From Death to New Life

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on October 21, 2018, called “From Death to New Life.” The sermon is the sixth in a series exploring our church vision and mission statements.

Here is a written excerpt:

Our Scripture passages this morning tell a Tale of Two Rich Dudes (Luke 18:18-30; 19:1-10).

Two Rich Dudes. They were both men in a man’s world, both among the wealthy 1% of their day. They were both Jews, so they knew both the Law of Moses and the oppressive cruelty of the Roman Empire—even if their social status kept them from experiencing that cruelty themselves. Beyond this, though, their paths diverged sharply.

The first man is nameless to us. We know him only as a “rich ruler.” Matthew calls him a “young man,” so put together he’s often called the Rich Young Ruler. He might have been a civic leader. He might have been a synagogue leader. We don’t know. We only know he was a Rich Dude with status and power.

He comes seeking “eternal life,” that is, “life in the age to come.” “Eternal life” in the Bible is not “existing up in heaven forever.” “Eternal life” is not even just “life after death.” “Eternal life” is life after resurrection, life in God’s fulfilled kingdom on earth, life in God’s renewed creation. It’s God’s full “salvation” from sin and death, in other words. Read the story in Luke 18 again carefully, and you’ll find all these terms used interchangeably.

“Teacher, how can I make sure I get this life?” this first Rich Dude asks.

Jesus doesn’t walk him through four spiritual laws. He doesn’t give him a sinner’s prayer to pray. He does what any good rabbi would do: he points the Rich Dude to the Ten Commandments—curiously stopping short of #10. (You know, that last little rule about not coveting other people’s possessions.)

“I have kept all these commands my entire life,” the Rich Dude responds. “Scout’s honour.” And he’s probably telling the truth.

But then Jesus gets serious. He looks deep into the man’s heart—Mark’s Gospel says “Jesus looked at him and loved him”—and Jesus says to this poor rich man, “You own everything you want, which means you lack the one thing you need. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me.”

The Rich Dude cannot do this. His wealth, his possessions, his comfortable way of life, his respect within his family, his good standing within society—all this is more important to him than truly experiencing the life God wants him to have.

Let’s pause and think on this a moment, this story of Rich Dude #1. This guy is wealthy, he’s successful. He’s appropriately religious (not fanatically so, just appropriately so). He’s well-respected. He’s an all-round good guy. He’s exactly the kind of person we’d look up to. He’s the kind of person we’d vote in as mayor this week if “Rich Young Ruler” or “Nameless Rich Dude” were on the ballot.

But this man has amassed his wealth without a sideways glance at the poor and needy around him. His comfortable lifestyle and social reputation are more important to him than truly, deeply loving his neighbour as himself—all his neighbours, including the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most despised. In spite of his diligent goodness and outward success, he is entangled in his wealth, unable to imagine life without it, and unwilling to fully share his wealth with those who really need it.

Jesus’ verdict? The Rich Young Ruler is “unsaved,” the text says. In other words, it goes on to say, he has not entered God’s kingdom. He has not received that promise of eternal life he came looking for. As Luke so poignantly notes, “He went away sad, because he was very rich.”

That’s the first Rich Dude. The second Rich Dude has a very different story.

For one thing, we know this man’s name: Zacchaeus. The name means “pure” or “innocent”—which is ironic, given his background. Like the Rich Young Ruler he’s a Jew, but he’s not quite so devout—he has in fact cheated his way to wealth. He has collaborated with the Romans to oppress the poor in Galilee through heavy taxation, and then added his own levy on top of that.

This second Rich Dude is wealthy, but he’s not respected. He’s despised, a clear “sinner” in the eyes of all. So people are more than a little shocked when Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house for lunch.

“Zacchaeus, you wee little man!” Jesus says. “Come on down from that sycamore tree! I’m coming to your house today!”

And so he does, walking through the crowds of Really Religious as they grumble to each other. (You’d think they’d have heard about this even down in Jericho, that Jesus had this thing about sharing meals with “sinners.” If there are any social, political, or religious outcasts in town, that’s where you’ll find Jesus, eating and drinking until kingdom come.)

But they don’t even get to the meal before Zacchaeus has to unburden his soul. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor!” he declares. “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much!”

Jesus hasn’t even said anything to him! No four spiritual laws, no sinner’s prayer—not even the Ten Commandments. There’s not even a “sell all you have and give it to the poor and come follow me.” Jesus doesn’t have to say this because that’s just what Zacchaeus does. Half his possessions? And then repaying back four times what he stole? He won’t have much left!

Nothing but eternal life, the kingdom of God, and salvation, that is.

For that is exactly what Jesus’ verdict is: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Today—not some point future, not after death in heaven, not even after resurrection in a new creation. Today, right now, God’s deliverance from sin and evil has happened. Today, right now, God has once again brought life out of death.

Two stories in Luke’s Gospel, two encounters with Jesus. In one, the opportunity for transformation is rejected, and true life slips through his fingers. In the other, the opportunity for transformation is embraced, and salvation comes to his house.

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