“Engaging the Bigger Picture”
2 Sam. 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Eph. 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
The lectionary has been leading us through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians over the past few weeks. Next year about this time we will be going through the letter to the Galatians in similar fashion. We find a much different Paul in Galatians than in Ephesians. Galatians was Paul’s earliest New Testament letter. He seems to have matured a lot by the time of the Ephesian letter. Both letters address the problem of sectarianism in the church: Jews and Gentiles criticizing each other over how they see their faith.
But in Galatians, Paul confronts the church in harsh language about their religious prejudice: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” By the time of the Ephesian letter there is no evidence that sectarianism had decreased in Paul’s churches, but Paul’s approach was very different. Here he focused on God’s purpose of uniting everything in Christ. He still names religious prejudice between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. But in Ephesians he knows that one must engage the breadth and length and height and depth of life in order to accomplish God’s mission of uniting all things. It raises questions like; how broad are your criteria for including people? How long is God’s timeline to fulfill the mission? How high is the bar set for fulfilling Christ’s mission? How deeply have you let Christ’s love touch you?
Now I like to consider myself more mature than Paul was in Galatians. I even think I’m more mature than Ephesians; I mean, I don’t tell wives to submit to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters. I’ve matured way beyond that. But when I get up in the morning and check out the morning news, my reaction is closer to the Paul of Galatians than of Ephesians. My first reaction is criticism and disgust around the latest tweet or dangerous policy. Maybe I’m not as mature as I think.
And I’m not alone. I had a long conversation last week with someone who was furious about how he was treated by people who volunteer in a church sponsored outreach. He couldn’t understand why church people don’t behave better than people who don’t attend church. I told him he needs to monitor his expectations to keep his anger in check and not get disappointed all the time. That’s part of the truth. But one of the tragedies of the contemporary church is that we have failed to live the faith we proclaim. Where we’ve spoken about forgiveness and grace, we’ve been vindictive and condemning. Where we have spoken about trust and generosity, we have been greedy and stingy. Where we’ve spoken about courage and integrity, we have been fearful and cowardly. If the world is to believe our message, we have to manifest it in our lives and communities – or as the popular slogan puts it we must be the change we seek. When we do, we may discover that we contribute to wholeness and peace in our world.
Where does the ability to engage the breadth and length and height and depth of life come from? What does it look like? And what doesn’t it look like? According to Paul’s prayer it comes from knowing the love of Christ experientially and deeply so that we are strengthened in our inner being, rooted and grounded in love. Now there’s some lofty language that needs unpacking! It looks like Jesus feeding the 5000 by seeing that what we have is enough. It does not look like David pursuing his own self-interest rather than the well-being of those around him.
So let’s try to unpack this. Paul’s prayer is rooted in his life’s work of reconciling Jews and Gentiles. For him the whole purpose of the church is that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Paul knew that the driving force of sectarianism and all the other isms – racism, sexism, xenophobia – is “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”; in other words, the invisible cultural and spiritual forces that drive human societies to behave in ways that run counter to the truth of creation. What Jesus calls the Reign of God and Paul calls “Christ dwelling in your hearts through faith” imagines a different world; a world in which what we have is enough to share with everyone; in which no one has more rights to God’s abundance than anyone else. Prayer is one way to cultivate that imagination.
In the story of David and Bathsheba we see what this doesn’t look like. David had unplugged from his inner strength to envision the reign of God when he sent for Bathsheba and lay with her. Men in powerful positions like kings have always known that they could get away with that kind of behavior. Bathsheba couldn’t have effectively resisted. Today we call that sexual harassment or sexual abuse, and it still happens. Great strides have been taken this past year to change its systemic nature – and the ease of getting away with it – but men still need to access inner strength to overcome the pattern that has been habitual.
The story of Jesus feeding the 5000 illustrates what it does look like to imagine the Reign of God and God’s indwelling. Jesus finds himself facing a hillside full of people, who have come to him hungry for many things. Jesus asks Philip where they will find food to feed them. Philip is clear that there is absolutely, positively, no conceivable way that all those people will be fed. Then Andrew points out one youth’s five loaves and two fish but asks, ‘what is that for so many people?’ Jesus does something totally unexpected that changes the lives of those around him forever. Neither Philip, nor Andrew, nor the boy, nor anyone else standing there ever dreamed what was going to happen when Jesus got a hold of that bread and those fish. And Jesus constantly shows up like that in unexpected places and ways.
How do we get the church and Christians to focus their imaginations on God’s reign rather than on smaller visions of mere self-interest? Paul says to let “Christ dwell in your hearts through faith.” I do not think the church focuses enough on helping people know Christ’s love in the depths of their heart. I know I don’t. We ask people to volunteer for tasks, to show up for events, to financially support the ministry of the church. And people do volunteer, show up and give. But those who truly experience Christ dwelling in their hearts have a different level of motivation; because the indwelling Christ is the same spirit of Jesus who kept showing up in places and ways that were unexpected. When we have experienced, and expressed gratitude in our hearts for, Christ’s continuing to show up for us, we have a richer imagination and deeper motivation to live out the vision of Christ’s reign that we proclaim. We will respond to the need in front of us with the resources we have, even if that looks ridiculous, because we have received enough of Christ’s riches to trust that they are enough for now. We will welcome the uninvited guest because we know deep down that our place at the banquet is assured. We will forgive the one who hurts us because we have experienced enough forgiveness to know that nothing is gained by withholding it. We will share the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love, because it is the well that springs up from within us. We must feed that well constantly to resist the pull to our smaller selves and smaller vision.
Friends, the stakes have never been higher for people of faith. The very words of faith have been hijacked to legitimize an agenda that is counter to God’s vision for creation. Where God desires unity, people are using religion to divide. Where God urges hospitality, people are appealing to religious laws to exclude. Where God promises abundance for all, people are placing conditions on access to resources. Where God offers access, people want to build walls.
But we will not win over their hearts by using the harsh words of an immature Paul in Galatians. We must boldly proclaim the vision we imagine of justice and peace and healing for all, no matter how counter that vision is to the direction things are moving. And we must demonstrate in the way we live that there is enough to pull off that vision, because Jesus is the one who is coming to us in our fear and anger assuring us that “It is I; do not be afraid.” That is how we will reach the land toward which we are going.