Church of the Incarnation
The Point of a Human Life
One of the things that I loved about doing my PhD was how much time I got to spend examining so many lives in so much detail. One of the things that studying that level of detail about people’s lives has taught me is expressed very well in our readings today: “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (ideas, wisdom, things that secure us and trap us),” we hear in our Gospel reading. Then in Paul’s letter to the Colossian Church we hear, “therefore set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Our alternative reading from Ecclesiastes which we didn’t hear this morning really drives home the point clearly. The author laments to God that all his work - work that is challenging and that produces wise and fruitful outcomes for other people - isn’t ultimately fruitful for him. In fact, it seems to benefit only those who come after him. “So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.” And yet the author confesses to God that his despair at this unfair situation is, “vanity and [so] a great evil.”
Paul speaks precisely to this issue of fairness. Throughout history, we have tried to categorize and classify people on the basis of different attributes: gender, class, wealth, culture, language, skin colour, intellect, influence, power etc. and we have often lived as if those of one group deserve either something more or less than those in another group. It is fair, people have argued through time, for this or that group to have more, to be educated, to vote, to be a citizen, to get a job, to live a certain lifestyle, because they are of this or that category. Paul says, get your minds out of the practice of thinking in earthly categories for they are leading you into sinful actions: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry), anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. You don’t like how someone did something: cut them down, after all, you’re smarter, you’re their boss, you’re a true Canadian, you’re politically wise, you’ve got the right skin colour, you’ve got the right tribe or family tradition. Except here’s God’s response to that spoken through his servant the Jew, Paul, who dropped his Jewish pretences and became a Greek to the Greek’s so that they might know God: “seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image [Christ]. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
In Christ everyone is equal. Not the same. There are absolutely distinctions in all sorts of things: family upbringing, marriage status, ability, skin colour, education, in biological sex. Yet everyone of those distinct people are sinners and each is offered life eternal in God. This is the sole eternal basis of our equality. Therefore, none of our works, none of our attributes, none of our wealth or possessions, or knowledge, or wisdom matters one iota, unless it is used to build other distinct people up in Jesus Christ. 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
What does it mean to be rich toward God? Simply put it means using the things that you have been given as a gift by God (all the things you have) to work toward God’s mission of drawing other people to him. It means not standing in God’s way either, which we tend to do when we succumb to our temptations to use what we’ve been given to secure ourselves from the fears we all have of loss, of humiliation, of being weak and losing capacity and power. It means recalibrating how we think about not just what we have, but about who you are. You are ashes and dust and to dust you shall return. The things you do, the way you speak to and treat others, your work, how you spend your time, they constitute the very person that you are. What survives all of history remains solely to the extent that it conforms to Jesus’s own life of giving up his claims to superiority and distinction so that others might have his life.That’s it. That’s the summary of everything that you are and it is all that you will come to mean, for all that will remain is Christ. All else is pure vanity that will vanish and be extinguished when God is all in all. AMEN