September 29, 2013

“Take Hold of Eternal Life”

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Psalm 91
Luke 16:19-31

Not long ago, I read about a period in Christian history in which many people were waiting until very late in life before they were baptized. Whereas many Churches today baptize infants and young children, and others ask people to wait until they are young adults and ready to make a conscious choice in accepting the lifetime commitment to following Jesus, there was a time around the 3rd – 4th centuries, following the period of Christian persecution, when many Christians would not be baptized until the end of their life – sometimes even receiving the Sacrament on their death beds.

One of the rationales for delaying baptism was the fear that after baptism they might sin again. Though they had been washed spiritually clean by their baptism, they weren’t sure what would happen if they made a serious mistake afterwards. Would God forgive them again? They weren’t sure, and so the baptism needed to be just before death so that they would be pure and holy at the end of their lives, and ready to be welcomed into heaven.

Another reason for putting off baptism until old age may have been that living the Christian life seemed onerous and stifling. Putting off baptism meant that people could live how they wanted – enjoying all the pleasures they desired – then repent and be baptized later, thus securing their comfort and joy in the afterlife as well.

The rich man in Jesus’ story should have thought of such a trick! He lived his whole life dressed in purple and fine linen, and feasting sumptuously every day. He enjoyed life, for sure, and didn’t even notice the poverty and pain of poor Lazarus outside his gate. He didn’t even realize that his life spent on himself and his own pleasure at the expense of others was a choice for which he might do well to repent before he died.

And so when the rich man died, as even the rich eventually do, he didn’t go to heavenly bliss with Lazarus, but he ended up in the other place. “If only I had known…” he must have thought, “If only someone had warned me about this torment, maybe I would have lived differently.” He even went so far as to ask Abraham for a special message back to his brothers who were still alive. Maybe Lazarus could be raised from the dead, go back to his father’s house, and warn them. Maybe they would believe him and change. Or maybe not.

But we don’t find out whether the brothers are convinced, because Abraham doesn’t agree to it. He says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Two things come to mind for me when I hear that line from Abraham. First I think of another man called Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus, who died and then was raised by Jesus. It was the last and the most amazing of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel of John, and it should have been convincing. But surprisingly, it wasn’t. Those who were missing the point of the law and the prophets of God, missed the point when Lazarus was raised as well. Instead of recognizing Jesus’ power and his identity as God’s son, they just got more angry and more determined to get rid of him.

And then, of course, I think of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. I can’t think of anything more definitive, anything more obvious for pointing out that there is a God, that life in this world is not all that there is, and that our decisions in this life make a difference for the next.

But I also think that the most common misperception about our Christian faith is the idea that our religion is mostly about figuring out how to live right so that when we die we’ll get to go to heaven. Certainly, our faith assures us that because of God’s grace and love for us in Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear when our earthly lives come to an end. But heaven? That’s a bonus, a gift beyond our deserving, not something to focus our attention on here and now.

I like the way Paul explains it to young Timothy who is following in Paul’s footsteps as a leader in the Church. First, Paul warns Timothy about getting focussed on the wrong things. He tells him that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” and that the desire to be rich can cause us to fall into temptation and harmful desires.

It’s not that having money is a bad thing in itself. Certainly, there are rich people who use their resources wisely and generously for the good of the wider community and those in need around them. But Paul is advising Timothy about where his focus, his purpose, and his priorities should be. He encourages him to find contentment with whatever he has: “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” After all, “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.”

For a moment, it sounds like the same warning that the rich man wanted to send back to his brothers: Don’t get caught up in your desire for money, and comforts, and things. You might be happy now, but you’ll regret it later!

But Paul’s message is a little different. He’s not encouraging Timothy to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, and love so that Timothy will one day go to heaven. He’s telling Timothy (and the rich people in Timothy’s community, as well) that eternal life begins now. “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

In other words, a life of striving for more and more, a life of storing up goods and always searching for the next new thing to make us happy doesn’t actually make us happy. No matter how much the advertisers are trying to convince us otherwise, money and things will not ultimately satisfy – either in this life or the next.

Paul invites the young man, Timothy, to “take hold of the eternal life, to which [he was] called and for which [he] made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” When he says that Timothy can take hold of eternal life, he doesn’t mean that Timothy is going to die tomorrow and go to heaven.

He means that meaningful, wonderful, blessed life in the presence of God begins now, and we have the opportunity to take hold of it today, just as Timothy did.

A few years ago when I was down in the U.S., I discovered how much religious programming they have on TV. As I flipped through the channels one evening, I found that almost half the stations were showing some kind of Christian show – most of it quite strange to a young Canadian Presbyterian. I stopped on one channel to watch a dynamic southern woman preacher. But it only took a minute for me to realize that the gospel she was preaching was not the one I knew.

You see, she was promising prosperity. She was telling her TV audience that if they had faith, and if they prayed and trusted Jesus, and if they sent her some money for her TV ministry, that they would be richly blessed. She literally told them that they would get rich. According to her interpretation of the scriptures, if the people gave their money generously, God would bless them abundantly in return… And not through the joy of giving, or through the good feeling of making a difference or seeing someone else being blessed, she actually told them that they would get rich.

So let me tell you this quite clearly… becoming a Christian, dedicating your life to pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, and love, and giving generously and sharing from what you have is not going to make you rich – at least not rich in money and things.

Indeed, Paul was clear when he was talking to Timothy that his calling was not going to be easy. Dedicating his life to God and following the way of Jesus was going to require a lot from him. “Fight the good fight of the faith,” Paul encouraged him. This Christian life and leadership is going to be difficult at times.

But it’s going to be worth it. And not just worth it because of a heavenly reward when we die. Talk to anyone in this church who is actively engaged in their faith. Talk to anyone you see spending their time, energy, and gifts on serving in one of the ministries of the church.

We’ll all tell you that our lives are richer, more meaningful, more peaceful, more hopeful, more joyful because we are learning to be content with what we have and to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.

Of course, we’re a long way from perfect, and we struggle with many of the same temptations and trials that everyone else does. But no matter what difficulties come our way, we know and remember that we are not alone. Our life with God is not something waiting for us after we die, but we are in God’s loving presence each and every day.

And so, when challenges come, we can turn to the assurance of God in passages like this morning’s Psalm 91: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue them and honour them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.” Thanks be to God.