The Way of Wisdom and the Question of Discipleship
Ecclesiastes 2: 12-16
Luke 8: 22-25
The passages that we have read this evening have no necessary thematic or theological connection. In my reflection on them I want to suggest though that both offer an alternative to those voices both inside and outside the church, that voice an unquestioning certainty about how we should live in the world.
In contrast to the purveyors of loud unquestioning certainty both readings offer us a glimpse of a way of living in the world that manifests deep questioning and resists easy answers. There is the way of probing, questioning wisdom that respects the limits of what it is to be human as expounded in Ecclesiastes, while Luke grapples with the question of discipleship. Who is this Jesus, who the disciples, and we the readers and hearers of the gospel, are called to follow?
My comments on Ecclesiastes are not confined to the reading but move beyond that passage to attempt to express a sense of what the book as a whole is saying. In Reason for Being: A meditation on Ecclesiastes Jacques Ellul the French sociologist and theologian has pointed the way to me by noting that the book is read by the Jewish community during the Feast of Booths. The argument of Ecclesiastes makes it, he says an appropriate reading for a feast that is celebrated in a precarious and fragile and temporary human shelter.
What book speaks more eloquently of this fragility, challenges everything, requires that we re-examine our conscience, sweeps away all our rock solid certainties? It leaves us alone with our precarious destiny, stripped bare to experience, the only genuine security, the security offered by the Sovereign Master of history. (p46)
The author of Ecclesiastes is critical of those traditions of Israel that are confident in their assertions about the way that we should live out our relationship to God, certain that we have a clear handle on the ways of God.
Despite its fundamental questioning even of wisdom, the way of life offered us in Ecclesiastes is not a relativism in which anything goes. The author recognises the reality and superiority of wisdom in contrast to folly, but he is also unequivocal about the reality of death. Wisdom, he argues, offers a relative advantage over folly, but does not provide us with a security or absolute certainty that we humans can lay claim to in the face of death. We are offered by Qohelet a way in which we can live wholeheartedly within the world that God has created, a way that acknowledges our limitations and humanity.
In commenting on the paradoxes of this book Ellul observes that In reality all is vanity. In Truth everything is a gift of God. (p.31) The way of wisdom is the way of reality and truth traced out against the contradictions and limits of human experience. In the final analysis all is under God and is given by God.
Wisdom in Ecclesiastes then is wisdom as the experience of life, in which we recognise our human limitations and frailties. It pushes us back beyond our own certainties about life and morality to face the radical contingency of life lived as a gift that we have no control over but that should be received with open hands.
I confess that I am predisposed to affirm Ellul’s account because of my own experience of having survived as a five year old an episode of meningital encephalitis, a condition that could have left me severely intellectually and physically impaired. I have become deeply conscious that my life is a gift and that the way it worked out for me could have been very different.
How do we live the way of wisdom in our times? How can we live with open hands that move beyond a grasping for control that tries to evade the reality of death and lives a life that depends upon the grace of God? Ecclesiastes deconstructs human certainty and undercuts the misleading confidence that we are and could be in control. The way of wisdom offered us here displays parallels with Bonhoeffer’s call to Christians to a ’this worldliness’ as opposed to the spiritualising of life, living life without God free form pious certainties, but nonetheless before God. “If you want God” says Bonhoeffer, “hold on to the world.”
The Gospel reading provides its own challenge to our desire for certainty and control. The way of discipleship as easy and certain is brought under scrutiny in the question shrieked out by the disciples ‘Who is this Jesus? Who is this person who stills the storm, who is in touch with the world of earth and wind and water?”
The disciples are in the boat (perhaps a symbol of the church?) amidst the raging of the storm. They are already on the way, following Jesus, but they are still grappling with the question, Who is this Jesus that we are following?
The disciples left all to follow Jesus before they knew who he was. Finding who Jesus is, is not something that we can do outside of our following him. We only get to know who he is in the act of following him as a member of the community of disciples.
Hans Denck, the eirenic Anabaptist mystic who died at the age of twenty seven in the midst of the storm of the Reformation, put it memorably "No one truly knows Christ unless he follows him daily in life."
We cannot get to find out who Jesus is ahead of actually engaging in the practice of discipleship and in the following.
Terry Eagleton, the Marxist thinker in his rollicking and rambunctious polemic Reason, Faith and Revelation: Reflections on the God Debate emphasises that a Christianity, which does not practice compassion and demonstrate a commitment to justice cannot claim to be truly following Jesus.
Tthe importance of Christian practice shaped by the following of Jesus is also found in David Bentley Hart’s powerful polemic Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable enemies.
Christianity, says Hart, has from its beginning portrayed itself as a gospel of peace, a way of reconciliation (with God, with other creatures), and a new model of human community, offering the 'peace which passes understanding' to a world enmeshed in sin and violence.
Hart emphasizes that the following is communal and that the form of Christ must be found in the life of the church. In The Beauty of the Infinite he says:
Only if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the church is the confession of the church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord.
Who is this Jesus? We will not know unless we follow.
The disciples asked the question in the midst of the storm. They found out who he was by following him to Jerusalem, witnessing his confrontation with the powers of the empire and by being threatened by his resurrection. They continued to discover who he was as the path of discipleship gradually led them to question the assumptions of the age, in beginning to experience reconciliation across the boundaries of race and gender, as they began to discover what the preaching of peace meant for the communities that they were establishing across the empire.
Stuart Murray in his recent book The Naked Anabaptist helpfully picks up the theme of finding Jesus in following him and how this might be reflected in our community life, when he suggests that:
Maybe we need to stop calling ourselves "Christians". Not only is the term compromised by its associations and debased by overuse, it is also rather presumptuous. Who are we to claim that we are like Christ? … maybe we need a term that is both purposeful and restrained. Maybe we should claim no more (or less) than that we are "followers of Jesus."
As followers we do not claim to have arrived at the destination, nor need we distinguish ourselves from others who are at different stages of the journey ... Churches committed to following Jesus welcome fellow travelers unreservedly … their ethos is one of following, learning, changing, growing, moving forward. Together, and as we reflect on the Gospels (and the rest of Scripture), we discover more of what it means to follow Jesus.
And it is also good news, and here Murray speaks powerfully both to me and for me … to those of us who know we still have some way to go in following Jesus and are grateful for the support and encouragement of others who are on the same journey. (p61)
Amen and Amen
Canberra – 13 June 2010