This sermon was prepared for and presented at First Presbyterian Church, Eustis. The primary text was Ephesians 3:14-21.
My son is 13, going on 14…going on 40, about to start his first year of high school. But when he was little guy we played a little game… he would come up to me or his dad and ask, “How much do you love me?” I’d hold up my hand, with my finger and thumb about an inch apart… “This much” and tweak his nose.
He would say “just that much?” and pretend to be surprised. I’d say, “Well, maybe this much” and hold up my hands a few inches apart. He’d push his little face between them for me to pat his cheeks. After trying hard not to smile, he’d say, “Only that much?”
“Actually maybe this much…” with my hands out far enough to pat both shoulders. This would of course, elicit the fake sad face and one last question. “Really? Only that much?”
I would pause, as dramatically as possible, and finally throw my arms out wide. “No- THIS much!” He would jump into my arms, in full giggle-hug mode and we’d say together “Enough to wrap you all around!”
It was even more fun when he would decide to show one of us how much he loved us. Those stubby little arms never could quite “wap you ahhl awound” but he sure would try.
Of course, behind that little game was a very real important question- Do mommy and daddy really love me? And at 13… going on 14… going on 40, he still asks us – in different ways – every day.
The answer was – and is – always yes. Of course, some days, it feels more accurate to stop at “this much” (the nose).
That’s our experience with love here in the real world, isn’t it? We have to ask because deep down, we’re not entirely sure. We figure out, even at a young age, that there are things that get in the way of loving other people. Like the way other people treat us. Or how we are feeling. Or whether anyone else ever truly loved us. It’s difficult to hear- much less understand – that God’s love can truly be unconditional and eternal – when the only models we have are people. Broken, wounded and fully human people.
The Apostle Paul is totally aware of this problem. After all, he experienced some pretty tangled up relationships in his own life. We hear about a handful in his journeys, and he mentions having enemies in his letters. And, it’s pretty safe to assume that when he went from being the persecutor of Christians to being an apostle, there would be some hurt and angry people left in his wake.
We also know that Paul also experienced God’s transforming love along this journey. He knows the importance of opening people’s eyes to the difference between the way God loves and the way people love. That is at the heart of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians and what puts him on his face before the Lord.
The first part of the prayer is one that most pastors pray for their own flocks…
I pray that out of God’s glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being -so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
We know that Paul himself struggled with sin – just like all of us. When Paul speaks of strengthening the inner being, he’s talking about a person’s reason, conscience and will. When the Holy Spirit is empowering us, it’s easier to make good choices, do the right thing, walk humbly, act justly and love mercy. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that God changes the way a person thinks, acts and responds to the world… and how we respond to God.
It’s the next section that struck me when I thought about Pastor Leon’s theme for this sermon series- Life Done Differently.
Paul continues by praying that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ
First, there is the assumption that we have been rooted and established in love. Paul’s mixing metaphors a bit here, but big idea is that the very starting point and foundation for continued growth as believers is love. God’s love for people, as evidenced by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And our command to love God with- heart, soul, mind and strength.
And I think that’s important, because Paul’s prayer continues in a slightly different direction. He wants the Ephesians to know that Christ’s love not only surpasses knowledge, but will allow them to be filled to the measure of all fullness with God.
Paul was writing in a time that has many parallels to our own. The Roman roads had developed into the first information highways. Yes- much slower going than dial up, but greater amounts of information were being passed from place to place more quickly and shared. People were more mobile than ever before. There were those who sought after knowledge – or wisdom – as the way to enlightenment or fulfillment.
I can’t help but think that Paul is remembering his own conversion experience when he writes this prayer. Saul had sought after total understanding of the Hebraic law, so that he might fulfill it better than anyone. Saul was on track to success and standing. And then he found himself blind on the side of the road.
A transformed Paul had come to understand that God’s love in the person of Christ Jesus surpassed any earthly thing. He had seen it firsthand:
Love as deep as death and hell- both of which Jesus conquered in our place
Love as high as the heavens- where Jesus is sitting as judge at God’s right hand
Love as long as the time it takes to pursue the one sheep who is lost
Love as wide as the known world – and big enough to welcome all people as people of God, even those who had fought against Christ and his church.
Paul was taken in and cared for- by those he would have persecuted. He was trusted, against all common sense. All because of the love of Christ within the hearts of those called to rescue him.
You see when Paul writes about love- here and in every one of his letters – we must be ready to read on multiple levels. Yes, he is speaking about individual believers. He is talking about 1:1 relationships between a believer and God. And between 2 people. That is why I Corinthians 13 is so very popular at weddings. It is absolutely true that love between spouses ought to be characterized by patience, kindness, freedom from jealousy and pride.
But Paul is really going for something much bigger and much more difficult. He is talking about loving one another on a grander scale… the BIG WE… not just our families, but our gathered church. Not just our church, but all gatherings of Christ-followers. And not just the people in the churches, but the people who have not yet heard about or experienced the love of Christ. Yep… even those people.
It’s doubly difficult for us to understand what Paul means by love because we don’t have the language to say it well. Between lovebugs that ruin the paint on your car and TV shows from Love Boat to The Bachelor – both the word and the concept of “love” have been sorely overused and abused in American culture.
The word Paul uses to describe the love that Christ modeled and is offering to each of us and all of us is agape. The word was rarely used in secular writings of the time, but is used throughout the gospels. It describes a divine love- Love that is eternal, steadfast, unconditional and self-sacrificing. And that is the love Paul expects us to live out in community together.
So how does Paul’s prayer – that we would truly grasp the depth, height, length and width of Christ’s love – help us to live life differently?
While our kiddo was learning to play “How much do you love me” as a toddler, some of his cousins had a very different experience. Both parents in this family were dealing with addiction. As a result, the children were rarely held, never read to, and never cuddled. They received adequate care, so they were never quite neglected. Thankfully, their situation has improved since then, but it was heartbreaking to see parents opting not to nurture and love on their young children.
It reminded me of something I’d learned in developmental psychology class. Back in the 50s and 60s, psychologist Harry Harlow did a series of experiments. He purposely separated baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers to see what would happen- some he placed with surrogates, some he kept completely or partially isolated. With such social creatures, you can imagine the impact of this separation. When reintroduced to the group, the young animals were withdrawn, incapable of bonding with others for a long period of time- some never did.
Children are much the same, if they don’t experience love, they cannot give love. They can’t and don’t bond with parents. They have difficulty in social settings. They may learn to follow rules and even rudimentary etiquette, but they never really understand the purpose behind the rules and guidelines- to care for, respect those around them. Without intervention, these children mature into adults who are unable to give and receive love. They never know the freedom of being themselves with another person who they can fully trust. They may never know the freedom of being themselves with someone who loves them – no matter what.
As children of God, we need to spend time being nurtured, too. We need to immerse ourselves in God’s Word, spend time together at the Lord’s Table and the dinner table, and spend time in worship, allowing the music of faith wash over us and fill us with joy.
We can and should know the joy of being loved- truly, completely and without reservation – by our God and our Savior.
And we can and should know the joy of being loved – truly, completely and without reservation – by the people who surround us in our church family.
And every person who enters the doors of this building into this gathering should come to know the depth, height, width and length of Christ’s love as they come to know the people here.
You see Jesus made the rules very simple. When they asked him what he considered to be the greatest commandment, he answered… to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
But then he made it clear that we aren’t to be about the business of keeping it between us and God. Because the second is like it… to love your neighbor as yourself.
Our relationships in the church. Our relationships with our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends and classmates. The relationships in our families. In each setting, we are called to show true love for one another, in spite of being broken and fully human. Our lives become the evidence that the world so desperately needs that love really is more than an overused word. And that God loves each of us more than we could ever ask or imagine.