“A Manifesto” on Luke 18:18-30 by Joe Ellis — November 5, 2023
We’re supposed to be in a Jonah series, but instead I’m reading this passage from Luke. Why? Because, both the story of the Rich Young Ruler and the story of Jonah explore a similar theme. The theme is about what happens when we say ‘no’ to the Lord God, or to His Son, Jesus Christ.
Now, the ‘no’ that happens in the Rich Young Ruler story troubles me in a way that Jonah’s ‘no’ doesn’t. In the Jonah story, Jonah says ‘no’ with his feet, he goes in the complete opposite direction to Nineveh. But God chases Jonah down in spectacular fashion. In a weird way, that’s comforting. God sends an enormous storm after Jonah that threatens to take apart the ship he’s on. Then to underline the point God sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah whole and take Him to the depths. Jonah says ‘no’ to God’s call, and God fiercely pursues Jonah. In some strange way, this is comforting. The storm and fish say that I can ignore God’s first call, I can say no to God’s call on my life, and if God is really serious then He’ll get my attention by sending me a storm. Of course, I’d prefer that He not reduce my life to a shambles, but if He does, it will make a good testimony.
As I mentioned, the Rich Young Ruler also says ‘no’ to Jesus. But before I go further, let’s give the Rich Young Ruler a name, just so I don’t have to keep saying Rich Young Ruler over and over again. Let’s call him George. So, Jesus invites George to follow him, and George says ‘no’. Jesus just lets George walk away.
I’ve always been seriously troubled that Jesus doesn’t go after Him like God did with Jonah. I wasn’t able to put words to that until I was invited to meditate on this passage in the book Awakening Love. I realized that it's disturbing to me that Jesus lets George just walk away. He doesn’t send any storms or big fish after George. George isn’t shipwrecked, he just walks away from Jesus. I’ve wanted the story to tell me that Jesus goes after George and just lowers the bar, maybe like this: “Hey, George, I know I asked a lot of you back there. You don’t really have to give away everything that you have, just believe in me and that’s enough.” George does seem pretty keen — which of you would let George walk away when he won’t give away all his stuff. He seems like he’s really seeking. Why doesn’t Jesus give him a challenge that is more within his reach? Maybe Jesus could just invite George to a Bible Study? Maybe Jesus could just give George a great devotional? Maybe Jesus could just say, “Hey, I’ll be preaching at this synagogue every Saturday, you should come.” Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus says, “Get rid of everything you own and come follow me.” George doesn’t want to do that, he says ‘no’ and walks away — and Jesus let’s him! No storm. No getting thrown overboard. No huge fish swallowing him. George just walks home.
Now typically when preachers preach on this passage of the Rich Young Ruler, we spend a lot of time making clear that Jesus isn’t calling every single Christian to get rid of all their stuff — and I agree that’s not what Jesus is doing here. But I’m not going to spend time on that because I don’t want to distract from the point that Jesus lets us say ‘no’ to His call.
In my role as pastor, I’ve realized that I have been often afraid that people will say ‘no.’ So, much of my energy goes into presenting ideas and information. Ideas are hard to say ‘no’ to — you can agree or disagree with ideas. But if you don’t want to do anything with the ideas, then I won’t really feel rejected because I never asked anything of you. Jesus has more of a backbone and that’s why this story make me so uncomfortable. Jesus gives a call to action, and when George says ‘no’, Jesus let’s him walk away. That’s nerves of steal.
What would you rather have? A god who expects little of you other than agreeing with a few of his ideas, or a God who demands you to order your whole life around Him? Truthfully, I would be so bored by that first god. I‘m so bored by the thought of a god that’s mainly concerned about me thinking the right things.
I want to follow a God who calls me to offer my body as a willing sacrifice. I desire to serve a God who owns everything I have, a God who desires us to make known His love not only to our neighbours, but to make known his love to our enemies, as Jonah found out. That first god of ideas demands nothing of us and will do nothing for us. But the God of Jesus Christ will consume us all with a devouring fire and lead us radically to be transformed in Him.
Yet the scary thing for me is that the God who says, “Come and follow me,” allows us to walk away. He allows us to say ‘no.’ We don’t see what happened to George after he walked away. Probably he kept on living his charmed life, things probably kept going as they did before he encountered the seemingly impossible call of Jesus.
But there are those who say ‘yes’ to Jesus’ call. After George goes home the disciples are talking about who can be saved. Jesus answers, “What is impossible with many is possible with God.” His point is that saying ‘yes’ is a miracle — we can only say ‘yes’ through God’s power. And in response, Peter says, “We have left all we had to follow you!” Peter has said ‘yes’ to Jesus’ call. God’s power worked in Peter so that He could say ‘yes.’ And the beauty of Peter’s life of ‘yes’ is that he constantly says ‘yes' so wonderfully imperfect ways George said ‘no’ and went to the safety of his home. Peter said ‘yes’ and at one point found himself drowning in the middle of the sea to get pulled out by Jesus. That’s much better than saying no and getting eaten by a huge fish.
Here is my dream. Let’s be a people who practice saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ call. Not just saying ‘yes’ to having certain right ideas about God. But let’s say ‘yes’ with our actions. And let’s not be too hung up about making sure that our ‘yes’ is the right sort of ‘yes’. What we all love about Peter is how often His ‘yes’ was the wrong sort of ‘yes’. On the mountain of transfiguration, when they encountered Moses and Elijah with a glowing Jesus, Peter said, “This is awesome! Let’s make tents!” The narrator said that Peter didn’t know what He was talking about. Shortly after that Jesus asks who the disciples think He is. Peter answers with a beautiful ‘yes.’ “You are the Messiah!” he says. But when Peter tells Jesus that he shouldn’t talk about being crucified, Jesus shouts “Get behind me, Satan!” to Peter. Peter is full of enthusiastic ‘yes’s’ that need to be modified.
Let’s be like Peter. Let’s keep finding ways of saying ‘yes’ with full force enthusiasm that might need some modification by the Spirit. Let’s risk trusting that Jesus will correct us, maybe even rebuke us when we go wrong. Let’s do that, rather than saying “no, I don’t want to get it wrong,” and walk away.
Now I think that our church family says ‘yes’ in a lot of ways. We say ‘yes’ in serving each other, helping each other, being there for each other. I think we say ‘yes’ to one another in being a place where we can be authentically ourselves and not bring judgment. I think that we say ‘yes’ in our desire to be a place of respite for the down and out, or people who feel marginalized and outcast. I think there are many beautiful ways that we say ‘yes’.
Here is where I would love to see our community grow in saying ‘yes’ to Jesus. I would like to see us grow together in saying ‘yes’ to practices that lead us deeper into experiencing the depths of Jesus Christ. I know many of us have some great practices around entering into the presence of Jesus — but I’ve also talked with some people who have spoken of their experience of feeling Jesus as simply distant. Sometimes, even often, God does withhold his presence to help us grow in our faith. That is a different sort of thing than not knowing how to enter into His presence, or not taking steps towards His presence. I’m wondering if we’ve lost something of the way into His presence. I wonder if we may have forgotten how to say ‘yes’ to His presence. I wonder if sometimes we can get more comfortable in the realm of theological ideas than risk drawing close to Him.
We’ve maybe been disturbed by all sorts of crazy ways that people try and get closer to God, and we don’t want to be like them. But maybe a little crazy wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I think that a crazy ‘yes’ like Peter’s is easier to work with than a sober ‘no’ like George’s. Let’s dare to get it wrong. Let’s dare to be stupid. But let’s dare to say ‘yes,’ with our whole lives and plunge towards Jesus in search of His presence. His grace is far more than enough to handle our stupidity. We have three team captains before us: George, Jonah, and Peter. Whose team do you want to pick?