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

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