Sunday, July 29, 2018

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 3
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family[a] in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 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, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Thank you again for revealing your summer reading list. There is something about summer and reading, even if it’s only getting through that backlog of magazines that tend to pile up through the year.

I suppose I should share too, beginning with the book I’m reading just now. It’s called "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories." Author Simon Winchester seems to know that writing a good sub-title is an art form, and he doesn’t disappoint.

I finally got through "She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth" by Helen Castor. The Elizabeth in question is Elizabeth I, and if you don’t know about Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Margaret of Anjou, it’s worth a look.

The longest slog was reading "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" by Frederick Kempe. I didn’t know that President Kennedy’s first summit with the leader of Russia was also a bust, and page after page I kept thinking “if only a certain leader read books—there is so much to learn here.”

But the reading highlight of my summer (so far) has been “Imperium” by Robert Harris, first of a three-part series on the life of the Roman statesman Cicero. Harris decides to tell the story in the voice of Tiro, Cicero’s secretary (and slave). In some ways it’s a reimagining, since the real Tiro wrote a biography of the great Cicero—which is now lost to history. Tiro (the real Tiro) is also credited with inventing shorthand, something truly useful that I wish I had taken in grade nine instead of welding.

And it’s this last book, of course, that makes me think of St. Paul. Like Cicero, Paul left behind an impressive body of work, and like Cicero, Paul had a personal secretary to record his words for posterity. And the reason we know this—that he employed a scribe—is a wonderful little passage near the end of his letter to the Galatians where we read, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” (6.11) He’s clearly taken the pen (pencil? feather?) from his scribe’s hand, and decided to add some final words of his own.

What does this tell us? First, it confirms he had a scribe, implied in the act of taking over the writing. We can assume his eyes were failing, hence the size of the letters on the page. That or bad penmanship, but I like the eyesight theory, since Paul was likely in his late 40’s when he composed this letter to the Galatians, and we all know what happens in the mid-40’s and beyond.

It also tells us that Paul was not above using a particular rhetorical device in his writing, since there number of times that he “writes in his own hand” (2 Thes 3, Col 4, 1 Cor 16)—always at the end of a letter. In other words, he is saying ‘pay attention to this,’ since it was important enough that he wrote it in his own hand.

And it further tells us that Paul wants us to know that he has a scribe, as a sign of his importance,* and perhaps as an insight into the proliferation of letters he wrote. Like Cicero, the ability to speak your thoughts aloud, and know that someone is keeping track, freed Paul to share more of his thoughts with the audience he addressed.

And because of this proliferation of words, we (as readers) need a way to approach Paul, to make sense of his writing, and to read in a way to bring life to the words on the page. Paul is writing letters, but he is also writing scripture. He may not have understood this in the fullest sense, but he certainly knew that his words would be shared among churches and would contain words of life for them.

The approach, in simple terms, is break it down. Paul has all the hallmarks of someone who is struggling to ‘get it right,’ and in the course of getting it right will state and restate until he seems satisfied that he has communicated the message he intends. For some, this may seem repetitive, or wordy, when in fact it’s an attempt to honour the very themes that drove Paul forward.

Where to begin? If you are doing this in the course of your own reading, I would recommend a summary, making a series of points to find the nub of the issue. For Ephesians 3, it might be this:

1. Paul prays that everyone may be strengthened by the Spirit to allow Christ to dwell within them.

2. He prays that everyone may know the vast love of Christ, though it is beyond human understanding.

3. And he seeks glory in the church for the God who is able to do more than we can even imagine.

I say ‘it might be this’ because your summary is by it’s very nature your summary. And this leads to a couple of points. First, in creating a summary, there is no correct answer. There may very well be a wrong answer (knowing that misrepresenting scripture is as old as scripture itself) but there is certainly no exactly correct answer or summary. Also, in creating a summary we are allowing the verses to speak to us anew. In the preaching business we call this “the generative capacity of scripture,” a fancy way of saying scripture continues to generate meaning—each time we read it, each time we share it, and each time we preach it. That’s the hope, anyway.

So back to my attempt at a summary, the thing that leaps off the page is the limit of human understanding. That even with the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us, we are limited by our very humanness to comprehend the power, the love, or the glory that dwells within us. In this sense, the passage presents a paradox, and to look at this paradox we need to look at another way to approach Paul: the summary verse.

In this approach, we read the passage and try to find the single verse that represents the rest. This is my choice: “May [you] have 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.”

In other words, as you are filled with the love you cannot comprehend, you will be filled with God’s fullness.

Let’s just let that sit for a moment and we’ll try a third way to approach Paul, and that’s through parallels. There are numerous parallel passages in Paul’s letters, examples of the author returning to an idea and trying to express it in a new way. Change or add a word, focus on another aspect of the same theme: however he does it, he is trying to teach or remind us of something we ought to know. So, a good parallel can be found in Philippians 4:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (v. 7)

Former Anglicans in the crowd will recognize this verse as part of the blessing after communion, appearing in some form since 1662:

The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: And the Blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. (BCP)

So, the love of Christ surpasses all knowledge, and the peace of God transcends all understanding, but Paul argues that we will still be filled with God’s fullness and guarded by the peace of God. In other words, the love and peace that God imparts may be incomprehensible to us mere mortals, but we receive it anyway.

For me, this is a relief. All the things I cannot understand—why does God still love us despite our failings and our foolishness, or why does God persist in sending peace when human history reveals our appetite for war—these are not mine to grasp. It has to be enough to trust that God loves us and wants us to live in peace, without ever fully understanding the length, depth and breadth of that wish.

And for those who want to do something, want to respond in some way to these words of life, Paul might say “take the pen.” Take the pen in your own hand and write the blessing that describes your life. Write the summation that will express the love and peace you feel, even if it’s a fraction of what you would wish for. The very act of forming these words on the page will increase your sense of gratitude and add to your blessing.

And finally, when Paul wrote and rewrote, explained and explained again, and claimed to understand while proclaiming a mystery—he wanted us to know that even in the midst of the biggest questions, God is with us. God’s love is a gift, an inscrutable, mysterious, generous, unconditional, and largely undeserved gift. And our task is to accept it, and love others in return. May God help us. Amen.