Measuring God’s Love
Our scripture lesson for today is from the letter to the church at Ephesus. Some scholars think Paul wrote this letter, and others think it was written latter by a follower of Paul’s in Paul’s name. Who is right on that doesn’t really matter for us today though. What matters is the content of this letter, and what it means for us as disciples today. The author is writing to Christians at Ephesus. The Ephesians are one of a number of new faith communities planted by the apostle Paul and other apostles of Jesus, and many of the communities Paul was connected with were unique because they were made up primarily of Gentiles - that is, folks who weren’t Jewish, and didn’t convert to Judaism upon becoming followers of Jesus. That second part - not converting - was a matter of debate among Paul, Peter, James, and the other early leaders of the church, with Peter and James first believing that following Jesus required being part of the Jewish faith - like Jesus was - and Paul believing that Jesus-followers had freedom from the law in Christ, and therefore didn’t need to be converted - they just needed to be made new in Christ. Eventually Paul and the other leaders sort of agree to disagree and be about ministry in their own ways in their own places. But tensions remain, and there’s a strain for a long time as the early church figures out who it is, how it will be structured, what the rules will be. In the leadup to our text for today, the author is arguing that the Gentiles have become “fellow-heirs” alongside the Jewish community to all of God’s promises. Frequently throughout the epistles, the imagery used is that of adoption - if Israelites are God’s children, then Gentiles are like God’s adopted children.
Hopefully, you can understand that the image of adoption is meant to convey not some sort of second-class status for Gentile Christians - rather, it is meant to convey the very purposeful extension of the covenant and promises of God to Gentiles because of God’s incredible love and God’s desire to always draw more and more into God’s heart. I’ve been blessed to know several families who have gone through the process of adoption. A pastor friend of mine today is celebrating the baptism of her son, a toddler, who has been with her since infancy, after just finally being able to officially adopt him about a month ago. Every part of the long adoption process has been a labor of love and devotion. And that’s what the author wants the Ephesians to understand - they’re “in,” they’re family, they’re part of the church, they are included in the “boundless riches of Christ,” it’s been God’s plan and hope and passion to have them be part of the body of Christ alongside the Israelites, and they are just as much heirs to God’s promises as anyone else.
Our author, in fact, gets so worked up about wanting to communicate this all clearly to the Ephesians that by the time we get to our text today, the author is actually kind of interrupting himself with this prayer that focuses on two things: How much God loves them, and how much love they are capable of in return when they are rooted and grounded in Christ. The author prays that readers of this letter would be “strengthened in their inner being” by the Holy Spirit, that Christ may dwell in them, that they would be “rooted and grounded in love.” He prays that the Ephesians might come to understand “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.” And he concludes with a benediction, calling God one who can “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” After that, the text moves on to chapter 4, and the author returns to a more teaching-style letter.
So, do we understand how much God loves us? Are we rooted and grounded in Christ, strengthened in our inner beings so that we can live as followers of Jesus? And do we understand that God keeps on adopting and adopting, loving extravagantly and drawing more people into God’s family? One of my favorite decorations in my room at school is from my 6 year old niece Siggy. It’s a long strip of construction paper, measured to the length of Siggy’s outstretched arms, with construction paper cutouts traced from her hands for hands on each end, that is meant to represent a hug from Siggy. And it says, “I love you “this much.”” The point, of course, is that her love for me is as far as she can reach. Big love. I wonder if we get how much God loves us? The author prays that we might get a glimpse of understanding. Sometimes when we talk about the love of God, it becomes kind of trite - we say “God loves you,” but we miss the power behind it, the strength of it, the potentially-life-changing impact of it.
When have you felt the most simply overwhelmed with how much you are loved? I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about how much my mom demonstrates love for me and others. There are the big things, of course - my mom’s consistent presence in my life, her affirmations, her support of my goals in life. But what I’ve been noticing lately are so many of the little things. For example, she has two kinds of silverware. She loves her silverware with big chunky colorful handles. I once remarked that I preferred the feel of the thinner, plain silver handles. And now, whenever I’m coming home, she’ll get out a couple of sets of the kind I like, just for me, and if she sets the table for me, she uses the silverware I like. I decided to try my vegan cookie stand at the farmer’s market this summer - and every single week, she’s baked cookies with me and been at the stand with me, and rearranged her entire freezer so that I can store things, and bought a special shelf for the guest bedroom for all my ingredients. She does things like this all the time. But - and here’s the astonishing thing - it isn’t just for me, or for her children and grandchildren even that she does these things. She bakes meals for her neighbors and stops by with them. She sends boxes of fall leaves to my great aunt who lives in Arizona and misses the foliage. She takes treats to the office manager at her apartment complex. She brought gifts for the children of the owners of the Chinese restaurant she frequents. I teased her that I think she spends most of her time just sitting around thinking about things she can do to make other people happy. But it’s not really a joke - I think that’s what she does, for real. Because I think what brings her the most joy in life is showering others with love. And when I reflect on her loving nature, I’m overwhelmed. When have you felt the most simply overwhelmed with how much you are loved?
As loved as I feel by my mother, I imagine that God, who created me and everything I know, God, in whose image I’ve been created, God, who has formed me and knows me - how much must God love me? Not because I’m so wonderful - but because God is “so love”! That’s not trite - it’s overwhelming, to be loved so completely. And it calls for a response. It calls for us to be strengthened, rooted and grounded in this love, so that what God can accomplish in us is more than we can ask and imagine.
So, when have you felt the most simply overwhelmed with how much you love someone? God wants us to be grounded in Christ, so that we can love like Christ loves. We draw our strength from Christ, so that when it seems like we can’t love the way Jesus loves on our own, we realize we can because of what Christ gives to us. God wants us to love one another like God loves us. God wants us to be like my mother, imagining all the ways we can shower others with love - not just our favorite others - but all of God’s children. And as we’ve discussed, God has a really big family for us to love with lots and lots of siblings for us. That glimpse of God’s love that I get from my mom? God not only loves me that way, but God loves the people of whom I’m not so fond that way too. God loves the folks who drive us crazy, who’ve caused us pain, with the same extravagant love we can barely comprehend, and asks us to do likewise. Sometimes, it seems impossible. But, as the prayer we heard in this letter reminds us, God can do in us what is abundantly far more than we can imagine.
Friends, I pray just what our author has prayed - that you might start to understand truly, deeply, in your core, how much God loves you, how much God claims you as part of the family, without which the family just wouldn’t be whole. I want you to understand at least a glimpse of how much God hopes and dreams goodness and joy for your life. And then, rooted and grounded in that love, I want you to make it a life priority to make sure others - all the others - understand this too. Because if we can really start to understand the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ for us, of God’s love for us? Confident in that kind of love, what else could we need to change the world? Amen.