Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Knowing that You Don’t Know

Eph. 3:14-21; Mk. 6:45-56[1]

You can hear the strangest conversations in a book store. I know this because I frequent book stores the way some guys do hardware stores or electronics stores. And, of course, since I tend to hang out in the Religion section of book stores, the conversations I overhear tend to be about Religion. The other day, I overheard a conversation between two young women about some of the books on the shelf. One young woman was obviously “instructing” the other one about which books to read and which not to read.

At one point, she started talking about reading a book that was written by a [gasp!] pacifist. You would have thought the guy was some kind of “antichrist.” Seems the author outlined various views on violence and then had the nerve to actually endorse pacifism as the best option for Christians. This young woman was convinced that he was wrong because no one would hesitate to kill a burglar who broke into your house and threatened to kill you or your family! Now, I must admit that the whole thing about threatening family gets to me. But I wanted to ask this young woman an alternate version of “what would Jesus do?” I wanted to ask her, “whom would Jesus kill?”

I never cease to be amazed at the fact that people can speak with such absolute certainty about matters relating to God. Now, let me say that it doesn’t surprise me a bit to hear people talk that way about Religion. Religion is something we humans have created to take God and all the mystery surrounding God and turn it all into something you can summarize in 2 minutes or less! So I’m not surprised by people who talk so authoritatively about Religion.

But God is another matter. Human beings have been experiencing God, reflecting on God, contemplating God, praying to God, and in all sorts of ways trying to understand God for several millennia! Call it what you like—Yahweh, the Holy Spirit, Allah, Brahman, or the Dao—it seems to me that there is no disputing the fact that the human race has by and large operated from the conviction that there is a powerful spiritual life force that pervades and upholds everything and fills it all with life and love.[2] Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can go much beyond that. For all our experiencing and reflecting and praying over the last several thousand years we’ve still only touched the “hem of the garment” of God. It seems to me, then, that if the life of God in this world is so mysterious, the other side of affirming what we believe is recognizing the importance of “knowing that we do not know.”

It is always the followers of a great spiritual leader who are the ones who try to systematize and institutionalize their great insights into the mystery of God. In the same way that many Calvinists are far more dogmatic than Calvin, so also many Buddhists are more dogmatic than Gautama. The same holds true for Jesus’ disciples, to some extent. He goes around spreading the joy of God’s kingdom, and they keep wanting to build little shrines to preserve and manage that joy. So it comes as a bit of an understatement when our Gospel reading remarks that the disciples were “astounded” by Jesus’ calming the Sea of Galilee because “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52).

At first glance that might seem a bit harsh! I think most anybody would have been astounded by Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee! But the point here is a bigger one than whether or not they understood meteorology. It seems to me that Mark uses this as one of several examples of the fact that Jesus’ own disciples—the ones who were with him every day for anywhere from 9 months to 3 years—didn’t understand him. In fact, this is a fairly prominent theme in all the gospels—Jesus’ own Apostles seem to completely miss the point of his life and teaching until after he is crucified and resurrected. Even then, we’ve seen that they missed it on several matters.

What does this have to do with our discussion of what it takes to have a thriving church? By now you can probably quote the theme with me: “having a thriving church is not primarily about strategies and techniques, but about a quality of life.” I think the point of our lessons today is that this “quality of life” can be incredibly elusive! So maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad if there is much about God and spirituality that we don’t understand. It seems as if it goes with the territory. In fact, I would say that in a very real sense true spirituality, authentic experience of God, is by definition counter-intuitive. All our efforts to nail it down and bottle it up are mere exercises in futility—you may as well try to manufacture love!

Therefore we ought not be surprised when we hear St. Paul saying that we have to “be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit” so that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16-17) The end result of this is that we might “know all about Christ's love, although it is too wonderful to be measured” and that our lives “will be filled with all that God is” (Eph. 3:19, CEV) If that sounds too good to be true, Paul adds for good measure, “[God’s] power at work in us can do far more than we dare ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20, CEV). It seems to me that the bottom line in the Christian life is that it’s all something that God does in us; in fact it’s something that only God can do in us.[3] That means we have to entrust ourselves to that mysterious and wonderful power of love that surrounds us all; it means we have to trust God to do that wonderful, unimaginable work of new life.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/26/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cynthia A. Jarvis, “Ephesians 3:14-21, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 45 (July, 1991): 286: “The paradox held in solution in Paul's prayer is that the one who is rooted and grounded in love, who "knows" the breadth and length and height and depth of that love, knows God's love cannot be contained by human knowing. The dimensions of God's love are without limit and so defy any limits created by human claims to know.”

[3] Jarvis, “Ephesians 3:14-21,” 286: “One can only wonder what the church would be, or what our relationship with peoples of other faiths would be, if our total identity and existence were permanently inhabited by him who came to unite all things.”

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