01 September 2014
In about 269 AD, an eighteen year old man attended liturgy in his Egyptian home town. His life was in turmoil. His wealthy parents had just died, leaving him a large estate and a sister to care for. Then he heard the words of today’s gospel, as if Christ had spoken directly to him. He went and provided for his sister, sold all that he had, and devoted himself exclusively to following Christ. His name was Anthony, and he is the founder of monasticism.
“Sell all that I have? I could never do that!” you might be thinking. It is a radical idea, isn’t it? Once and for all to give up control of anything and everything you have, and put yourself into the hands of God for everything, including food and shelter. For us there are bills to be paid, families to care for, obligations to be met. What would we eat? Where would we live? How would we dress ourselves against the heat and cold? If it weren’t for Christ’s warning—that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven—we’d just as soon write these words off.
And yet Christ’s warning stands. When the disciples express surprise, he doesn’t tone it down or soften it. He doesn’t make it more palatable. He doesn’t say, “JK. LOL.”
So what do we do with these words? In the first place, let’s reflect that sooner or later, we all give up everything we have. St. Paul reminds us, “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.” So the issue isn’t, “Shall I give up my possessions or keep them?” We all give up everything we have. The issue is, “Shall I give up my possessions willingly or unwillingly?”
The rich young man that Jesus spoke to gave up his wealth unwillingly, when he died. Anthony gave up his wealth willingly, when he shared it all with the poor. The only difference is the will, but the will makes all the difference between heaven and hell.
Right about now, in sermons on this text, the preacher makes a point of saying that you don’t have to empty your bank account. And I suppose that’s true. But it’s also important to say that Christ isn’t kidding. I need to cut the ties I have to my wealth—such that if it should disappear, I wouldn’t miss it. And that, my friends, is very hard.
So the Church gives us a way to practice and prepare for the loss of our goods—a loss which is surely coming, by death or disaster. She invites us to cut the ties inwardly, to give willingly, generously, yes, and even cheerfully. “God loves a cheerful giver,” Paul tells us, and giving is cheerful when we remember that all we have is God’s gift anyway. When you give to the Church, you practice for death. You confess God’s faithfulness.
We talk about paying off our mortgage, getting land for a cemetery and a temple, so that Orthodox Christians will have a place to serve Christ while living and rest in peace when they die. My experience in Veliki Mosti this summer taught me that it can be done, because I’ve seen it. Whether it will be done, depends in part on each of us giving our first fruits as we are able.
But giving up our grip on wealth is only a preliminary. The point of it all is to follow Christ. “Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and come, follow me,” he told the rich young man.
What does it mean to follow Christ? It means something different for each human being. For Anthony, it meant years in the desert, in solitude and prayer. For Mother Maria of Paris, it meant working with poor and despised people, and sharing the fate of the Jews in World War II. For you it will mean something still different.
But all these different paths have one thing in common: to follow Christ means to die to ourselves that we might live to God and to others. “I have been crucified with Christ,” says Paul. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
If, as Paul says, I no longer live, then I no longer own anything. All dead people are equally poor. All I have is Christ…but that’s enough. His blood covers my sin, his power is perfected in my weakness, his grace is sufficient for me; his life is mine, and mine is his.
We don’t follow Christ as a moral obligation. We follow Christ to learn from the inside, in some small measure, what it meant for him to seek and save us while we were lost. “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners…dead…enemies of God…he gave his Son into death for us.”
Christ is calling you this morning. His call is personal, one-on-one. His call is inescapable. This is a time of crisis, a crossroads. You will not leave as you came. Will you hold on to things you think are yours, only to lose them later, or will you release them all and with open arms cling to the Lord who loves you?