Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What can we say come July 29? 10th after Pentecost

    July 29 is a peculiar week in the lectionary. The Old Testament (2 Samuel 11) gives us the first half of what is inseparable from next week’s reading (2 Samuel 12) – both of which fit neatly with the Psalm (51) – and we just explored these texts on Lent week 5 (so look back at that blog).

     And then the Gospel reading is the first of five consecutive weeks of readings that are really just a single story: John 6. Here is a blog on the full story, which has to be read as a dramatic whole – and then you’ll also find there some specific details for each of the Sundays as it’s divvied up between the weeks of July 29 and August 26.

     So beyond the Bathsheba/David/Nathan episode, and the Feeding of the 5000 and what unfolds from it, here are some thoughts on this week’s epistle, Ephesians 3:14-21. When I was in college, I fell in for a while with a group of Christians who were big on prayer “reports.” When they gathered, people would file their prayer requests (which as I recall were remarkably self-absorbed and narrow – help with an exam, romantic troubles, etc.), everyone would pray – and then a time was provided for people to report on what they had been praying, and the results of prayers in earlier weeks. My mother’s surgery went well! I aced the test! And one quite attractive young woman who had caught my eye reported with much enthusiasm that she had been desperate for a parking space the other day; she’d prayed, and someone pulled out of a very convenient space right in front of her just a moment after she’d prayed. I didn’t follow up with her.

    Ephesians 4:14-21 is a prayer report – in the sense that he reports on what he has been praying for them. No prayers for help or comfort or “answers,” but strength in their inner selves. The goal of Paul’s prayer for them, which we might deduce would be a good mission statement for our own lives, is “to be filled with all the fulness.” That’s three big words, and on the heels of four expansive words in verse 18: the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love. I’m reminded of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…” Did she have Ephesians 4 in the back of her mind? And how do we consumer-oriented people love others, much less God, in such boundless ways?

    I’m also reminded of something in George Lindbeck’s wonderful The Nature of Doctrine. Assessing how theology organizes itself around some key principles, he argues that our Christology has and should have “three regulative principles” – that is, whatever we say about Jesus is accountable to these three rules: the monotheistic principle (that is, what we say about Jesus can’t put the truth that God is one in peril), the principle of historical specificity (that is, what we say about Jesus must be integrally linked to what the real human being Jesus did in history), and the one pertinent to our text, what Lindbeck calls Christological maximalism, that “every possible importance is to be ascribed to Jesus that is not inconsistent with the first rules.”

    Paul is all over that. This whole section is two very long, complex sentences in Greek. He’s not constructing a grammatical masterpiece so much as he’s simply getting carried away, so awestruck is he but the wonder of Christ. He’s “lost in wonder, love and praise.” The commentator Rufold Schnackenburg says “Paul unleashes a flood of thoughts in an intensifying crescendo.” Frank Thielman invites us to picture Paul dictating such long sentences: “When Paul dictated it, he was able by the cadence of his voice to solve the syntactical problems that now face us as we pore over the text in silent study.” I like it when preachers invite us to imagine something simple, like Paul thinking out loud while someone is scribbling down his thoughts - and that becomes our Bible. 

     “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?” Words fail us. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” When I turned 60, my daughter Grace made a list, “60 reasons I love you.” When my wife turned 60, I did the same for her – but the list could have and should have been far longer.  Maybe we make lists to praise the wonder, the breadth, depth, height, fulness of the marvel that is Jesus Christ. Again, sermons need not have a moral take-away or a do-able point. The best sermons simply cause us to stammer in awe at the fabulous grandeur that Jesus really is.

     And to invite our listeners to expand their shrunken souls. In the thick of World War II, C.S. Lewis preached one of history’s finest sermons, “The Weight of Glory.” In its opening, he says our problem is not that our desires are too strong – a sense you get from a lot of preaching, that Christianity is throwing cold water on excessive desire. Rather, “it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Paul promised that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 4:20).

     So: life in Jesus is huge, fantastic. Somebody unspeakably large is living in you – the preacher, and those to whom you preach, echoing Galatians 2:19, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” How do we realize this wonder we don’t notice, or underestimate? By meditation? Contemplating art? Listening to music? It’s counter-cultural, for sure.

     A clue to help us grow in our praise, and thus to cultivate strength in our inner being, is in verse 18: Paul prays we will ponder this “with the saints.” Indeed, as we enjoy the advantage of 2,000 years of Christian history over Paul, we see much in the saints we can mimic. Thérèse of Lisieux, in the late 1890’s, riddled with illness up to her death at age 23, repeatedly said of her love for Jesus, “To die of love is what I hope for, on fire with his love I want to be, to see him, be one with him forever, that is my heaven – that’s my destiny: by love to live.”

     Bernardo of Quintavalle, a wealthy merchant, invited Francis of Assisi to his home.  After the evening meal, they retired for the evening.  Francis pretended to sleep; Bernard also pretended to sleep, even feigning a snore.  Francis rose and then knelt, praying over and over, all night long, “My God, my all.” His whole life was a manifestation of the height, depth and breadth of God’s nature, heart, grandeur and wonder.

    What is ministry but the demonstration and embodiment of God’s boundless love? Too many ministries skimp, and try to insure the recipients are worthy, and that they only get just enough. Dorothy Day (who was born the same year Thérèse of Lisieux died, and wrote a great little book about her) once received a donation of a diamond ring for her work with the poor. Instead of selling it, she simply gave it to the next person who came in asking for help. Her response to critics who said she should have sold it and given it to the poor (who might remind us of Judas’s criticism of the woman anointing Jesus!)? Who says fine, beautiful things are only for the rich?

    And then Thomas à Kempis: “Lord, in what can I trust in this life? And what is my greatest comfort on earth? Is it not Yourself, O Lord my God, whose mercy is limitless? Have I ever prospered without You? And did I ever suffer ill when You were at hand? I would rather be poor for Your sake than rich without You. I would choose to be a wanderer on the face of the earth with You, rather than to possess heaven without You.  For where You are, there is Heaven; and where You are not, there is death and Hell. You are my sole desire; for You I sigh, pray, and cry… Unless You abide with me, all things that seem to bring peace and happiness are as nothing, for they cannot bestow true happiness. You alone are the End of all good things, the fulness of life, the depth of wisdom; and the greatest comfort of Your servants is to trust in You above all else. My God, Father of mercies, I look to You, I trust in You.”


 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

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