Sunday, August 16, 2015

Phil Kniss: The Spirit is blowing, but don't hold your breath

In God’s household, we are filled with the Spirit
Ephesians 5:15-20

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[coming soon]

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If there is one thing held in common by every Christian,
    in every tradition, in every part of the world,
    it would be the desire to be filled with the Spirit.
In fact, it must be true that every believer in God,
    whether Christian believers, or God-worshipers of other faiths,
    surely everyone who believes God exists and is worthy of worship,
        desires to be Spirit-filled.

You might doubt that statement,
    because you don’t use language like “Spirit-filled.”
    Fair enough, but there are many ways to express this reality.
        People of faith have different terminologies,
            and different theologies about “Spirit.”

    But if we say that God is characterized
        by love, and holiness, and justice,
            and all that is good in the universe—
            and virtually all God-believers do say that—
        then the Spirit of God is that life of God,
            breath of God,
            essential character of God.
    And surely that must be something we all, everyone of us,
        would want to have in us,
        would want to have expressed in our lives.

Who wouldn’t want God’s goodness, love, and justice,
    and God’s very breath of life filling our beings,
    and giving us the capacity to live in tune with God?

But even if it’s not true of every person of faith,
    clearly every person in this room has that desire.
    At least you already said you do, this morning, and I believe you.

Here’s just some of what you said this morning, and I’m quoting you:
    “Breathe the Holy Spirit into every heart.”
    “Breathe on me, Breath of God,” (you repeated that five times)
    “Fill me with life anew,” you said.

And unless you change your mind after hearing my sermon,
    you will also say, a few minutes from now,
    “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
        Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.”
    That is what we really want, isn’t it?

Well, before we sing that song,
    and before we start jumping up and down,
    and saying, “Bring it on! Come, Holy Spirit, fill us!”
    we should remind ourselves of what tends to happen
        when God’s people have God’s Spirit fall on them.

The Old Testament prophets—Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Micah, Amos—
    were all filled with the Spirit, scripture says.
        It’s what made them capable of being prophets.
        And it’s what got them in all kinds of trouble.
    While they were under the influence (of the Spirit, that is),
        they pointed out sin, condemned injustice,
        proclaimed doom and death to kings and queens.
    And were driven out of town, barely escaping with their lives
        (those that were lucky).
        They lived on the meager rations of poor widows.
        They were brought food by big black birds.

Then there was kind old Zechariah and Elizabeth—
    they were filled with the Spirit,
    as was their son John the Baptist.
    What they got in return was a life of hardship for John,
        and heartache for his parents.
    John’s preaching, under the influence of God’s Spirit,
        got him thrown into prison, and eventually beheaded.

Oh, but then there was Jesus,
    and what an amazingly good and beautiful life he lived!
    Who wouldn’t want that?
Except . . . in the Gospel stories, whenever the Spirit came along,
    trouble came with it.
Take Luke 4, for example,
    “Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
        and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” . . .
        and into forty days of hunger, thirst,
            and repeated attacks by Satan in the desert.
And after that, again, according to Luke,
    Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit,”
        and returned to Galilee to teach in their synagogues.
    And the opposition swooped in.
        His own home town tried to throw him off a cliff.
    He escaped, but it only got worse,
        all the way to dark Gethsemane,
            and to mock justice in the Roman court,
            and to a public execution.

In the early church, says Acts,
    the first believers were filled with the Spirit.
    And after some good fellowship, mutual sharing and care,
        a terrible period of persecution and terrorism
        was unleashed on members of this radical community.

Once Peter, while making his defense before the authorities,
    was filled with the Spirit, and was promptly thrown into prison.

And Stephen, one of the first deacons in the early church,
    was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6).
    He began to preach under the inspiration of the Spirit,
        and was stoned to death.

Getting the picture yet?
    One more for good measure.
    The apostle Paul, after being prayed for by Ananias,
        was filled with the Holy Spirit, says Acts 9.
    Over the next years, his spirit-filled preaching and evangelism
        had him imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned,
        shipwrecked, and, in his own words from 2 Corinthians,
        “in danger from rivers, danger from bandits,
            danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles,
            danger in the city, danger in the wilderness,
            danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;
            in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night,
            hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”

Maybe now would be a good time for the altar call.
    All who want to be filled with the Spirit . . .
        come forward while we sing,
        “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way . . .”

So, we really want to be filled with the Holy Spirit! . . .
    It sounded good . . . at first.
    Maybe we should take some more time to think about it.
        It’s not the safe option, being filled with the Spirit.
        It’s not for the faint of heart.

    Now . . . the way I framed this message so far is a little disconcerting, but only because we’ve been spiritual socialized
        to think of faith as an internal matter
        that brings us comfort and joy and peace and security.
    There are plenty of other Jesus-followers in our world today,
        who understand the central role of the Holy Spirit,
        and who also understand that living by the Spirit
            can have dire implications.

Only we who have the luxury
    of being able to keep faith private and personal
        are thrown off balance in the least,
        by this litany of hardship and persecution.
    Anyone in the early church,
        our Anabaptist forebears in the 16th century,
        radical Christians of all times and places,
        and Christians living as persecuted minorities today . . .
        all of them, when they hear such a litany,
            are likely to say, “Well, yes. What do you expect?”

Being filled with the Spirit is risky business,
    because the Spirit of God moves and blows where it will.
    If we open our lungs to the breath of God,
        there’s no predicting the result.

You want to breathe in and be filled with the Spirit,
    as we prayed and sang a couple months ago on Pentecost Sunday?
    Then watch out. You’re putting your life on the line.
    Which, when you think about it,
        is really the whole point of being filled with the Spirit.
        It’s laying down our self-centered life,
            in favor of living a life under the control of the Holy Spirit.

Now, wishing for the Holy Spirit to fill us
    is dicey not only because of what might happen
        when we starting really living by the Spirit,
    but also because of what we might have to
        get rid of, let go of,
        to make room for the Spirit.

See, there’s stuff already in there, taking up space.
    Our lives are filled with all sorts of things that distract from life.
    They masquerade as adding to life,
        but actually, they diminish life.
    That’s nothing new for us, of course.
That’s what the apostle saw happening
    in the church of Asia Minor,
    which is why he wrote the letter to the Ephesians.

The church was distracted from a full life in God,
    because they allowed themselves to be filled with other things.
    You can’t be filled with two things at once.
    If a cup is filled with water,
        and you pour in something heavy like syrup,
        water will overflow.
        It will be displaced.

That’s why the apostle told the Ephesians in ch. 5, vv. 15-18.
    “Be careful then how you live,
        not as unwise people but as wise,
        making the most of the time, because the days are evil.
    Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery;
        but be filled with the Spirit.”

There’s plenty to distract from the life God intends for you, Paul said.
    So be careful. wise. discerning.
        Understand what the will of God is, and live in it.
    Surround yourself with that which is worthwhile.
        Make the most of the time, because the days are evil.
    Be filled with the Spirit,
        because it will displace the evil
        that otherwise might overtake you.

Another way to say it,
    don’t be overcome by fear because of the evil around you.
    Displace the evil with the Holy Spirit.
Open yourself, breathe in . . .
    invite the Spirit to fill every space,
    and then breathe out,
        releasing what diminishes life,
        releasing what there isn’t room for,
        releasing what the Spirit displaces.

    Let the Spirit blow, let it fill your lungs to capacity,
        but don’t hold your breath.
        Release anything that prevents the fullness of life
            that God intends for you.

Yes, God wants to bless us with all spiritual blessings.
    God wishes to pour out on us abundant life and love.
    But something has to go.
For every action, there is a reaction.
    Whenever we inhale holy breath,
        we must eventually, and soon, exhale.

This teaching from Ephesians is not a burden.
    It lifts the burden.
    It’s a refreshing way to live
        in a sin-filled, broken, and violent world.
    Yes, the days are evil, says in v. 16.  Everywhere.
    Nations are in crisis, awash in all kinds of evil—
        ethnic and religious cleansing, abuse of power,
            poverty, famine, disease,
            war, terrorism, economic collapse.
    Personal evil also pervades.
        Individuals rebel against all that is good,
            and wreak destruction and havok in other people’s lives,
            or their own lives.

Some people live in a near-constant state of panic
    over all this overwhelming evil.
    Afraid their lives will crumble under the weight.
Some people deal with the pain and evil that life brings
    by trying to hide from it, conceal it, numb themselves to it.

I think that’s what the apostle is getting at in v. 18.
    “Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.”
    This is not an anti-alcohol verse, per se,
        as some of us were taught.
    It’s an anti-distraction verse,
        an anti-numbing-oneself-to-life verse.
We will not find freedom from pain and evil
    by running from it,
    by escaping into a drunken semiconsciousness,
        whether that comes from alcohol, food, sex,
            pain killers, social media, money, internet porn,
            or whatever we use and abuse that make us semiconscious.

No, the way we find freedom, and keep from being overtaken by evil,
    is to displace it.
    Crowd it out.
    Be filled with what is life-giving, and life-forming.
Vv. 19-20:
    “Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves,
        singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,
        giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything
        in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That’s the way to live in an evil world.
    We don’t either wallow in evil ways of this world,
        nor do we combat evil by fear-mongering,
            fighting evil with evil,
            or numbing ourselves into semiconsciousness or oblivion.
    No, the way to deal with the evil world,
        is to get together and sing!  Sing!
    At least, that’s what Paul says here,
        “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns . . .”
        You sing out the evil, when you sing in the Spirit.

    Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs
        is communal spiritual engagement against evil,
            and the evil one.
        We can, literally, sing away the devil.
    The Ephesians text we looked at last Sunday said
        don’t let the sun go down on your anger,
            because “it makes room for the devil.”

    The devil can’t live where there’s no room, so to speak.
    The gathering together of Christians
        to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs
            displaces the devil . . .
        because according to Paul,
            singing the music of the Spirit,
            giving thanks to God the Father,
            in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
        is how we make room for the Spirit.

I’ll tell you what.
    The next time we turn on the news and get depressed
        by the mess this world is in . . .
            by violence in the Middle East,
            by abuse of power in Washington,
            by conflict in the church,
            by the persistence of racism,
            by the trauma of sexual violence,
            by global environmental destruction,
        the next time any personal or systemic sin and evil
            starts overwhelming us,
        here’s a suggestion straight from scripture:
            Call or text some friends from church,
                invite them over,
                tell them to bring their hymnals.

    Literally. Have a small community hymn sing.
    As we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
        and as we open our whole beings to the presence of God,
        the Holy Spirit will be present in our singing,
        and the spirit of death and destruction and evil
            that would like to overtake and overwhelm us,
        will be displaced.
        It will be crowded out.

No, it won’t mean all our problems will disappear.
    It won’t mean there will be no more work to do.
    But it will surely give more room to Holy Spirit among us,
        and may well crowd out the spirit of fear,
            or mistrust, or resentment, or anger.
    And it will put us in a more suitable frame of mind
        to do the work we must do, to be a faithful church.
    It will equip us for God’s work.

Singing the songs of scripture,
    and songs of our faith
    reorients us to the truth of the gospel.
So let’s not delay another moment.
    Let us sing the Spirit into us right now.
        Into our personal beings.
        Into our collective being as a church.

Many of you know this song without looking at it,
    “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.
        Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
        Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.”
If you need it, turn to #349 in Hymnal: A Worship Book.
    I invite us to sing it slowly and prayerfully,
        perhaps, if you wish, with upturned hands and closed eyes.
    We will sing it through once, as written, for ourselves . . .
        then a second time, for us all as a body.
        Changing “me” to “us.”
    “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us.
        Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us.”

—Phil Kniss, August 16, 2015

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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Phil Kniss: Be angry, but do not sin

In God’s household, we are called to integrity
(Reflections on MCUSA Assembly in Kansas City)
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

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Now that you’ve heard today’s Ephesians text,
    it feels like yet again,
    I need to explain that I didn’t cherry-pick this text.
        This is today’s lectionary epistle reading.
            Churches all over the world are using it today.
        And we didn’t choose this Sunday to focus on Kansas City,
            because of this text.
        Today just happened to be
            the first Sunday all four delegates could be present.
    But yes, I know, it looks like it was a plot.

This text speaks to how, as parts of the body of Christ,
    we relate to each other with integrity, kindness,
        compassion, and forgiveness,
    because, according to Paul, we are members of each other.

If you were at Kansas City,
    or have been paying attention to the ripples since then,
        on social media, or the Mennonite press . . .
        you probably know that not everyone
            who engages the tension in the church today,
        does so in the spirit Paul is teaching about here.

Again, I will not be able to do justice to a study of this rich text.
    Because we had a variety of speakers today,
        I will just share a few thoughts from the text,
            and commend it for further study and reflection.
        After we finish today, take this text with you,
            read it again, ponder it, talk to others in the church about it.
        That’s my challenge and invitation to you all.

But in a nutshell, here’s what I want to say now . . .
    Paul makes an important assumption about the church,
        an assumption that I’m afraid we are at risk of losing,
            if we don’t take care.
    Paul assumes that we all belong to each other,
        as members of the same body.
        And that belonging together
            means we share responsibility for each other’s well-being,
                for each other’s flourishing.

    When Paul says “we are members of each other,”
        he does not mean what we mean
            when we talk about traditional “church membership.”
        He does not mean a membership patterned after
            other civic clubs and organizations,
            that if you meet the minimum requirements,
                and sign on the dotted line,
            you can be a member,
                with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.
        Not saying that kind of membership is useless.
        Not saying there isn’t a time and place for it.
        But it’s not what Paul envisions.

    All the apostles were of a mind
        that when we were baptized into Christ,
            we were baptized together into Christ’s body, the church.
        And that baptism signifies
            that we share the same Spirit breath with other members.
            We share the same life-blood, same arteries,
                the same spiritual circulatory system.
        We are attached to each other,
            in the same way hands are attached to arms,
                and arms to shoulders.
        As different as we are,
            we who confess Jesus Christ, and are baptized into his body,
                are comprised of the same stuff,
                and we must reverence all the various parts of the body,
                    for Christ’ sake.

This is why, according to Ephesians 4,
    that we must act and speak with integrity.
    It’s why we must speak the truth;
        must deal with each other honestly and generously;
        must not speak evil, but only that which builds up;
        must reject all attitudes of bitterness and wrath and anger
            and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.
    It’s why we must make every effort to be kind to one another,
        tenderhearted, forgiving one another,
        as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Not because there are a list of rules
    against lying and cheating and violence,
    that we signed on to when we joined the organization.
No, we reject bitterness and malice and dishonesty and manipulation,
    because we are members of each other.
    We are attached to each other,
        and we don’t treat parts of our own body that way.
And we embrace honesty and kindness and tenderheartedness
    for the same reasons.
    We are attached to each other.

Any action directed toward another—
    whether life-giving or death-dealing—
    is an action directed toward a part of my own body.
Acting in ways that separate me from a sister or brother,
    is an act of violence against my own body,
    it is an act of self-injury.
Conversely, an act of love, is an act of self-care.

But this brings up an interesting tension in the text itself,
    which you may have noticed.
    V. 26 says, “Be angry but do not sin.”
    But v. 31 says, “Put away from you all . . . wrath and anger.”

So which is it?
    Do we obey Paul’s command to “put away anger”?
    Or do we obey Paul’s command to “Be angry, but do not sin.”

Actually, these do not contradict each other,
    if we accept Paul’s main premise, main concern,
        of respecting the body
        and valuing our mutual belonging in the body.
    No, Paul speaks of different kinds of anger.

    There is a persistent and unresolved anger,
        that together with malice and bitterness,
        drive a wedge that separates us from other parts of our body.
        That is a grievous sin that Paul urges us
            to put away from us, now and forever.

    But there is also, clearly, a sinless anger.
        It is an anger that respects the body.
        It is an anger that moves us to act,
            but not to acts of violence against our own body.
    This kind of anger, a truly righteous anger,
        is a realization that something isn’t right,
        and a willingness to do something about what isn’t right,
        and to do so with a passion,
            and with a full and appreciative awareness
            of the well-being of the whole body.

    When we speak out of sinless anger,
        we do so in ways that do not tear down, or tear apart,
            but, according to v. 29,
        in ways that build up,
            “so that [our] words may give grace to those who hear.”

    There is plenty of anger throughout the church today.
        Not just in Mennonite Church USA,
            but in many other church bodies.
    I don’t lament that there is anger.
        Anger is ordinary.
            It rises from particular experiences and perspectives.
    My lament is,
        that many of the expressions of anger we hear these days,
            are not motivated by the desire to build up,
                and give grace to the hearer.
        Thus, they add to our sins.

    The question for us all is,
        how can we be honest and truthful about our anger,
        but express it in ways that do not deepen the injury,
            but give grace to those who hear?
    That is what it means to be angry, and not sin.

My heart-felt appeal is simply to act like the true body that we are.
    I don’t expect a suddenly sinless body,
        any more than I expect my physical body
            to suddenly attain perfect health and fitness.
    We will continue to sin against the body of Christ,
        against other members of the body of Christ.
        I know that I have. I confess it.
    That’s where the word of grace is essential.
    We have caused each other pain in the body.
        We will likely do so again.
        Let us extend grace to each other
            as we express what we are passionate about
            in sometimes less-than-perfect, or even sinful, ways.
        But then let us also turn, that is, repent,
            and turn toward each other in the body,
            and speak as Paul urges us—in ways that build up,
                and give grace to the hearer.

I have utmost confidence and hope in the future of Christ’s body.
    Because, quite simply, it is Christ’s body, not mine.
I believe that our struggles and conflict are but for a season.
    I believe that we all have at heart,
        the faithfulness of the church of Jesus Christ,
        and that we all have love for each other.
    We are tempted, always,
        to treat the body of Christ
            as if it were a partisan political body.
        And as the presidential election cycle ramps up,
            and the debates and talking heads get louder,
            we will be tempted to talk to each other like they do.

    Let us not.
    Let us, in protest, in righteous anger,
        refuse to join in that kind of rhetoric.
    When speaking in the church,
        let us always, before every speech act—
            whether face-to-face speech with a sister or brother,
            or self-published speech on Facebook,
            or letters to editors,
            or any other form—
        let us always assess before we speak . . .
            am I speaking to build up and not tear down,
            do my words give grace to those who hear, or read?
    And when we fail at that, because we will,
        let the rest of us extend grace to those who didn’t.

And the God of love and peace will be with us,
    and will see us through.

Because, as the ancient hymn text says,
    Where God is, there is love.
    And where love is, there is God.

Turn in the blue Hymnal Worship Book to #452.
    “Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.”

This hymn text is believed to date back all the way to the early church.
    “Where there is charity, and love, there is God.”

We will sing it together a couple times,
    then as I lead in a prayer,
    we will respond by singing it a few more times during the prayer.

Let us sing, then pray.

    “Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.”

Lord of the church,
    we thank you for bringing your church into being,
        and breathing life into it through your Spirit.
    We confess our sins against your body,
        we confess the ways we have injured members of your body,
    And we thank you for your abundant grace and forgiveness,
        your persistent life and breath.
    And we thank you for being with us, in charity and love.
        Ubi caritas, et amor.

    “Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.”

So we ask for strength and courage
    to put away all falsehood,
        speak truth to each other, as members of one another.
    We ask for the wisdom to know how to be angry, and not sin,
        to not make room for the devil.
    We ask for ourselves a spirit of honesty and generosity.
        That no evil talk come out of our mouths,
            but only what is useful for building up,
            so that our words may give grace to those who hear.
    We ask for the will to put away from us
        all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,
            together with all malice,
        and to be kind to one another, tenderhearted,
            forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.
    Thank you for being with us, in charity and love.
        Ubi caritas, et amor.

    “Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.”

—Phil Kniss, August 9, 2015

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Phil Kniss: Of many, one

In God’s household...we are called to unity
(Reflections on Mennonite World Conference assembly 2015)
Ephesians 4:1-16

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This text, from today’s lectionary, couldn’t be better suited
    for focusing on our experience
    of gathering as a global Anabaptist family.

It’s also a text that deserves a full-length sermon,
    and maybe even a sermon series.
    Instead, I’m going to make a couple brief comments,
        and we will move on.
    We can further the conversation in other times and places.

The call for unity has met with some resistance lately.
    Many people, myself included,
        are praying and working vigorously, for unity in the church.
    Others are pushing back.
        They don’t say unity isn’t a good thing.
        But they raise a caution, saying unity has limits.
        They point to higher goods,
            like honoring and worshiping God, by doing God’s will.
    And I agree with them.

I think some of what’s happening here, not surprisingly,
    is that we talk past each other.
    We use the word “unity” in different ways.

Certainly, we all affirm the goodness of unity in Christ.
    It’s something we all value.
    We can’t help but value it,
        given how strongly Jesus felt about it,
        how passionately he prayed for it to his father.

But sometimes we talk about Christian unity
    as deep, relational, spiritual unity.
Other times we’re basically talking about
    organizational and structural unity.
They can be related, but they aren’t the same thing.

The 7-8,000 Anabaptist-Mennonites gathered in Harrisburg,
    were a perfect example of Christian unity
        that was strong on relationship, spiritual life, and worship,
        and soft on organization and structures.
    The many member bodies of Mennonite World Conference,
        from the U.S. to Honduras to Ethiopia to Germany to Java,
        did not find it hard to worship God together,
            centered on Jesus Christ,
            unified by the Holy Spirit.
    There was a palpable, compelling sense
        that we were one body in Christ.

But we would have run into trouble, no doubt,
    if we tried to enter together
    into a relationship of mutual accountability,
        around a shared set of practices,
        and a shared set of detailed theological affirmations.

    Yet . . . we could take communion together. And we did.
        All 7,000 of us, eating and drinking together in one place,
            from one common table of the Lord.
        That, for me, was one of the more moving moments of MWC.
    We were living into Ephesians 4.
    We were acknowledging our
        one body and one Spirit, the one hope of our calling,
        one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,
            who was above all and through all and in . . . all of us.

I think one of the joyful challenges we have
    as a church in the world today,
    is to more clearly define the basis of our identity and mission,
        the basis of our unity and mutual accountability as a body.

This is especially challenging for MCUSA—
    because we are a body with a large and complicated set
    of organizational and relational and accountability structures
        that we need to navigate—
    in a group that’s all over the map, literally and figuratively,
        in vastly different ethnic, cultural, social, political,
            and theological contexts.

It’s at least a little easier to work at it
    at the level of Mennonite World Conference,
    because there we are a body
        that emphasizes fellowship in Christ through the Spirit,
        that joins together in worship,
        that shares in some work and mission together,
        but does not emphasize boundary marking,
            or parsing out a lot of specifics in theology and practice.

How much does spiritual and relational unity
    depend on organizational and structural unity?

Can we at Park View be sisters and brothers,
    in a truly meaningful way,
    with the church in Zimbabwe or Cambodia or the Netherlands?
    Can they be sisters and brothers with each other? Truly?
    We hardly know each other,
        and the cultural, economic, and language barriers are huge.

But at least at some meaningful level,
    we can still enter into this gift of unity
    that we find in Christ, through the Spirit.

Unity is a biblical priority.
    It is the heartfelt prayer of Jesus.
    It is the passion of the apostle Paul in Ephesians.
    We simply must find a way
        to not only call each other brother and sister,
        but to live as members of the same family.

How are we supposed to accomplish this?
Ephesians 4:2, 3, says,
    “with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
        bearing with one another in love,
        making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit
        in the bond of peace.”

Did you hear that—“bearing with one another in love.”
    Or as the King James puts it,
        “forbearing one another in love.”
    Forbearance is not a recent fad that MCUSA conjured up.
    It is our biblical mandate,
        bear with one another in love.
    Be patient, in all humility and gentleness,
        making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit
        in the bond of peace . . .
            until all of us come to the unity of the faith
            and of the knowledge of the Son of God,
            to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

May that day come.
And may we open our heart to what God may be asking of us,
    in order to find that unity.

—Phil Kniss, August 2, 2015

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Gordon Zook: All the fullness of God

In God's household, we are rooted in love
Ephesians 3:14-21

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They must have been Third and First Graders when they wanted to see the eclipse of the moon. Betsey and Matthew, our oldest daughter and son, were talking at the supper table about the lunar event they had learned in school would be happening that night. Bonnie and I agreed to set the alarm about midnight so we could all see the special sight.

It didn’t seem like nearly as good an idea when the alarm went off. Betsey immediately began complaining and begged us to let her sleep. But we reminded her of her supper time request, and she finally got up. Matt was more cooperative, and we all went outside to view the sky. We were duly impressed as we looked at the full moon, partially obscured by the earth’s shadow, like a big bite had been taken out of the lunar sphere. Then we went back to bed.

Next morning, Matt remembered our table agreement and wondered why we hadn’t gotten him up. Betsey remembered in vivid detail and told him so. In spite of his blank memory on that occasion, Matt retained a continuing interest in the skies. As a teenager there were a number of nights when he climbed to our roof so he could get a better view. He took an astronomy course in college, and even became a student lecturer in the Earlham College planetarium.

People have been watching the moon and stars and planets and eclipses for generations. A few minutes ago, we read in Genesis how Abraham was looking at the stars some 3,500 years ago. He was learning to know Yahweh; had even set out on a nomadic quest to a new land, at the beck and call of this new divine awareness, buoyed with God’s promise that “I will make you into a great nation.” (Gen 12:2)

Three chapters later, however, (Gen 15) the promise seemed hollow. Abram was approaching his 100th birthday and his wife, although a decade younger (17:17), was well past the age of child-bearing. “What can you give me,” he asked God reproachfully, “since I remain childless and my chief servant is in line to become my heir?” (15:2-3)

That’s when Yahweh took him outside to look up at the night sky and count the stars—“if indeed you can count them.” And Yahweh assured him that his descendants would be as uncountable as the stars (15:5).

How many stars did Abraham see? Astronomers tell us that on a clear night we can see about 2,000 stars in our northern hemisphere, and if we were to travel to the southern hemisphere, we could see another 2,000 there. With telescopes the number is multiplied. Indeed, World Book Encyclopedia speaks of 200 billion-billion stars (i.e. “2” followed by 20 zeroes). In Carl Sagan’s TV documentaries about the universe several decades ago, I can still hear his voice rumbling about: “billions and billions of stars.”

Currently, astronomers are debating whether Pluto is a ninth solar planet or not. And we have been mesmerized by the recent Pluto flyby after launching of the New Horizons space craft some nine and a half years ago. We are told that New Horizons has now traveled some 3 billion miles from earth to its rendezvous with Pluto, and that it takes four and a half hours for the space craft to transmit pictures back to earth, even though signals are traveling at the speed of light.


While those numbers stagger our imagination, are they any less believable than a childless couple in their 80s or 90s, contemplating maybe 2,000 stars and a corresponding number of descendants? Our minds go spinning as Star Trek and many other science fiction fantasies imagine people (and other strange creatures) traveling between constellations and galaxies to worlds not yet discovered.

So where is God in all this? For some, God is irrelevant. If God exists at all, he would need to be much older than Abraham. Which suggests that God is probably too old to understand computers or internets or a space craft mission to Pluto. At best, many believe, God’s understandings are limited to the near stars in our galaxy.

Others see each new discovery as further attestation of an infinite God who is in it all. Abraham apparently was one of these. In spite of his advancing age and diminishing prospects of offspring, Abraham heard Yahweh’s promise. Incredible as it was, Gen 15:6 says: “Abram believed Yahweh, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

I put Paul on the same list when he speaks in today’s Ephesians passage about the love of Christ “that surpasses knowledge,” which is far beyond our abilities to see, or our puny minds’ ability to fathom. Yet Paul prays (and our whole passage from Ephesians 3, is a prayer) that we “may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” How much is that?

One measure can be found in the created universe. Many times people have said (maybe we’ve said it ourselves), we feel closer to God in wilderness areas:

  • where one can see an unending variety of creatures and trees and vegetation all the way to the mountain peaks.
  • when we can see stars and planets unblocked by manmade buildings or dimmed by city lights.

I, too, marvel at outdoor wonders, with their amazing variety of heavenly bodies, and trees, and garden vegetables, and insects, and (the list has no end). But I also marvel when I visit a hospital and see the microscopes, and CT scanners, and heart monitors, and hypodermic needles.

How did our universe come to be, with its outer expanses on one hand and its minutiae of tiny interacting molecules on the other? Some say it just happened. Others say that “just happening” is no more believable than supposing a variety of matter shaken together long enough could emerge as a fine watch.

When scientists study the world, they see order, and predictability, and relationships, and sequences, and causes, and effects. When I review the Genesis accounts, I see order, and predictability, and relationships, and sequences, and causes, and effects. From either starting point, there are dimensions beyond the grasp of my mind, even if I held degrees in biochemistry and astrophysics.

Paul prayed in Eph 3:16-17 that God

may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

Faith comes from Spirit power in our inner beings, so that we sense Christ in our hearts. Thus equipped, like Abraham, we are able to “believe God” and walk with him into the future. Tho we can’t count the stars, let alone explain outer space or inner space, we proceed with a profound confidence that God is in control, and we can trust his promises.


Paul’s second prayer, beginning in v. 17, is that we,

being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:17b-19a)

Here Paul depicts the love of Christ in four dimensions. Usually, three dimensions are enough to be comprehensive. That’s how the postal service measures a package for mailing. If we add a fourth dimension, we are more likely to think of time as a multiplier for width and length and height.

Interestingly, the fourth dimension specified here is depth. Perhaps it is only poetic, echoing and reinforcing height which is its opposite. Perhaps it is for emphasis, like claiming to support someone or something 1,000%. Maybe it is like counting the stars, which is beyond our comprehension, even with atomic telescopes.

Yet Paul believes this four dimensional love is knowable, because he prays precisely that we may “know this love that surpasses knowledge” so that we “may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19b, NIV). After counting the stars, try absorbing the deep, deep love of Christ!

Personally, I believe Paul’s fourth dimension has something to do with inner space, regarding which he prayed in 3:16 that God would strengthen us “with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being, so that Christ may [fill your hearts] through faith” (3:16b-17a). Talk about a big order: The goal is “to be filled with all the fullness of God.”(NRSV)

What is the fullness of God? Try as I may, I can’t wrap that concept around my little brain, any more than Abraham could count all the stars. Yet, for Abraham, the fourth dimension broke through! His inner being was so overwhelmed by his encounter with Yahweh, that “he believed God.” Scripture says, his believing was reckoned to Abram as right relation with God. Presumably he was “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (NIV)

This is the Almighty God, who said “Let there be Light,” and by that word created heavens and earth, a universe more vast than humans can explore, or even imagine.

According to John 1, it was that very creative word which spoke the world into being from “the beginning,” then became a human being and lived among us, of whom John proclaimed: “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). Then two verses later: “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” or “one blessing after another.”

As we study the NT, we understand that John’s “word which became flesh” is the Christ who died on the cross as a criminal, later to resume his position at the right hand of God. In the first chapter of Eph., Paul said of the exalted Christ:

God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:22-23)

Amazingly, the Church, those who follow Christ, become the earthly manifestation of the fullness of Christ. Listen again to Eph 3:18, where Paul prayed for his original readers and for us:

that you … may have power … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:18-19)


The first half of Ephesians (chaps. 1, 2, 3) represents a carefully crafted essay on the blessings that come to those who are “in Christ Jesus,” as Paul characterizes the relationship. The second half (chaps. 4, 5, 6) focuses more on how those so blessed should respond. The first half, which we have been studying these past three Sundays, is a worshipful exposition of what God has done through Christ. The second half is a logical exhortation to live accordingly. That portion is to be highlighted the next four Sundays. [Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary, p. 20.]

This two-part structure helps explain the unexpected doxology, or ascription of praise, which appears here in the middle of the letter, at the end of Eph 3. Most often Paul speaks a short benediction at the end of a letter or, as in Romans, he places a longer doxology such as this one at the end. But here, it seems, he can’t wait. Already he has been counting our blessings:

  • God’s plan to bring all things together under Christ, ch 1
  • God’s grace exhibited in Christ, chap 2
  • Christ’s peacemaking between Jews and non-Jews, ch 2-3
  • and the four-dimensional love of Christ, chap 3

Now Paul stirs our sense of wonder to believe that there is no end to all that God can do, and will do, for us:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Eph 3:20-21)

Which then allows him to launch the second part of his letter in Chap 4, with “Therefore … “

Immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine…” Just how big is our God? How full is the fullness of God? In the OT we see God as big enough to create the universe. Then when the creation went sour, God implemented the plan to call a particular people as channel for reclaiming and blessing all peoples. The NT delivers good news that the blessing has arrived in the person of Jesus, the word become flesh, and representative of the family of Abraham.

It wasn’t what the Jewish people asked for or imagined. According to the NT, Jesus’ contemporaries couldn’t see it when it was happening, or if they could see it, they didn’t want to. For example, there is that heated conversation in John 8 which goes something like this:

People: Abraham is our father. (39)

Jesus: If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the things Abraham did, like believing the truth that I am teaching you. (39) If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? (45)

P Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed? (48)

J I am not possessed by a demon, but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself… If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death. (49-50)

P Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are? (53)

J Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad. (56)

P You aren’t even 50 years old, and you have seen Abr! (57)

J I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM (58)

That was beyond imagination. And rather than believing like their father Abraham, they reached for stones to throw.

Nor was it anything non-Jews asked or imagined. Although Gentiles didn’t have the benefit of Hebrew scripture, Paul insisted in Romans (1:19-20) that much can be known about God in other ways.

What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and divine nature, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

So in this letter to both Gentile and Jewish Christians living in Ephesus, Paul is celebrating the God who is way out in front of us, who is at work within the new people of God. Ours is a can-do God, capable of far more than our limited ability to beg or brainstorm. I experienced a bit of this amazing international, cross-cultural, able-to-do-more-than- we-imagine God this past week at Mennonite World Conference. And I newly motivated to join in Paul’s doxology:

To the boundary breaking and unlimited God: “be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.”


Evangelist Wilbur Chapman often retold the testimony given by a certain man in one of his meetings. (Obviously, money was worth a lot more then.) In the man’s words:

I got off at the Pennsylvania depot as a tramp, and for a year I begged on the streets for a living. One day I touched a man on the shoulder and said, “Hey, mister, can you give me a dime?” As soon as I saw his face, I was shocked to see that it was my own father. I said, “Father, Father, do you know me?” Throwing his arms around me and with tears in his eyes, he said, “Oh my son, at last I’ve found you! I’ve found you. You want a dime? Everything I have is yours”

Think of it. I was a tramp. I stood begging my own father for ten cents, when for 18 years he had been looking for me to give me all that he had. [John MacArthur, Ephesians, New Testament Commentary, p. 111]

So what about you?

  • Have you been able to grasp just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ?
  • Do you believe with Abraham, that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine?
  • Are you ready to participate in the fullness of God our Father, which is demonstrated in Christ’s body, the church?
  • What are you thinking or imagining that such fullness may be like?

PRAYER: Father God, having been rooted and grounded in your love, together with believers in every age and continent, we pray for heavenly power, to sense how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus.

Even if that is beyond our grasp, we pray that you will fill us to the measure of all the fullness of God, through the grace of Christ who dwells within. Amen.

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