Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Perception of Power

The passage examined is Ephesians 3:14-21.

In "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the swashbuckling archeology professor tells his students that X never marks the spot. The adventure that follows almost immediately contradicts that. In an ancient library, Indy realizes he is looking for an X, or more properly, the Roman numeral for 10. He sees the numerals leading up to 10 on a stain glass window and a column. Where is the X? Then from a balcony he looks down and sees that there is a gigantic X on the floor of the library. He had to change his vantage point to see what was under his feet all along.

That we need to perceive things differently to see them properly is a theme running through the movie. A seemingly impossible leap of faith across a chasm turns out to be a cunningly painted bridge. The Holy Grail is not a beautiful golden chalice but rather a plain cup. And in the end, listening to your father rather than pursuing something the world considers more valuable is the key to being saved.

Our passage from Ephesians is about changing the way we perceive things. Paul is telling the church not to get discouraged because of his sufferings in prison. Paul founded their church. He spent 3 years there, possibly sending out the missionaries that founded the 7 churches addressed in the Book of Revelation. So they knew him well and they were distressed by his imprisonment in Rome. He could be executed there. (Eventually he was.) This didn't seem to be a glorious ending for their apostle. But Paul says it was. How could that be?

Death with dignity is not always an option. Isaac Asimov, a brilliant and prolific author, a polymath who studied and wrote about everything, from science to Shakespeare to the Bible, died of AIDS, wasting away for the last year or so of his life, unable to exercise his brilliant gift for writing. Alzheimer's disease slowly dismantles the personalities of its victims. What faced Paul, as a Roman citizen, was quicker but more disfiguring: beheading. Where is the glory in being slaughtered like an animal?

Of course, Jesus was crucified, a more drawn out and much less dignified death. Yet in his sacrifice for us, we see his greatest glory. The world tends to see glory in displays of power, in those who harm and kill, rather than in those who are victimized and killed. It bugs me that in all the attention the media has paid to the recent shooting, very little has gone to 4 men who died to save people they loved. John Larimer, Matt McQuin, Alex Teves and Jon Blunk each took a bullet, either while throwing their girlfriends to the ground or throwing themselves over them and acting as a shield. We know that coverage of such shootings that focus on the perpetrator encourage equally deranged copycats. Wouldn't those who save lives and those who make the ultimate sacrifice be better subjects for the media spotlight?

Paul sees this mindset and he sees that the church has to change the whole way it sees winners and losers. But it's not enough for him to simply say it. So he prays to God that the Christians at Ephesus "be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit..." The answer to weakness is always strength but not necessarily that of physical might. Gandhi got the British government to relinquish their oppressive rule of India, not by having an army but through the strength of his moral position. By nonviolently facing the wrath the supposedly Christian British Empire, he used the British people's consciences against them. This also worked in here in the US during the civil rights movement. When we see those who represent our government beat up and abuse powerless people who don't fight back, the cognitive dissonance between the kind of people we think we are and who we are as revealed by our actions becomes unbearable. Unfortunately, in the case of military and pagan Rome, it would take nearly 300 years for it to stop persecuting the church. In the meantime, Christians had to find the strength to endure injustice. That could only come from within.

But mere stoicism would not do. After a while, the strongest people reach a breaking point. The power must come from elsewhere, a source that is inexhaustible--God's Spirit. Then Paul puts it another way: "that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…" It is not the human spirit, it is not just the will to survive, it is the presence of Christ in our hearts that enables us to undergo suffering. And we must do so through faith, through trust in Jesus who has our best interests at heart. We must trust him as we do our doctor when he says, "This will hurt a bit." Without such faith nothing very difficult or painful would ever be attempted.

"…as you are being rooted and grounded in love." There are those who think the universe is impersonal and indifferent to us. How they endure suffering and loss is beyond me. If there is no loving creator, if there is no afterlife, then there is no justice or consolation for our suffering. But if there is a God and that God is loving, just and merciful, and there is redress in the afterlife, then we can go through any trial. All it takes is faith in God's goodness and in his triumph over any evil that befalls us. That is why Paul starts this passage by reminding its readers that not only is God our Father, he is the ideal that every other kind of father draws upon and tries to live up to. A good father does everything out of love.

Paul prays that the church is given the power to comprehend just how huge God's love is. That's the problem we often have with God. We put limits on his love. We may preach that God loves everyone and can forgive anything but in our heart of hearts, we have a hard time believing it. Do you believe God forgave Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer? Do you think he forgave Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the man who led the raid on Pearl Harbor? Do you think he forgave Moses the Black, a bandit leader in 4th century Egypt? All of these men repented. Dahmer was baptized in prison. Fuchida became an evangelist. Moses the Black was martyred and became the patron saint of Africa. For that matter, Paul prosecuted many early Christians and was apparently responsible for their deaths. Perhaps this is why he is so aware of God's grace. He knew it firsthand. And he wanted other Christians to experience it as well.

He prays that Christians "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge." Now how can we know something that exceeds our knowledge? Two ways, actually. One is to know something well enough to realize you don't know it all. Scientists do that all the time. The hunt for the Higgs-boson particle was predicated on knowing that there was an important piece of information about matter that we did not yet have, namely what gives things mass. They knew what it must be, the way you can see the shape of a missing puzzle piece from the hole it leaves. Now they think they may have found the particle itself. That parallels how we can know that the love of Christ is greater than we currently realize. The apostles thought the gospel was for their fellow Jews only. Then God poured out his Spirit on some gentiles. And Philip in the Spirit baptized a eunuch. And Paul and Barnabas had more success with gentiles than with Jews. And suddenly their perception of the scope of God's love for others changed.

The other way to know something beyond knowledge is experientially. There are things you can only learn firsthand or hands on. Would you want a surgeon who had merely read about your operation to perform it? When I first read the script of "Fiddler on the Roof" I couldn't understand why it was such a popular play. When I saw a production of it, however, it became one of my favorite musicals. Similarly, you cannot say that you really know a person if you have merely read about him or her. Having read the person's words is better. But nuance and inflection and intensity and gentleness and feel and smell and a million other things have to be experienced. And there are things about God you only learn by being in his presence and talking and listening to him. They will not contradict what is written in his word. But they will color it and expand it and give you a better perspective on it. And I think this is really what Paul means when he talks about knowing "the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge." He wants us to know this love firsthand.

"…so you may be filled with all the fullness of God." The Greek verb literally means "crammed." We are to be filled to the brim with all the goodness of God we can contain. If we know firsthand the limitless love of Jesus, we will overflow with the goodness of God. That is how we are supposed to operate. That's how faith gives rise to works. We know and trust Jesus Christ, not merely intellectually but experientially, and that experience is so overwhelming that we must share his love and grace with others.

Indeed, it moves Paul to end this chapter with a beautiful doxology: "Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen." Notice that what accomplishes so much is "the power at work within us." It is by God's Holy Spirit that we can accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. Jesus said we would do greater works than he did. How? By the same power that was in him, the Spirit. But he was one and we are many. We can do great things by the power of the Spirit multiplied by the number of people working together in the Spirit. We are called, C. S. Lewis said, to be little Christs. And together we can accomplish more than one person can. Jesus concentrated his efforts in one small part of the world, training a handful of people. But they were sent out and they trained and sent out others who did the same and eventually the good news spread to every tribe and nation and corner of the earth.

To do that they had to be so inwardly strengthened by his Spirit, so aware of Christ living in their hearts through faith, so grounded and rooted in his love, so aware of the mind-boggling dimensions of that love, so intimately knowledgeable of that love, so crammed with God's fullness that they wouldn't be afraid of a painful death like Paul's or Jesus' and couldn't help but spread the good news despite the threats and the world's perceptions of power. The world, like the shooter, sees the ability to harm and to kill as the ultimate power. But that's a misperception. The ultimate power is the power to heal and to give life and to give life back again. That is the power of God. That is what God wants to do for every person he created. That's what God wants to do with his whole creation. And it will be more awesome that anything we can ask or imagine.

But you want to know what's even better? He wants to do it through us. Really. And what could he possibly accomplish through us?

We won't know until we get started.

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