Grace Presbyterian Church
July 25, 2021, Pentecost 9B
Rooted in Love
“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’
(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)
This portion of a discourse from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov captures one of the central contradictions of the human condition, particularly under God’s command of love. The sentiment is also captured in much more pithy fashion in words spoken by the character Linus in the ever-popular comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. Responding to Lucy’s taunt that he could never be a doctor because he doesn’t “love mankind,” Linus answers with a classic line, one so classic that social media mistakenly attributes it to the likes of Albert Einstein or Marilyn Monroe: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!”
While one never wants to dismiss any portion of any particular scripture passage, the core of this reading is found in verses 17-19. While verses 14-16 offer up the beginning of a benediction, and verses 20-21 rightly give honor to God, these central verses point to the root of the message found in this first half of Ephesians. One could also argue that the practical instruction that makes up the remainder of the book also has its roots in the encouragement of love found here (or at least most of the remainder of the book; we’ll get to the possible exception in a few weeks).
Ephesians can be divided into two parts: the first half consists of theological exposition, and the second of more practical instruction. It’s not an accident that the Revised Common Lectionary leans toward that second half of the book, devoting four Sundays to it compared to the three given to the first half, including the book’s introduction two weeks ago and this summarizing blessing we heard a few moments ago.
Even those portions of the first half that seem to address other issues are written more with theological aims in mind than anything else. For example, the first thirteen verses of the chapter purport to describe Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles. (Mandatory reminder here that most likely the book was written by a student or coworker of Paul’s who was seeking to consolidate his teaching and preserve his reputation after his death.) These verses, however, contain little of actual detailed description of what Paul did among churches in Ephesus or Galatia or Thessalonica or any of those places Paul visited on all those missionary journeys that showed up in the map section in the back of Bibles years ago. What is described, however, is the mystery Paul proclaimed; the opening up of the good news to the Gentiles; Paul’s role as servant of God in proclaiming this mystery; and the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Paul’s work. It is, in effect, the conclusion of the theological discourse, which is formally wrapped up in and by the blessing prayer of today’s reading.
Our author here indulgences in language that is almost paradoxical, to make a point, in verses 18 and 19. To help illustrate this, hear a different reading of those verses:
I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.
That reading, from the modern scholarly translation known as the Common English Bible, hopefully clears the thicket of words just a bit so that we can get the full impact of what’s being prayed here. I want you to know just how great, how large, how expansive love is. I want you to know love that you can’t comprehend. I want you to be filled – completely, entirely full – just with all that God is. That next verse is almost mild by comparison (again from the CEB): “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us…”
Sometimes, as a preacher, the best thing to do is to find a way to let the scripture itself do the heavy lifting, so hear those three verses again, back in our usual NRSV this time:
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, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
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…
It is eloquent and beautiful language, to be sure, with images that overwhelm and leave us in wondering awe, if we really hear it and take it to heart.
I wonder how often we do that.
Do we, really, take in just what it would mean to understand love in all its height and depth and length and width?
Are we capable of being open to so much that we cannot comprehend?
Are we willing to be open to so much that we cannot comprehend or measure?
Can we even begin to grasp what it would mean to know God’s love so fully, so completely as this? Can we begin to grasp what this would change for us or about us or in us?
Or, perhaps, does such a thought make us uncomfortable?
Does such a love, such unmeasurable and incomprehensible love actually leave us with something like fear? Fear of what it might ask of us? Fear of how it might change us?
In verse 17 the author prays that the readers might be “rooted and grounded in love,” and then goes on to describe the kind of love in which they might be rooted and grounded. You have to wonder how this treatise’s original readers must have reacted to this, living as they most likely were in a time when the still-nascent church was beginning to face a different world than before, one that increasingly viewed the followers of this Jesus as something of a threat, as people who didn’t play along with the mores and folkways of getting by in the Roman Empire.
Peter Marty, editor of The Christian Century, writes in the most recent issue that “for life to be good and beautiful and true, we have to find a way to make God central to our lives, not peripheral…God has zero interest in being relegated to the outer edges of our lives.” I wonder if part of this overwhelming experience of the knowing God’s unknowable love is tied to this, to our lives being centered solely and completely on God, with nothing else competing for our loyalty or allegiance or love. Perhaps it is only then that the incomprehensible love of God can begin to be our root and ground, and to be all that in which we “live and move and have our being.”
For love we cannot comprehend, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #188, Jesus Loves Me!, #833, O Love that Will Not Let Me Go
 Peter Marty, “At the center,” The Christian Century, July 28, 2021, 3.