rob Bell.

[2] This story comes from a sermon by Sarah Howell entitled “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, June 5, 2013.

[3] Bell, Rob (2011-03-15). Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (p. 30). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[4] Last Call, Larissa MacFarquhar, “The New Yorker”, June 24, 2013, p. 56.

[5] Duhigg, Charles (2012-02-28). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (pp. 83-85). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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