Sunday, July 29, 2012


Ephesians 3:14-21[1]
There are some in our world today who view faith as something of an aberration, a mental illness.  In fact, there are many who would associate religious faith more closely with a break from reality than with anything healthy.  Think about it: we worship a God that no one has ever seen.  We follow a Savior whom none of us ever met in person—face to face—and nobody we’ve ever know has ever met.  And we practice a religion that is based on the premise of having a relationship with this God we’ve never seen and this Savior we’ve never met.  It’s no wonder some people think we’re either deluding ourselves or simply hallucinating! From their perspective, those who practice faith are anything but “grounded.”
Unfortunately, that sentiment has at times been all too true—people with serious mental illness have used religion as an outlet for their obsessions and fantasies.  And yet, it would be too simplistic to paint all faith with that brush.  The fact of the matter is that there are many more people who have practiced the life of faith through acts of devotion and kindness, over and over again.  Their lives are a testament to the best of humanity.  They embody compassion and generosity.  And they do so without any thought of praise or attention or reward for themselves.  We would consider them incredibly grounded people.
It’s tempting at times to be cynical and assume that those people must have had it easy in life.  That’s why they’ve made it through with their faith intact.  They’ve been spared the abuse and tragedy and heartbreak that define this world where it often seems that there are no happy endings.  But to attribute faith to an “easy life” would be a mistake.  The fact of the matter is that the life of genuine faith is not an easy one at all.  If you take a good look, I think you will find that the deeper the faith, the more hardship and suffering in that person’s life.  We might expect faith to make life easier, but in fact the opposite often seems true.  
So what is it that keeps us going in this life of faith that can be so very difficult?[2]  Is it simply habit—we were raised in the faith and we simply cannot imagine life without it?  That’s not much of a motivation for sustaining a life-long practice of faith. Is it the external aspects of serving others, worshipping God, and supporting our sisters and brothers in our community?  Those aspects of faith are important, and they do play a role in sustaining faith.  But I think the answer to our question is found elsewhere.
I believe St. Paul speaks of it in our lesson from Ephesians for today.  He uses some puzzling language to describe the life of faith.  In his prayer for the Christians in that city, he speaks of being “strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit” (Eph. 3:16).  That’s not language that is common in our vernacular; you don’t hear people talking like that at the mall or at work.  We’re in a realm here that is mysterious and confusing.  How do you talk about the internal aspect of our experience of God?  It’s incredibly difficult, yet that’s what Paul is talking about.  And the reason is because what sustains the life of faith is something that happens to us, something that happens inside us. 
Part of this internal reality that St. Paul is trying to describe is that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:17).  This is also strange language, if you think about it.  We believe that Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again, but Paul goes beyond that here—he views the life of faith not simple as a matter of looking back to the life and ministry of Jesus, but as a matter of Christ living in our hearts in the here and now.[3]  And he says this happens through faith.
He also says this happens “as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17). Now he’s talking about things that seem more down-to-earth.  He says that the life of faith is grounded in the experience of God’s love.  And how do we experience God’s love?  I think he answers that question in the next verse: “ I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:18-19).  It’s “with all the saints” that we come to know this love.  The idea is that it is in the community of faith that we experience the love of God.[4]  We enjoy this mysterious internal relationship with God as we support and encourage and love one another! Most of us who have pursued the life of faith have known people who communicated God’s love to us at various times in our lives.  Sometimes that’s the only way we made it through a crisis.  But it’s in those times when we really experience the life of faith at its best.  That’s when, as St. Paul describes this life, we find ourselves “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).
In my life’s journey, it seems to me that there is nothing so “grounding” as the experience of being loved.  That’s what enables us to go on living this difficult and sometimes confusing life of faith.[5]  That’s what enables us to go through the up’s and down’s and twists and turns of life with stability and serenity and strength,. We may never understand fully what it means to live in faith, to live in this mysterious relationship with an unseen God, to be strengthened by internal resources granted by the Spirit of God, to be grounded in the love of God.  But even if we don’t understand it fully, the experience of God’s love continues to give us the internal strength to believe where we have not seen.  It gives us the strength to keep praying the prayers and listening for God to speak through the Word.  And it keeps us grounded enough to go on serving others every day with peace, calm, kindness, and compassion.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/29/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:417, reminds us that the early Christians did not have magnificent temples or cathedrals to reinforce their faith in God; in fact, it was the “pagans” who had the impressive places of worship!  She says, “It must have required extraordinary inner confidence to remain a faithful Christian with no external signs of the truth of our faith.”  Cf. also A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 219.
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:538, where he says that the Christian lives in “the most direct fellowship” with Jesus Christ. Cf. also Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 45: “For the Paul of Ephesians, Christ and his congregation are not two separate entities” but “one corporate whole, Christ-in-his-church.”
[4] Cf. Cynthia A. Jarvis, “Ephesians 3:14-21,” Interpretation 45 (July 1991): 287: “By ourselves, we cannot know the breadth and length and height and depth of God's love because it is a love that is revealed as we are gathered.”  Cf. also Barth, Dogmatics 4.2:784; and Lincoln, Ephesians, 213.
[5] Cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 220: “The Church will become more what it ought to be as it experiences more of the one who mediates God’s purposes in salvation, more of Christ’s presence through the Spirit, and more of his all-embracing love that surpasses knowledge.”

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