Monday, May 26, 2008

“Futile Ways”

Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:13-22; Luke 24:13-35[1]

One of the most important lessons that Easter faith has to offer us is that there is more to life than the incessant obsession with being the “best.” The precious and costly death of Jesus on a cruel Roman cross combined with his surprising and powerful resurrection to new life expose the futile ways of our world. The quest to be the brightest, the most attractive, the richest, and the most successful is empty, isolating, and ultimately robs us of our humanity.[2] The crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ points us to a way of life that is significant, meaningful, and truly fulfilling—the way of giving oneself away for others.[3]

That is the lesson of the 1994 film entitled With Honors.[4] It’s a story about Monty Kessel, a yuppie in the making at Harvard who misplaces the only copy of his senior thesis. When Simon Wilder, a middle-aged homeless man who has been living in the basement of the library finds it, he offers to return it to Monty—but on one condition. Simon promises to give Monty one page of his thesis for every day Monty gives him food and shelter! Reluctantly, Monty agrees. He really has no choice—he’s on a deadline and he’s striving to graduate Harvard “with honors,” the first “feather” in his cap that will surely open the doors to other “achievements.” The problem is that his thesis is nothing more than an elaborate “suck up” to his advisor, a prominent and powerful member of the faculty. Over the course of the school year, something unexpected happens. Simon becomes Monty’s real advisor, forcing Monty to recognize that there is more to life than simply buttering up your professor to get ahead in the game!

You see, after spending his life seeing the world with the Merchant Marines, Simon is dying of asbestos exposure. Understandably he wants to spend his last days with food and shelter. In exchange for a warm bed and the chance to eat every day, Simon does much more than give Monty back his senior thesis. He convinces Monty that no success is worth your soul. As a result, Monty actually changes his thesis, writing a paper that is not only unconventional but one that actually succeeds at impressing the crusty old Harvard professor. Unfortunately, he misses an important deadline and will not be eligible to graduate “with honors.” But Monty learns that there is more to life than achievement, or success, or winning awards, all of which boils down to self-serving.

That’s not a lesson that we tend to learn very easily these days. We still live in a world where the only thing that counts is winning. Getting second place still means losing. “Beauty” is power, and so is money. Our world is completely obsessed with getting ahead by any and every means. It doesn’t matter how many people you have to step on or run over as long as you finish first! And in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that is the message that is handed down to us from our parents. We’re taught from early childhood onward that we only count if we compete, and we’re only significant if we win.

When the Apostle Peter wrote to the early Christians, he reminded them that they too had inherited a way of life that was empty. Although the emptiness of their life may not have consisted of getting ahead at any cost, it was just as empty. Peter describes it as a life spent on “ignorant desires” (1 Peter 1:14), and later specifically names things like “indecency, lust, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and the disgusting worship of idols” (1 Peter 4:3, TEV). As a matter of fact, that sounds like a pretty typically Jewish way of talking about Gentiles, and may have reflected some bias on Peter’s part. [5] But there is ample evidence that the futile ways of the First Century included a life of wanton immorality, reckless wastefulness, and self-indulgent decadence.

But the “living hope” that Peter preaches includes the promise that the sacrificial death of Jesus the Christ sets us all free from our “futile ways.” The fact that God has lavished on us this “costly grace” makes all the difference in the world in the way we live our lives. We can no more go on living simply for our own selfish pursuits any more than Monty Kessel could ever pass another homeless man without thinking about Simon Wilder!

What’s more, the resurrection of Jesus from that horrible death changes not only us but in a very real sense changes everything. Now everything from our former lives has been emptied of meaning, and the only thing that matters in the “new creation” that is taking its place (2 Corinthians 5:17) is “faith expending itself in love” (Galatians 5:6).[6] And in light of the Easter faith that Jesus is alive, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we can “always keep busy working for the Lord” because we know that “everything [we] do for him is worthwhile” (1 Corinthians 15:58, CEV). No more wasting time with futile ways—now we have the chance to live a life that is truly worthwhile, a life of giving ourselves away for others.[7]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 4/6/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

[2] See Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 42, 98.

[3] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 152-53. He defines this in terms of loving our neighbors as ourselves, where our “neighbor” means “anyone who needs me here and now.” See further 157-70, 274-312 where he characterizes this as being “truly human” and makes some very concrete “suggestions” for what this looks like.

[4] See Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, review of With Honors, accessed at .

[5] See J. R. Michaels, 1 Peter, 64; contrast Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 2, 106-107, where he argues that Peter’s comments resemble what Paul has to say about the futility of trying to keep the law apart from Christ.

[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 337-38. He says, “Human life must be risked if it would be won. … If, however, we are thus to risk expending ourselves, then we need a horizon of expectation which makes the expending meaningful … . The expectation of the promised future of the kingdom of God which is coming to man and the world to set them right and create life, makes us ready to expend ourselves unrestrainedly and unreservedly in love and in the work of the reconciliation of the world with God and his future. … Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, … because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

[7] Cf. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 25.4: “Christ’s blood reveals to [man] that [his] greatness, and therefore [his] vocation, consists in the sincere gift of self.” See J. Michael Miller, ed., The Encyclicals of John Paul II, 815.

No comments: