Text: Romans 8:18-22
Today is the 4th Sunday after Trinity, when we continue with the “purgation of sin” part of the Trinitytide purgation, illumination, and unification cycle. There are two particular issues that come to light in today’s readings: vainglory and vanity. Now, most of us will have heard of these words, but if we’re honest, they have something of an old-fashioned ring to them and we may have troubles actually defining them!
Vainglory in particular isn’t a word we use very often. It is defined as “inordinate pride in oneself or one’s achievements; excessive vanity.” With that definition we can already see how this week’s focus ties in to last week’s battle with arrogant, haughty pride. Our Gospel passage today speaks to the issue of vainglory. Most of us are at least a little familiar with today’s passage from Luke 6:36 and following. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear people quote verse 37 in the context of today’s culture wars: “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” For many people in our society today, this means that there is no real standard of right and wrong because (as the all-too-popular tattoo says), “Only God can judge me.” When we really think about it, the idea that a perfectly righteous God who has given us clear commandments is to be our judge should be terrifying! Who of us can stand before God’s perfection? Who of us is without sin?
And that’s really the point. The point is not that there is no such thing as sin or that it is wrong to hold each other accountable with respect to right and wrong. Rather, the point is that none of us can claim to be without sin. None of us can judge with God’s perfect justice. And to attempt to get the splinter out of our brother’s eye when our sight is blocked by a log in our own eye is the epitome of vainglory. To take pride in our own righteousness by comparing ourself to our brother is to fail to realize how far that righteousness falls from God’s ultimate standard. Rather, for each one of us, our primary focus should be battling our own sin rather than focusing on the sin of our brother.
But I really want to camp out in the Epistle passage which speaks to the issue of vanity. In the definition of vainglory, we spoke of “excessive vanity,” referring to the idea that vanity is (again) excessive pride or admiration in one’s achievements or appearance. This is why a nice setup in a master bathroom with a big mirror is often called the “vanity.” But in our epistle, we’re speaking of a different kind of vanity: vanity that a synonym with futility. The concept in the New Testament is that this kind of vanity or futility is something that is without use or value. It is emptiness, purposelessness, or transitory.
Let’s see this concept in the context of our epistle. Please turn in your bibles to Romans 8:18, found on page 194 in your Prayer Book:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility [or vanity], not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself would be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
This tells us that vanity or futility is a problem for all of creation. And we all know this to be true on an instinctive level. Most people struggle with a lack of fulfillment of some sort in life. We wonder what it’s all for. We wonder whether the grind is worth it. We wonder why everything has to be such a fight all the time. For just about all of us, if we’re really honest, at least sometimes everything feels empty, purposeless, or futile. This sense of vanity or futility is nigh universal for the human condition. There’s a reason that Ecclesiastes, one of the Old Testament wisdom books, with it’s refrain of “but this too was all vanity, a chasing after the wind,” is so popular. We know that the Teacher in the book is speaking truth.
St. Paul tells us that this is indeed a product of the fall. As such, the vanity our Epistle talks about can snare us and lead us into sin. Rather than combat the emptiness of futility and vanity by turning to the things of God, the things of everlasting significance, we often try to chase away the nagging purposelessness with other empty destructions. We obsess over foolish things that are also transitory, futile, and vain. This can be seen in some other places in the New Testament that speak of this word.
In Ephesians 4:17 St. Paul uses this kind of futility to describe the default mindset of the person who does not know Jesus, and exhorts Christians to think and live differently. He writes: “Now this I say and testify int he Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.”
St. Peter uses the same word to describe the false prophets who lead people astray and are therefore heaping up God’s judgement. In 2 Peter 2:18 he writes: “For speaking loud boasts of folly [an alternate translation of the same Greek word], they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.”
So what do we do about it? If vanity and futility are a universal part of the human condition, if even Christians are tempted with purposelessness, how can we overcome vanity? We see the answer in the opening verse of our Epistle: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
In other words, when we look at the world and it’s inevitable vanity with the eyes of Christ, we see that within that vanity is a kernel of hope. Just as thirst presupposes water and hunger presupposes food, so does the vanity and futility of the world presuppose a true purpose.
Swiss Reformer John Calvin observes:
I understand the passage to have this meaning — that there is no element and no part of the world which, being touched, as it were, with a sense of its present misery, does not intensely hope for a resurrection. He indeed lays down two things, — that all are creatures in distress, — and yet that they are sustained by hope. And it hence also appears how immense is the value of eternal glory, that it can excite and draw all things to desire it.
Just as vanity is a witness to the fall, so does it point to the hope of resurrection. In his Resurrection, our Lord Jesus gave us the down payment for the hope of our own resurrection. We now wait in eager suspense for fulfillment, for an end to vanity and futility. And because it was man who brought the fall, it is the redemption of man that tells all of creation that there will one day be an end to vanity and futility, an end to bondage and corruption. Let’s pick up in our Epistle at Verse 22:
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
As man goes, creation also goes. In the mean time, we as Christians have the witness of the Spirit in Word and Sacrament to be a guarantee to all of creation of that promise. St. John Chrysostom writes:
Now what is this creation? Not thyself [i.e. mankind] alone, but that also which is thy inferior, and partaketh not of reason or sense, this too shall be a sharer in thy blessings. For “it shall be freed,” he says, “from the bondage of corruption,” that is, it shall no longer be corruptible, but shall go along with the beauty given to thy body; just as when this became corruptible, that became corruptible also; so now it is made incorruptible, that also shall follow it too.
This then becomes the key to battling vanity, to battling that temptation to speak, think, and act in a futile way: we remember our redemption, we remember our future. On the one hand, remembering our redemption gives us the longsuffering to endure both suffering and the natural vanity of the fall. We can be patient with God because we know his promises to be true. Since Jesus was raised, we too will be raised. Since Jesus redeemed us, he will redeem all of creation.
On the other hand, remembering our future puts the things that we think to be important but are really futility into proper perspective. We won’t pursue foolish, empty distractions if we are focused on eternity. Just as Jesus lived to serve his Father, we too will live to follow Jesus.
This is, of course, going to look different for each one of us. We all have our unique vocations, our unique callings before the Lord. Regardless of our unique circumstances, Jesus gives us purpose as we seek him in Scripture and in the Sacrament, secure in our adoption as sons and daughters of his Father, awaiting our final redemption, walking in the Spirit.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.