Confronted with the Gospel

August 29, 2017 Length: 26:03

In Matthew 19, a young man has an encounter with Christ. Fr. Pat looks at three qualities of that encounter.





In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the scene to which we’ve been listening these past few minutes, beloved of the Lord, Jesus meets a man who approaches him. This young man himself took the initiative. He is described as a neaniskos, which means a young man. That is said twice, neaniskos, as though to stress that he is an immature person, not fully grown.

The emphasis on the story lies on the quality of a personal encounter. Eleven times in this morning’s story, this young man, this neaniskos uses the word “I,” which should tell you something of the problem, and eleven times Jesus uses the word “you.” Both Jesus and the young man are referring to exactly the same person, namely, the young man himself. He is being confronted with the proclamation of the Gospel. Now, how is the Gospel proclaimed to him? All Gospel proclamation, all evangelizing, is an encounter with the Messiah, the Ho Christos.

I want to speak today about three qualities of this encounter. The first, we’ll use a Hebrew word: Torah, which is teaching with authority. Last week I was rather rough on Martin Luther, but I didn’t tell half the story. I believe that one of the worst turning points in the history of theology was Martin Luther’s distinction and separation of Torah and Gospel. He saw them as quite distinct: Torah and Gospel. He took all of God’s relationship to man under those two headings, Torah and Gospel. This wasn’t just something incidental to Luther; this is absolutely central to his entire theological format.

As I mentioned last week, I am persuaded that many—very many—of the problems facing the world right now pass through the tortured soul of Martin Luther, but this morning especially his serious, radical misunderstanding of the epistle to the Galatians. He left out Torah as a dimension of the Gospel. You do that—you leave out Torah as a dimension of the Gospel—then what in the world are you going to do with the Sermon on the Mount? What are you going to do with the final command that God gives the Church? I don’t think I’ll ask for a show of hands for those of you who remember what the gospel was at matins this morning; all right, I won’t do it. This morning’s matins gospel was the end of Matthew, the first eothinon. “Go forth and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to”—what?—“observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Now, that’s the Gospel, and it contains Torah. “All things whatsoever”: that is a phrase right out of the book of Deuteronomy.

I want to speak in this first point about the humane—humane—necessity of command. This past week recorded the disgrace and vocational failure of an honorable man in an honorable profession. He was a rear admiral in command of America’s Seventh Fleet, part of the Pacific Command. I refrain from mentioning his name, because he has already suffered a great deal. Indeed, from a professional perspective, his life has been ruined, and he will spend the rest of his days and the hour of his death as an example of failure and a symbol of disgrace.

In spite of the compassion he inspires in any merciful heart, I mention him today in order to illustrate what I am calling the humane necessity of command. Since February of this year, there have been four serious accidents in ships sailing in the Seventh Fleet. 17 American sailors lost their lives in those incidents. Now this is a matter of considerable angst to me. I am the son, the nephew, the cousin, the brother, and the father of sailors. The United States Navy is absolutely central to everything that’s in my head. 17 sailors died this year, needlessly, and the United States Navy assigns the blame for that to a failure of command. In the judgment of the Navy, the death of 17 naval warriors was the result of a failure of command. They were all human errors. This was not the breakdown of equipment. This isn’t that they lost a radar or anything of this sort. But 17 men died needlessly because of a failure of command.

The admiral lost his position a month before his scheduled retirement because he was judged to have failed in the humane exercise of Torah. Why do I call the Torah “humane”? Because command is the condition of life. Anybody who’s read the book of Deuteronomy knows that. I hope everybody here, with the possible exception of—no, everybody here—has read the book of Deuteronomy in detail. These sailors died because someone failed in the exercise of command. The book of Deuteronomy insists: Do these things, and you will live; don’t do them, and you will die. Behold, I stand before you this day and offer you these two choices, says Deuteronomy.

Today the young man inquires of the Messiah, “What good thing, agathon, shall I do?” It’s very interesting that he uses the [future] tense; we’ll come to the significance of that presently. “What good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer? “Keep the commandments!” Pretty simple. Keep the commandments.

It appears that the Savior of the world had not read, nor had his mother read, the works of Dr. Benjamin Spock, who advocated that children should be raised with suggestions and recommendations. The Savior of the world was raised in a family with rules that were absolute and admitted no exceptions. Notice the future tense in the Hebrew: What good thing shall I do? In Hebrew, the future tense can be in context much stronger than the imperative. And that’s quoted in this morning’s gospel, isn’t it? Right out of Deuteronomy. “You will not take anyone’s life. You will not commit sexual sin. You will not take what does not belong to you. And you will not tell lies about people.” Real simple. Doesn’t allow any exceptions. “If you do these things, you will die.”

St. Gregory the Theologian, Gregory Nazianzen, is very strong on this concept of Torah. St. Gregory Nazianzen says that the experience of Torah is so essential to being a human being that it goes back to the very roots of human history. He observes that Adam and Eve were told: “You will not”—future tense—“eat of the fruit of this tree. On the day you eat of it, you will die.” In this morning’s gospel, teaching them to “do all things whatsoever I command you,” the violation of Torah is an invitation to death.

Some years ago I mentioned to you I found a symbol of this in experience of my youth. When I was a little boy and could not read yet—and remember, I flunked first grade, so that’s true—I picked up a can of Drano. On the can of Drano, on the label, was a skull and crossbones. I knew what it meant; I knew exactly what it meant. Some years later, they took that skull and crossbones off of the label because it frightened children, and they replaced it with a little picture called “Mr. Yuk.” It’s a sad face. You know the sad face? You’ve seen these sad faces. What does that say? It doesn’t say, “You will die”; it says, “You won’t feel very good.” Because reality is associated with your feelings.

Today there’s a shocking inability of parents to assume command. Things have gotten so bad that children are now deluded into imagining that they can choose their own sex. That is a massive delusion. Physically it cannot be done. A little boy is supposed to become a man, and a little girl is supposed to become a woman. The Lord had that in mind all along. I look around at what appears on the news—and this isn’t just one channel; I’ve checked them all out. Sometimes I run through about five channels to see if anybody’s going to give a different story. No, they’re all giving the same story: about the spoiled brats on the contemporary college campus.

They came from homes in which there was no humane authority, no sense of command. Their mothers did not put food in front of them with the expectation that they would eat it. They were asked if they would like some sweet potatoes, if they would like some cabbage, if they would like some green beans. The only time I ever remember “would you like” as a boy had to do with second helpings. That’s the only time ever I remember that. Food was put on your plate, and you didn’t have a choice. You ate everything on your plate. You accepted what life offered, and didn’t ask for the moon. Torah, that’s the first.

Let’s come to point two. The Gospel is more than simply the observance of Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy represented with wholeness of heart: “You shall love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.” In the heart of this neaniskos, this immature person, this morning, something is still missing. A computer or some mechanism is expected simply to follow commands. If you don’t believe me, ask Octi. Isn’t that right, Octi? You give a command; it’s supposed to do it. But you’re not asking for the whole heart of the computer. Mechanical obedience has nothing to do with the kingdom of God.

The young man today suspects as much. He asks Jesus: Ti eti hystero; Am I missing something? Literally, what do I yet lack? I’ve done all these things; what do I yet lack? The young man knows he is still coming up short. His whole heart does not yet belong to God. He could not do what Hannah did this morning at matins, which was to chant Psalm 102, which is the fifth psalm of the hexapsalmos at the beginning of matins. Psalm 102 begins: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and let all that is within me bless his holy name.” Let all that is within me bless his holy name. You see, the “all that is within me” is key to the service of God. The young man falls short of inner wholeness. All that is within him does not belong to God.

He is not yet what Jesus calls teleos, translated as “perfect”: teleos, perfect. Teleos in the sense of whole, integral, full. He is keeping the commandments, but he is holding back with respect to God. His problem, Matthew tells us: en gar ekhon ktemata polla; he had lots of stuff, ktemata polla: he had lots of stuff. I hope that doesn’t mean books. Don’t you hope it doesn’t mean books? His soul is like the rocky soil mentioned in the parable of the seed. The seed cannot take root because there is no depth of earth. This man insists on living on the surface. Lots of Christians try to do that—live on the surface. There’s too much stuff in this man’s life. He is offered the pearl of great price and he walks away sad. He declines to give up everything for the sake of that pearl. You know, he should be sad, because his entrance into the kingdom of heaven would be more difficult than the passage of a camel through the eye of a needle.

This is point three. What does it look like for a person to give up everything in order to attain eternal life? What does that look like? Let’s take one possible answer. Many centuries ago, a young man came to church the way you have this morning. He was in Egypt; he was an Egyptian, probably could not read or write. He came into church, and he stood there, as you did this morning, and like you he paid close attention to the gospel, and heard this gospel. He went out, made provision for his sister, of whom he was the guardian, gave away everything else, and he went out into the Egyptian desert. He was the founder of Christian monasticism, St. Anthony the Great. Same gospel. I don’t think I’ll ask for a show of hands this morning of those of you who, having heard that, were disposed to do that very thing. Susan, were you disposed to do that very thing? Did you think God was calling you to do that very thing?

Because, see, that is the question, isn’t it? That is the question. Because that question is addressed to every one of you, and everybody’s response is going to be different. We’re not all called to go out into the desert and follow Anthony. What we’re not free to do is to neglect the call. Is monasticism the only legitimate response to the Gospel? Are only monks and nuns called to be perfect in their love of God? You know, there are Orthodox Christians who seem to think so, and they regard non-monastics as sort of second-class citizens in the kingdom. That’s not at all an uncommon thing.

So the question stands: What does a full response to the kingdom look like? I believe it looked quite different in each person’s life. I really am persuaded of that, that all of us are called to be perfect, but it will look very different in each person’s life. This morning I give you only one illustration, and I hope it’s an illustration you will never forget. I do this by way of a partial answer. This answer is also a young person; in this case it was female. She was a neaniska. She was just a little older than myself when she died during my lifetime. Her name, like the name of several young women in this parish, was Sophie, which means wisdom.

She was beheaded by the German government at 5:00 p.m. on February 22, 1943. She was only 22 years old. She was not murdered by the government because she was a Jew. She was murdered because she defended the Jews, called the government to task for persecution of the Jews. She sided with the Jews, and she would not be shut up. She took the side of the Jews when it meant certain death to do so. One of the most outstanding figures of opposition to the Hitlerian government.

The way people nowadays throw around the term “Nazi”! They don’t have any idea! People who are using this term and accusing other people of being Nazis—I’m not talking about the people who claim to be Nazis. Okay, we’ll let that go, self-called Nazis; they call themselves neo-Nazis. That’s fine; they’re Nazis. But I mean the rest of us: throw around the term, calling people to be Nazis. You don’t understand what Nazi means.

Sophie Scholl was arrested for distributing pamphlets on the campus of the University of Munich. She was a campus activist. You want to know more about Sophie Scholl? Go to Netflix or wherever you get your films and dial in “Sophie Scholl.” The movie came out in 2005. I’ll read you a brief description of Sophie Scholl by someone who was neither a Jew nor a Christian, and that’s Clive James. Clive James in his quite remarkable book, Cultural Amnesia, his assessment of her—because he’s very much a secularist—is quite remarkable. You see, the Third Reich feared this fearless young woman. They didn’t know how to deal with her. They had to kill her. She was a living challenge to what they called Hitler Youth. She was beheaded, guillotined, for handing out skimpy pamphlets to college students. Hear this description of Clive James:

The Gestapo told her that if she recanted she would be allowed to live. She turned them down and walked without a tremor to the blade. The chief executioner later testified that he had never seen anyone die so bravely as Sophie Scholl. Not a whimper of fear, not a sigh of regret for the beautiful life she might have led. She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down, and she was no more.

That’s the way it’s portrayed in the movie, by the way. You’ll never forget that scene. Here’s an example, a modern example. I may be the only one here besides Khouria Denise who was alive at the time. The example of a life and a death based on wholeness and conviction and perfection. Sophie Scholl illustrates what it means to be teleos. I hope someday I can go back to Germany—I’ve always loved going there—go back and visit the tomb of St. Willibald in Eichstätt. Willibald was a nephew of your patron, wasn’t he? He was a nephew of Richard of Wessex, the first bishop of Eichstätt. I think of the preaching of Boniface and Willibald and the other English missionaries to Germany, and it bore fruit in Sophie Scholl. Centuries later, this fantastic person emerges, to give pride and a feeling of success to those men who preached the Gospel centuries earlier. Sophie Scholl means no compromise with the world, no holding back.

This morning let us take our leave of that miserable young man who walked away because he had so much stuff. Let us close our reflections this morning with a better of what Jesus proclaimed. “If you would be perfect, get rid of everything. Get rid of everything you have. Come, follow me.” Let each of us search in our own lives what that invitation might mean. Amen.