Wisdom 1:16-2:11,2:21-24; Colossians 1: 1-14
Browsing through today’s miscellaneous readings, holding the words lightly in prayer, looking for what the Spirit wants me to say, a name jumped out at me. Remember Epaphras? No, me neither, although I had glanced at or skipped over his name many times. As I had many of the others whom Paul lists like a breathless winner of an Oscar (“I’d like to thank. . .”). I did hunt up some information on this man. It seems he was a major evangelist. He brought the Gospel to Colossae, was the pastor whose prayers are mentioned in Paul’s letter to that church, and was something of a circuit rider, preaching and teaching in Laodicea and Hierapolis, and who knows how many other places. And yet, who remembers Epaphras? God does. But the anonymity of our lives struck me. Some cultures and religions put a great deal of emphasis on being remembered, bragging while you live, having your deeds told keeping you alive after death. The Norse and Germanic cultures are a case in point, and, given the current rise in Heathen/Pagan worship, this is still with us. National heroes get the same accolade and postmortem treatment. But except for the few who rate monuments, even that last visible sign that we had lived, the tombstone in sanctified ground, has given way to scattered ashes.
We, as Christians, see things rather differently. In fact, we are reminded often that showy behavior, even in prayer and Temple offerings, is offensive. Excessive show of wealth and power are their own reward, so why should the Holy One give more? The basic tenet is that we are God’s. Our Creator made us, knows us, and we are not better than our Maker, so be humble and give thanks. That is a hard thing for a twenty-first century culture to wrap its collective mind around. The consolation is that God does know us, our Shepherd calls us by name. We are loved and protected by an inexhaustible font of life giving, death defeating, bounty. We are each of us of immeasurable worth. But yet we are only one in an inconceivably large swarm of others, faceless, anonymous, unidentifiable. We are both unique and faceless, remembered and forgotten. That is a hard thing to fathom. Epaphras seems to have been vitally important in the early promulgation of the faith. And yet we say Epaphras who? And we can’t even name the dozens of his coworkers in the field of that early harvest, reaping souls and building the Kingdom.
That may be at the root of our sin of pride, of envy, of neediness. Our need to be seen, to be known, to be recognized, our lives validated. To be remembered. To be loved. Is that what has driven our whole society to want to be rock stars? That can and does get in the way of the companionship which we are offered through Jesus with our Abba with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Without the faith in the Resurrection and the promise of a life eternal with our God, life can be pretty cold and pointless, except as we spice it up with whatever we can to satisfy our senses. What irony. God became man to experience our sensate incarnate nature, and we have in so many ways turned that pleasure, that God given pleasure, into bling. Something shiny. And ephemeral.
Which brings us to the passage in Wisdom. Yesterday we read the beginning of Wisdom 1: 1-15 which begins with “Love righteousness,” and ends with “for righteousness is immortal.” It warns us that evil thoughts separate the people from God. A holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, God hears all, and punishment follows those who speak unrighteousness. Today’s reading picks up this theme and it is expanded as the ungodly invite death. Life is short and uncertain, and our names will be forgotten, and soon so will be our deeds. And that makes us and our life worthless. Where do we turn from this depressing life? Excess, riches, wine and jewels, hedonism, and while we are about it, oppress and cheat the poor, widow, helpless, because nothing matters. All in all, a pretty depressing message. And a warning.
Verses 2:12-20 are omitted, but are interesting since they could be read as foretelling the coming of the Christ, and are worth reading. But today’s reading reminds us that unrighteousness brings blindness, death, whereas God made us for incorruption. Without diving too far into current politics, it is pretty obvious that a moral center in this country has been lost in the blindness of apathy or the blaze of hate. We have grown to accept corruption on a global scale. Identity politics have slipped from an attempt to level the playing field for the marginalized to a new way to fracture the Body. And hate – religious, racial, sexual – has risen to a place where light can’t get in. And we roll on, in the dream state of escapism, consumption. In traditional language, the Father of Lies laughs at us, and feeds on us. Let me state I am not invoking the spirit of John Calvin at his most inflexible. God isn’t asking us to be narrow-minded and afraid of a little fun. Jesus had no problem hanging out with, shall we say, interesting people. But as practicing Christians we are accountable. But to whom, for without faith how can we be willing to face divine correction and the hard work of bringing the Kingdom, if we don’t matter, and nobody cares? And now we come back to Epaphras (who?).
It might be even more important now than it had been in the Roman world of bread and circuses to remember that the peace and joy of the love of God is real, the promises of forgiveness and life eternal are real. Perhaps we need to look closely at our fear of anonymity, of disappearing, of not mattering. Sometimes it is hard to turn to the peace of prayer, the simple compassion of serving others, making choices to have less so that others might have more. And to accept that no matter how hard we try, how high we rise, we, too, will be swallowed up in anonymity in the fullness of time. For the world, but not for God and his Christ. And not when the Kingdom comes, when Christ will come again, and we will be healed of our human sin once and for all. The Easter season is all about salvation. It is all about our yearning to know the Risen Christ. Like Mary in the garden, we want to hear Eternity call us by name. Once we hear that, we know that we will not be forgotten, our sorrows and joys will not fade away, our struggles will be cherished, our pains healed. Like Mary, we now can glorify our Lord and our God, and not see only ourselves. We are energized with the healing power of the Holy Spirit, and are called to serve others, regardless of any self recognition or reward. We are all Epaphras, working tirelessly to build the Church in whatever city or town in which we live. We rise with the risen Christ. We are children of the Light, bound together in life giving love. That is the powerful message of Easter. We are children of the Most High God. We will never be forgotten.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.