A hundredfold blessing
by Isaac S. Villegas
Oct 14, 2012
As long as you perform your deeds for the sake of the kingdom of heaven or God or your eternal salvation, in other words for an external reason, things are not truly well with you.
~ Meister Eckhart, 14th century[i]
Is it worth it? The Christian life — is it worth it? To live in the way of Jesus, to come back to church, over and over again, for years upon years? What’s the pay off?
That’s what Peter wants to know in the story we just heard. After the rich man decides not to be a follower, Peter asks Jesus if it’s really worth it. With such a high cost — to leave everything behind — is it worthwhile to be a follower. Peter and the others have abandoned a decent life, and now Peter is wondering if it’s worth it to keep on wandering through villages with Jesus. “Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold in this age…and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:28-29).
So, are we in it for a reward? Is that what the Christian life is all about? To do this, to not do that; to believe in this, not that — all for the sake of a payout in the end, some kind of cosmic retirement plan: to “receive a hundredfold in this age and in the age to come eternal life.”
I don’t know why, but my thoughts these days keep on taking me back to one of the churches I grew up in: a congregation where our faith was tangible, where we lived in the victory of Jesus, where we claimed the promises of God for the here and now, where we were ready to receive a hundredfold of God’s blessings in this age, as Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel. At our church, we celebrated the day of Pentecost every Sunday, and on Wednesday and Saturday nights, and Fridays too. Our youth group got together on Friday nights for Happenin’ Youth Church, where we joined over 400 youth at the local Foursquare congregation for more worship, for more Pentecost. The Foursquare Church was the only other congregation in Tucson who understood the Holy Spirit like we did — not just understood, but lived in the reality of God’s blessing and care and joy and power.
Let me give you the abbreviated history of the Foursquare Church, for context and because you should know something about Aimee Semple McPherson. After all, it’s rare for Christian denominations in the United States to name a woman as their founder. In 1922, as she spoke to thousands in Oakland, California, McPherson saw a vision while on stage, a vision of the four faces of Jesus, inspired by the prophet Ezekiel: the face of the historical Jesus, whose life and ministry reveals to us the life we are to live; the face of Jesus as a lion, the mighty one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire; the ox, revealing Jesus as the one who bears our burdens, taking upon himself our sickness; and, lastly, the face of the eagle, who reveals Jesus as the Coming king, who reigns with power and victory in the church. With this prophetic vision of the four faces of Jesus, McPherson started preaching what she called “the complete gospel” or the “foursquare gospel,” which became the message around which gathered the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. And these are the people we hung out with on Friday nights, kindred spirits.
I could talk about all the ways that my experience at that church wasn’t healthy, but that’s not very interesting. I’d rather talk about an important truth they instilled in me, a Christian sensibility that has stuck with me after all these years. They taught me that faith is primarily about the here and now, about our daily life, about living in God’s reality on earth, because through the Holy Spirit, God is here, God is now. The divide between heaven and earth is permeable, it’s porous.
Our church was called Abundant Life, taken from Jesus’ words in John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” We lived as people of abundant life, in the present. Being a Christian had everything to do with experiencing God today, not about eternal life with God after we die — the afterlife was a distraction for us, I hardly remember any talk about heaven and hell. To borrow the words of Joel Osteen (which I’ll only do this one time and never again): Christianity is about your best life now — your best life now, not later, not after death, not in heaven.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold in this age…and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:28-29).
The sacrifice is worth it, not only for the eternal reward, but the blessings in this life, a hundredfold blessing. Or, as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6: “Give and it will be given to you — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over” (Lk 6:38). I heard that verse a lot.
Our favorite name for God was Jehovah Jireh, the God who provides. I can still remember a song we sang at church, over and over again:
Jehovah Jireh, my provider, his grace is sufficient for me, for me, for me. Jehovah Jireh, my provider, his grace is sufficient for me. The Lord shall supply all my needs, according to his riches and glory. He will give his angels charge over me, Jehovah Jireh cares for me, for me, for me. Jehovah Jireh cares for me.
Now, I’ve heard some people call this sort of faith “the prosperity gospel,” which is a way of saying that the stories of the church I was a part of, and all the others who continue in that tradition, coalesce around a message of prosperity — material prosperity, health and wealth, healing and success — while the rest of Christianity concerns itself with traditional teachings, with faithful Christian values, which do not include doctrines of prosperity. All the rest of us have a normal gospel. Unlike the so-called prosperity churches, mainstream Christianity is not tied up with notions of success, with ideas of reward, with hope in a payment.
But isn’t that how we think about the promise of heaven and the threat of hell: as payment, heaven as payment for our earthly investment in Jesus or hell as payment for our investment in disbelief? — heaven as a payment for all the sacrifices we make in this life, eternal life as the reward for trusting Jesus, heavenly mansions as the gift we receive for our faith.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold in this age…and in the age to come eternal life.”
A hundredfold blessing. Prosperity in this age and in the age to come. Are these promises of reward what make us think that it’s worth it to remain a Christian, to live as faithfully as we can, to worship God? — these promises about this life and life in the age to come? Does the idea of a reward make your sacrifices, your faithfulness, your investments, worth it? Are you here, right now, at church, at worship, listening to me, because you want to prosper, because you want to receive your payment, in this age and the age to come?
If you are — if you’re here because you hope for a future with God, if you’re here because you hope for the prosperity of heaven — I can’t blame or judge you, because you would find company among the great cloud of witnesses in the church through the ages. I think the central voices of the church would affirm such a hope in these promises of God’s gracious provision, God’s compensation for the sacrifices of the faithful: this gospel of prosperity, this hope in a God who rewards our faith in this life and the next with healing, with provision, with the power of the Holy Spirit, with abundant and eternal life. We hear this gospel in the stories of martyrs, who sacrificed their bodies for the sake of life in the age to come. We hear it in the lives of the saints, who gave their money to the poor in order to store up treasures in heaven. And we hear a gospel of prosperity in the lives of ordinary Christians in ages past, who used holy relics to access God’s blessing for their homes and fields, who walked miles along pilgrimage trails to find healing through icons infused with God’s heavenly power.[ii]
But there are other voices, minor characters, mystics and heretics of the church, who spoke of a different way: a Christian life without the need of payment, without the need of prosperity, without the need for God to compensate the sacrifices made during life with heavenly blessings. Meister Eckhart called it whylessness:[iii] a faithful life that doesn’t need the threat of God’s judgment or the promise of God’s blessing, people who follow Jesus because he lived a life that was truly life, true life, abundant life, where sharing money with the poor is good because sharing money with the poor is good, because the act itself is liberation from greed, because in our sharing we discover friends, sisters and brothers, a family of people who, through generosity, experience the blessings of the good life: the gifts of life, eternal life, a hundredfold blessing in this age, God’s life here and now, God’s life without end.
I’ll end with the question I started with: Is it worth it? The Christian life — why is it worth it for you to keep it up? I assume you have your reasons. After all, you are here again this week: here to sing and pray and share life together.
Perhaps you don’t have a reason, or at least a reason that would make sense if you were to try to say it or think it because, as Eckhart put it, “love has no why, no reason,” which gets us to a gospel that sounds like good news to me: that God loves us without ulterior motives, that God loves us without a purpose, without a calculation, without an incentive, without evaluation or judgment, without a reason, other than that we are alive, we live and move and have being, we breath and feel — the good news that “God loves us without a why.”[iv]
[i] Quoted in Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Fortress Press, 2001), 59-60.
[ii] For an account of Christian practices and theologies of prosperity during the Medieval ages, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (Zone Books, 2011), esp. chapter 2, “The Power of Objects,” and chapter 3, “Holy Pieces.”
[iii] Soelle, The Silent Cry, 59-62.
[iv] Ibid., 61.