In the past five months, I’ve preached three funerals. One for a stranger in my city. Two for my grandparents. Funerals for Christians are strange floods of emotion. When a saint dies, family and friends are left in an emotional lightning storm. Sorrow and joy collide. Tears fall with grief of loss, but are wiped away with hope of gain in Christ.
Every person handles death differently. Some are inconsolable. Others are more stoic. Some prefer to grieve in groups. Others would rather weep alone. Though everyone may respond differently to death, everyone is uncomfortable at a funeral. Whether a body or urn is displayed at the front of the room, we all cringe at the sight. It causes us to face the unavoidable reality that we are all on a crash course with death. The older and weaker we become, the more real the situation sets in–“one day that will be me.”
Death is coming for us all. Naturally, though unwillingly, we are faced with the question of all questions: what happens after death? And if we believe anything happens after death, we want to know what we can do have a pleasant, pleasurable afterlife.
Once in Jesus’ life, a man approached him with a question about life after death (Mark 10:17-31). He asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a question we only ask or think about when we are acutely aware of the inevitable. Our life will end. This man believes in an afterlife. He wants to know how his afterlife can be good. He wants to know how his afterlife can be spent in peace and pleasure. He’s asking how he can spend eternity with God.
The question, “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” is natural. Surely there is something we can do in our life to earn reward after death. Maybe if we are good, kind, and moral people, we will earn some browning points with God. Maybe if our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds, we will inherit eternal life. Heck, maybe we’re off the hook and everyone inherits eternal life. Jesus creatively clarifies things for this man and for us.
He walks the man through half of the Ten Commandments. He asks the man if he has kept the Law. The man responds, “Yep.” With eyes rolled, we doubt his sincerity. But he was probably thinking in terms of degrees of obedience and disobedience. His affirmative response is probably more like, “More or less, I’ve obeyed the Law. I’ve been a pretty good person. I have my faults, but I’m a pretty decent guy.” On the surface, I’m sure many of us would consider ourselves closer to law-keepers than law-breakers.
Then Jesus drops the bomb. He says, “If you’re a law-keeper, then you only lack one thing to inherit eternal life.” We can see the man’s eyes widen and his palms sweat in anticipation. Just one thing? Jesus says, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me” (Mark 10:21). That’s it. Just give up your self-sufficiency and depend on me. Give away all your earthly treasure and follow me, then eternal life will be yours.
Just one thing. But he couldn’t do it. The incredibly wealthy man was devastated because he knew he couldn’t give up his financial security. He couldn’t give away his treasure, not even to gain the one thing he was looking for.
In this story, Jesus does what he does best. He exposes this man’s heart. In one simple proposal, he digs down past all of his self-sufficiency and self-righteousness to show him his need. The man’s greatest need was to recognize his need. Jesus later uses this to teach that it is difficult for those with wealth to enter God’s kingdom. This is because wealth creates a false sense of security. This rich man had everything he needed and wanted, yet he was spiritually bankrupt. He was a slave to his possessions.
What is the key to unlock the deep mysteries of eternal life? A humble recognition that we don’t have it all together. A child-like dependance on Jesus to provide for all of our unrighteousness. The key to facing death with sorrowful joy and deep hope is to hold all that we have loosely, discard our self-sufficiency, and cling to Jesus. The key to inheriting eternal life is to become like a needy child. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.