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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T16 - Lucas Cranach the Younger-1569
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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T16 - MonrealeNainWidowsSon
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.

T16 - Vincent van Gogh Lazarus 1890(2)
The raising of Lazarus, Vincent van Gogh, 1890.

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