So, the government has announced that there will be free school lunches for all infants. As one journalist commented:
Giving people something for nothing is rarely unpopular, even when they are paying for it through their taxes.
[Ross Hawkins, BBC political correspondent]
In other words, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has to be paid for. Not even JPC student suppers are free. There can be absolutely no doubt that they are extremely delicious and exceptionally good value. But free they are not. There's always a price to pay somewhere for anything that looks free. That’s the conclusion that the worldly wise amongst us came to a long time ago.
Now, you may be a Christian already. You may be looking into the Christian faith. Either way, I wonder if you are in the process of weighing up the cost of commitment to Christ. And if you are, I wonder which way you consider the scales are tipping. Are you in danger of being like the man who came to Jesus in that gospel reading? Have a look at that: Mark 10.17-31.
There are three vital questions in this passage. You can see them on my outline on the back of the service sheet, where you’ll also see that my title this evening is ‘A Price Worth Paying’. Two of the questions are explicit. First: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (in v 17). And secondly: “Then who can be saved?” (in v 26). The third question is implicit in what Peter says in v 28: “See, we have left everything and followed you.” But we’ll come to that later.
First, “GOOD TEACHER, WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?”
The first question is the crucial question asked by this rich young man (Matthew's Gospel tells us he was young.) He runs up to Jesus just as he’s about to set off on a journey (always the moment when unexpected visitors arrive) and asks him (there in verse 17):
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v 17)
Now here’s a man who thinks in terms of the bottom line - a businessman if you like. If he wants something, the first thing that comes into his mind is: 'What does it cost?' And the second question is: 'Is that a good price?' He’s a sensible, rational man and he wants to make a sound investment.
He knows that money isn't everything. He knows that there are issues of eternity that count when he’s totting up his assets and his liabilities. That, at least, is something. All too few of us take eternity into account as we shape our lives. And when we don’t, and we pursue money, or pleasure, or status with no thought for the future – let alone for eternity – the consequences can be drastic.
A few weeks ago the Times carried an article by a recent woman graduate. It was called ‘Sex on Campus’ and described how (I quote): “Dating at University has gone the way of the landline, replaced by hooking up – sex without relationships.” One student speaks of herself and her peers as “drunk on liberty.”
The writer quotes two graduates from Newcastle University. One says, “Casual relationships are definitely the flavour of the decade.” Another describes the promiscuity of her circle of friends, and then adds, “We aren’t doing anything bad.”
The writer does recognise, thankfully, that there are those who avoid this kind of culture, which she describes as “the thrill-seeking of a generation of adrenalin junkies.” “Maybe…”, she goes on, “we’re a generation strangled by our own independence… Maybe we’re just turned on by the idea of a successful career more then we’re turned on by the idea of a partner. Call us selfish, reckless, stupid .. it’s up to us to decide whether we want hook-up culture to define our twenties…”
And yet in a different article she also writes that: “The pressure to succeed at school, university and beyond is making young men and women miserable, ill — and suicidal…”
It is indeed up to you to decide how you’re going to live your life and who you’re going to live it for – whether or not you’re a student. And whatever are the choices that we make, there are costs. Some of them end up being paid even in the short term. So, for instance, that article gives an example of sexually transmitted disease being spread from partner to partner. But often the costs are paid in the long term - because in the end we can’t avoid the consequences in the future and on into eternity of how we behave now.
And let me say right away that if you’re already regretting past patterns of behaviour, you can find forgiveness, and a fresh start through faith in Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross for us cleanses us from all sin when we put our trust in him.
But unlike some of those students in that article, the rich young man who approaches Jesus is no secular atheist. His question is not 'Is there eternal life?' He knows there is, and he’s right. His question is 'What must I do to get it?' Nowadays no doubt he would call himself a Christian, probably come to church as well. He’s from a Christian family. He may be a member of a home group, or a student member of Focus or Christianity Explored. He’s keenly interested. But he wants to know the price before he buys.
Jesus always makes it crystal clear that there is a cost involved in following him. We shouldn’t hesitate for a moment to pay that price – but we do need to understand it. This rich man's question raises two issues that go right to the heart of this matter.
The first is this: Who is Jesus? 'Good Teacher…' the young man begins. But Jesus challenges him:
“Why do you call me good? No-one is good except God alone.” (v 18)
The same challenge comes to us. Do we really believe Jesus is God as he claims to be? C.S.Lewis in his book Mere Christianity famously puts the issue like this:
"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."
It’s not just Jesus a good teacher, but Jesus the Son of God, who addresses the rich young man. Verse 21:
Jesus, looking at [that young man], loved him… (v 21)
Jesus looks upon you. And because he’s God, he knows you inside out – all you’ve thought and said and done. And he loves you.
The second issue that the rich man's question raises is simply this: What do we have to do if we're going to have eternal life? Jesus answers that by saying, 'You know the commandments,' In effect, he is saying, 'Be perfect.' And with astonishing lack of insight the young man replies, in effect, 'I have been':
“Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” (v 20)
He sees no further than the letter of the law and says, 'I'm a decent guy. I've never done anyone any harm.' Like that promiscuous student who said, “We aren’t doing anything bad.” And maybe you haven’t behaved like that, but let's not smugly smile inwardly to ourselves about this. Aren't we all at times extremely self-indulgent about the way we assess our own lives?
Jesus knows better, and he digs up the root of this young man’s idolatrous life. His idol is not sex or success but wealth. The choice that faces him is simple: Who or what will be his god? Jesus? Or his great possessions? Verses 21-22:
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (v 21-22)
He took a look at this investment proposition. He got out his iPad with retina display, all new A6X chip, 4G and 128 Gigs and ran the numbers through his spreadsheet. No deal.
You see, God is not willing to be one of a portfolio of securities in our lives. You know the way it is with the stockmarket. One share goes down, as another goes up. I don't suppose too many student budgets stretch to a portfolio of shares. You may not be a player financially. But most of us play this game spiritually. We find our security in a range of things, and one amongst them is God. We find him very convenient temporarily when the others let us down. But that's just hedging your bets – and Jesus won't have it. He wants all that we are and all that we have.
No deal, thought the rich young man. Just not worth it. Too expensive. It looks good, this eternal life, but money in the bank looks better. And he turned his back on Jesus and walked away. I hope he changed his mind. He thought he was sophisticated. But he had just fallen for the world's biggest con-trick. Nothing is worth hanging on to if it means losing Christ. What must I do to inherit eternal life? You can't do anything. You can't pay God. But you may need to let go of everything. Which brings us to the next big question. So:
Secondly, “THEN WHO CAN BE SAVED?”
The disciples are watching all this, and in near despair they ask this next vital question:
“ Then who can be saved?” (v 26
None of us can be saved if it relies on us. No price we pay, no sacrifice we make, can be enough to book a place in heaven. We have to look elsewhere for the way.
The American evangelist Billy Graham was once visiting a town, and he needed to ask a young lad the way to the post office. He thanked the boy for his directions, and then said, 'If you come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to heaven.' The boy said, 'I don't think I'll be there. You don't even know the way to the Post Office.'
What do we have to do to get to heaven? There’s nothing we can do. No-one can be rescued from the hell we deserve unless God does it. Salvation is a gift of God – it is by grace, not by payment.
Julian Barnes in his prize-winning novel ‘The Sense of An Ending’ explores the way that things done thoughtlessly in young adulthood – indeed during student years – can lie dormant even for decades and then blow up in the faces of those who have done them. That’s what happens to the main character – though I won’t tell you the details by way of a spoiler! He reflects on what happens in these words:
My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been… Why had I reacted [in that way]? Hurt pride, pre-exam stress, isolation? Excuses, all of them. And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled and primeval. Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.
It’s a bleak portrayal of life lived with no knowledge of Christ and the hope that he brings. Because it’s right that we can do nothing to save ourselves from the guilt and remorse of our past sin when it catches up with us in this life – nor can we save ourselves from the day of reckoning that lies beyond, when we’ll have to give account. But God can save us. That’s why our only hope is to turn to him and trust him.
Jesus laid his life down and died to pay the price of our sin – the price that we deserve to pay, the price of eternal death. Jesus died to rescue us, as the Bible says, “from the wrath to come”.
Any price we pay out of gratitude is like loose change in our pockets in comparison with the price that Jesus paid for us. “Then who can be saved?” Verse 27:
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (v27)
Now we come to the third and final question. It’s implicit in what Peter pipes up with next in verse 28. So:
Thirdly, “SEE, WE HAVE LEFT EVERYTHING AND FOLLOWED YOU”
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” (v28)
Why does he say that? Surely it's because, even as he compares himself favourably with the rich man, Peter is falling into the same bottom-line kind of thinking. In other words his question is: 'What's in it for me?' Jesus doesn't rebuke him, but with great grace he takes the question seriously. Three things are evident from his response.
First of all, there is indeed a price to be paid in following Jesus. They had left everything. If we’re going to take hold of all that Christ gives us, we do have to let go of everything else. We have to be absolutely clear eyed about that. Jesus lists homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields. In other words, security, people and possessions all have to play second fiddle to Jesus. How does that affect you? Is Christ asking you to end your dependence on your bank balance or your salary? Does your faith threaten to isolate you from your family? Are you giving up valuable time to spend with your fellow Christians learning together from the Bible? Are you having to stand out from the student crowd as a known Christian, with lines that you will not cross?
Towards the end of the 19th Century, C.T.Studd gave up a privileged family background, a small fortune, and his position as a star England test cricketer to preach the gospel in China. The motto he gave to the mission organisation he founded was this:
“If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.”
There is a price to be paid as we follow Jesus. Are we prepared for that?
Secondly, Jesus makes a startling promise. It's there in verses 29 to 30: anything you give up for him will be paid back over and over again now in this life. Yes, it comes with 'persecutions'. We’ll have to wait for heaven before the thorns are stripped off the roses. But God is no man's debtor.
Then thirdly, there at the end of v 30, Jesus promises eternal life.
We heard the other day that soon we’ll be charged 5p for every carrier bag we get from a supermarket. That, said one newspaper editorial, is long overdue. I quote:
For the want of two seconds' thought on the part of shoppers before leaving the house, single-use plastic bags are being handed out hand over fist, 750 million of them a year… This is an important measure. It will reduce landfill and litter, benefit wildlife, but also serve as an everyday reminder that a throwaway consumer culture is no longer tenable.
[The Herald Scotland, 29 June 2013]
What was the headline?
A price worth paying to fix the plastic bag problem.
The price is worth paying. How very much more is that true of life with Jesus.
There is a cost in following him. It’s not a payment for eternal life – because Jesus has paid that once for all. But because we follow Christ, we cannot follow anyone else who leads us away from Christ. Because we follow Christ, we’ll get caught in the fall-out of the explosion of evil that he took full-on. But any price we pay will be repaid to us over and over again even in this life. And in heaven it will be forgotten in the glory of it all.
Jesus, looking at that rich young man, loved him, and called him to pay a price worth paying. Jesus is looking at us. He loves us. Now he’s calling us to pay that price worth paying. We should not hesitate. We will not regret it.