Most of what I did as a philosopher was learning theories and digging deeply into the thoughts of these intellectuals by poring over dusty tomes and oversized books. And rather than having practical ways of embodying the wisdom of people like Socrates and Plato, illustrating through my actions the truth that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living,’ I regurgitated their thoughts into term papers and final exams. And I’m willing to bet that many of you share a similar experience of being educated, where the process of learning the wisdom of others was not so much a process of becoming transformed, but was mostly a process of memorization, analysis, and repetition. In our modern quests to become wise, we are taught primarily to know what other people said, to fill our minds to the brim with nuggets of truth that we can recall at a moment’s notice. But we aren’t truly empowered to become somebody different, somebody better than we were before we started our respective learning processes.
I can’t help but wonder if the Teacher from Ecclesiastes pursued a Bachelor in Philosophy when I read his famous words: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” I also can’t help but wonder if he was able to see the future, into our time, when we have arrived at a point in history where, once again, the objectivity of truth is obfuscated to achieve the ends of those greedy for power and influence. The tone of despair permeates his words, and you get the sense that this is a man at the end of his days, reflecting on all that he has seen in his long life…the quest for wisdom, the quest for truth, the toil and folly of humanity. And as he puts pen to paper, writing out all of his thoughts, the only thing he can muster is an indictment of the human quest for wisdom. In his estimation, chasing after wisdom is like chasing after the wind, because it has resulted not in the transformation and exaltation of the human race, but lives of pain and bone-deep tiredness. “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. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
And not to seem overly critical of the Teacher, I can totally relate to his sentiments. He was a man looking for evidence that this wisdom he sought, the Wisdom of God, actually had merit to it. That there was something truly life changing and transformational going on in the hearts of the people. But all that he saw reflected poorly upon humanity, resulting in a despairing spirit. And as I spent time with his words, I couldn’t help but wonder what the Teacher would feel if he lived in this day and age and took a hard look at the Church, and the Christians who comprise it? For the truth of the Gospel stands in contrast to quests for wisdom that focus solely on memorizing the knowledge of others. The great mystery of the Church is that women and men baptized into the Lord Jesus Christ are empowered and illuminated by grace, and are not simply reflections of the great Wisdom of Jesus Christ, but actually become vessels of his living presence. The Fathers of the Early Church said it this way: “We become by grace what God is by nature.” And this is the wisdom found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, beginning earlier in the letter and culminating in today’s reading. The Christian life, the life of the baptized, is not only about learning the wisdom and mysteries of the faith, but is primarily about becoming transformed, renewed, strengthened, and made to be something new. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power,” Paul says, “and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
There is a dynamism, a power to these words that reflects the true power of what Christ has done to the human race through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We don’t simply toil for knowledge, becoming well-versed in the teachings of Jesus Christ. We are made strong, given the very same power that flows from Jesus Christ. We are enabled to share in the inheritance of the glorious saints in light, for we have been transferred, in this very life, from a kingdom of darkness and ignorance into a kingdom of redemption and forgiveness. The great mystery and wisdom that permeates the universe, the wisdom that evaded the Teacher, is what Paul describes as “Christ in us, the hope of glory.” What was a fruitless toil for the Teacher is something productive and transformational for us. “It is he whom we proclaim,” Paul says, “warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.”
As I said before, the letter culminates in the powerful vision of humanity found in our reading from today. Paul has laid the groundwork for a vision of humanity as true vessels of Jesus Christ, full of his hope and power, capable of moving through this life as people transformed at the depths of who we are. The life of wisdom the Teacher sought was incomplete in his day, but it was made perfect in Christ, opened to us in baptism. The life Jesus gestured toward in the Gospel, a life rich toward God, is possible only when we embrace our new selves, not struggling against the work of grace in our lives, not forgetting who we are and what we are. We are a people who have been raised with Christ, sharing in the power of his resurrection that transformed his very body in this present world.
Think back to those accounts of the Risen Christ in the Gospels. The unfolding of Christ’s resurrected life did not wait until the end of time. It occurred right in those dusty streets of Jerusalem, and it is the same for us. Paul’s vision is not vision that comes to fruition in the hereafter. His vision of a new humanity, transformed by Christ and full of his powerful energy, begins right here, right now, right in the midst of this broken world. "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 of its creator. 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!"
This is why I wonder what the Teacher would see if he took a hard look at the Church. Would he see a people who have truly embraced this newness, the true power of Jesus Christ that leaves no life unchanged? Would he see a gathered people able to witness to the world that what we believe is more than just a fairy tale to appease our religious imaginations? Would he see a gathered people so enlivened by this power that the community, peering in from the outside, would be so overcome by what they witness that they too would join Christ and his Church? I don’t know what he would see. But I do know what I see in this place. A people who love Jesus Christ, a family who takes care of those in our midst. I see the faces of people who long to see the face of God, and who have unique gifts and personalities empowered to witness to our city that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is life-changing. Let’s together commit to finding new ways to embrace the new life we have received in baptism, that we might indeed be a Church that leaves no one with a sense of despair or vanity. Let’s together become what we are called to be each time we gather around this altar. The body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, strengthened for his service, and made to walk in the newness of life.
*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on July 31, 2016. The texts were Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.