Ephesians 3:17-end St Luke 7:11-17
That you may be filled with all the fullness of God!
Last Friday, some of us looked a little at the life of St. Antony the Great for our first Ascension Study Night. St Antony was an Egyptian from the 3rd century after Christ who left everything, his life of affluence in the city of Alexandria, and went into the dessert following the call of Jesus – when he heard the Gospel read one Sunday in Church.
He was a man who kept increasing his spiritual disciplines, and we heard of how he was tempted by a silver dish placed on the path on his way to the outer mountain – that is, even after 17 years of ascetic practices, he was still experiencing that tension in his soul between trusting in himself and trusting in God to provide. His experience of increasing discipline was a kind of dying.
We had a lively discussion afterwards about St Antony’s choices. Our purpose in looking at Antony, was not to suggest that all of us should be extreme ascetics like St. Antony, but that he was showing us in a kind of outward way, the path that every one of us must follow in some way.
It is a path away from the world and from the senses – not because St. Antony, or we, hate the world or the senses, but that he knew himself to be so bound up by it – by pleasure, by the love of the world, of power and money and ambition – that he was not free to love God and neighbour. He was looking for something more, and he knew from the Gospels, from the call of Jesus, that he had to go through a kind of dying, not so that he might remain dead, but that he might truly live.
In the Gospel this morning, a dead man, the only son of his mother, is being carried out on a bier by others out of a city called Nain – probably to be buried in a cemetery outside the city. Nothing in these Gospel stories is insignificant – the word “Nain” means “Pleasant”.
The death of this man in the city called Pleasant, is the experience of all people who give themselves over in varying degrees to the pleasures of this world, and forget that those pleasures will destroy us if they are seen as an end in themselves, that is, if they are not enjoyed in Christ.
This man being brought out dead, could also be a description of the life of Antony, who goes through a kind of deliberate dying to the life of pleasure. Some of us will remember, that for a while he had himself locked into an earthly tomb!
In the Gospel, the mother weeps for this son who has died – just as the Church, that is us, mourns for those in our midst who find themselves getting lost in the pleasures of this world – a spouse, a child, a grandchild, a friend. Or, it could refer to those in the Church who are experiencing suffering as they seek to be faithful in this call to die to the world, that they might rise to the new life – look at how the Epistle starts today – St. Paul speaking to the Church at Ephesus says, I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. He doesn’t want the church there to be concerned for him, because he knows his suffering is redemptive, for himself and for them.
In whatever way this death comes upon the members of the Church, we are moved with compassion for one another – and Jesus does not sit by idly while we weep.
He comes along side us, moved with compassion for the Church.
And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier; and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Jesus comes and touches the funeral bier and speaks and the son awakens from death.
Like St. Antony, who, in the tomb, saw the light of God, and heard His voice which assured him and guided him to leave the tomb; just so, the man in the Gospel came out of death to the new life in Christ.
And what did this man in the Gospel story do? He no doubt, went back into Nain, into Pleasantville or into the pleasures of this life – but now, with a new appreciation of them, careful not to fall into the same trap – seeing those pleasures, the good things of this life, now not as final, but for what they are, temporal gifts. He will enjoy them as a sign of the goodness of God, he will enjoy them in Christ. [e.g. grace before meals]
But this man in the Gospel story also began to know a new pleasure – the pleasure that comes from a loving beholding of God, that is, from contemplation. (Something we will be looking at in the coming weeks.) We can imagine the young man on the funeral bier, looking upon God incarnate, Jesus Christ in front of him, and offering words of praise and thanksgiving (the Gospel says, he began speaking), as well as simply beholding him with his eyes in loving adoration.
In the Gospel, it says that as soon as the young man was raised up “Jesus gave him to his mother”. He was raised up from death not for his own sake alone, but to help his widowed mother. And if we follow the allegorical reading, which I think the context is suggesting, we too find, that as we are being sanctified, we are delivered not for own sake alone, but for the sake of the wider Church community into which we are being brought. To say it again, we are being brought individually into a life of holiness for ourselves but also to serve the body of Christ as a whole.
In today’s Epistle, St. Paul prays for the Church, that everyone might rise to new life and come to know God…
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father… that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being…do you see this attention to the inner life of man? …so that Christ may dwell in your hearts (not just on our lips or in our minds but in our hearts) through faith…that we might…know the love of Christ, that surpasses knowledge, that you might be filled with all the fulness of God – imagine, filled with all the fullness of God! Our souls must be continually widened to receive more fully the life of God.
It is not that the Christian life is a denial of pleasure, but that we might be taken up into new heights of true and lasting pleasure – this is the Easter that follows Lent – the resurrection life that begins even now in this world – if we die with him, that we might live with him.
Let me make a connection here now with Dante’s Divine Comedy – it is a little plug for our next Ascension Study Night in November!
Dante makes a journey in that great poem, the journey of every soul, to plumb the depths of our depravity (that is the Inferno) (and there is some connection between the first part of Trinity season with this). And then the journey of every soul is to be sanctified, purged of our sins and even the inclinations of our hearts to sin (that is the Purgatorio) (and there is a connection with the second part of Trinity season, which we are just concluding, with this). The third part is the entering into the contemplation of the heavens and of God (that’s the Paradiso). (contemplation or union with God is a theme in the last part of Trinity season) But at the end of the second part, the Purgatorio, Dante is at the top of the mountain of Purgatory, he has gone through the painful process of the purification of his passions, and his guide Virgil, tells him this:
I’ve brought you here by strength of mind, and art;
Make your own pleasure now your guide –
You’ve left the steep and narrow ways behind.
No longer wait for what I do or say.
Your judgement now is free and whole and true;
To fail to follow it would be to stray.
I crown and mitre you, Lord of yourself.
[Purgatorio, Canto 27, Lines 130-132, 139-142]
The life of sanctification, or our ascension into the life of God, is characterized by a shift in what we truly find pleasurable. At first we reluctantly try to follow God’s will, and it is contrary to what we really want. But in time we are changed. We actually find more and more pleasure in following the commandments of God than in straying from them. And there will be a day when we only want to do what is right. Then we can do whatever we want! St Paul, I think, was at that state – speaking ecstatically this morning about knowing Christ and being filled with God – and praying we would experience the same.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus would do to us as he did to the man in today’s Gospel. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus would touch each one of our embodied souls inwardly and awaken us out of death and into a deeper love of Him and of our neighbour and a right love of the world in which we live?
This is exactly what he promises to each one of us here this morning – to feast upon living bread, and to drink from that life-giving stream – His Body and Blood given for us – for the forgiveness of sin and to raise us up to the new life. Here, in the Holy Communion, we are strengthened with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being; as St Paul hopes for us. Here Christ… dwell[s] in [our] hearts through faith; that [we], being rooted and grounded in love, are made able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth; and to know the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fulness of God.
Let us conclude with St Paul’s prayer:
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2