During this Eastertide preaching series we have been focusing on the theme, “Towards Larger Life.” The theme is well-chosen, I think, and especially appropriate for this season in the Church’s year. But it is a theme that could just as well be taken to describe the whole of God’s purpose for us and for all who turn to God for help. God’s desire is to bring us into larger life, to join us to that eternal life that the Father shares with the Spirit and the Son – not only in heaven, but now and here, in our daily lived experience. “I came that (you) may have life,” Jesus told his followers, “and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10) Larger life. Eternal life. Abundant life. Nothing less than the God’s own life, abounding within us.
“All the dealings of God with the soul of the believer are in order to bring it into oneness with Himself,” writes the 19th century Quaker, Hannah Whitall Smith. “This Divine union was the glorious purpose in the heart of God for His people before the foundation of the world. It was the mystery hid from ages and generations. It was accomplished in the death of Christ. It has been made known by the Scriptures; and it is realized as an actual experience by many of God’s dear children.”1
It is of this larger life that Jesus speaks in today’s gospel reading. In his last discourse with his disciples before his crucifixion and death, he promises that in his absence the Father will send them “another Advocate, to be with (them) forever.” (John 14:16) “This is the Spirit of truth,” he tells them, “which the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. (But) you know him,” he says, “because he abides in you, and he will be in you.”(John 14:17) “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:19) This is God’s purpose for us, just as it was for those disciples: to be joined forever to the Divine life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; to know this larger life, to experience it, and to abide in it forever.
Did his disciples receive what Jesus had promised them? See for yourselves. They had left all to follow him, yet they were so unlike him! Misunderstanding his message and his mission; seeking to be set up one above the other; fleeing from the Cross and forsaking him in the time of danger; paralyzed by weakness and fear. And then God’s Spirit was poured out upon them and the Divine life filled and empowered them, and these same disciples became fearless witnesses of the new and larger life God had made available to them through the death and resurrection of Jesus and through the gift of the Holy Spirit. They had come to know Christ in a new way – as inwardly revealed, as one with them in actual union, their very indwelling life. And from that moment on, his life was available to them, bringing strength and comfort, driving away fear, transforming them, empowering them, accomplishing in them and through them greater things than they had ever hoped or imagined!
Larger life. Abundant life. Life with a capital “L.” God’s own life, in them and with them. “You will see me (again),” Jesus had promised them, “because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:19)
And not these disciples alone. Those who followed them were also given the Divine gift. They too were drawn by the Spirit into the fellowship of the Father and the Son, and came to experience the Divine life at work within them. They too knew and experienced God’s life and love transforming them, empowering them, overflowing them to the benefit of others. So much so that Paul could write, “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me!” (Galatians 2:20).
Listen to the testimony of the early Christians concerning this life: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (I John 1:1-3)
This larger life is available to us all. God has not hidden it or made it hard. And yet in our blindness and unbelief, we have often failed to realize it or experience it. For many of us it is something theoretical but not practical, imagined but not realized. How can we learn to live in union with God and to know God’s life and love at work within us?
The secret lies in self-surrender, in handing ourselves over to God and in trusting God completely to do in us and through us what we cannot do for ourselves. “Those who love me will keep my word,” Jesus says, “and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23) God will come and be at home with those who keep God’s ways and abide in God’s love. This is the condition for living in union with God and experiencing God’s life at work within us: keeping God’s ways and abiding in God’s love; surrendering our wills to God’s, and in everything trusting God’s love.
It is like the child who struggles helplessly to perform a task for which he lacks sufficient strength. Only when he resigns himself to his weakness and looks to someone stronger than himself to assist him can he hope to accomplish the task. In the same way, we come to know God’s strength being made perfect in our weakness when we abandon ourselves to God and rely every moment on God’s presence and power.
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a simple lay monk of the 17th century, practiced the presence of God in everything he did. His way was very simple: he turned everything into prayer by simply talking to God as he went about his tasks. He made it his habit to begin each task with prayer, asking for God’s grace that, while his mind was occupied with outward things, he might continue in God’s presence. As he worked, he stayed as much as possible in conversation with God, and when the task was completed, he examined himself on how he had remained faithful. If he did well, he thanked God; if poorly, he asked God’s pardon and, without giving way to discouragement, went on in the presence of God. He made no distinction between times of activity and times of prayer, claiming that he possessed God as peacefully in the commotion of his kitchen, where often people were asking him for different things at the same time, as he did in the chapel when kneeling in prayer before the Sacrament.
“We do not always have to be in church to be with God,” he said. “We can make of our hearts an oratory where we can withdraw from time to time to converse with him there, gently, humbly and lovingly. Everyone is capable of these familiar conversations with God.”
Br. Lawrence did everything for the love of God. It made no difference to him what he did, provided he did it for God. “In the ways of God…,” he said, “love counts for everything. And [so] it is not necessary to have important things to do.” “I flip my little omelette in the frying pan for the love of God, and when it is done, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the floor and adore my God who gave me the grace to do it, after which I get up happier than a king. When I can do nothing else, it is enough for me to pick up a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
The result of this practice was a life of great joy, and of deep and abiding contentment. He found God everywhere and in everything, and so he was content in any place and with any task. Reports of his holiness spread and many came to learn from him. Here is the secret of abiding in union with God and finding God’s strength being made perfect in our weakness. Here is the gateway into larger life. Surrender and trust. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
We, too, can learn to abide in God, to draw our strength from God’s life at work within us, to rely on God every moment of every day. We too can have this larger life, this eternal life, the very life of God as our daily fare. God’s purpose has been and always will be to draw us into union with himself, that we may discover with Paul that “it is no longer (we) who live, but it is Christ who lives in (us)!”
The larger life we are promised in Christ is not found by striving for success, social status or material gain; nor is it found in pursuing righteousness or holiness (witness the Pharisees). It is found by surrendering ourselves to God’s life within us and by trusting God’s strength to be made manifest in our weakness. This life is a gift – not to be earned, but received – the gift of living in union with God.