Sunday 10 May 2020
The human brain is the most amazing organ. Its complexity and capability, its manner of working, the proliferation of signals transmitted around, and in, and out, of it at any particular moment, baffle and amaze.
It is of course because we are blessed with such an awesome brain that we are able to function at the level of consciousness that we do. We are able to explore abstract notions, to induct and deduct, imagine and create, to explore the universe and investigate the inner world of atoms.
And it is the sophistication of our brains that leads us to search for meaning in the wonderful world around us – why things are as they are rather than not at all; where this enormous universe comes from and where it might be going; what our part is in the whole shooting match. Yes, we are perplexed and teased and prompted to try to find meaning in life.
There seems to be a strange paradox in all of this in that, in these days when we know more about the operation of the human brain and the world around us than we ever have, in the developed world, we seem to be further from finding meaning in our existence than at any time in human history.
In fact, some of the things that we have used our brains to develop cloud our efforts to find meaning rather than assist us.
For many people today, social networking has become their repository of meaning. Many people today are caught up in what are really quite meaningless activities in the world of social networking in the vain attempt to find meaning (and approval) – particularly this has become the case for young people.
For example, do you remember the phenomenon called “planking”? This was at one time a very popular way for some people to establish their personhood, their meaning, in the social networking environment. The posting of photographs of themselves in more and more creative and dangerous positions gained kudos, esteem. It gave meaning to the individual.
Well a few years ago, a 20 year old male fell seven storeys to his death in Brisbane trying to find meaning for himself by planking on a verandah railing. The action itself is meaningless – it adds nothing to the world. In attempting to gain meaning through a meaningless activity, a young life was lost.
In the reading that we heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, a young man also lost his life. Stephen was stoned to death and yet he uttered on behalf of his murderers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Do you think Stephen had found meaning in life? Do you think he died as a man who knew exactly what he was about? You’d think so. Do you think that he died trying to find meaning in a meaningless act? Not at all.
You get the feeling that he might have gained a pretty good idea of what his life meant. The phrase that the man Paul who stood and witnessed Stephen’s stoning would later coin in one of his letters seems to describe Stephen’s position well: “For me, to live is Christ.”
One of the disadvantages of the way the Lectionary sometimes edits what we will read in the liturgy is that we can lose important context. In the case of this event, we miss all of chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles up to verse 55 where this reading begins. All of the chapter that precedes Stephen’s stoning is his detailed description of salvation history from Abraham, down through Moses, Joshua, Solomon and it concludes with his vision of the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Stephen did indeed have meaning in his life. And he had meaning because he understood his dependence upon God and his graced relationship with Jesus Christ. And we are all blessed with the same opportunity to find that very meaning in our lives.
We Christians have been given the completely unmerited gift of faith in God through Jesus Christ. There is no other gift required for us to be able to say with confidence and conviction that our lives have meaning.
Our meaning in life and the giftedness that God has bestowed upon us is wonderfully summarised in chapter 2 of the Letter to the Ephesians:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
And this great gift of raising us with Christ is further elaborated by St Paul in the Letter to the Romans:
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Our meaning in life starts with God, proceeds with his freely given gift to us of faith in Jesus Christ who leads us back to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit who bears witness that we are children of God and coheirs with Christ of the glory of God.
And as we see in the martyr’s death of Stephen in today’s reading, when we are in touch with this true meaning of our life, our actions and decisions will exemplify that which is the driving force within us. We are challenged to question all of those phantoms that we place before ourselves as being of importance and relevance with regard to our ultimate existence at the expense of our faith in the risen Jesus.
Today, we are looking at a spectrum that spans from planking to martyrdom in terms of the search for meaning in life. We are asked to consider at which end of the spectrum we stand. Probably, most of us don’t stand at either end. But that is the thing about spectrums. They allows us to consider where we might be within the range between the two ends. How do you find meaning in your life?
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen