July 19, 2021
The Proper 12B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 6:1-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 11:1-15 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 145:10-18 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 3:14-21 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 125 (Lord’s Day 50)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Hang on to your hats, preaching partners, because we are beginning a 5-week odyssey in John 6! Granted this is an important chapter but 5 whole weeks of preaching sermons on variations of Jesus’ being the bread of life can be a bit taxing. Having skipped over the Feeding of the 5,000 in last week’s Common Lectionary gospel text from Mark 6, the Lectionary now picks up this miracle as John records it in his own sixth chapter.
There are quite a few rather obvious differences between the two accounts. Mark clearly shaped his own version of the story to highlight Jesus’ role as the Messianic Great Shepherd of the Sheep. Mark’s account was thus redolent of imagery from Psalm 23 as well as various “sheep without a shepherd” texts from Ezekiel and Isaiah.
John lacks those details but instead nestles this story in close proximity to the upcoming Feast of the Passover while also using this story and Jesus’ subsequent walking on water as more “signs” that Jesus is the Chosen One of God. (Remember that John includes Passover 3 times in his gospel unlike the Synoptics that record only the final Passover just before Jesus’s arrest and death.) Unlike Mark’s account where we are actually unsure to what degree the crowd was aware of the feeding miracle that had occurred, in John they not only know what happened, they use it as a reason to try to seize on Jesus so as to force him to become a king, a political rival to all things Rome.
This must have been an occasion of great wonder but also of great joy and hilarity. As the basket of bread and fish kept going and going without being depleted, waves of laughter must have accompanied it. By the time the basket got to the fiftieth person, you can almost imagine his shouting back to the first person in line, “Hey, Sherman! Isn’t this the same fish you ate?!” As astonishment gave way to joy, as growling stomachs gave way to stuffed bellies, the people realized Jesus truly was a great man of God.
Only the Creator himself could “play” with the very stuff of creation as to pull off this feat. As the Son of God, Jesus held in his hands the kernels of wheat from every field on the planet as well as the fish in every stream, lake, and ocean. Through his hands alone the bounty of all those fields and streams was channeled to this hungry gathering. Not surprisingly, they right away wanted to make him their king. Who can blame them? We always hope our leaders will somehow find the wherewithal to make available to all the people the riches of the land. Smart politicians who want to be elected promise just this, too. “Vote for me and taxes will be cut to give you more money, production will be increased to give you more food, the economy will grow to give you more of . . . everything.”
A chicken in every pot and all that . . .
So also these people perceived that since Jesus could so richly provide the good stuff of life, they would set him up as their new leader. But Jesus wants nothing to do with this, and so he gets out of there. Because much though the feeding of the hungry is a sign of Jesus’ larger purpose, this miracle is only a sign of Jesus’ salvation but it is not the same thing. Jesus does not want to be made a king who will just keep producing more wonder bread because Jesus knows that in the long run the business of eating and drinking is quite literally a dead end. Even as any individual meal can sustain us just so long before we need to eat again, so the entire enterprise of eating and drinking can only keep us going just so long, and then we die. The bread of this earth cannot keep us alive forever.
That’s why, when a loved one is gravely ill with some disease, we do not conclude that if we run to the kitchen and whip together a ham and Swiss sandwich, we can make this dear one eat and so keep on living. No, it doesn’t work that way. These days doctors are able to fasten a feeding tube into patients who are too damaged or too sick to eat the normal way. The high-protein goop that gets delivered through such tubes can sustain the person biologically, and yet in at least some situations the family members watching all of this conclude that the life this tube is sustaining is finally no life at all. So although we may agonize about it, we may ask for the forced feeding to stop in recognition of the fact that true life has now stopped in ways that bread and butter, calories and protein can no longer help.
What Jesus did on the mountainside that day for those 5,000 folks was wonderful. It was a sign of the kingdom. But it was not the kingdom. To get at the real reason Jesus had come, to solve the deeper problems of life and death, Jesus had to say something else, which is what he goes on to do in the last part of John 6. There Jesus presents himself as the true bread of life. Somehow by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we can find a new form of life–eternal life.
Since that part of John 6 is coming up in subsequent Lectionary readings in the coming weeks, we will wait to ponder the way John 6 closes, but clearly we cannot read this feeding story completely in isolation from where it will ultimately lead in this chapter.
Then as now, we’re altogether too eager to settle for the quick fix. Holy patience insists we stick with Jesus over the long haul, following him all the way to a cross that is not only not a quick fix, it even looks like the end of everything. But only when we stay with Jesus that long do we actually discover the beginning of everything.
[Note from CEP Director Scott Hoezee: This sermon commentary will be the last Gospel commentary I will write for a while. Starting with the August 1 sermon commentary here on CEP we will be welcoming to our writing team Rev. Chelsey Harmon. Each week Rev. Harmon will write the Gospel commentary while Rev. Doug Bratt will continue with the Epistle commentary and I will be doing the ones for Old Testament and Psalms. Regular readers of CEP know that this means that our longtime web writer Rev. Dr. Stan Mast has retired from this particular responsibility, and we thank him for his many years of inspiring service.]
When compared to the Synoptic accounts, John 6:16-21 is discovered to be quite different. As Raymond Brown reminds us in his commentary, Chrysostom (among others) concluded that John’s version of Jesus’ walking on water is so different from the Synoptic accounts that John is quite probably narrating a different event altogether. Most commentators in history have disagreed with that conclusion, but we do find significant differences in detail, leading Brown to think that John’s may be the more primitive version of the story to which the Synoptic evangelists added various details and overlays of interpretation. What may be significant, however, is that one detail that all of the accounts share is the inclusion of Jesus’ saying, Ego Eimi, “I am” to identify himself.
Throughout history and across many very different religious traditions there has long been a curious linkage between spirituality and food. The Old Testament has its share of dietary restrictions and laws, many of which to this day translate into what observant Jews regard as kosher or non-kosher foods. Although the Christian faith has largely left behind such strictures, we still regard gluttony as one of the deadly sins, and some Christians also promote strict vegetarianism. Then there is the Roman Catholic “no meat on Friday” rule, which made the headlines a few years ago when St. Patrick’s day fell on a Friday during Lent, thus causing a number of Catholic bishops to suspend the rule for just March 17 so the Irish could celebrate with their traditional corned beef and a pint of Guinness!
Even some of the foods we eat each week have a religious background. In the mid-1800s there was a group of people in America known as the Millerites–a Christian sect firmly convinced that Jesus would return sometime late in the year 1843. He didn’t, setting off what was called “the Great Disappointment.” At least some of these folks, however, made the best of the situation by declaring that as a matter of fact Jesus had returned but that it had turned out to be an invisible, spiritual advent.
Believing themselves to be living in an already-present millennial kingdom, these Adventists decided that as part of this new identity they should invent alternative foods as a sign of their not being fully in this world. So one preacher named Sylvester Graham invented a new kind of cracker for his congregation to eat–yes, the Graham Cracker. Peanut butter was also invented at this time, as was a variety of cold breakfast cereals, including something called a “corn flake,” perfected by Adventist devotee John Harvey Kellogg in a spiritual community located in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Food and spirituality have long been yoked, but aside from observing occasional periods of fasting, no religious group has ever said it would never eat anything again. We all know we must eat and drink to live. If we go much more than three days without water or a month or so with no food, we will die. Many organizations nobly work every day to get food to this world’s starving. The fact that thousands of children die of starvation every day is as vivid, and utterly tragic, a sign of this world’s broken condition as anything.
We need food to live. Those of us blessed enough never to have to worry about our food also have the luxury of being able to enjoy this creation’s bounty in all its manifold variety. We even celebrate those skilled at serving up particularly tasty cuisine, whether it’s Aunt Millie whose pot roast cannot be topped or Julia Child whose “Boeuf Bourguignon avec Champignon” is so fine we’ll shell out thirty or forty bucks just to get a plate of it.
We need food, we appreciate it. The crowds around Jesus on that long ago day as reported in John 6 were no different. They were hungry, Jesus fed them and so he quickly rose in their estimation because of this miracle.
2 Samuel 11:1-15
Author: Stan Mast
A sermon on this text might be entitled, “The Dream Ends, The Nightmare Begins.” This text is the Continental Divide of David’s life and of the history of the monarchy in Israel. Up to this story, everything gets better and better for David, as he climbs (or, more accurately, is lifted by God’s grace) from shepherd boy to King, uniting Israel, conquering enemies, establishing Jerusalem as capital city, building a palace, and receiving a divine promise of an everlasting dynasty in his house. After this story, it’s all downhill as his family falls apart in shocking ways and he has to run for his life and Israel is divided and finally dragged off into exile, leaving Jerusalem and the temple in ruins. This story is the tipping point where the dream ends and the nightmare begins.
It all happened because of one lazy day and one lustful look. Up to this point, David has proven to be every bit the king Israel had been looking for back in I Samuel 8. He not only led the armies of Israel to mighty victories, but as II Samuel 8:15 puts it, “David reigned over Israel, doing what was right and just for all his people.” Until here and now. What David did here could have been torn from the headlines of our day which tell stories about politicians and priests, teachers and tyrants, soldiers and civilians who prove themselves to be moral monsters. In fifteen verses this great king who always did what was “right and just for all his people” breaks 5 of the 10 commandments.
The wonder is that this story found its way into the Bible at all, given Israel’s vested interest in David’s life and legacy. The writer of the Chronicles leaves it out entirely, perhaps in an effort to cover it up. Apparently, the final writer/editor of Samuel thinks that another coverup is a very bad idea, having seen how that worked out for David. Perhaps, he thinks, there are very important lessons to be learned from this disastrous chapter in David’s life. Indeed, there are at least 4 lessons that everyone needs to learn if we are going to keep the dream from becoming a nightmare.
First, not doing the work you been called to do can be a recipe for disaster. This lesson probably isn’t the reason this story is in the Bible, but this whole story flows from David’s dereliction of duty. Before this, David had always led his armies into battle; that’s what kings did in the ancient world and what Israel expected their king to do (cf. I Samuel 8:10). But here, as other kings were going off to war, David sends his armies off to battle Ammon. He remained in Jerusalem.
We aren’t told the cause of his staying at home, but we do know the result. As he gets up from a very unroyal afternoon nap, he wanders around the roof of his cedar palace and spots a beautiful woman taking a bath. That led to coveting and lust and adultery and lying and murder, and the nightmare. “An idle mind is the devil’s playground,” goes the old proverb. Because he was not doing his God given duty, David ended up ruining his life and the life of his family and the history of his people. Again, that’s not the message of this story, but it’s a key part of the story.
Second, sin can have a cascading effect if we don’t deal with it properly in the first place. Note how one sin was followed by another and then another, until a disaster happens. Dereliction of duty is followed by lust and coveting, and that is followed by adultery, and that is followed by deceiving and lying, and that is followed by murder. Then the skein of sin seems to run out, and David gets away with it. Uzziah is properly buried and grieved for, Bathsheba is taken into David’s house and bears him a son, and no one is the wiser. David gets away with his cascade of sin. Except for one thing. “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord (27).”
Now there will be another cascade– of consequences. Your sin will find you out. You will reap what you sow. The wages of sin is death. The Bible is very clear on this. It may seem that people get away with their sin, but they never do, because there is a God in heaven who sees and knows and cares and is displeased. When sin is covered up instead of confessed, there will be consequences. As the next chapter will tell us, David does eventually confess his sin, but it’s too late by then. Sin has consequences, even when it is forgiven. So be careful that you don’t get swept away in the ever-increasing avalanche of sin that follows sin. Again, that’s not the message of this story, but it’s a key part of the story.
Third, sin can ruin the life of even a person whom God has chosen and blessed beyond his wildest dreams. That was David—chosen by God, a man after God’s own heart, Israel’s greatest king, the one from whose loins would eventually come the greatest Son of David, the Son of God. God has blessed him and had promised to bless his house forever. But God allowed his blessed one to do a damnable thing and that unleashed a virus that nearly ruined the blessing.
Over the course of my ministry, I have encountered this sort of thing countless times. One man in particular stands out. He was contemplating a particular sin; he told me about it. When I warned him not to go ahead, he said, and I quote, “It will be OK. I’ll just do it, confess it, and I’ll be forgiven. It will be fine because of God’s grace in Jesus.” And he did it. And it wasn’t fine. His life was deeply affected in a negative way.
Being a child of God, a Christian, someone on whom God has showered his love does not inoculate us against the virus unleashed by sin upon sin. Again, that’s not the message of this story, but the story surely illustrates it. So, don’t presume on the grace of God and commit sin so that “grace may abound (Romans 6).” You might pay dearly for your presumption.
But, fourth (thank God there’s a fourth), even when sin wreaks its havoc in the life of a child of God, God does not forsake the ruined sinner. Yes, sin has natural consequences, but grace is greater than sin. In the end, grace will win, and the sinner will be saved. God’s promise to David in II Samuel 7 is unconditional. David will always have a son upon the throne. Yes, if someone in that promised line sins, God will chastise that person with the rod of men (II Sam 7:14), even if that person is David himself. But God will keep his promise that the kingdom of David’s son will never end.
So, David was saved in the end, as strongly suggested in his penitential Psalms (32 and 51) and in the way he is mentioned in the rest of Scripture. From David came the Savior of all sinners who finally repent and turn to God. The promise of God to David is the overall context of this entire sordid tale; this sinful episode is part of that larger salvation epic. The promise of a son/Son overwhelms the depravity of the father. That’s finally what the story is about—the overwhelming grace of God that can cover even the foulest sin.
Indeed, David’s confession in Psalm 32 (that when he covered his sin, it caused innumerable sorrows and pain) is countered by the Good News of I John 1 and 2. After urging the free and full confession of sin and sins, the writer speaks of “Jesus Christ, the Righteous One… the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours, but also the sins of the whole world (2:1,2).” The word “atoning sacrifice” is the word “expiation,” which means the “covering sacrifice,” the sacrifice that covers up our sins in God’s sight. When we don’t cover up our sins, God covers them in the blood of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
This story shows us that sin wreaks havoc, but the rest of the story shows us that grace brings healing and help. In Romans 5 Paul compares the Original Sin of Adam to the Original Righteousness of Jesus. Here’s his magnificent conclusion: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Even when it seems that sin has plunged us into an endless nightmare, the grace of God in Christ wakens us to a dream we can’t even imagine.
[Director’s Note: This sermon commentary is Rev. Stan Mast’s final one here on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website as he has decided to step away from this work for new opportunities. Stan has faithfully been contributing commentary articles for the past nearly ten years covering Psalms, Old Testament, and Epistle passages. We thank Stan for his service and for the hundreds of wonderful sermons his words have inspired over these past years. And we wish him God’s blessings in his ongoing ministry, starting with an interim pastorate this Fall. Beginning the first of August, we will welcome the Rev. Chelsey Harmon to the CEP website writing team when she takes over writing the Gospel sermon commentaries each week.]
I’ve used the image of the Continental Divide to characterize this story. Another image came to me as I pondered it. Perhaps it will help you show, rather than tell. It’s the image of a race and it originated with Paul’s scorching words to the Galatians, who have strayed from his Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. In Galatians 5:7, he fairly screams, “you were running a good race. Who has cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?”
When Saul and Jonathan died in battle, David composed a funeral song commemorating them. The theme/title was, “How the mighty are fallen!” That now describes the sweet singer of Israel himself. And it describes those who “star” in the scandalous headlines we read every day. That’s what happens whenever the mighty “despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes (II Samuel 12:9).” Pick your President, your pastor, your parents, your childhood hero! The pages of our lives are strewn with the mighty who have fallen because of their own sin. Only the mighty grace of God can lift the fallen.
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Lectionary likes Psalm 145 but chops it up a little differently each time. That’s a shame since the psalm is meant to be read as a single unit and presents a unified theme too. Probably for this particular Sunday the RCL chose this part of Psalm 145 because of the verse about God’s giving all creatures their food at the proper time since this could set up some sympathetic vibrations and resonance with the Gospel reading from John 6 and the Feeding of the 5,000.
Coming as this poem does near the very end of the Hebrew Psalter, we are definitely in the final exultation of singular praise with which this collection concludes. The Psalms have had ups and downs, laments and imprecations. Yet weaving in and through it all was praise and thanksgiving, including even in many of those darker psalms of lament and cursing of enemies. But as the collection prepares to conclude, the Psalter editors selected a half-dozen songs or prayers that ramp up gloriously into a final crescendo, ending of course with Psalm 150, which is a veritable shook-up champagne bottle whose cork flies off with great effervescence!
Psalm 145 celebrates the goodness of God throughout all generations. The breadth of things for which God is praised here is pretty comprehensive: God’s acts of creation and of sustaining that creation, God’s acts of salvation and mercy, God’s closeness to God’s people and how well he listens to their cries, God’s own character of holiness and righteousness. Just about anything you can think of—and just about every subject of praise and thanksgiving that comes up anywhere else throughout all of the 150 psalms—gets tucked into Psalm 145 somewhere. It would be difficult to identify any praiseworthy feature of God or of God’s work that gets left out. About the only thing not included here would be some of the specifics from the more historical psalms that rehearse things like the Exodus from Egypt, God’s presence at Sinai, and other narrative elements of Israel’s past. Outside of that, Psalm 145 is downright capacious.
And in its effervescence it is also downright un-nuanced. We have noted many times in the sermon commentaries on the Psalms here on the CEP website that we ought never take any one psalm and make it prescriptive for every person at every moment in their life. If you took a poem like Psalm 145 and insisted that every believer feel this way every moment of every day, then that would ignore all of those other psalms of lament (about a third of all the psalms) that indicate that there are other seasons of life when the sentiments of a Psalm 145 become longings, distant memories, the kinds of feelings and confidence to which the psalmist hopes to be able to return to someday but for now . . . not so much.
To insist that Psalm 145’s apparent blank check promises that God always hears our prayers and always answers them more or less in a heartbeat ignores all those prayers in this collection that indicate perfectly good and pious people can endure long seasons of apparent divine silence. So we note again the need to read each psalm in the context of the other 149 in the Psalter. Only when taken all together do these prayers reflect the full scope of human life before God.
That, of course, makes preaching on a psalm of singular sunniness a bit of a challenge. On the one hand, we preachers do not want to fail to acknowledge that on any given Sunday, there are plenty of people who, for the moment at least, see their lives and their attitudes reflected quite nicely in something like Psalm 145. And we do not want them to feel guilty for being so upbeat nor preach in a way that tells such people, “Just wait for it—the bottom will drop out for you again one day too!” No, no, that would never do.
Then again, neither can we preach this in ways that ignore those for whom the bottom has dropped out of late.
So what is the preacher to do?
Preach the Good News that the character of God as reflected in Psalm 145 is true. What’s more, if the poet of this ancient song sensed these truths about God’s character long ago already, then those of us who have now seen how far God in Christ was willing to go to be faithful to all of God’s promises have far more reasons to know of God’s faithful and righteous and compassionate nature. This is who God is! Psalm 145 is right. And if there are those in the congregation experiencing the truth of that already now, then that is reason for all of us to celebrate. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice, after all.
And to weep with those who weep. And for those weeping right now for all kinds of reasons, we remind them that the vision of Psalm 145 is ultimately right and will ultimately be our common reality when God’s kingdom—that eternal kingdom celebrated in Psalm 145—fully comes. As we live between the times, not only can we not always see the truth of all that, sometimes we have a hard time even believing the truth of all that.
Sometimes we have to believe on behalf of our suffering sisters and brothers. We extend our faith out to their faith to hold them up. But we do so in profound hope. The sentiments and the vision of Psalm 145 and its wonderful and comprehensive litany of reasons to be enthusiastic about our great God are all correct. These things about God have been true in the past, they are true in this present moment (whether we can see them plainly or not) and they will be eternally true.
Can we hold onto the glories of Psalm 145 in the teeth of so much that is wrong with our world and with our lives right now? Yes. It may seem a paradox. But then, central to the Christian experience is the most sacred of all symbols that is itself the ultimate Paradox: The Cross.
There is virtually no way to duplicate this in any translation into any language but Psalm 145 is actually an acrostic (hence my earlier comment that despite the RCL’s chopping up of this poem it is overtly designed to be read as a unity). This psalm’s 21 verses correspond to the letters in the Hebrew alphabet with each successive verse beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Verse 1 begins with A, Verse 2 with B, Verse 3 with C, and so on. So in essence Psalm 145 goes from A-Z. At the very least we think that some Hebrew Psalms were composed this way to make them easier to memorize. But there may also be a sense in which this literary structure reflects what is also contained in this poem—and as reflected on above in this sermon starter—and that is the sense that God is being praised here for every reason one could think of from A-Z, the whole kit-n-caboodle, as it were.
That structure is pretty interesting on both levels: first, this is to be memorized, to be carried in our hearts as a constant reminder of the nature and character of our God. These are the truths we must live by! But second, God is worthy of praise for the whole kit-n-caboodle of Creation, Salvation, and soon the Re-Creation of all things. Everything God is, everything God has done and continues to do, everything God will do through Christ Jesus the Lord and by the Holy Spirit—all of it from A-Z and beyond is worthy of all praise!
Author: Doug Bratt
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s first five words, “I kneel before the Father” (14) suggests that its hearers are eavesdropping on Paul’s prayer. However, the Scriptures’ prayers always almost make me wonder, “How do you preach about an inspired yet overheard prayer?” and “Should we even preach about an overheard prayer?”
But Jesus’ friends might argue that this is a prayer not just about and for Ephesus’ Christians, but also about and for Jesus’ followers of all times and places. By implication, then, the Holy Spirit can use this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to reveal something about both God and all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Paul begins that Lesson by saying, “For this reason …” (14). That implies that we’re not just reading a prayer. This phrase also suggests that the RCL, in a sense, dumps us right smack in the middle of Paul’s train of thought.
What, then is that interrupted train of thought? Why does Paul kneel in prayer for his Ephesian adopted brothers and sisters in Christ? In Ephesians 3’s first 13 verses he shows that God has graciously included gentiles in God’s promises to the Jews. Because God has also made gentiles members of Christ’s body, they too have access to God. Gentiles also are, by God’s grace, part of God’s “whole family in heaven and on earth” (14).
However, the apostle realizes that for Jews and Gentiles to learn, absorb and respond to this, they will need to be “filled to the full measure of all the fullness of God” (19) and will need God “to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (20). In order for that to happen, Paul senses he must freely and confidently “approach God,” (12), that is, pray to the Lord.
The apostles’ repeated use of the 2nd person “you” and “your” in this text shows he’s praying not primarily for individual Christians, but for the whole community of faith that’s now made up of both Jews and gentiles. It’s a model for the Church that sometimes prays more frequently for Jesus’ individual friends or the local church than for the worldwide Body of Christ.
Obviously this Sunday’s Lesson’s original reference is to Ephesian Christians. Yet to the extent that it’s applicable to all Christians, it’s also a prayer even for 21st century Christians. So for what does Paul pray for us? He prays for power, “that out of his glorious riches [God] may strengthen [us] with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being” (16).
One’s “inner being” is a highly mysterious concept. However, it at least seems to refer to that place in us where our sinful and sanctified selves struggle for supremacy. Jesus’ friends are graced to know that God empowers “the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24) to overcome “the old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (4:22).
This happens, however, only by the power of God’s Holy Spirit who dwells in God’s adopted children’s hearts. The Hebrew word for “dwell” (katoiskai) is that of staying rather than just “passing through.” So the apostle invites us to picture the Spirit as not just moving in, but also unpacking the Spirit’s bags and making himself at home within God’s dearly beloved people.
That at least suggests that God draws us closer to God and each other as Christ’s Spirit makes Christ’s self (and we give him space) more and more at home in us. That, in turn, at least invites Ephesians 3’s proclaimers to explore with our hearers how can we can make Christ’s Spirit feel “more at home” within us.
In verse 18, however, Paul also asks the Lord to grant Ephesians’ readers the power to grasp the full breadth of Christ’s love. That request suggests that even those in whom Christ’s Spirit makes the Spirit’s home don’t naturally recognize the full scope of Christ’s love. Even Jesus’ friends naturally shrink the scope of this love to just our loved ones, people just like us, Christians or us.
So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is a good reminder that God invites Jesus’ friends to pray for the creation, its climate, water, soil and air. Yet the Scriptural testimony is also to God’s love not just for the whole creation, but also all those in it. Christ’s life and prayer on the cross show that he was willing to pray not just for his friend, but also even for his enemies. So it’s appropriate that Paul prays that Jesus’ friends will let the Spirit stretch our emotions, thoughts and motivation to conform us to God’s love for everything and everyone God creates.
But for this to happen we’ll need the help of “all the saints” (18). It’s, after all, naturally impossible for us to love as God loves all by ourselves. So Paul summons all of Christ’s adopted brothers and sisters to come together in order to fully grasp Christ’s love’ width, length, height and depth. Plumbing the immense scope of Christ’s love is, in other words, a community project.
In verse 19 Paul adds a prayer for God to fill the Ephesian Christians with what he calls “the fullness of God.” That fullness is, to say the least, yet another highly mysterious concept. But some scholars suggest that it at least contains a sense of becoming as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. That Paul may be praying that his siblings in Christ quite simply become more and more like Jesus.
What shape does such Christ-likeness take in those in whom the Spirit dwells? It looks like love that’s as inclusive as God’s. It includes a holiness that begins to resemble God’s. Christ-likeness also opens itself up to the Spirit’s transformation to make Jesus’ friends imitators of God.
Yet it’s almost as if as Paul writes, he becomes conscious of just how unlikely such human holiness is. Perhaps that’s why he bursts out into text’s closing doxology. While even those in whom the Spirit makes the Spirit’s home are less than what Paul prays for, God, whose thoughts and ways are higher than ours, “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (20). That “power” is already at work within” God’s naturally powerless adopted sons and daughters. Yet it will also continue throughout all generations as well as forever and ever.
In a book of his collected sermons, Will Willimon writes about his father-in-law, Carl Parker who retired from the ministry for the third time in the fall of 1989. At the time he declared that, at long last, it was time for him to retire for good and “move to the mountains of Hendersonville [S.C.] to live among the Floridians.”
At his retirement service Parker wanted some “sweet soprano voices to sing his favorite, ‘The Ninety-and-Nine’.” Parker also preached what Willimon calls “something about the depth and breadth, the height and width of the love of God. . .”
“Then,” writes Willimon, Parker “spoke about the man who was to die in the electric chair in South Carolina the next day. . . Somebody had held a service of remembrance for this man’s victims and their families. He had killed a couple of people and maimed others in his rampage of terror. The preacher at that service had declared that he wished they would let him ‘throw the switch on this piece of refuse who destroyed those innocent lives.
“Pastor Parker, “ Willimon continues, then “went into lurid detail describing the crimes of this man. ‘And yet,’ Parker added, ‘today’s Scripture, as well as the sweet song we have heard, says that God loves that man on death row, values his soul just as much as God values us.’
“The congregation got quieter and quieter as Parker went on: “According to Jesus’ story of the Lost Sheep, God will gladly leave us ninety-and-nine gathered here in the fold this morning and go to Columbia to death row to get hold of that one lost sheep. And when God finds him, God’s more happy to have him than to have all of us safe ones here in church.”
Willimon then drolly notes how, at the end of the service, “the congregation seemed a lot more willing to let Preacher Parker go on and retire to Hendersonville.”