FUTILITY AND SUBSTANCE

Sermon delivered on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity the 31st July 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Eccles 1:2, 12-14; 2: 18-23         Colossians 3:1-11         S. Luke 12: 13-21

Colossians 3:2: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth.”

Taken as a whole, the three Scripture readings today can challenge us to ask the question, “How are we to make sense of life? The New Testament lessons provide some clear guidelines towards an answer, but the lesson from Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament provides some thinking on the question without such clear guidelines, and provisionally at least, comes up with a negative answer. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” is famously declared. The word translated “Vanity” means literally “Vapour”. Moreover, recently I discovered that the Greek word used by St. Paul in Romans 8:20 for "futility" is the same word, used in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek, for this word that we have as "vanity". St. Paul is framing his argument in similar terms to the book Ecclesiastes when he declares that outside the Gospel of Jesus Christ the whole creation was subjected to futility. In this outside-the-Gospel analysis man gains nothing for all his toil under the sun. The underlying reason presented for this position is the fact of death. When we die, we can take nothing with us, nothing of what we have achieved, no savings account, no house, no property, no stocks and shares, no creature comforts. We must leave these for others to enjoy, and those who enjoy them might not even have the wisdom or cleverness that we have had, indeed they might even be fools but they will get some share of all that we worked for just the same.

Commentators have debated and differed on the issue of whether this is the actual view of the author of Ecclesiastes, understood in the early chapters to be King Solomon, or whether Qoheleth - a Hebrew rendering of the speaker’s designation, sometimes referred to as the Preacher - is writing from concealed premises, addressing a general public whose view is bounded by the horizons of this world; meeting them on their own ground, and proceeding then to convict them of its inherent meaninglessness. The Old Testament point of view of the implicit grace of God as a whole is not being reflected by the grounds that Qoheleth projects. Indeed, whether or not Qoheleth was really Solomon, Solomon himself did not have to undergo the perils of war that his father David did to establish the kingdom whose throne he inherited. It could be said that David and his generation did all the work establishing the kingdom which Solomon enjoyed. That is not to denigrate the many great peacetime works which King Solomon undertook, though his underlying approach was in part responsible for the splitting apart of the kingdom in the days of his son Rehoboam who succeeded him. The Biblical narrative explains that for all the recorded wisdom of Solomon, towards the end of his life even he bore the mark of a fool, because he was not exclusively faithful to his God, but became multicultural to the point of idolatry.

We should not forget also that the Old Testament can be said to applaud and find great meaning in the fact that Israel inherited by conquest the properties that others had established, reaping where others had sown. The author of Ecclesiastes may be said to reflect a more modern, individualistic human rights point of view than does the Old Testament in general, and the conclusions of ultimate meaninglessness that his view generates, should offer to us who are in one way or another sustained by an individualistic human rights culture a great warning. It is not in its overt fairness towards those who live it that we should look for life’s ultimate meaning, however tempting it may be to do so. For the meaning of life we must use wider considerations and apply other guidelines.

In our Gospel today Our Lord responds to somebody who comes to Him with a legal complaint against his brother rather after the mind-set of Qoheleth. By means of the parable of a rich man that He called “Fool”, Jesus showed that without transformation this His questioner’s life was meaningless, and the division of the inheritance that he sought would not make it any better. The real issue, therefore, was much deeper. Jesus’ parable taught of the man who thought he had everything covered by the abundance of the bearing of his land, and his capacity to store it. The incalculable factor of his mortality, though, was the fly in his ointment. Our mortality, of course, is a factor that is unknown for all of us. If our life-scheme does not take that into account, then our life-scheme is challenged in its meaning. Do we in practice take our mortality into account? For us who are baptised into Christ, however, when we think of life and death we don’t only think of the death of the aging or diseased or disordered body, but of dying and rising again with Christ, for this is the witness of our baptism.

St. Paul puts it very clearly in Colossians 3:3f : “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth. For you died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God; whenever Christ, who is our life, is manifested, then you also will be manifested with Him in glory.” We are not merely to be followers of Christ, as of an Exemplar: we are also to die in Christ and to be resurrected in Christ, living out our baptism. Any “life” that we might claim that has not been put through that constriction of the death of Christ will turn out to be meaningless. And this is what we are instructed in Colossians. We are to look into every area of our life and, as it were, squeeze it through the constriction of the death of Christ. Is it our possessions that we are depending upon, or have they first been given to Christ, and He is lending some back to be employed for our use? Have we committed our employment and its tasks to Him, so that those things we enjoy about them are a lending back to us from Him? Are our marriages, and our family and other relationships committed to Him in the first instance?

Ecclesiastes points to the despair and frustration of what he calls life “under the sun”. St. Paul agrees, but says that there is a real sense in which life “under the sun” must be put to death. He specifically lists sexual vice, impurity, inordinate appetite, evil desire and covetousness which (he says) is idolatry. We must surely not fault St. Paul for his fierceness about these things, but praise him for his realism. It is we who are baptised into Christ that he is talking about, rather than merely those outside the Church. Perhaps with a glance back to the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he says “On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” If we take heed, we can indeed avoid both the wrath of God and the despair and frustration and futility of life “under the sun”. The transcendent God has already acted for us and upon our situation to redeem us. Responsible to Him, we should try therefore to pick up on any sin before it gets full-blown. Put to death something in the realm of thought before it gets to the realm of word. Put to death something in the realm of word before it gets to the realm of deed. Yet put it not just to any death. The death that it is to be put to is the death of Christ, so that “whenever Christ, who is our life, is manifested, then we also will be manifested with Him in glory.”

St. Paul lists other things too which are to be put away or put off. Yet the final result of this process is positive and not negative. Christians are sometimes characterised as kill-joys, but, on the contrary, what is to be killed is not joy, but joy’s pretenders and preventers. Jesus said “Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it”. C. S. Lewis wrote to the effect that when someone puts to death as he follows Christ some aspect of his personality for the sake of Christ, he becomes ultimately not less himself, but more himself. This is the mind-set that makes life meaningful, even through its apparent unfairness at times. Having died for Him, we also will be manifested and our true character will be shown forth, whenever Christ, who is our true life, is manifested in us.