That you might be filled with all the fullness of God! [Eph 3:19]
In Trinity season we are moving in our readings to consider ever higher and higher possibilities in the movement of our soul, in its ascent, towards the living God.
And it is important, wherever we are on our spiritual journey, to consider what is possible, so that we don’t stagnate in the place we are, becoming complacent, no longer hoping for growth in wisdom and in love both of God and of our neighbour.
Last night, at our Prayer and Praise service, we were reflecting on what the students are studying here in the Christianity Explored course on Tuesday nights. That course begins [see 11 minute video here] by reflecting on why we might miss the best news ever. That we might have no expectation of what is possible through our faith in Jesus Christ. The way we have learned to not get something for nothing in business deals – and we might so easily walk right past the best news ever, because we’ve shut down our expectations.
But the Gospel is good news, life changing news, like the Netherlands experienced after 5 years of being occupied and suddenly, there is jubilation and freedom again, a freedom almost forgotten. The next day and the next day and the next day will not be like it was before. Almost too good to believe.
In our Epistle reading today [Ephesians 3:13-21], Paul sets out before us what is possible in the Christian life as we enter into greater and greater maturity. Listen again to these lofty hopes that Paul has for us:
I bow my knees before the Father, … that … he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength 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, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Are you still hoping to “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…” and to “be filled with all the fullness of God”?
Because if we don’t hope for this, then we are less likely to experience it. So we need to hold the hope of it before our mind, the expectation. Are we thinking high enough?
But we don’t just hold it there as a kind of dream, but we engage in our lives actively in ministry, in mission, in our daily work, learning at a school or college or university or in our daily work, inside or outside of the home, supporting and caring in practical ways for ourselves, for our families, for the Church and for our wider society.
But it is in that very activity that we discover our brokenness:
When this happened I got angry over the top,
when this happened, I ate too much, when this happened, I didn’t eat enough, when this happened I felt envious of others,
when this happened I became depressed,
when this happened I distracted myself endlessly with video games,
when this happened, I tried to find comfort in sexual acts outside of the bounds,
when this happened, I comforted myself in material possessions,
when this happened I spent a lot time on how I looked to others,
when this happened I was filled with pride.
None of these overreactions or wrong reactions or out-of-control-passions of the soul would have revealed themselves as out of control or outside the limits of the expression of love if we had not been active. For example, if you refuse ever to become angry, you will never learn to use that aspect of your soul for its true purpose – such as to react with full release of energy to fight against an injustice.
It is no virtue to be a lump of clay not doing anything and never having tested whether you have control of your passions. The virtues only reveal themselves in our soul as we act and by grace are adorned with virtues from God. Jesus doesn’t only say ask, he says – seek, knock and then ask!
In our Philokalia study group last Friday we were reading from Gregory of Sinai who, writing in the 13th century about the spiritual ascent, says,
“It is impossible in our generation to achieve…[and then he speaks something of the heights…] essential spiritual contemplation of the light, to acquire a mind free from wanderings or dreams, the true action of prayer, surging continuously like a fount from the depths of the heart, the resurrection and ascension of the soul on high, Divine awe, complete ecstasy in spirit, and an angelic rousing of the soul moved by God…” [It is impossible in our generation to achieve these]…he says…, “since, through many temptations, we are governed now by the tyranny of the passions.” [Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, p.64 para 118]
But the Christian call is not to no longer engage in the world because we might do something wrong, but to engage in it and be shaped moment by moment as we walk seeking to follow the Spirit.
Sadly sin must come in this process because we are broken, but thankfully we are assured by Jesus we can be forgiven our transgressions as we move and grow, falling to this side or that side on the way. Keep going is God’s calling to us, keep loving, and the mistakes will be less and less and the love more and more perfect.
And as we do this walking, we are dying to the excesses and rising up to the new human being formed and shaped by Jesus. That is our sanctification in Christ, that is our becoming holy, that is the new resurrection life that we are promised.
Paul prays in his letter that we might be strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit in our inner man or inner being. What is that inner being in us?
Paul says in Romans [7:22] that in his inner self he delights in the Law of God – it is the core, the heart of who we are. More and more it is being uncovered, the beauty of our authentic self, made in the image and likeness of God – it is that person, that we all have a sense is there, and that person who we want to be. That’s not a false hope, it is the hope of glory! Dwell on that hope! (“…in de glorie!”)
So walk and make mistakes, but we walk in the Spirit, and we will make them less and less. That is how we come to know, with all the saints, that is, with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
Our Gospel this morning [St. Luke 7:11-17] is a beautiful illustration of this hope of transformation, of the new resurrection life.
Of course on one level and foremost it a reminder of the compassion of Jesus for a woman who is a widow and is experiencing the double despair of losing her son and losing the only person who could care for her. It reveals that Jesus is like the great prophet of old, Elijah, who restored to life through his prayers to God, the only son of the widow of Zaraphath (our first lesson today, 1 Kings 17:7-24). When the Jews saw what Jesus did, they made the connection immediately. “A great prophet is among us!” Jesus is like Elijah. But the miracle is also different – Elijah prayed to God, Jesus simply says, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” – and he was restored to life. Someone even greater than the great prophet Elijah is here.
This story shows Jesus’ compassion and reminds us of our hope that Jesus has the power to resurrect us to eternal life. Our physical death will not bind us or destroy us in the end. He has promised this to us!
But we have read this Gospel today in the connection with the Epistle also to remind us of the transformation that is happening in each one of us as we trust in Jesus.
I’ve said this before, but some may not have heard it. The name of the city, Nain, means pleasant or pleasure. A spiritual reading of this healing miracle is this: As Christians, we are to die to the excesses of earthly pleasure, and as we are carried away from them, we will be resurrected to the new life in Christ. The young man sits up on the bier and the first thing he sees is Jesus.
This is precisely what is happening in us. God is not condemning the human person because we sin, he hates the sin that mars and takes away from our beauty, but it’s because he wants to restore us fully, with all our thoughts, our emotions, our feelings, our desires, our talents – he doesn’t want their destruction but their transformation and that they all being taken up.
Resurrection is not killing of the body and soul and replacing it with something else but a full restoration of our person in all its beauty and all its power. Are we ready for that? are we hoping for that? That is the hope of glory. As we walk in faith we begin to rise up and sit up on the bier and we will see the beautiful vision, the face of Jesus!
For those excesses in our life since our last communion, Jesus gives us a remedy – let us prepare ourselves by confessing our sins, and then receive perfect forgiveness, the healing of our distorted souls, and the adorning of our souls and bodies with virtue as we trust in and partake of His Body and Blood given for us.
O LORD, we beseech you, let your continual pity cleanse and defend your Church;
and, because it cannot continue in safety without your succour,
preserve it evermore by your help and goodness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Collect for Trinity 16]