“The Measure of Love”
July 26, 2009 - Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
They pushed together, thirty or forty of them, all smiling at the camera as the photographer took a step back, then another, then another, as he tried to squeeze the whole group into his lens. I watched as the photos were taken. Then I walked up and shook the old man’s hand, waved toward the crowd behind him in awe, and said, “My gosh, Eph, look what you’ve done!”
It was a 75th anniversary party. I was kidding my friend about being responsible for the whole clan gathered around him and his wife. Children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and I think a great-great grandchild or two were all there to celebrate and have their picture taken with the two dear old saints who had got the ball rolling. I was amazed to see there in one place how the measure of their role as parents had grown from three or four children to extend across several generations, a dozen other families and dozens of children born over the years.
As our text begins, Paul is musing on the measure of the fatherhood of God, and how the families which derive from Him extend across all time and the whole earth. For a couple weeks now we’ve heard Paul’s reflections on how, in Christ, God destined not only the chosen people of the Jews, but also the Gentiles to be part of His family. It’s for “this reason,” as Paul started to say in verse 1, before he went off on a characteristic tangent, and now continues in verse 14, that he is kneeling down to pray. He is awed and moved to worship by the size of God’s family. In Christ, people from all nations and races are brought together. And it’s even bigger than that.
Verse 15 says that God is the “Father, from whom every family on earth derives its name.” It’s actually a little play on words in Greek. “Father” is pater and “family” is patria. All “familyhood,” if you will, comes from God’s fatherhood. The very idea and nature of a family derives from who God is. God is and wants to be acknowledged as the Father of all people. It’s at this huge family of God that Paul’s prayer aims. He wants the Ephesians, and us, to be able to take in its measure.
I always carry a small tape measure in my pocket. My family and friends are occasionally amused when I whip it out to see if a piece of furniture will fit through a door or if an envelope I’m mailing meets the new Post Office guidelines. It’s probably just a sign of mild OCD, but I like being able to measure the world around me when the occasion demands it. Measurement is a way to get a handle on things, to understand them.
Yet my little tape isn’t always up to the job. This past week I stood here in our sanctuary and somebody asked me its dimensions. I didn’t know. The little six foot rule in my pocket wasn’t going to do the job this time. To take the dimensions of a space this large I would need a much longer tape, or better yet, one of those neat laser distance measurers that contractors use, but I can’t afford. To measure a room this big you need more measuring power.
Paul’s prayer is that you and I would have the power needed to grasp the measure of God’s family, of God’s love. That’s why he prays in verse 16 that “according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” Only by the Holy Spirit, only by God’s own perception and understanding, can we come anywhere near comprehending God’s love for us and for the world.
You may remember from a couple weeks ago that most of the time Paul talks about our relationship with Jesus as being “in Christ.” Over eighty times Paul uses exactly that phrase “in Christ,” plus often talking about being “in him” or some other equivalent. But occasionally, about five times, Paul does speak as he does here in verse 17 praying that Christ will be in us, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
If we are going to know the Father’s love, then we must begin with the One who knows it best. Jesus has always been the Son of God. God has always been His Father. We are children of God when the true Child of God comes into us and lives in us. That’s why Paul wants Christ to be in us and us to be in Christ. Then we may begin to comprehend.
With Christ in us, rooted and grounded in love, we will have power, says verse 18, to comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth.” We will be able to take the measure of something much grander and more glorious than a package being mailed or a wastepaper basket we want to fit under the kitchen sink or even the dimensions of cathedral. We will grasp of “the love of Christ.”
I use my tape measure on some very fine things. Getting ready to hang a lovely picture of a flower painted for my wife by a dear friend, I apply my tape to the frame. I haul it out when I hook a big, beautiful fish and want to know its length. I run it up the wall to pencil lines marking the heights of our daughters. It’s good, even really good, to know those dimensions. Yet I could never, merely in terms of inches or feet, know all there was to know about the subjects of my measurement.
So Paul uses this wonderful phrase in verse 19, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” We are meant to know the love of God in Christ Jesus, to take its measure, to plumb its dimensions and explore its depths. We are meant to apply our minds to the divine love with all our reason and insight and cleverness and intuition and go as far as we can possibly go. Yet there is always further. The love of God is always deeper, always higher, always longer, always wider than you or I will ever know. Yet, here’s the beauty of it: you and I are invited to whip out all the measuring devices we can come up with and try to get a grasp on it. We are told to know the love of Christ, to seek understanding.
The common spiritual mistake is to give up at this point. We suppose that because God and His love surpass our knowledge that we should just quit trying. But Paul’s prayer is not about abandoning ourselves to spiritual ignorance. We’re not to just say, “It’s all a mystery. God is beyond my comprehension. I’ll stick with the tiny bit I know now.” No, the love of God is an endless discovery, an eternal exploration. As C. S. Lewis wrote at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia, we keep going “further up and further in.”
God’s love and being is like a marvelous, infinite intellectual playground in which we can frolic for eternity, using our minds to their utmost. We can keep learning, keep growing, keep finding out new dimensions. There’s no boredom in eternity because there will always be fresh new fields in which to wander. That’s what the love of Christ surpassing knowledge means. We can keep on knowing it in new ways forever.
Of course the love of Christ is not just intellectual, not just a matter of the mind. It surpasses knowing in that way as well. To really explore the dimensions of Jesus’ love takes all our emotion, all our desire, all our common sense, all our morality, all our daily living and work. The love of Jesus goes beyond knowledge as we put it into practice.
I measured how tall my daughters were with those pencil lines on the kitchen wall, but I also found out who they were by living with them, caring for them and knowing them in dozens of other ways. Paul is kneeling in prayer as he writes these words. He’s talking with and living with and worshipping God as he learns the dimensions of His love. He’s wants the same thing for the Ephesians, for us, to know and love God in practical, daily living, daily living with each other.
As I suggested in last week’s short sermon, knowing the love of Christ happens best when we seek to know it together. In verse 18 as Paul listed off those dimensions, “breadth and length and height and depth,” he prayed that we would comprehend them, “with all the saints…” We know and experience the love of Jesus as seek to know it together.
Learning the measure of Christ’s love, plumbing the extent of God’s fatherhood, is a guide for how we live in our own families, in our own church community. When we take the measure of God’s love first, we measure out a bigger, deeper, better love to each other.
Carpenters have a rule, “Measure twice. Cut once.” Take the trouble to be sure you’ve measured and marked the length of a 2x4 correctly before you apply the saw. It’s a basic guideline to save time and materials by avoiding mistakes. We could use a rule like that in our lives with each other. Before you “cut” into a spouse or a friend, or a brother or sister in the Lord, take the measure of Christ’s love. Remember how widely, how deeply you’ve been loved by Him. Remember that His love was big enough to forgive your sins, to care for you in spite of all your faults. Measure His love for you. Measure it twice, perhaps. And then maybe as you look at the other person you won’t want to cut as deeply, or as harshly, or maybe you won’t want to cut at all.
Living that kind of love—love which forgives like Christ forgave you, that tries to heal instead of cut, that goes to all kinds of lengths and depths for the sake of another person— that’s difficult. My wife teaches philosophy and I teach theology. Those are hard subjects. They take careful thinking and diligent study. But love is harder to learn than philosophy or theology or accounting or nuclear physics. It’s so hard that much of the time we find it beyond us. We measure not at all and make our cuts swift and deep.
Yet Paul was on his knees in prayer because he knew that you and I can know and experience and live the true love of Jesus Christ. He was absolutely confident that what we can’t know and do in our own strength, God can do in and through us. He prayed for Christ to be in us, for the power of His Spirit to be in us. That’s how we learn and know His love.
The last two verses are a doxology, an offering of praise to God, that expresses Paul’s absolute confidence in the measure of the love of Christ. Verse 20 says, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…” The dimensions of God’s love will keep surprising us. We read in the Old Testament and in the Gospel of John today how it surprised hungry people by giving them more than enough to eat. The baskets of bread were deeper than anyone imagined. So is the love of God. Jesus Christ has more than enough for anyone who is hungry for love.
This past month we measured God’s love and gave space in our parking lot for a motor home belonging to a man, woman and baby who had nowhere else to live. They left Thursday afternoon after stopping by my office to say a warm thank you for our hospitality and love to them. They were on their way to a three-bedroom home that God has now enabled them to rent. In the love of Christ, there is enough, even in hard times.
Einstein taught us that the spatial dimensions of width and length and height and depth are not all the dimensions which form our universe. We also measure our world by time, often thinking we have too little of it. But as Paul glorifies God in praise we hear in verse 21 the extent of Christ’s love even in what we call the fourth dimension, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”
As we take the measure of Christ’s love, beginning with our minds and continuing with our hearts and lives, we find it going on and on. We keep finding new depths, new heights. We meet new, different, unfamiliar people and find His love wider than we thought it was. And on and on and on. The measure of His love extends to everyone and it extends forever, more than we can ask or imagine. But let’s remember to keep asking, keep imagining, and keep measuring His immeasurable love as we go further up and further in.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj