Monthly Archives: September 2015

Trinity 16 – Agony and Ecstasy

That you might be filled with all the fullness of God!

This morning (at the 9am service at Holy Trinity in Utrecht) we rejoiced in the baptism of Eva Cremer Eindhoven.  She has been drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism, and raised up, resurrected, in a sense, a new creature in Christ.  We believe that in this sacramental act, she was regenerate – has been joined mystically with Jesus, and so, made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of eternal life.  In this union of her soul with Christ, there is a cleansing from sin and the gift of new life in the Spirit.

And this is the case for each one of us here who has been baptized.

In the exhortation to godparents and parents after the baptism, there is a reminder to each of us of our profession as Christians, that is, to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be make like him; that as he died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin and rise again unto righteousness, continually mortifying (or, putting to death) all our evil and corrupt affections, and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living – the new resurrection life.

And this is a lifetime project – our sanctification in Christ.

And we might find this sometimes (or often) wearying!  But it seems that in God’s plan this very struggle that we have continually in our lives here on earth, brings about the engagement of our full humanity – our personality and personhood, body and soul, in a transformation that could not have been the case had we not engaged in the battle.

The greatest theologians of the Eastern and Western Churches have taught that the place we are being brought to by Christ, through faith in Him by His grace, is not back to the garden of Eden and to that earthly paradise, but to somewhere much higher, more exalted – to the heavenly places to sit with Christ Himself, being partakers of the divine nature, enjoying a friendship and deep union with God that Adam and Eve never knew. (So, for example, in the three books of ascent in the Divine Comedy by Dante, the earthly paradise is not the subject of the third book, but is found at the end of the second book.)

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Raising the Son of the Widow of Nain, Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1569

In our Gospel today (St Luke 7:11-17) we have one of the miracles that Jesus performed of the raising up of a person from death.  In this case it is the only son of the widow of Nain.  In the story we learn that there was a procession out of the city presumably to the burial sight.  The young man was on a funeral bier with his mother by his side weeping.  The whole crowd is in a state of mourning, recognizing also, perhaps, the particular tragedy for this widow whose only son has died.  Jesus meets this procession with a crowd who had been following him.  One procession following death and other following Life itself.  When they meet Jesus tells her not to weep and raises up the young man from death.  We are told that the young man sat up and started to speak.  We may wonder what he said!

Surely there is nothing that could be more shocking to witness!  And yet these Jewish people in both crowds had been prepared for such a miracle by their knowledge of the Scriptural accounts of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, each of whom raised a boy from death through their prayers – we heard the account of this in our first reading, 1 Kings 17:17-24.  And so the immediate reaction of the crowds is not unbelief, or to question if the man had ever really been dead, or to think it was some evil at work, but rather to glorify God and to proclaim that a great Prophet is risen among them – like the greatest prophets of old.

But these Gospel stories, like the parables, are given to us to bring with them deep teaching, they point us to eternal truths about what God is doing in Jesus Christ.

Yes, it points out that Jesus is like the great prophets of old – one aspect of his threefold Messianic ministries on earth as prophet, priest and king.  Yes, it points to God’s promise to raise us up at the last day.  But there is also a moral teaching in the circumstances surrounding the miracle.  And it is why, until recently, this Gospel has been read for 1500 years in churches in the West at this time in Trinity season.

We have been looking at the passions of the soul in the early part of Trinity season (Trinity 3-9), and about their reordering in Christ – a kind of focus on how they are expressed in our outward lives.  Then we looked at the same passions more inwardly to open up our hearts to the light of Christ to see not just our outward actions but our innermost motivations.  Think of last Sunday where Jesus calls for a more radical following of him, seeking him out first, even before food, drink and clothing, trusting fully that God will provide (related to the first stirrings in the heart of the passion of covetousness).

This Sunday’s Gospel miracle is a kind of parable of our lives. It is precisely what was spoken of in the baptism exhortation – continually mortifying (or putting to death) all our evil and corrupt affections, and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living.

The word Nain means Pleasant or Pleasure in Hebrew.  If we would rise up with Christ, there must be a willingness to put to death not just sin but our excessive dependence upon earthly consolation.  The young man is a parable of every one who has died to earthly pleasure, and comes to know something utterly new – rising up to see Christ face to face.

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Mosaic, Montreale Cathedral, Sicily, 1180s

What about us? Are we content to live a life of balancing our happiness or contentment by a mixture of earthly pleasures or do we want to see Jesus face to face?  Our call in the Gospel and Epistle today is that would not rest content but keep ever in this search to seek out God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, to really desire what God has to offer us in all its fullness even now!

Listen to St Paul in today’s Epistle! He is certain that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. And so he prays…

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being(at the very heart of who we are) so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend (our souls are not yet ready for such glory! yet God is making us ready (e.g. Daniel when faced with the angel needed grace to bear the vision, first fell on his face, then with a touch was able to rise to his hands and knees and then with a further word was able to stand – Daniel 10)) to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (not just a knowledge of facts, but to know their significance in our hearts, to really know the Lord), that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (Ephesians 3:13-21)  Can you imagine anything more to desire than to be filled with all the fullness of God?!  Could we be more alive? could we be wiser? could we be more in love? could we be more full of joy?

There is no moderation here! There is no restraint on what we can expect!  There is a kind of ecstatic writing here and St Paul is grasping at the possibilities of our encounter now, in this life with God.

God is Spirit and we are to worship him in spirit and truth.  As we die to earthly pleasures and worldly aims, there is a new life that comes about for us.  And this doesn’t make us hate the world or reject it, but rather, when we re-engage with the world after this turning of ourselves over fully to God, there a new brilliance, a new shine to everything that we see, a new appreciation.  We are being led to a place of loving God with all that we are, and to be infilled with Him and so seeing the world in a loving beholding, to see all its glory through God’s eyes.

May we be encouraged to this seeking out of Jesus, and pray like St Paul for one another, that we may all come to know the breadth and length and height and depths, and to know not just in our minds but in our hearts, the love of God in Christ Jesus.  To Him be all glory.  Amen.

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The raising of Lazarus, Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

Trinity 14 – Fruitfulness

Jesus said to them, “Go and show yourself to the priests.”
And as they went they were cleansed.

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Our readings today are really dealing with this question: how do we inherit the kingdom of heaven?

It is not God who is holding back in giving, but we who hinder the pouring out of his grace and his filling us up with all the gifts that flow from heaven.

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In the Old Testament lesson (2 Kings 5:9-16), we have the example of a very important man, Naaman, who is the chief army commander from Syria, a much more powerful kingdom next to Israel (8th century BC). He comes to seek out healing for his leprosy from the prophet Elisha. The reason Naaman came to Elisha was that he’d been told by an Israelite woman, who was in service to the Syrian king, that Elisha could heal him.

When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha didn’t come out himself to meet the “important” man, but instead told his servant to go and tell Naaman what to do – and the advice itself, go and wash in the river Jordan seven times and he would be made clean, offended Naaman a second time. His pride is pricked and it leads to him to become enraged: “are not the Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”  He walks away, unwilling to receive the promised healing.

This is an example of the very thing that can hinder us from being healed – we need a humble spirit and a spirit of simple trust in what the God of Israel is telling us to do.  Naaman is finally convinced by his own servants, who know humility, to submit to the command of Elisha.  Finally he humbles himself and goes in obedience, washes seven times in the Jordan, and he is healed – his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child.  It may remind us of something Jesus was to say later, Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 18:3)  Naaman’s healing began when humbled himself and began walking to the river.

Is there some simple command of Jesus, like that given to by Elisha to Naaman, that we are failing to listen to, that is hindering the further healing of our souls and so hindering us from receiving more of God’s spiritual graces, from knowing more fully the kingdom of heaven?

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In today’s Epistle reading (Galatians 5:16-24), St Paul contrasts two ways of acting: walking by the Spirit or gratifying the desires of the flesh. He’s reminding us that it the choices we make daily that affect how much we know even now of life in the kingdom of heaven. When St T14 - Fruit of Spirit - treePaul speaks about “inheriting the kingdom of God” here, he is not just speaking about some final judgement or some kingdom to come when Jesus returns, but about the degree to which we inherit God’s kingdom here in this life, today!  How do we know that?  Because all of the fruit of the Spirit that he speaks about are things that can be known even today – that is the inheritance of the kingdom of God – spiritual fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Our actions today, affect our inheritance today.  There is, if you like, an immediate judgement on our actions today, for good or for ill.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality (he means sexual activity forbidden under the law of Moses, there is no other definition in Scripture), impurity, sensuality (an excessive attention to satisfying the senses), idolatry, sorcery (attempting to manipulate spiritual forces for worldly ends – it sounds medieval, but I assure you I encounter it in my ministry today), enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions (surely we all know this temptation to divide, to be over and against others), envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

When St Paul speaks about “the flesh”, he means all of the impulses, the passions that arise in our bodies or souls, as human beings living after the Fall, that lead to sin.  Remember Naaman, how quickly he was enraged?  His pride led to his anger and at first he refuse to be healed!

Surely we all know the thoughts behind these works of the flesh? Maybe the jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, covetousness, impure thoughts?

Each of us struggle inside differently, because we have fallen in different ways outwardly in the past. For each one of us the battle we face inwardly is unique.

Paul is suggesting, like Elisha, a very simple way for us to be healed of these continued disturbances to our fuller enjoyment of the kingdom of heaven.  It is no jumping through a flaming hoop of fire, no long painful pilgrimage on bare feet, no beating ourselves with a stick until we bleed.  It is simply this: No longer gratify fleshy desires, and walk daily in the way of Jesus.  That is what it is to wash seven times in the river that is right before us – that River welling up in each of our hearts to eternal life (John 4) – we have the opportunity in our daily encounters with God in our souls to be cleansed.

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Ten Lepers, Alexandre Bida

In the Gospel today (St Luke 17:11-19), we have the same message from Jesus, but also something more.

Ten lepers cry out in faith for Jesus to heal them of their leprosy.  Think of that leprosy as a symbol of whatever sins outwardly or inwardly that we might be struggling with.

Jesus says, Go show yourselves to the priests.  And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.  

Under the Law of Moses, you may know, before someone who had leprosy could join back into the community, they had to be pronounced clean by the priest who would examine their skin. So there was faith on the part of all the lepers, to follow Jesus’ command – in walking to the priests they had some hope that they would be healed.  They were being healed as they walked, not by some great act on their part, but by a simple trust, a simple obedience to what Jesus commanded.

The same thing happens to us as we obey St Paul’s simple advice – Walk by the Spirit.  Just stop satisfying the impulses of our fallen nature, gratifying the flesh, and the fruit of the Spirit dwelling in us will be revealed – we don’t have to will them, they appear in us as we follow in obedience the way of Christ – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  

It is as the Psalmist says (Psalm 19):

The statutes of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart :
the commandment of the Lord is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes.

To the carnal immature soul, these fruit seem somehow less immediate, less strong, less tangible, even less desirable compared with the louder more immediate experiences known by the body or the mind of a person driven by the flesh.  But Jesus promises and St Paul confirms, the fruit of the Spirit is what it is to be truly alive, truly an inheritor of God’s kingdom, today, now.  And in time, as we are healed, we begin to desire, even to love these fruit much more than the blinding and loud clamour of gratifying the flesh.

If the Spirit has shown you today, as we’ve been reflecting on the Epistle, some way in which you have been refusing to be obedient to Christ, the call is to humbly walk this week in a new way, not gratifying that fleshy desire but walking in the Spirit.  Jesus will strengthen our wills to follow in that new way.

But the Gospel today goes a little beyond the teaching of the Epistle.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks; and he was a Samaritan.  And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God, except this foreigner?  And he said to him, Rise and go your way; your faith has made you whole.

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Jesus commends the one who turns back to him to give thanks – he is not just healed of his leprosy, but is told by Jesus that he is whole (KJV).

This morning each one of us wants to be like the one who turned back and gave thanks, right?

What is it about him that is different from the others?  Perhaps being a Samaritan, not a Jew, he had less expectation of God’s grace including him, and so when he saw it he was especially surprised – like someone who has been out of the Church and suddenly trusts and experiences God’s saving grace and is more zealous when coming into the Church than those who have been there all their life.

The gospel says the Samaritan was moved to return to Jesus when he saw that he was healed.

Let’s take a moment this morning to look at ourselves, wherever we are on our journey of healing and the restoration of our souls.  Compare your life today with where you were last year, or five years ago, or twenty years ago.

Do you realize that it is by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, that we are being made whole?  Do you see how the kingdom of God is being manifested in your soul today?

We have opportunity now in the liturgy, the hymns and prayers, to return to Jesus, to fall at his feet and to give him praise.

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   [Ancient Collect for Trinity 14]