Trinity 4 – The Inward Turn

        I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing
with the glory that is to be revealed in us. 
[Romans 8:20]

What a joy today to witness the baptism of Willemijn Anne Maria Kuijper (daughter of Adrie and Maya – godparents – Margaretha, Sherry and Martin)!  A warm welcome to all our guests today who are here to support her in her new life in Christ.

The baptism of Willemijn was quite a painless event, though it did bring some crying, was much less traumatic, we can imagine, than her birth, and certainly for her mother!

The Temptation, William Strang Date, 1899

But this morning, St Paul speaks of the whole life of a Christian here on earth as actually full of labour pains – He says, “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 firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

That is quite a strong statement.  He’s speaking to Christians about the Christian life – He speaks of “the sufferings of this present time…[of how] the creature was subjected to futility…[it is presently] in bondage to corruption.”

This is quite profound, and some might think dark, worldview.  But is it not a more real worldview?  Our suffering is not something limited to a kind of punishment response for some single mistake or two or many that we made in the past, but our suffering relates to a kind of state of being that is profoundly  broken – and it involves not only humanity but the rest of Creation.

The entering into the Christian life is not an end to suffering, but the start of a complete process of transformation of all that we are – body and soul.  It is a profound transformation that will bring us to a state far beyond where we were in the garden of Eden, to the life of heaven – and the rest of Creation is waiting for us to be changed that it might know a kind of redemption too.

The Christian life is a life full of suffering.  But here’s the good news: it is not a futile suffering, but a redemptive suffering, and it is all encompassing.  A child in the womb is well nourished and has all its needs met, there is a kind of state of completion there, yet it is only after going through the suffering of childbirth, that whole new worlds of possibilities for growth in knowledge and engagement in the world open up – some of those babies have since even been to the moon!  Even so, the Christian life, if we chose to take it seriously, and enter into the very painful process of growth, of truly engaging in the new life in the Spirit, in Christ, new worlds, even the life of heaven, opens up to us, and not just in the next life but even now.

In these opening weeks of Trinity season [in the Book of Common Prayer – Trinity 3 to 9], every set of readings [Epistle or Gospel] speaks of this suffering of purgation in some way.  Last Sunday St Peter said that – after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

This morning we are again encouraged to fully engage in this life of redemptive suffering.  St Paul says, I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.  And he says, For the creation was subjected to futility, …[by] him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God

So, if we are really going to live the Christian life, it means really engaging in the redemptive suffering.

Last week the particular kind of suffering was related to humbling ourselves, the suffering of humiliation, admitting we don’t know it all, engaging in the most basic and yet difficult Christian discipline of prayer – more and more prayer, a simple way to practice humbling ourselves under God.  And the difficult spiritual discipline of humbling ourselves before others.

What is the spiritual discipline being suggested today?

The Gospel reading this morning [St Luke 6.36-42] is from the most famous sermon ever, the Sermon on the Plain (like the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew) by God in the flesh.  Jesus is pouring out simple practical advice to us about the Christian life.

He begins by telling us all that we are all very blind and in need of grace – Can the blind lead the blind, will they not both fall into a pit.  And that blindness shows itself in one way as being quick to judge and to condemn others.

There is a way that this can be manifested in the modern world.  I saw a funny cartoon recently (right).  The cartoon shows a conveyer belt, with different people, men and women, dressed differently, then going through a large blue “f”, you know, the Facebook “f”, and on the other side they are all dressed in judges outfits, with wigs, and with angry faces and mallets in their hands.  It was one person’s observation about how we can become so judgemental in our comments, so quickly experts in every field of life.

I’m not against Facebook (it can be an instrument to keep us connected and for people to express their loving support) or people expressing opinions, but Jesus is warning us to be careful when we too quickly condemn without all the facts – “judge not, and you will not be judged, condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you.”

And Jesus goes on to encourage us all to the hardest spiritual discipline that there is –

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye’, when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

Hypocrisy is pretending we have it all together on the outside and yet in reality being unrighteous on the inside.

Do you see what the spiritual discipline is that Jesus commends to us?

The Mote and the Beam, Domenico Fetti

It is the inward turn, to look at ourselves, plainly, honestly, and to keep our gaze there so that we look at others with clearer eyes, with eyes of loving mercy.

We might find it easier if we were told to climb the highest mountain, or to go on a pilgrimage barefoot through the intense heat of the desert and then all will become clear – but to spend time in quiet looking at oneself, at one’s life, at one’s inner motivations, has been seen as one of the most difficult of spiritual disciplines to practice.

It’s difficult for a few reasons: we hide ourselves from ourselves, we are quite a mystery to ourselves, but of course, not to God, who sees all things, and would have us see ourselves and know ourselves as he knows us – only then can we grow.  Here are some reasons the inward turn can be difficult:

  • We can be uncomfortable with our sins, unconfessed, not yet forgiven.  It is a spiritual truth that if we are excessively concerned about a particular sin in others, it might be because we secretly see it in ourselves and loath ourselves because of it.  In the Bible is the example of King David around his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, which had to be pointed out to him in a curious way by the prophet Nathan.  David’s outrage at someone else’s sin, his quick condemnation, becomes the means by which Nathan reveals David’s blindness to himself.  [1 Samuel 11-12]
  • But also, we might avoid the looking at ourselves because we might discover we are often being led by vain motives – desire for acceptance from others, desire to be looked up to, desire for worldly success – and it can be painful to admit that we are vain, following only after empty vanity. But if we don’t see it we can waste away our lives.  [A meditation on Ecclesiastes can be helpful in this process.]  If we see this is the case then we can redirect ourselves, seeking instead to be motivated to give God glory, rather than pursuing vain glory.
  • Or we might see, in this inward turn, that we are following someone else’s idea of who we should be, rather than understanding and rejoicing in the gifts God has given to us and using them to his glory. How sad to spend our lives, not being authentically who we are, but someone else’s idea of who we should be.  Looking inward saves us from this vexation of spirit, and helps us to see who we are in God’s eyes, beloved, and with our own unique gifts.
  • One other reason we might avoid the inward turn: it is if we have experienced some intense trauma earlier in our lives, and it may be too painful to look upon. In this case, if that is our reason for not looking within, we should seek professional help – that we might be helped in various ways to find healing.  We are not meant to be forever held back by that trauma.  Again it is a most painful thing, but so can recovery from surgery be painful, but it is worth it in the end, as health and wholeness returns.  How else will we ever flourish?

What will give us the strength to practice this inward turn, this looking at ourselves?

The Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, will both give us the inward light to see ourselves, and at an intensity, a brightness, that we can bear – Jesus promises – I have much to tell you, but you cannot bear it, but when the Holy Spirit comes he will lead you into all truth.  It is merciful revealing, as we can bear it.  Secondly, the Cross of Christ, the most profound and clear expression in history of the mercy of God, we hold it before our eyes and it gives us the confidence to look within.  If we see things about ourselves that we are uncomfortable with, we know they can be forgiven, the Cross opens up, or reopens, the well springs of living water that come to restore and to bring new life to us.

This morning, even as I’ve been speaking, perhaps something painful has been brought to your mind inwardly by the Spirit.  If it is a sin, we have opportunity soon to confess it, and to be assured by our Saviour of perfect forgiveness.  He will feed us with His Body broken, His Blood outpoured.  Jesus wants to bring us inner light to the inwardly blind, inward healing to the inwardly sick.  He is here today for each one of us.  Let’s look within, because…The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us.

Amen +