Examine Yourselves

May 27, 2018

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using 2 Corinthians 13:5-13 at Evensong on Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to pass the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed. But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have passed the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect. 10 So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

11 Finally, brothers and sisters,[b] farewell.[c] Put things in order, listen to my appeal,[d] agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of[e] the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

 

It’s exam season. If you’re a parent, I wonder how you help your children with exams? Are you, or were you, the pushy parent, the Tiger mum, creating a strict regime for your son’s work, maximising his capacity to work, training him to work longer hours, coaching him with extra tutorial help?

Or are you the laid back parent, trusting in the natural ability of your daughter, and the school system, so that, regardless of how much revision she does, she just seems to coast through exams and get pretty good grades without even breaking into a sweat?

What distinguishes these two approaches is how much responsibility lies with the child. The approach of the Tiger mum is that the parent takes quite a lot of responsibility of the child’s results. The approach of the laid back parent puts the responsibilty onto the child.

We will all breathe a sigh of relief when the exam season is over. In the School of Mission, of which I am Canon Principal, we don’t do exams. Work is assessed continuously throughout the programmes we run. In fact, we’re even talking about getting students to examine each other’s work. It helps them understand the learning outcomes and what makes a good piece of work.

Our epistle reading goes a stage further. It comes at the end of the second letter to the church in Corinth. The apostle Paul says to the Christians in Corinth, ‘Examine yourselves. Examine yourselves to see if you are living in the faith. Test yourselves.’ Paul is clearly telling the church that they are in exam season, and it is their responsibility to make sure that they pass the test.

So what does he mean? How do you pass the test of being a Christian?

What sort of thing do you think Paul might have in mind? The canon of the New Testament had not been formed when this letter was written, so what were they supposed to do? As Greek Christians with little or no affiliation with Jewish customs, were they meant to start learning the laws in Leviticus? Did he want them to recite the books of the Hebrew bible in order? Are they supposed to remember the date of the exodus and a succession list of the kings of Judah? What’s the syllabus when you’re examining whether you are ‘living in the faith’ of Christ?

We tend to think of exams as testing our knowledge. But Christians are called not to do an exam, but to examine ourselves. Self-examination has been a key feature of Christian spirituality throughout the ages.   I’ve particularly valued following the advice of Ignatius of Loyola from the early sixteenth century.

He suggests in his general examen at the end of each day that we consider five questions:

First, what can you give thanks to God for?

Second, have you the grace to know when you have sinned?

Third, what has been the impact of your thoughts, words and actions each hour of the day, considering the effect you have had on yourself and others?

Fourth, what is the wrong you have done during the day for which you need to ask forgiveness?

Finally, what help do you need God to give you to reform your life?

If we examine ourselves daily, we might find our love for God growing as a yearning within our hearts.

Over the past few months, I’ve attempted to examine myself by creating a Rule of Life. I’ve used the diocesan structure of ‘Loving, Living and Serving’.

The ‘loving’ bit focusses on how I express my love for God, which in one way boils down to how much time I spend in prayer. But it also relates to having an annual spiritual retreat, in seeing my spiritual director, fasting from a meal once a week and ensuring I spend time each week in silent prayer.

The ‘living’ bit focusses on the people that we share our lives with over the decades. Who are your friends? Who are you intimate with? When do you let down your guard? Who do we mentor and invest our time in? Who do you give to without expecting anything in return? Who do you look up to and who do you turn to when you need help?

The ‘serving’ part of a rule of life focusses on how we serve the world.  How do you contribute towards society? It’s closely related to understanding our vocation, our calling in life, so that we use our gifts and abilities in ways that help establish God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.

After trying to live my rule of life for only a few months, it doesn’t take long to realise that I fail my own test. Even when I set the bar relatively low, I still can’t consistently get over it.

Am I living in the faith of Christ Jesus? Not really. Not if I examine myself. I fail.

So if a canon of the cathedral doesn’t pass the test, what hope for the rest of us?

Fortunately, testing yourself on whether you are living in the faith of Christ is not the same as being tested for a Driving Licence. If you fail the driving test then you’re not allowed out on the roads on your own. You are disbarred.

Failing the test of living in the faith of Christ does not prohibit you from living as a Christian – rather it’s probably the best qualification for being a Christian.

The prayer I pray the most is probably the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High God, have mercy on me a sinner.’

It is only in recognising our constant need for God’s grace, that we can ever keep our pride and self-reliance in check. As the apostle Paul is at pains to point out throughout this letter to Corinth, it is in recognising our weakness that we begin to find our strength in God. The qualifications we gain from examining ourselves are not a list of straight ‘A’s. But rather they are an acute awareness of how much more we need to learn if we are to more truly reflect the grace, love and mercy of God.

The liturgical season of Trinity begins today, and it is the longest season of the Christian year. It’s what we call ordinary time. It introduces us to the life of the post-Pentecost church. It’s normal life. Exam season is normal for the Christian – and it’s normal that we fail. Only then do we begin to explore the depths of Christ’s mercy and grace, the power of God’s redeeming love, that picks us up, dusts us off, and delights in us, even when we fail the test. Only then do we find our right place in the community of Christ’s body, the church.

That’s why we pray the words of the grace: May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore. Amen.

Prayers…

Prayer on living a life of self-examination:

using Ignatian questions.

 

A prayer attributed to Ignatius of Loyola:

Dearest Lord,
teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve You as You deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward
save that of knowing I am doing Your Will.

Amen.

Pray for the world in which we live: we pray for a clear understanding of the implications of Brexit; for peace in countries of war and tension, praying especially for the forthcoming summit between North Korea and the USA; for peace in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

Prayer written by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the 50th Anniversary of the founding of Tearfund, the Christian relief agency, calling for the end of extreme poverty:

Gracious and generous God, you became poor so that we might be enriched by your love, and you gave the world’s wealth and resources as a common inheritance of all human beings.

We pray you would strengthen your church to be a beacon of hospitality for the poor.

We pray that, seeing the light of Christ’s love, the nations and peoples of the world may fight not to kill, but to outdo one another in care for the poor, and in actions of gracious generosity.

Through him who for our sakes did not grasp the wealth of heaven, but instead gave all to live for us as a slave, and die for us in pain, Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

Amen

Sick and dying, for those who watch and wait and care for them.

Pray for the effective proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ by your church across the world. That your Holy Spirit would reveal Christ and his saving power to hearts that are cold and minds that are closed.