Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Power of Understanding

Ephesians 3:14-21

I’ve heard it said that "the more you know, the more you know, you don't know." That may not make much sense, but there’s truth in that statement. Because the universe is so vast, it’s simply impossible for anyone, no matter how smart, to know everything about everything. Not Einstein, not Stephen Hawking. When I was younger, I didn't understand this truth. In fact, I’ve heard it said that I was a “know it all.” And this wasn’t said in positive terms! Hopefully, with growing maturity, I’ve become less of a “know it all!” Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on things, because I do! I expect that what’s true of me, is true of most of you as well.

Speaking of understanding, Our Disciples tradition has always prized a “reasonable faith.” From the very beginning we’ve valued the life of the mind. Our very name signals this value, for to be a disciple is to be a learner. If we’re learners, then we must recognize that we don’t know everything, that we need teachers, and that we should be open to new ideas. If our faith is a reasonable one, then we should value both intellectual understanding and the search for truth – wherever it may lead. The late Disciple leader Ronald Osborn affirmed the principle that the “Disciples mind is biblical,” but our faith is more than simply a biblical one.

It is reasonable: it thinks the Bible through with common sense. It is empirical: it reads the Bible in light of the knowledge that comes through the sciences. It is pragmatic: it tests in action the teachings of scripture and all religious notions.1

Sometimes we Disciples are accused of having a “head” religion rather than a “heart” one. But does valuing the mind mean that one can’t have a heartfelt faith? If I read this morning’s text correctly, then I believe it’s possible to have both a religion of the head and one of the heart.


This morning’s text is in reality a prayer that focuses on God’s presence in our lives through Christ. This prayer asks God to provide us with the power to understand or comprehend both the world and the things of God. It asks that God give us the "strength to grasp," the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ's love for us. This prayer underlines the immensity of God's love. But, in praying this prayer, we also ask that God would make us vulnerable, so that we might experience God’s love for us, a love that’s so great and wondrous that it surpasses all knowledge.

This side of eternity, we’re told, God's love is "so great that you will never fully understand it" (vs. 19, NLT). But, even if we can’t understand everything, we can experience God’s love as well as the fullness of God’s presence. This might not be an objective, analytical kind of knowledge. Indeed, it is probably a more intuitive kind of understanding. Although books are helpful, it’s not an understanding that can be gained by reading. Nor can it be gained through education, though education is a good thing. No, this kind of knowledge is gained by living in relationship with others.

I understand why so many people talk about being spiritual without being religious, but I’m not sure this is a “go it alone” kind of experience. Experiencing God’s presence and love is, more often than not, a communal thing. It starts in our families -- in the intimacy of husband and wife, or the tenderness of the parent-child relationship. From there it moves to our lives lived among the saints of God. We usually think of saints as being holy people. But in reality, all of God’s people, as they live in relationship with God, are saints. So, even as the family isn’t perfect, neither is the community of the saints – the church. Despite their faults, however, both the family and the church offer opportunities to experience God’s presence. And, as valuable as sermons and bible studies and Sunday school classes may be, they aren’t usually the places we learn to understand the power of love. No, the sense of understanding comes as we sit with the dying or the sick; when we listen to the ones who are fearful and the confused; or, when make ourselves vulnerable to each other. Indeed, we gain an understanding of God’s presence, when we learn to accept each other as they are!

It’s in the context of living together as God's people that we begin to understand the immensity of God's love for us. It’s as Henri Nouwen writes, "love asks for total disarmament. The encounter in love is an encounter without weapons." We have to let down our guard and become vulnerable with each other. That isn’t easy! In fact, Nouwen suggests that international disarmament might be easier, but that’s the task that lies before us if we’re to experience the fullness of God's presence.2


Our text connects the experience of God’s love with experiencing the "utter fullness of God." But, what does it mean to experience the "utter fullness of God?" If this sounds like a bit like mysticism, you may be right, and it means having a mystical experience, you may be right, and for rational people, like Disciples, the idea of mysticism may be a bit off-putting.

Concepts like mysticism and union with God sound a bit irrational, but to have mystical experiences doesn’t mean that you have to give up the rational side of your being. St. Bonaventure was both a mystic and an intellectual. You can explore the spiritual dimension and not reject science. What it does require of us is that we recognize that there’s more to reality than meets the eye. If we’re to experience the “utter fullness of God,” then we must embrace a robust view of faith, one that values both the head and the heart.

If we take up this calling to love God and experience the fullness of the God “who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,” then as we gather for worship, we will heartily and mindfully give God “glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).

I am by nature a rationalist. I’m analytical and inquisitive. Just ask my family. I ask way too many questions. I know that this personality trait can get in the way of mystical union with God. Indeed, it gets in the way of prayer and worship. Be that as it may, I believe that it’s possible to bring together both understanding and faith, both questioning and mystical experience.

For most of us, union with God is a momentary experience. We get a taste of heaven. It’s like a door opens and we step through, but then have to return. Think about C.S. Lewis’s Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – the children seem to live a lifetime in Narnia, and when they return home they discover that they’ve been gone for only a few minutes. There are those moments, maybe in worship, maybe in a work project, perhaps in a conversation at a bedside, where we taste and experience the depth of God’s love and presence. They may pass quickly, but they’re life changing events.

As we think about what it means to understand and comprehend God’s presence, Henri Nouwen goes a step further and suggests that maybe we’re most able to experience God’s presence when we experience suffering and pain – whether physical or emotional. He writes:

But the pain is so deep that you do not want to miss it since it is in this pain that the joy of God's presence can be tasted. This seems close to nonsense except in the sense that it is beyond sense and, therefore, hard to capture within the limits of human understanding. The experience of God's unifying presence is an experience in which the distinction between joy and pain seems to be transcended and in which the beginning of a new life is intimated.3

Yes, this is the one who can do "infinitely more than we can ask or imagine" (vs. 20, NJB), whose fullness we seek to experience. If we’re going to experience the presence of this God, then we must be strengthened in our inner being and "rooted and grounded in love." That’s because it’s when we struggle with pain and suffering that we often find ourselves face to face with the living God. Indeed, it’s usually at those moments that we let down our guard and welcome God’s presence into our lives.

What I hear in this prayer is an invitation to bring our pursuit of truth and understanding together with an openness to mystical union with the Creator who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit.

1. Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1978), 14.

2. Henry Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, ed. by Robert Durback, (New York: Image, 1997), 73.

3. Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, 127.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
8th Sunday after Pentecost
July 26, 2009

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Finding True Freedom

Galatians 5:1-6, 13-14

Did you have a great Fourth of July? Did you take in a parade or fireworks or maybe a picnic? However you spent the day, hopefully you thought about the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. While America isn’t perfect, we’ve been blessed with freedoms enjoyed by few others around the world.

Although we don’t always live up to our ideals, the freedoms we enjoy have been enshrined in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

It took a while for our nation to understand that these rights extended beyond white males, to include persons of color and women.

It wasn’t that long ago that Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a day when all Americans would enjoy the freedoms described in our nation’s founding document. We’ve moved closer to fulfilling its definition of freedom, but we’ve not yet completed our journey.

I must confess that I don’t always agree with our leaders or their policies. Indeed, I’ve been known to criticize our nation, and on more than one occasion I’ve pointed out where we’ve fallen short as a nation. Still, I’m glad that I’m an American. But the wonderful thing is – The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees me the right of free speech, so that I can express my views openly without fear of arrest. That same amendment gives me the freedom to worship as I choose – or not worship if that’s my choice – without penalty. These are all wonderful gifts that our Founders have bequeathed to us, and we should treasure them.

As wonderful as this declaration of freedom is, there is a source of freedom that is greater than our nation and its founding documents. The Declaration hints at this by suggesting that these freedoms we enjoy have been given to us by the Creator, but it doesn’t define who that Creator is. And so, having celebrated the founding freedoms of our nation, today we come to celebrate the true liberator – Jesus Christ. In Christ we have been set free from the law of sin and death, and from slavery to creedalism and legalism. As Paul told the Galatian church, you have been set free in Christ, so don’t ever let anyone else enslave you again.

Our Disciples tradition has made the message of freedom and liberty central to its identity. We have taken inspiration both from scripture, and the context of our founding two centuries ago on the American frontier. While our founders, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Barton Stone all drank deeply from Scripture, they were also deeply influenced by the American dream of freedom, a dream that colored the way they read and lived Scripture. They rejected creeds because they were too rigid and kept people from truly experiencing the God revealed in the Scriptures. And so they encouraged people to explore their bibles and interpret it for themselves. Indeed, they trusted the people with matters of faith. They took up a Reformation era slogan as their own, passing it onto us:
“In essentials unity, In Nonessentials liberty, In all things charity.”
This principle of religious freedom is one of the reasons why I am a Disciple of Christ. I cherish this emphasis, which we have inherited from Scripture and from our national ethos. So, on this Fourth of July weekend, having celebrated the birth of our nation, I’d like us to take the next step and live out the freedom that the Creator has offered us as a gift.


Thomas Jefferson talked about inalienable rights that come to us from God. In making this statement he suggested that God has created us to be equals. He recognized that some are stronger or smarter, but ultimately, we’re all human beings created in the image of God. That means that when we strip off our clothes and our skin, we’re no different from Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles. Their blood doesn’t look different from ours. Indeed, There’s no such thing as royal or noble blood. There is only human blood, which Jesus has shared with us.

While Jefferson spoke of political freedoms, Paul speaks of spiritual freedom. Governments can take away our political freedoms, as we’ve seen happen recently in Iran, but no one can take away our spiritual freedoms, unless we give them away. That means, you can make me a slave or put me in prison, but you can’t take away the freedoms God has endowed me with.

Our freedom, Paul tells us, is rooted in a faith expressed in love. Because it is rooted in God’s love and justice, no political system can give it to us, nor can it take it away from us. We have been blessed with the freedom to worship openly, but the people of God have often worshiped without government approval. Remember that when Paul wrote the Galatian letter, the Christian church lived under Roman imperial rule, which was anything but democratic. This means that you can live in China or Saudi Arabia or North Korea and still be free. You may not have political freedom, like we have here in the United States, but since true freedom is a spiritual thing, no one can take it away from you!


We may be free, but that doesn’t mean that there are no constraints on our freedoms. As Mark Twain put it:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.
In other words, we may have freedom of speech, but it might not be prudent to yell “fire” in a crowded theater.

And while we’re free in Christ that doesn’t mean we’re free to do whatever we please. We may not live under a system of dos and don’ts, but there is one very important limit to our freedom – that limit is the command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” You may be free, Paul says, but don’t destroy your freedom by using it for selfish purposes. Or, as the late Disciple leader Ron Osborn put it:

Christian Freedom means:

to serve the needs and hurts of other people,
to teach the Christian Way,
to live the Christian life of love,
to contribute generously to the alleviation of suffering,
to give aid with zeal,
to do acts of mercy with cheerfulness.

Faith is being Free! (Ron Osborn, Experiment in Liberty, 63-64.)


You have been set free in Christ, but as Paul makes clear in his letter, we shouldn’t confuse freedom with autonomy. As Christians we’re called to experience and live out our freedoms in community.

So, are you hurting? Then, turn to your neighbor and seek their hand in friendship and find help. Is your neighbor hurting? Well, reach out and touch them and pray for them. Too often we don’t let our brothers and sisters know that we hurt. We keep it inside and we distance ourselves from each other. But, when we do this, we confuse autonomy with freedom. Being a Christian, like being an American, means that I have chosen to live out my freedom as part of a community. By living in community, I become responsible for and to my neighbor, whom Jesus has called me to love, whether that neighbor lives next door, sits next to me in the pew, or lives in Iran or North Korea.

I’d like to close this sermon by inviting you to join me in a unison prayer for our nation that is found on page 723 in the Chalice Hymnal. As we pray this prayer, let us keep in mind the freedom we share in Jesus Christ, and then pray that our nation will truly become a beacon of freedom.

Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage.
Make us always remember your generosity
and constantly do your will.
Bless our land with honest industry,
truthful education,
and an honorable way of life.
Save us from violence, discord, and confusion;
from pride and arrogance
and from every evil course of action.
Make us who came from many nations
with many different languages
a united people.
Defend our liberties and give those
whom we have entrusted with the authority of government
the spirit of wisdom,
that there might be justice and peace in our land.
When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful;
and, in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail.
We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
July 5, 2009
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost