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Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost 

Readings: Joel 2:23–32; 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18 & Luke 18:15–30

The 2nd of October marked the second anniversary of my Mum’s death, and my sister and I gathered with our respective children and grandchildren that afternoon to inter Mum’s ashes. The occasion reminded of the suddenness of Mum’s death. She was 89 years old when she died, but she had actually been in reasonably good health, with no serious, underlying health problems, so her death was totally unexpected, and came as a shock.

I had always imagined that Mum’s health would slowly deteriorate, and I had expected that we would have time together to talk about her life, reminisce on special moments, and discuss her faith and her thoughts about death, and what might exist beyond this mortal world. Sadly, that didn’t eventuate. It did, however, prompt me to reflect on the events of my own life thus far, to consider my own mortality, and to think about my attitude to death, and what comes after this mortal life.

And I have to say, that as I was preparing this week’s sermon, I was really struck by the words of the Apostle Paul in his Second Letter to Timothy. As I’ve mentioned in each of the two previous weeks, in this letter we basically have Paul’s “last words”. He is being held in a prison in Rome, and is awaiting execution. He knows full well what his future holds. He actually describes it in the opening verse of today’s passage from the letter when he says, “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” The term “libation” refers to a drink offering, which is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament as a form of sacrifice to God. Paul is resigned to his fate, and he calmly accepts his impending death as a sacrifice.

What really strikes me in today’s passage is the way in which Paul reflects on his life, in particular on his time in ministry as an apostle of Jesus – “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul is satisfied and content with his situation and what he has achieved. He is comforted by the thought that he has successfully done what he was called to do, and that he has remained faithful to the end. He therefore has no regrets.

By comparison, the figure of the rich ruler in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, does seem regretful. In the familiar story of what one must do to gain eternal life, after hearing the man say that he has faithfully kept God’s commandments, Jesus instructs the man to sell everything he owns and to give the proceeds to the poor, before becoming a follower of Jesus. Regretfully, the man is unable to part with his wealth. He has become too attached to his possessions and wealth, and prioritises them over his loyalty and commitment to God. Jesus then introduces the parable of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, to demonstrate how difficult it will be, for someone like the rich ruler who prioritises wealth and possessions over God, to enter the kingdom of God. 

Earlier in today’s passage Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Jesus wasn’t saying that the kingdom of God belongs to children because they are sweet and innocent. In the ancient world, people’s attitudes toward children were very different. They often considered children worthless and even disposable. It was actually perfectly legal in the Greco–Roman world to abandon a child one didn’t wish to raise. Children were commonly seen as a source of family income in the future, and of security in old age—or as a way to pass on the family name and traditions. 

So what Jesus was really saying, is that the kingdom of God belongs to those who, like little children, appear to be of no importance. Characteristic then of the kingdom is hospitality, and reception of the vulnerable and the marginalised, who are represented in this story by children. The figure of the rich ruler then, wealthy and the owner of many possessions, is in direct contrast to this depiction of the kingdom.

The reply that Jesus gave to the rich ruler, raised doubts about just who can receive salvation, and prompted an emotional outburst from the Apostle Peter who felt that he and the other disciples had done what the ruler did not do. Jesus acknowledges this by assuring Peter that all who have left to follow him will be rewarded not only in this present age but, more importantly, in the age to come they will receive eternal life. 

This is the heavenly reward the Apostle Paul envisions as he awaits his impending death and martyrdom. Paul refers to his heavenly reward as  the “crown of righteousness”. Those who competed in Greek athletic races and won obtained a victor’s crown made of olive branches; military victors were given special wreaths as well. The spiritual equivalent is the full attainment of righteousness through Jesus; being reconciled to God in the present age, and for eternity in the age to come. 

Paul faced death calmly, knowing that he would be rewarded by Jesus. Is our life preparing us for death? Do we share Paul’s confident expectation of meeting Jesus? The good news is that the heavenly reward is not just for giants of the faith like Paul, but for all who believe that we are reconciled to God through our faith in Jesus. Paul gave these words to encourage Timothy and us, so that no matter how difficult the fight seems, we can keep fighting.

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