Passage: Ephesians 3:14-21
Date: July 30, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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In 2001, a group of us walked the stone-paved, column-lined streets of ancient Ephesus, in Asia Minor. One of the world's most magnificent archaeological sites, we strolled past what had been places of commerce, beautifully decorated homes of the rich, public baths and restrooms, temples and a wonderful multi-storey library. We paused in the amphitheater in which the Apostle Paul preached. From there, we looked out on to what had been a Mediterranean seaport, now silted in. In this metropolitan Roman city existed a small Christian community, a tiny minority, mostly gentile converts. Scholars suspect that sometime after Paul, the letter which bears the city's name was written. It seems not personal enough, nor specific enough to have been penned by the Apostle himself. Perhaps the letter was one of those addressed to a variety of congregations in Asia Minor.
Our reading begins with the phrase: "For this reason..." What reason? The reason appears to be the writer's wonder and amazement at the astounding breadth of the love and mercy of God in calling even Gentiles into new life in Christ. For Paul, it was nothing less than an astonishing miracle that God's grace in Christ was available for all, Jew and Gentile alike. Listen then, listen for the expansiveness of God's love. Listen too for what it means for us to live in Christ, indeed, into Christ. (Read, follow along in a pew Bible.)
This new week, I encourage you to return to these verses. Not easy, they are run-on sentences, filled with mixed metaphors. For example, the phrase: "as you are being rooted and grounded in love." "Rooted" of course is horticultural, meaning firmly planted. "Grounded," on the other hand, has nothing to do with gardening and everything to do with architecture-as in building on firm footings. Throughout these verses, all of the second person pronouns are plural. How often we miss that in English, in our individualistic society. That is, every time we read the word "you," we tend to hear it as addressed to a single person, to me. Eg., "May God grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his spirit." Yes, I desire to be strengthened in my inner being by God's Spirit. That is valid. However, the writer is not addressing me as an individual, but rather, us as one body, the congregation. The prayer is that we might be strengthened in our inner being by God's Spirit. Friends, that makes a huge difference in how we hear God's voice in these words.
The last two verses are a wonderful doxology. But, just prior to them is the heart of the writer's prayer: "that you (pl) may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you (pl) may be filled with all the fulness of God." If someone were to ask, "What makes the church different from any very good social and service organization?", at our best, this is our answer. We seek to know the love of Christ, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God, because we believe that is God's intention for us. That is our Creator's plan, in the best sense. Can you believe it? God wants us as community to know the love of Christ, so that we can be at one with God and each other.
One early summer morning, shortly after our first daughter was born, I had the deeply moving privilege of rocking her back to sleep. The morning doves were cooing outside as the dim light of dawn began to waken the day. Sitting there, I was nearly overwhelmed. I was holding a beautiful tiny little girl, a human being that Linda and I had created. Wow! And then, I was suddenly aware of my responsibility. Here was this fragile person, entrusted to us for a time. It was our role to teach her, to shape and mold her into whoever she would become. She seemed like a clean slate upon which we were to write. That seemed too much. What if we wrote wrongly? Of course, what I very quickly learned was that she was not a blank slate at all. None of us is. We all come preprogramed. We are already wired. In a sense, I was deeply relieved when I realized that. The burden of it all was not mine, not ours as parents. And, from time to time, when any of our children did particular things or responded in certain ways, I could say to my wife, "Well, that is not our fault. Obviously, it is the genes, from your side of the family."
Yet. Yet, having said that, what we began to realize was that although our children came with their own very defined personalities, ours was a profound privilege and responsibility. It was still our vocation, our calling to provide them with opportunities and experiences, with values and discipline, with security and encouragement, with nourishment that was physical and emotional and spiritual-all of this and a myriad more, daily, sometimes moment by moment, ways we were to love them through childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. All of it, even into adulthood, is nothing less than process, nothing less than becoming. Although we enter preprogramed, we human beings become. We become all our days, and even to our life's end.
Mercifully, God knows that. The God we see in Jesus Christ recognizes that life itself is a process. And in amazing love, God does not leave us alone, single "yous," isolated and afloat on the great sea of life to fend for ourselves, working on our spiritual journeys apart. In what I know only as an act of holy compassion, God in Christ has given us each other, in community. The "yous" are plural, as in "you all." We are meant to be "rooted and grounded in love" together. At each stage along the way, God intends us to "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fulness of God." Pause a moment. Let that begin to sink in. The God of the universe, the God of millions of stars on a summer night, the One we sense in the awe of a magnificent waterfall and the hungry cry of a tiny baby, the One we question in the face of intense injustice and searing suffering, the One we cling to in the darkest night, the One we glimpse in Jesus, crucified and risen-this One deeply desires us to know the love of Christ all our days. And in order to do that, our God knows we need each other, companions on the way. We require the gifts, the experiences, plainly, just the presence of each other for this holy shaping, this forming process to work. If we are to become, to deepen as the people of Christ, we require other people to journey with us, to provide for us opportunities and experiences, values and discipline, security and encouragement and love. We need others to forgive us, and to hold us responsible to our commitments. It does not matter whether it is during childhood, or adolescence or adulthood. We become people of Christ all our days, and even into our dying. How fabulous is the journey. Simply, it takes a congregation to raise a Christian.
John Buchanan, minister at 4th Presbyterian in Chicago, says this about our community together:
Part of what the church is for is to provide access to the life-giving power of friendship. Part of why we worship corporately is that together we can affirm and trust and believe and give our hearts in ways that any one of us on any given Sunday may not be able to do. When we pray together, we are always praying on behalf of those among us who, for whatever reason, are not able to pray. When we sing, we carry with us those who are down, unable to sing, perhaps unable to do much of anything. When we stand together and say together, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth," we are believing for those who cannot. (Pulpit Resource, July 27, 2003, p. 20)
Do you hear the plural "you?" Without this kind of community, disciples of Christ simply cannot live. God's intention for us becomes short-circuited. Only through other people does God shape us into the people we are intended to be. I know that what I am saying is counter-cultural, against the grain of our self-help western individualism. But then, the church at its best is always counter-cultural. When it is not, it ceases to be the church.
Last Monday, I participated in the memorial service of Mary Boeschen, a dear friend and outstanding Christian educator. She was the dean of Christian educators in our Presbytery, and a leader in our denomination. Unassuming, soft-spoken, amazingly humble, with great inner strength, I had the privilege of working with her during my years in Milwaukie. When her daughter, Carol, spoke of her mother, she recalled that Mary was not particularly directive in terms of instructions or advice, especially regarding behavior outside the family. However, Carol did remember one piece of advice that her mother gave her in junior high school: "Be careful what you do. You never know who might be watching..." That was where I thought Carol was going to stop, meaning that someone would tell if you did something wrong, fairly typical parenting, discipline by fear. But no, that was not where Mary stopped. She said, "Be careful what you do. You never know who might be watching and follow your example."
I pray for us as a community of faith. I hope you do as well. I pray that we may be growing in the love of Christ in all sorts of ways. I also pray that who we are and what we do may not only shape and mold us, but provide an engaging and welcoming example of Christ's love. God's world desperately hungers for such, longs to rise above the smog of life. I believe Christ has the power to work within us and through us far more than we can ask or imagine. We are becoming. We are deepening. Let us be open to that, continually to become, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.