July 26, 2015 - Ephesians 3.7-21

“Breadth, Length, Height and Depth”

Ephesians 3:7-21

July 26, 2015

 

7Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. 13I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.  14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I 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, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

 

Have you ever seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he is trying to chase the masked marauder?  There is a scene where the little guy is riding on a horse and he goes all over the country.  They pull waaaaaaaaaay back and show you a map of the United States and you actually see the horse crossing over a border between the United States and Mexico.  And there is actually a border on the ground; a big white line.  It is a standard comic gag – when a cartoon character crosses a border to actually show it on the ground.

The reason that’s funny is that we humans think that way and in those terms – as if those borders are real; and not created by people very much like us.  The borders are not really there.   When you see the earth from space, there are no borders, no divisions – it all looks the same.  God created the earth, but did not create any borders.  There is something about us humans that likes to create borders – boundaries – separation between things.  We have this desire to separate things into “us” and “them.” 

Robert Frost wrote a poem about it.  “Fences” is about an old farmer that is building a stone fence between his property and Frost’s.  “Good fences make good neighbors,” the farmer says.  But Frost disagrees.  “Something there is, that doesn’t love a wall.”[i] 

Paul, the writer of Ephesians, sings a grand hymn to the “Breadth, Length, Height and Depth” of the love of God in Christ.  In Ephesians, the principle example of that love is the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the church.  Paul is astounded by the way that God’s love in Christ can transcend even the strongest of human prejudices.

 

If anyone doubted the power of the Holy Spirit, then all they had to do was to look at who made up the church.  The church of the first century was composed of both Jews and Gentiles.  It doesn’t sound so odd to us today, but folks, there was a bigger division between Jews and Gentiles then than there is between Israelis and Palestinians today – only the weapons are bigger, and there is no Roman government in control.  There has always been a wall between Jews and Gentiles.  In fact, they recently built a brand new wall for just that purpose.

So - the church is a miracle! Even back then!  Here was a group of people gathered together, with little in common, people that had been separated by formidable walls and cemented with the law of the Torah. Few walls were as solid as the one between Jews and Gentiles.  But Jesus tore down those walls, and now there stood the united church of Jew and Gentile in Christ, who unites us all.

One of Christ’s primary works in the world was to tear down the walls that we humans had created between ourselves.  He was a friend to the tax collectors and the prostitutes.  He traveled through Samaria and taught women there.  His very group of disciples was a testimony to the transforming power of his love – Matthew was a tax collector and Simon was a zealot – they were the radical Jews that murdered tax collectors.  Especially in Jerusalem, when he saw that moneychangers were making their business at the Temple by making it harder for people to get into the Temple unless they did business with them, Jesus drove them out and removed the obstacles to God – he tore down the walls that humans had built.

The love of Christ is bigger than any of the differences between us and anyone out there.  If we can’t get along with them, then we are not trying hard enough to let Christ’s love tear down the walls.  If we don’t let Christ’s love be our guiding value in all that we do, then the walls that we have erected will keep them out.

We must keep the gospel of Christ - the Breadth, Length, Height and Depth of the love of Jesus – clearly in focus at all times.  We must stay vigilant.  If we want the gospel to be spread (and for our church to keep growing) we MUST forget ourselves and make the gospel our number one priority.

Will Willimon lists several of the reasons that people give for not coming to church:

  • “Everybody there is so stuck up and conceited. They hardly speak to anyone.”

  • “I feel out of place with all those fancy clothes and big cars.I just don’t fit in.”

  • “After my divorce, everyone stares at me and thinks that I am a failure.”

  • “All the songs are really too old.”

  • “All the songs are new and for kids.”

  • “The people there don’t do anything but complain.”[ii]

    This might sound like a simple list of complaints.  But it is actually a list of walls – obstacles thrown up by normal people in church acting normally, but without the gospel of Christ in focus.

    Today’s scripture tells us that the awesome power of Jesus’ love tears down walls that separate humans from each other.  So, that also means that these walls that we build, these divisions between one group and another, are a blasphemous rebuke of God’s will for us, the God that wants us to be “rooted and grounded in love.”  If we create barriers when God has tried to tear them down, not only are we not doing God’s work, we are working against God.

     

I am not saying this is an easy thing to do.  When evil attacks, we face a choice on how to respond.  What do we do when things like terrorists kill 147 people at Garissa University in Nairobi, Kenya?[1]  They were killed simply because they were Christians.  What do we do when 9 people are killed in a Charleston Church?  What do we do when 5 marines are killed at their recruiting station?  How do we as Christians respond?  Do we do what everyone else wants to do- retaliate?   Do we seek vengeance?  Some Christians have burned the Koran and called for us to blow all our enemies to bits.

How would Jesus want us to respond?  We cannot sit quietly and let the gospel be represented by only a few.  We should respond as Jesus wants us to respond.  Folks - that is anything but easy.  Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies and love them.

We have to be careful.  We represent the Breadth, Length, Height and Depth of the love of Jesus.  Our mission is to love this world that Jesus died for, and Jesus never said to love only those who love us back.  Jesus said to love our enemies.  If we are not committed to following Jesus and living out his gospel, then we lose the most wonderful thing in all creation. 

 

I can still remember a sermon that I heard Joel Gregory preach at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1988. He built the sermon around a gripping illustration. He told how there was a castle on the English coast owned by a landlord, but no one currently was living there. Vandals were coming in and destroying the place. So he hired a contractor to build a nice rock wall around the castle. The fee was agreed upon and the contractor began his work.

 

But after a short time the contractor began having trouble finding rocks for the wall. So he called the owner to complain about the situation. The owner sharply replied, "I don't care where you get the rocks, I want you to build that wall!"

 After a substantial time later the owner came to see the progress of the work, and found a beautiful high stone wall. He was so impressed with the fine work the contractor had done. It was a perfect wall for his castle. But then he went through the wall, and was stunned to find that there was no castle! The contractor explained, "There were all these wonderful rocks in that run-down old castle, so I used them." [iii]

 

That is the folly of anyone who is so prejudiced that they do not open themselves up to the grace of God that can come through another human being. We think we are protecting ourselves; we are protecting something of cherished value, so we build a wall. But when the wall is built, we find that we have torn down everything of value within ourselves.

In order to build the wall, they had sacrificed the very thing the wall was supposed to protect.  Many times, in the history of the church, the church has given itself up to such a consuming desire to protect itself that we have forgotten why we exist in the first place.  We exist to bring all people to Christ – men and women, slave and free, poor and rich, educated and illiterate, young and old, healthy and infirmed, white, black, red, yellow and all the colors of the rainbow – and we exist for that purpose or we cannot call ourselves the church of Christ.  Any wall that we would build to keep people from coming in can only be built with bricks cannibalized from the foundation of our faith.  If we build walls, we only tear down what Christ has built.

But the love of God does more than tear down walls.  It unites.  It brings people together that otherwise would not be together.  You are not related to everyone in this room, perhaps a few, but you are not biologically related to everyone.  But here we are a family of faith, and many of you are closer to people in this place because of the bonds that you share than you are to your own blood.  We are not all named “Jones” or “Miller” or “Thomason,” but we are all Christian, and you care for many people here like they are your own.  It is perfectly acceptable to call each other “brother” and “sister” in church, because we are.

When Paul describes the Breadth, Length, Height and Depth of Jesus’ love, he is also talking about the purpose of our church!  God’s purpose of the church is bigger than our grasp of it. [iv]  We cannot fathom all that God has planned for us or intends us to be.  But we do know that we can’t do it behind protective walls.  Jesus’ example is one of completely forgoing self-protection in order that he could be given for the sake of the world.  That’s our task also as his church.

None of us are the same.  Thank God.  It takes all kinds to make a church. 

 

 

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32169080

 

[i] Willimon, William; Pulpit Resource, Year B, Vol. 31, No.3 July, August, September, [Logos Productions, Inc.; Grove Heights, MN] p.18.

[ii] Ibid, p. 19.

[iii] Gregory, Joel; in a sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention, Summer 1988.

[iv] Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 11, Broadman Press, Nashville, TN, 1971.

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