Monday, August 17, 2015

Beyond Imagination

Beyond Imagination
Ephesians 3:14-21[1]
Another of the challenges I think we face as a people is a lack of imagination. It seems to me that we tend to turn the task of “imagining” over to someone else. The Lego set I bought as a present to take to my granddaughter Helen is a Duplo Forest Fishing trip set, complete with a car, a boat, and three animal friends! It’s very different from the Legos I played with. Anything we wanted to create we had to do with our own imagination. But these days imagination seems a rare quality. Our young people spend their time playing video games, while we who have been around the block a few times watch TV. But we’re all doing the same thing—entertaining ourselves with someone else’s imagination portrayed electronically.
I’ve also run into a surprising lack of imagination in the church. Some people who talk about God seem to think they have it all down. It would seem that they know God so completely they can speak with total confidence about any aspect of the God’s character or actions. I find it truly baffling that any finite human being could think that they would have the capacity to comprehend the infinite so completely. And yet, the fact is that the throughout the ages there have been plenty of people who have made that assumption. I think it reflects a serious lack of imagination, to say the least. Surely the God who says “my ways are not your ways” is so far beyond us that we have to use as much imagination as possible in trying to comprehend him and his ways.
In our lesson from Ephesians, St. Paul speaks of this dimension of God’s character. In the previous verses he has elaborated on the “mystery of Christ” that “the Gentiles have become … sharers in the promise of Christ,” a “mystery hidden for ages” that he has now “carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:4-11).  With reference to this mysterious plan, in our lesson for today, Paul praises God as the one who “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). As is often true, I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “God can do anything, you know - far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”
In Paul’s mind, the work of God in redeeming all humankind and all creation is a great mystery that nobody could possibly have anticipated. In that day and time gods were either the patrons of one people—and only one people—or they did as they pleased and viewed humanity as lower than slaves, to be toyed with on a whim. Into this world the Apostle proclaimed a God who humbled himself and became human in order to reclaim and redeem all humankind (cf. Phil. 2:5-11).[2] And St. Paul reminds us here and elsewhere that this plan for the salvation of all humankind and all creation is so mind-blowing that no one could ever imagine it. It remains as it always has been: a mystery.[3]
But we who turn to religion don’t typically do so to be stumped. We come for answers. Answers that are clear-cut, with no ambiguity or need for imagination. We prefer our God in a box. We want a God we can predict and control.[4] In our quest for certainty about God I’m afraid some of the philosophers have been right: we’ve simply created a God in our own image, or at least a God according to our designs. But the God of the Holy Scriptures bursts all the bounds of any box we try to use to tame him and use him for our purposes.
That was why the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth believed that “religion,” all religion, and Christian faith are mutually contradictory. For Barth, religion is by definition a human effort to make God smaller than he is.[5] It’s a way for us to take what is beyond us and classify it according to our own minds. He was definitely addressing the religion of his day, but I’m not sure we’ve changed all that much in a hundred years. On the other hand, Barth insisted that any faith that is genuinely Christian must be framed in terms of the one who is infinitely beyond our ability to “ask or imagine.”[6] And since his ways are not our ways, we must expect that we will only be able to touch the hem of the garment when it comes to what God is up to in our world.
Some of us may not like this. It can be unsettling to come face to face with this aspect of God’s nature. At one point in another discussion of God’s saving work, Paul expresses his wonder by saying, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33). St. Paul repeatedly emphasizes that what God is doing in this world is a mystery that nobody would have been able to guess. Nor would we believe it if it weren’t so boldly proclaimed in Scripture. God’s amazing plan for the salvation of all humankind and all creation is far more than we “could ever imagine or guess or request in our wildest dreams.”[7]
For that reason we might be tempted to think it’s all too good to be true. But our lesson for today reminds us that when we bump up against the boundaries of what we can understand, we must remember that God is the one whose ways are so far beyond us that we can never fully comprehend him. I think that means we have to use as much imagination as possible in trying to grasp the “the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:18) of his loving purpose for us all. We have to remember that our faith is in the God whose wondrous plans always have been and always will be far beyond our imagination.

[1] © Alan Brehm 2015. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/26/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version is available at
[2] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:417, where she 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.”
[3] Cf. 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.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:784; and A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 213.
[4] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 12, where he observes that we want our faith “manageable, cut to size and proportioned to our knowledge, so that we know what to do in the present situation and what to expect in the future.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (1933), 236: “So long as religious … activities fail to draw attention to that which lies beyond them, and so long as they attempt their own self-justification, …, they are assuredly mere illusion.” Cf. also 125, 136-37, 184-86, 236, 242, 252, 266, 413-14. Cf. also ibid., 212, where he insists that “Finitum non capax infiniti” (The finite is unable to grasp the infinite), or as Barth himself puts it (p. 494), “the impossible possibility of God—which lies beyond all human possibility.” He does not spare the Church in this regard. Cf. ibid., 332: “the Church, which is situated on this side of the abyss which separates men from God, is the place where the eternity of revelation is transformed into a temporal, concrete, directly visible thing in this world. … To a greater or lesser extent, the Church is a vigorous and extensive attempt to humanize the divine, … .” See further ibid., 332-339, 366-69. He concludes (p. 413), “the whole relationship between God and man, as set forth in the Church, is a mystery.” (emphasis original)
[6] One of the major themes of Barth’s commentary on Romans is the experience of the gospel as an “impossible possibility.” He says (Romans, 231), “Grace is the impossibility which is possible only in God.” Cf. also ibid., 92, 97-99, 105, 121, 200, 211, 216, 282, 364, 381, et passim.
[7] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 31, where he says that when we truly encounter God, “Something grander and larger than us comes along and bowls us over and dispossesses us.”

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