Ephesians 3: 14For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
There’s a story going around the email circuit, about a young boy of about eight years of age. He had a younger sister about 4 years old who had a medical condition that required major surgery. And that major surgery required a blood donation of the same blood type as hers. Her eight year-old brother was one of the few who fit the bill, so the parents came to him and asked if he would be willing to donate blood. He agreed immediately, and willingly. But just before her surgery, when they were getting ready to draw some of her brother’s blood, the nurses noticed that the young boy was crying. When they asked him why, his explanation revealed that no one had remembered to tell him something very important: that they were only drawing some of his blood, not all of it, and therefore, he was surely going to live after the blood donation. You can imagine how relieved he was when they told him, “You’ll be all right; you’re only giving a little bit of your blood; the worst that might happen is that you’ll get a little woozy perhaps, but with some fruit punch and an oatmeal cookie, and a little rest, you’ll be just fine.”But he didn’t know that going in. He thought he was effectively trading his life for hers, and had made a brave and willing face of it all.
Part of me hopes that this story is not true. No eight-year-old should have to face what he thought he was facing. But another part of me hopes that it indeed has happened again that someone is willing to trade his life for that of someone else. At any age, that’s amazing. My sisters and I had a hard enough time sharing toys or that last piece of dessert. And I’ll admit, it wasn’t always their fault.
If true, then this boy knew “the love that surpasses knowledge,” from today’s passage, verse 19. That’s how Paul describes the love of Christ and the Christian life itself: “knowing the love that surpasses knowledge.”
So did John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. And at great personal cost to himself. I’ve been reading his spiritual autobiography this summer, Grace Shown to the Chief of Sinners. Bunyan did not have one of those instantaneous total conversion experiences in which he went in one fell swoop from guilt to gladness, from total remorse to total relief. He struggled back and forth, for years, sometimes accepting that he was accepted by God, other times fearing that he had done something so horrible that even the grace of God couldn’t overcome it.
It helped a bit when he heard a sermon in which someone preached on two words from the Song of Solomon, “My beloved.” Just “my” and “beloved.” That, the preacher said, is God speaking to the soul of every man and woman, day in and day out. And when you feel abandoned and unworthy and unloved and unloveable, claim those words as your own; lay claim to that name: “My Beloved.”
I get goosebumps just thinking about that message. It helped Bunyan for about a week. But then the darkness and the doubts set in again. And a persistent, obsessive, hellish voice that said constantly in his mind, over and over: “Sell him! Abandon Christ! Sell him! Abandon Christ.” Finally, in a fit of frustration, Bunyan thought to himself, “Let him leave, if he wish.” He didn’t say it; he only thought it.
Then the darkness descended, deepened and doubled. Bunyan was tormented for the better part of a year, worrying and wondering if he had committed the unpardonable sin on the scale of Judas selling Jesus. He wondered if it was even worth his while to pray for forgiveness, or if that would only offend God even more.
But God was working on his end to get Bunyan back on track. It finally struck Bunyan one day, the following question: Which honored God more? To risk erring on the side of trusting too much in the boundless breadth and depth of his love, or to err on the side of trusting too little, of setting limits to God’s love? Then he remembered those terrible words, “Let Christ depart, if he wish.” The very fact that he had felt such remorse for that thought, and such longing and love for Christ ever since, meant that Christ had not departed; he didn’t wish to depart. He never had and he never would. Confirmation came that week in the sound of a voice that seemed almost as clear as I hope mine is to you: the words, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” He found those same words from God in Jeremiah 31: 3.
From then on, Bunyan spent the rest of his life testifying that we can never err on the side of trusting too much in what Paul calls the height and depth and breadth and width of God’s love. The danger is always the opposite: that we trust too little. He also figured out that we can’t beat ourselves over the head for every thought that goes through it. If that’s what drives bad thoughts out, then we should all be two feet tall. We can hate some of the thoughts that run through our heads without hating ourselves.
I’ve given two examples, two stories, about love this morning: the boy who was willing to give his life for his sister, and John Bunyan, who nearly died for want of the assurance of God’s love, and was revived when that assurance came. As I thought about this passage, I was struck by the fact that such love is a kind of knowledge that surpasses knowledge. It amounts to knowing something that can’t be fully known, getting our heads around something too big for our heads.
Which raises another question: When Paul says he wants us “To know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge,” is he talking about love from Christ, or love for Christ, or love for people?
As I read the passage, its not clear which love Paul has in mind. And I’m convinced that its not supposed to be clear. My question raises an artificial and unnecessary distinction that only is meaningful to me, as a modern, Western, individualistic, rationalistic, formally-educated person, in a secular setting, who is taught to believe that to understand something we must take it apart and look at its component pieces, like doing vivisection on a frog. After which the frog is dead.
But there’s another way of knowing that involves putting things together, so that we understand them in relationship to other things. Like love. Love is all about connections and relationship. And experience.
Love is that force that puts things together and draws us toward the other, as opposed to fear, which takes things apart and which drives us from each other. But a definition or a description is no substitute for a demonstration.
Like electricity. Electricity is defined as “A form of energy characterized by the presence and motion of elementary charged particles generated by friction, induction, or chemical change.”
I don’t either. And I got that from an online encyclopedia. For kids!
But I do know something about electricity from experience. When I did maintenance work for tourist condos long ago, I found myself assigned to install a new light fixture in a living room. Its easy, I was told. Just hook up the right wires to each other and screw the plate into the ceiling.
Oh. And make sure the breaker is flipped off.
So that’s where I started: by flipping the breakers off. To be safe, I flipped off every breaker that was labeled with any word that said “living” or “room.” And then a few more. Then I got up on the ladder, pulled down the wires, started to connect white to white and black to—
BZZZZZZT! OWWW! HOLY GUACAMOLE!
Ever since. my personal definition of electricity, from experience is: Electricity is that angry, ugly buzzing sensation going through your hands and your arms and your head that leaves you on the floor feeling shocked in more ways that one. And grateful to be alive. And wanting to find out just who labeled the breaker box!
When in doubt, flip all the breakers.
The love that Paul prays for us is like that, only opposite in its emotions, experiences and results. It surpasses conventional human wisdom, like the love Christ, dying on the cross for those who were crucifying him. Or like the boy who was ready to give all his blood for his sister. It surpasses human knowledge because such love seems contrary to our most basic instinct: survival. It also surpasses human knowledge because it doesn’t want to stay in the head, in the realm of definitions and abstractions. It wants to be lived and expressed in the hands, the feet, the mouth. It has to be shared to be really, really known.
In that way, love is like electricity. The engineers among us can correct me where I am wrong. But in an electrical current, atoms in a wire are constantly giving away electrons, which draws in other electrons to replace them from the next atom in line.
Love is like that—its only known in the giving and receiving, and not simply in the describing or defining. That’s why its a kind of knowledge that surpasses knowledge. At least head knowledge alone.
If heaven were a power plant, then love is the power flowing forth. For “God is love.” This heavenly power also works with the exchanges of love, the giving and receiving of love. Its not only a clean and infinitely renewable source of power, it actually increases with the sharing and the using.
Being Christian gives us no monopoly on love and loving. I encounter love in many places and people, even among those who do not recognize its heavenly source, who might even deny its heavenly source. After all, God sends his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. His love is available to all. The differences are that a Christian always has reasons to keep on loving, even despite the injuries and insults of life that might make people want to stop loving and start hating. The Christian also has resources to help him or her keep loving, from God and the church. And the Christian is assured that love has the last word, that love is the last word, and forever. And the Christian is on the path to find this out.
That’s what St. Patrick taught and modeled to the Irish in the 6th Century. We know him as the apostle to the Irish, who used a three-lobed shamrock to teach about the Trinity. He was the perfect missionary to do that, because, even though he was from England, he knew the Irish language and the Irish culture so well. But what we often forget is the reason he knew the Irish language and the culture so well: years before, in his youth, Irish pirates had kidnapped him, enslaved him, mistreated him, and sent him off on his own, alone, for weeks at a time, exposed to wild animals, bandits and the elements, to watch their livestock in the fields. He escaped, and who could blame him if that was the last he ever had to do with the Irish? But years later he returned to Ireland, glowing with the electricity of divine love.
That’s what Paul has in mind. This prayer is the sum of all his argument in the previous two chapters of Ephesians, about how God is making one new humanity out of Jewish and Gentile believers through Christ. In everything that follows this passage, about relationships in the home, the family, and the church, Paul is simply unpacking and explaining what the “love that surpasses knowledge” looks like, in action and experience.
That such a community could come about is not just a nice story. Its a revolutionary peace movement. Especially when we consider two things. One is how severe anti-Jewish bigotry was among Greeks and Romans at the time. Within very recent memory of those who received this letter were anti-Jewish riots and massacres in the second biggest city of the Roman empire, Alexandria, and the expulsion of Jews from Rome itself. Then there was great fear and suspicion of Jews toward Gentiles. Gentiles were not allowed in the homes or synagogues, or around the dinner tables, of the most observant Jews.
But because of Christ who, unlike that young boy, did shed all his blood and gave his life for his beloved, “the love that passes all knowledge” is making one new humanity out of the two historic divisions. The source of that power is God. The demonstration or pilot project is Jesus. The lines that carry that power are you and I, the church. And we can only know that love by hooking into the source and passing it along to others.
One last thing: we read about “knowing the love that surpasses knowledge” not in a teaching nor a sermon, but in a prayer. The sum total of Paul’s prayers for Ephesians is that they might know this love in the same way we know, say, how to dance or how to quilt, with our hands and our hearts and our bodies and not just our heads, by doing, not just by defining.
And that’s my prayer for us. Let’s pray that for ourselves. And each other. If any two words could define the challenge ahead of us in our new ministry context, for the next period of our congregation’s life, they would be “courage” and, of course, “love.”
Courage and love. Love without courage is only a dead-end feeling, as the married and engaged among us would know, if you remember what it was like to make that first phone call to your spouse back when you were just hoping to date. But courage without love, that’s just a license for brutality. The 9-11 hijackers had plenty of courage, but no love. Not for people at least.
A rising chorus of courage and love are what our new times and our new context require of us, even a love that the world might consider crazy, if it is to “surpass human knowledge.” The courage and love that will bring us into malls and mosques where everyone is speaking languages we’ll never learn, and where there are people with whom we can communicate only with a wave and a nervous, friendly smile. The courage and love to have dinner and hold respectful, truthful, heartfelt conversations even with people with whom we disagree on important opinions. If anyone is to do any rejecting, let them reject us for having too much love, a bold, risky, crazy love, before we would ever reject them. A love, like that of Christ and the bigger brother, like that of St. Patrick going back to Ireland, by which we are willing to love the unlovely and the un-loving, to return good for evil, even to risk our lives.
Get that bold and crazy love down, the willingness to die even for the sake of such love, and everything else asked of us is a piece of cake. To the unemployed homeless guy standing at the street corner: Sure, have my sack lunch (at least he’s not asking for my life). To the person who accuses me of intolerance or hatred for having a firmly held faith or high personal moral standards (I hear more of that lately), I’ll listen to him and engage him respectfully, because at least he’s not calling for my head. Someone needs help or support late into the night? Someone needs to stand up and speak the truth when everyone else starts ragging on undocumented immigrants or Somalis? That’s scary, but so far, not fatal. Even to the person who says he needs $2 for bus change, maybe this time let him answer to God if he spends it instead on drink or cigarettes; at least he didn’t ask for all my blood. Or after engaging him in conversation, and getting to know him as a person, I’ll get on the bus and buy it for him if I have doubts.
“The love that surpasses understanding,” is that another word for “crazy?” Or at least, “risky?” Or “costly?” Or maybe just lived and experienced in our bodies, our neighborhoods, our world, because its a love too big for our heads alone. The love of Christ just wants to keep flowing over into the rest of our bodies and actions. Like electricity, it only exists in the sharing from one atom to another. And that’s the only way we can really “know” the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.