From time to time, the Apostle Paul says something very practical and very understandable. When that happens, it is usually something that we can stick our teeth into, chew on it like good, healthy food, and ultimately have our lives transformed by it. This isn’t one of those passages.
At other times, the Apostle gets so carried away by the Spirit of God that he just gushes away. And sometimes he just gushes incomprehensibly, at least when we try to get it past our limited, sometimes stubborn, often dense, finite minds. And that’s pretty much what Paul is doing in our passage this morning. I am mostly convinced that Paul knew what he was talking about when he penned these words, but there are times when I wonder about that, too. Paul lived his life so deeply in tune with God’s Spirit that at times he functioned on the level of ecstasy. And that’s a hard thing to describe, too, because Paul himself had a tough time making sense of it. We got just a taste of Paul’s struggle with that earlier this month when he tried to tell us about being caught up into heaven. He told us he didn’t know whether he was in his body or out of it. It was such a mysterious and ecstatic experience that he told us that only God knew what happened to him. That tells me that he was so totally out of control of his senses that he didn’t have a clue as to what was happening to him. But that also tells me that he was comfortable losing control of himself, and that he was okay with experiencing the mysterious and the ecstatic. And quite interestingly, Paul experienced some of his greatest spiritual blessings when he didn’t try too hard to keep himself under control. In that particular passage that we looked at earlier this month, Paul said he heard things so glorious and so marvelous, that no human being is permitted to repeat them. That’s got to be spiritual ecstasy in the extreme. I’d love to know what Paul saw and heard, when as he says, he “was caught up into the third heaven,” but it was probably so sacred and so holy that it would kill me. The absolute glory of God isn’t something to be trifled with. One day, when this old world has finally run its course, we will all see and hear what Paul saw and heard, but I suppose until then we wait with patience.
Glimpses of God’s glory, however, are for everyone. Glimpses of God’s glory are available to all of God’s children. And that’s what Paul is hinting at when he gushes all over the place in our passage this morning. In fact, he starts the passage out by reminding us of something that we sometimes forget. And that’s that we really are not ourselves any more, that we really aren’t our own. We belong to God. No matter what our last names are, no matter what our heritage or lineage is, our true identity is that of the children of God. When we acknowledged Jesus Christ as our savior, we became known as Christians. Our heritage is no longer traced to the Mayflower, or to some royal family in England, or even to some wino hurling his breakfast into the gutter. Our heritage is now traced to Almighty God who is eternal in the heavens and who is pleased to be called our father. That’s who we are, and that’s whose we are.
That right there ought to be enough holy gush to carry us safely through this week and into eternity, but Paul goes on. He prays for us that God, through the riches of his glory, will grant that we will be strengthened in our inner beings with power through his spirit. More gush. But it is sacred gush and holy gush. Can we unpack what Paul has said satisfactorily? Can we grasp the full impact of what he has just said? I can’t do it, at least not very satisfactorily. It is too great, it is to glorious for me to even begin to comprehend. How can one possibly begin to describe the riches of God’s glory? Can God’s glory be reduced to human language? Absolutely not! All that we can do is stand in awe of it and blubber and gush a bit ourselves.
But the riches of God’s glory can have a powerful impact on us if we allow it. The riches of God’s glory can strengthen our inner beings. And our inner beings are what matter the most. Our inner beings are the parts of us that are in communication with God. Our inner beings are where we experience true spiritual ecstasy. Problem is, we spend most of our time focusing on our outer beings. And our outer beings are usually a mess. Our outer beings are where we experience lack and loss and jealousy and greed and anger. Our outer beings ought to be dying, and yet we nurse them along, struggling to keep them on life support, as if they were all that really mattered. But our inner beings…that’s where God lives, and its where God lives forever. And that’s what God wants to strengthen, and that’s what God wants to empower. As the outer being is fading away, the inner being is growing and maturing, becoming more God-Like, and sensing more and more of the riches of God’s glory. Is that a decent explanation of the riches and power of God’s glory? Not even close, but maybe enough to send us in the right direction.
And then, there is the awesome love of Jesus Christ for us. And again, Paul is either using words that make no sense at all, or he is pushing us to aspire to a higher level of comprehension. Who can describe the love of Jesus Christ? Who can describe how that love snatches us at the deepest cores of our beings? Who can comprehend a plan of salvation put into effect eons before the first human being set foot on this planet? Who can imagine the profundity of that love that would put a man willingly on a cross to die for the sins of a people who would barely appreciate it? Who can imagine a love that would grab us from the clutches of death and give us eternal life? No one. But Paul wants us to get a taste of it, and to comprehend as much of it as we can. And so he does what seems to me to be a very odd thing. He gives some dimensions to that love. He says, “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.”
At first, it sounds like the love of Jesus Christ is measurable. That it has distance and depth and width and height. Sorta like a box. And in our outer beings, we love boxes. We love organization and order. We even yearn for it some times. We want our lives to be predictable and manageable. We want everything to be neatly categorized and controlled. We even try to exert that influence on others. But the Spirit blows where it will. Jesus said that himself. But the love of Jesus for us can neither be defined nor confined. It can’t be measured or fit into a box. And so what is Paul saying, then, when he offers up these dimensions?
I think he’s saying that the love of Jesus is just what we know about it. It can’t be defined, it can’t be confined, it can’t be limited. It is, instead going in all directions simultaneously. It is, to use an old theological term, omnipresent. Its flowing and blowing and moving about at will. It is nothing that we can control, it is only something that we can ride on to see where it will take us.
And for Paul, the place it will take us is the place where we can know more than we can know. How’s that for ecstatic gushy-ness? To know more than we can know: what does that mean? I don’t have a clue! Except to say that in the power of the Spirit of God, it is something that is absolutely possible, even though it sounds completely impossible. Its gushy to the extreme, but it is also thoroughly sacred and holy.
And then there’s this business of being filled with the fullness of God. That one blows me away, and I’m totally convinced that as Paul wrote these words down, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that he was also totally blown away by the words that spilled out of his pen. I can see him now, scratching his head, looking at the page, what did I just write? What did I just write? To be filled with the fullness of God! How can this be, for I am a human! I am finite and God is infinite! How can I be filled with the fullness of God? I’m not big enough! I can’t even imagine the fullness of God, let alone comprehend the possibility that I could possibly be filled with it!
I’m really glad that Paul didn’t get up the next morning and edit his work. I’m glad that he didn’t look at these words and say to himself, that can’t be, let’s take that out. I’m glad he left it in there. I’ve been talking a lot this morning about Paul gushing about and burbling away in ecstasy. And I know that that sort of thing is out of the comfort zone of some of us here this morning. I suppose I could say that this sort of thing doesn’t fit in our boxes. But I’ve got to ask, if this stuff doesn’t fit into our boxes, then where does it fit? Either these gushy and ecstatic words of Paul have meaning or they don’t. Either they are completely meaningless, or they are food for our inner beings. What Paul has said to us in this passage is either a foolish pipe dream, or it is the stuff of grace that flows from the riches of the glory of God.
I titled this sermon “Aspirations of Grace.” There isn’t a human being alive who is fully equipped to plunder the riches of this passage. But that doesn’t mean for a moment that we shouldn’t be trying to plunder it. The Apostle Paul is praying, after all, that we will plunder it. He is praying that we will sally forth, deep into the mysterious and the unknown and even into the gushy and ecstatic. And there in that strange and mysterious place, we will find grace. Grace that will not only sustain us, but also nourish us with sacred and holy food. And my prayer is that having tasted that which we cannot fully comprehend, that we will push further on to know the things of God that surpass knowledge, so that we can indeed be filled with the fullness of God.
Paul says it all in his benediction: “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, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever, Amen.
Either that’s absolutely true and wonderfully cool, or its just plain weird. I’ll take my chances with absolutely true and wonderfully cool.