The Sunday Sermon: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 19, 2018
Scripture: Ephesians 3:14-21
The Breadth, Length, Height, and Depth of Love
Back into the Book of Ephesians this morning as we move through this last full summer month exploring ourselves, the community gathered. The letter that is included in our New Testament and addressed to “the saints who are in Ephesus” was most likely not written only to this community. Based on the way the opening verses were constructed, scholars think that the original version of the letter had a blank space for the insertion of a “place-name.” From verse one: To all the saints who are in (blank) and are faithful in Jesus Christ. I note this to suggest that we may, then, appropriately “fill in the blank” with Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church this morning. I’m going to further personalize this passage for us, but using my name and not Paul’s as we open our reading. That will sound even more strange, I know, but it personalizes things in inescapable ways.
So, let’s pray first … And listen for the Word of God … “To the saints who are in Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church: I (Joel) am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you … Read Ephesians 14-19
I pray this, indeed, as Paul did with he communities he served. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This letter was probably not written by Paul himself, but by a well-known disciple and companion of Paul after his death. Partly why I felt it okay to insert my own name before the verses. We just read this writer’s “Prayer for the Readers” whoever they may be. Ephesians, you see, as with other letters in our New Testament, was intended to be read aloud in a particular community. And as I noted before our prayer, this writing was probably composed as a “circular letter,” intended to be passed around to a number of communities, to a group of churches, and read aloud when those communities gathered.
Now, there is no reason that we should treat this letter and its appeals as some evidence of difficulties in any of the churches it may have been read to. But it is written for and addressed to particular situation, a “perilous situation.” Namely, the ever-present tendency the church in every age has to allow the world and our own creaturely comfort in the world, to decide and control our lives of faith. We desire that our lies of faith, our lives lived in service to the Kingdom of God to be as comfortable as our lives outside these walls, filled as those lives are with comfort and security and plenty. \
We ought to be beyond that now, our desire to “do church” in a way that is most comfortable to us. The author of Ephesians reminds us that this community, the church, is the place where “heaven and earth have been brought together in harmony,” the place where the Kingdom of God may enter the kingdoms of this world. But unfortunately that description says more about what we’d like to be, what we ought to be, than about we actually are in this present world. So the whole purpose of this letter “then,” wherever it was read, and “now” whenever it is read, was and is to show the true nature of the church it is read to (this morning, us) and to remind the hearers (again, this morning, us) the Christian life we are called to.
In another letter almost certainly written by Paul to the Romans, we are instructed “not to conform to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ, that we may discern what is the will of God.” Rom. 12:2, that most mysterious of realities that both comforts and troubles our lives. The verses, the prayer, that we just read, is a prayer of hope that we may comprehend what is the “breadth and length and height and depth” of that transformed life, of Love itself, so that we may filled with the fullness of God.
This is, I believe, the very heart of Christianity. The broad, long, high, and deep Love embodied by Jesus, was and is the primary vision and imperative for Paul, for all those who wrote in Paul’s name, and for the early church. And, even if we have lost our focus a bit in the centuries since then, it should be the principal goal and practice for our lives as a community of faith today: Understanding, living, and sharing the breadth, length, height, and depth of Love.
These things – understanding, living, and sharing Christ’s love – are not as easy to do as a 21st century Presbyterian community of faith because it requires a level of sacrifice that we simply aren’t prepared to offer. We offer love that is safe. We offer love that is conditional. We offer love that is authentic, but that is still rife with restrictions and boundaries. Socially, economically, religiously, politically, we are, by and large, among the privileged. Why would we want to be transformed, or renewed, by giving away the life and love that has created such comfort for us?
Only because that is what our faith requires us to do. Our lives as Christians must always be in search of, and in service to, the breadth and length and height and depth of Love, with a capital “L.” This love is found and shared in our personal lives and in our communal lives; in the private and in the political. And we have a way to enter into each. Let us begin with ourselves.
The gateway into the Love we seek for our personal lives, the transformation that is at the heart of our individual faith, can be imagined through the biblical and scriptural metaphor of “being born again.” We’re a bit intimidated by that language as mainline Presbyterians. We’ve allowed our more conservative brothers and sisters to have a near monopoly on this metaphor for the Christian life because we understand, we’ve allowed others to define, “being born again” too narrowly. But rightly understood, “being born again” is exactly what the breadth and depth of Jesus’ love allows and requires. To be born again, born anew, is to born from above, that is, born of the Spirit that is God, born of Love. To be “born again” is to enter new life through and in the Spirit, a life centered in the Spirit of God.
Like Nicodemus in our familiar scripture story we understand this language too literally and miss the point. The point of that classic text and of “being born again” is to experience a spiritual rebirth, a personal transformation, the depth and breadth of God’s Love that is not only for us, but of us, within us. This is something that may happen once in some remarkable way or another, but that more often happens continuously in our journey of faith as we die to an old way of being in and seeing the world and are “reborn,” resurrected in the Spirit so that we may discern the breadth and depth of the Love of God, not our own narrow and shallow offering of love.
Being born again is the breadth and depth of Love.
And with that love, broad and deep in our personal lives, we can turn to the world. The gateway into the Love we seek for our political lives, our lives with all others in this world, can be imagined through the biblical and scriptural metaphor of the “Kingdom of God.” The Christian life, our love as Christians, is about “being born again” and about the “Kingdom of God.” We love most faithfully and most fully under the Lordship of God in the person of Jesus Christ when we, like our Bible, combine sharp criticism of the world’s injustice’s and systems of domination with a passionate advocacy of an alternative social vision, rooted in Love, “just” Love.
This criticism and this advocacy are grounded in our understanding of the character and passion of God. That character and that passion are revealed most fully for us in and through the person of Jesus, and probably the best shorthand summary of his message and passion for our lives together is imaged in the “Kingdom of God.” The “Kingdom of God” is a profoundly communal-social-political symbol. It is the length and height of God’s love.
To begin with, “kingdom” is a political term. Jesus could have spoken of the “family” of God, or the “community” of God, keeping the command of Love in the personal realm, deep and broad. But he didn’t. We do, of course, most often when we want to keep the peace between our lives as disciples and citizens of the larger world. But when we do that we shorten the length and lower the height of a Love that is intended to transform the world every bit as much as it is intended to transform our personal life.
Though we most often break it down into parties and differing ideologies, in the end, “politics” is about the shape and shaping of human community. And let’s be honest, the shaping of human community around the world has been, and is, structured to favor the powerful and the wealthy. Being powerful and wealthy isn’t (necessarily) a bad thing. But being ignorant of, or worse indifferent to, the imbalance of power and privilege that power and wealth creates. What we need is more “disenchanted” members of the privileged class, more financially comfortable people – like us! – disenchanted with systemic injustice, racial discrimination, sexual exploitation, and any other practice that diminishes the humanity in any of us. What we need is more “disenchanted” members of the privileged class, more financially comfortable people – like us! – who are committed to the communal transformation possible through the “long and high” Love of God that is a part of us.
The Kingdom of God is the length and height of Love.
Nothing short of the “broad, long, high, and deep” Love of God that surpasses conventional knowledge will do. The church in every age, in any place, is the historical witness to this Love for the world. We are reconciled to God through the one we call Christ in such as way as to imagine and realize new love, transformed love, resurrection love.
Our prayer this morning and every morning answers the question that tugs at our hearts whenever we dare to love as Christ loved: Can Love really transform the world? And that prayer, our prayer that calls us to the breadth, length, height and depth of Love itself, concludes with this promise:
Our (God), who by the power at work within us, IS able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
To God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and forever. Amen.
And … Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / August 19, 2018