Sunday, July 26, 2015

Rooted and Grounded

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 3:14-21.

The inmates at the jail really keep me on my toes. I hand out a lot of Bibles and they get read cover to cover often within a matter of weeks because the inmates have little else to do. So I have had to deal with questions about the nephilim, angels, Ezekiel, Revelation, reincarnation, and the problem of people not recognizing the resurrected Christ at first. And they zero in on not only the things they don't understand but the parts of the Bible that seem to contradict other parts of the Bible. In many cases I can explain things and other times I confess ignorance and promise that I'll look for an answer in my books.

Tuesday nights on my visits to the dorms I have been encountering 2 people who pepper me with questions that severely test my knowledge of the Bible. One has theories he is looking to support. In his case I listen politely, correct some misconceptions but basically try to get him to look at the larger message of the Bible. Just as comic book and sci-fi geeks can get so wrapped up in the details and trivia of their favorite heroes that they forget that their stories are merely meant to be entertainment, some believers can get so enamored with mining the minutiae of the scriptures that they can forget their purpose: to proclaim the gospel of the love of God in Christ.

The other inmate is very sensitive to the portions of the Old Testament where God seems to be less than loving. And while sometimes I can offer a different perspective on an incident, I will admit that some parts of the Old Testament bother me too. This is not new. Going back to the heretic Marcion in the second century people have been trying to come up with an answer to the problem of why God seems so wrathful in the Old Testament and so loving in the New.

The key word here is “seems.” In fact God's love is a major topic in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 7:7 it says, “It was not because you were more numerous that all other nations that the Lord set his delight on you or chose you—for you were the smallest of all the nations—but because of the Lord's love for you and because he kept the oath sworn to your fathers, the Lord brought you out and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.” God loves his people as a nursing mother loves her child, according to Isaiah 49:15-16. His love for his people, for the widow and the fatherless, for the immigrant, for the righteous and for the wicked one who forsakes his way and turns to God is found throughout the Old Testament.

Because of his love for his people and for the innocent, God is protective, fiercely so. Think of a mother and its cubs. That explains a lot of the parts of the Hebrew Bible where God seems merciless towards their foes. Israel was never a very big nation. Its land sat astride the crossroads between Europe, Asia, Arabia and Africa. It was wedged between powerful empires: Egypt to their west and a succession of empires (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, etc) to their east. When their larger neighbors were weak or in turmoil, Israel knew peace. When those neighbors were powerful, they generally sought to conquer Israel and control the crossroads. Small wonder that Israel, and later the southern kingdom of Judea, revered the Lord of Hosts, literally, Lord of the Armies. There was no UN or human rights commission to watch over them should their enemies come over the mountains to subdue them. So God's ferocious protectiveness of his people was a sign of love. And his strict discipline, like the military's, was meant to keep them obedient and united.

Today's passage in Ephesians is a massive prayer by Paul that the church try to grasp the immensity of God's love. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 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.”

First note that Paul is on his knees. That wasn't the usual posture Jews or indeed Gentiles took when praying. They normally stood and raised their hands to heaven. One would prostrate oneself before a king. So Paul is on his knees praying to the heavenly king for the church.

He is also praying to his heavenly Father. It was not odd to hear pagans speak of Zeus or Jupiter as father, though they just meant that their god created people. But Jesus made it a term of implied intimacy. Sometimes Jesus called his Father “Abba,” the equivalent of "Dada." Paul says that every family takes its name from God the Father. Weirdly, though, he says “every family in heaven and on earth.” So some translate this “the whole family in heaven and on earth,” in other words, God's family, both those who have left this life to be with him and those still living on earth. Paul is emphasizing how far the fatherhood of God extends.

Paul next prays that his readers “may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” The Christian life is impossible to live using one's own power alone. We need the Spirit of God within us to give us the ability to live as Jesus wants us to. And we need to let him get as deep within us as possible.

Paul then prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith...” Some people want Jesus in their heart but only as a guest, not as a permanent resident. They want to be able to put a sock on the door and have him take a walk while they indulge in things that aren't Christlike. But Jesus doesn't want our hearts to be like an Airbnb. He wants to move in, set up his home and live in us eternally. And he can only do that if we in faith let him. We must trust that what he wants to do with the place is the right thing to do. We need to give him the key to every room in our heart and what's more, let him do any renovations he wants to. One sign that Christ is in our hearts is that they become larger rather than smaller. They should have room for all the people Jesus wants us to love.

These additions Jesus is building on to our hearts leave us “being rooted and grounded in love.” Actually the last word should be “founded.” Paul is mixing metaphors. We are being rooted in love, like a tree drawing its sustenance from God's love. But love is also our foundation, which gives stability to the whole structure of our life. Everything we think, say and do should be rooted and grounded in love.

Is that love adequate to build a life on? Paul prays that all believers have the power to comprehend his love's “breadth and length and height and depth.” It is so extensive that it is difficult to take in unaided by God. William Barclay, the Scottish Bible scholar, pointed out that the directions given—breadth, length, height and depth—call to mind the ultimate symbol of God's love: the cross of Christ. That the God who created the universe was willing to become a human being and die that way in order to save us shows the immensity of his love for us. That is something to contemplate when we have occasion to doubt God's love.

Paul then paradoxically says that he wants us “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge...” How can we know what goes beyond knowledge? Ever get a good look at all the stars in the night sky? What you see only lets you know that it is much larger than what can be seen. Not only are there stars that at present you can't see because they are on the other side of the earth you are standing on but the star field extends away from you in all directions. There are stars right in front of your eyes that are so far away you can't see them. To see the heavens is to see how much more there is beyond your ability to perceive them.

God's love is like that if you just start thinking about it. God gives us life, a brain, eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, hands, the ability to learn, to remember, to will, to love. He gives us a world to live in, filled with what we need to sustain life. He gives us other people in our lives, animals, plants, mountains and rivers and plains and forests and deserts and jungles and oceans. He has given us sunshine and clouds and rain and wind and snow and ice. God has given us so much and if you think about it, his gifts never end. What we can know about his love is that it surpasses what we know and even what we can know.

Paul prays that we realize this “so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Another paradox. How can we, finite creatures, being filled with all the fullness of our infinite God? I think Paul is talking of our heads and hearts being filled to overflowing with all the goodness God graciously showers upon us. It is akin to saying your heart is full after experiencing the love of someone towards you. We should radiate God's love.

Paul wraps this prayer us by saying “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...” The power at work within us is yet another reference to the Holy Spirit, God in us. And the Spirit in us is able to accomplish way more than anything we can ask or conceive of. Think about that. Scripture is saying that God can do truly amazing, hitherto unimaginable things through us! Jesus said we would do greater works than he did! (John 14:12)

How is that possible? For one thing, there are more of us. A expert on chimpanzees said you would never see 2 of them, say, carrying a log together to use as a tool the way you see human beings working in concert on a project. The way we have accomplished so much more than any other species is through the fact that we can cooperate with each other, even with people who are not relatives. This church, the electricity that powers the lights and fans and a/c and computers, the water we use, the waste we dispose of, the roads we travel to get here, the construction of the cars and trucks we drive—all of it is the result of lots of people coming together to create these things, work the systems that produce them and support these efforts through donations, payments, and taxes. My blog has readers in Russia, South Korea, France, Singapore, the United Kingdom, numerous other countries and various parts of the USA because of the internet, a staggering human achievement that allows just about everyone in the world to communicate with just about anyone else in the world.

Jesus fed 4 and 5 thousand people on a couple of occasions. The church feeds millions worldwide everyday through its feeding programs, food pantries, and community gardens. Jesus healed at most a few thousand during his 3 ½ year ministry. The church heals as well as prevents diseases for millions worldwide everyday through its hospitals, clinics and medical missionaries. Jesus preached the good news to 10s of thousands of people. The church has preached the gospel to billions. In addition the church builds schools, universities and seminaries and educates people around the globe. It works to free people from slavery and human trafficking. It provides emergency relief after disasters. It offers counseling and guidance to the perplexed and guilt-ridden. It sends visitors to the sick and those in prison. This is how Jesus through the Body of Christ ministers to the world today.

So, yes, God can, through the power at work within us, do more than we can possibly imagine. If we let him. If we work with other Christians. If we are rooted and grounded in love, like the inmate with all the questions about the OT. He said, “I just try to love others like Jesus does.” If we stick to that and stick together, we can change the world.

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