Trinity 16 – Leaving pleasure behind

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

We are continuing our focus on entering more fully into the Kingdom of God – an invitation we have been receiving Sunday after Sunday in this season of Trinity – we are growing upward.

Last week I spoke about the two citizenships we have (and the passports we get for each):

  • one for the earthly kingdom – received by being born into a country or through applying – and it entitles us to certain privileges and freedoms, including travel abroad and certain protections.
  • The other for the heavenly kingdom – received by grace through baptism and faith – it entitles us to certain privileges, the inheritance of heaven, and freedoms to know and to love – freedom to explore the spiritual landscape of God’s Kingdom.

We are straddling these two kingdoms – the earthly and the heavenly

And it is right, we are called, to live in both for the present, during our earthly pilgrimage.  But how do we engage in the earthly kingdom in a way that it does not hinder our exploration of the heavenly?

At the beginning of the season we looked at how sin can hinder our fuller enjoyment of heaven.  Last Sunday our Lord reminded us of the inner thoughts, of anxiety, that can get in the way of exploring and enjoying the kingdom of heaven – anxieties about whether we’ll have enough of the earthly things.  Jesus says, Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things (earthly things) shall be added to us (food, drink, clothing).

In religious language, we can talk about a kind of dying, a crucifixion of wandering desire, and of inner anxieties about whether we’ll have enough, desires or anxieties that are not fitting for a child of God.

That dying is a dying to the things of the earthly kingdom so we might know more of the resurrection life, the life of God’s Kingdom, that awaits us even now.

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t16-lucas-cranach-the-younger-1569-1
Raising of the son of the widow of Nain (detail), Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1569

Today’s Gospel (St. Luke 7:11-17) speaks about a physical dying and resurrection.

It is the account of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain.  Jesus is performing miracles of healing and is preaching about the Kingdom of God, and he and his disciples come across this tragic scene: the only son of a widow is being brought outside the city gates for burial.  It is part of the tragic circumstances of our being born into this world, that we suffer and die.  And this is the almost unspeakable tragedy of a parent burying her child.

Jesus intervenes and, like the great prophet Elijah before him, he raises, he restores the young man to life.  It is like the restoration of the young boy to the widow of Zarephath by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24), but it is also unlike that story.  In the Old Testament account, Elijah prays to the Lord his God, and stretches himself out on the child three times – and the Lord heard him.  But in this case Jesus, without praying to the Father, simply commands directly the young man to arise and he does.  Jesus acts according to His divine nature as the Son of God – it is qualitatively different, though the end is the same.

On one level this miracle, like the miraculous resuscitation of Lazarus, are proofs of who Jesus is (a great prophet, but more than a prophet), and figures, assurances, to us of the promise of Jesus of resurrection when we die.  But on another level, this miracle has been seen by the Church as saying something to us about the spiritual life because of the particular details recorded about the miracle.

As I’ve said before, the name of the town “Nain” is a Hebrew meaning “pleasant” or “lovely” or “green pastures”.  It is a name which evokes an image of heaven on earth.  And we know that there are many places on earth whose beauty and peacefulness allow us to rest for a moment and think about the promises of heaven – we say, this is paradise on earth!  Maybe you’ve seen and rested in some of these places this summer in your travels, or maybe you enjoy such a place closer to home (thank you Anne for the paradise you create behind our church!).

But coming back to these two kingdoms – the earthly and the heavenly – that we are straddling.  We know that sin and anxieties can bind us in the earthly and inhibit us from enjoying the heavenly kingdom.  But can you see how even our right enjoyment of the good things of this life can prevent us from exploring the heavenly?

If we are to proceed in the spiritual life, we need to be reminded of the call to reflect and perhaps die not just to sin or to being anxious, but also to what is comfortable, to what is certain, to what we enjoy, to what we find pleasant, a ‘green pasture’.

Without this more radical giving up, we might find ourselves no longer growing in the Spirit, but rather, experiencing a stagnation.

In the Church’s history – it is where people have given up, not just sin, but also good comforts, that they have rocked the world.  Whether it was the Apostles who left the certainties of life of fishing in Galilee to follow the Son of God to the ends of the earth (Matt 19:27f; Luke 18:28f); or St Nino, who left family and her homeland to become “Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia”; or Carl van Oordt, whom many of you know, who I am told at a certain point gave up all his wealth that he might continue to grow in Christ; or the many missionaries today who leave life in the West to bring the Gospel to where it has not been heard – all gave up comfort, pleasure, certainty, they died to these things, that they might live more fully the life of faith, to walk in the Resurrection life, in the steps of our Lord.

We don’t know what the young man in today’s Gospel said, when he sat up on the funeral bier, after being raised from the dead.  It says that he began to speak.  Words of praise?  Words of thanksgiving?  Was he telling people what he had seen?  But I think we can be certain that he did not return to a “normal” life after that – I suspect he became a follower of Jesus, a member of that radical nascent Church which has changed and is changing the world.  His participation in the Kingdom of God, we can imagine, was wholehearted – and so it will be for us, as we lessen our engagement in the kingdom of this world to walk more fully in the Kingdom of God as God’s children.

If we are finding ourselves a little too attached to this earthly life and not enough engaged in the Kingdom of God – we might want to take the exercise of reading again the book of Ecclesiastes – where Solomon, who had a superabundance of wealth and tried to find worthy projects to satisfy himself, nonetheless cries out after a lifetime, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!

In a way, this reflecting on earthly pleasure and learning to walk a little more lightly in it so that we continue to grow in the Spirit is the purpose of a whole range of spiritual disciplines, including fasting, and watchings (occasionally giving up sleep to pray), and retreats to places of greater simplicity of life (a small room with a bed, a chair, a desk, a lamp!), or decisions to downsize, to give up something rather than to acquire more.

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In the Epistle today (Ephesians 3:13-21) St Paul, though writing from prison tells the Philippians not to worry about his current situation, he describes in ecstatic words his prayer for the Philippians, but also his prayer for every Christian :

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, 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.

Brothers and sisters, beloved in Christ, this is the spiritual landscape that awaits us as Christians and is open to us to freely explore – we have passports! – the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Jesus!  When we are filled with all the fullness of God…we lack nothing!

Perhaps the Spirit this morning has brought to your mind something that is hindering you in your ascent more fully into His Kingdom.  No doubt there is some sin, which we will soon have opportunity to confess and be forgiven through the Cross of Christ, but maybe it is also simply a too great engagement with the good things of this life, not something we need to confess, but something we may wish to renounce, to die to, out of love for our Lord, in order to live more wholeheartedly in His Kingdom.

Let us now die and rise to new life in God’s Kingdom through partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

Amen.