I am deeply convinced that the Christian life is to always be an exciting and joyous experience; that every moment of it, be that moment joyful or sorrowful, should be filled with dynamic power. Moreover, I truly believe that as Christians, we are meant to live lives that are thrilling to behold, full of spirit and power and purpose. And understand, I’m not speaking in the abstract here; what I’m saying is that because of faith, who we are and what we do is to have a vibrancy about it that’s unmistakable! It literally ought to radiate red hot, so that in everything we do, God’s glory is revealed, and others around us are warmed by the very intensity of our faith in Jesus Christ!
The problem is that in these times there are so many of us who have made our faith ancillary to the rest of life and living; we have tended to compartmentalize Christianity along with everything else in our lives, as though it were just another affiliation amongst many. And the result has been that some of us have become so casual and “cool” about our relationship to God, not only has faith ceased to be the driving force in our lives, oftentimes it barely putts it along at all! Actually, I’m reminded of a question posed by one of my all-time favorite preachers, the late Bruce Thielemann: “If it is true, as scientists tell us, that there is enough energy in the average person, if it could be somehow harnessed, to light up an entire city, then why is it that so many of us, as regards our faith, walk around as though we were 25-watt bulbs?”
Why, indeed? Why is it that something that should be so vibrant and bold and alive end up becoming dull and lifeless and ultimately, inconsequential? Well, there’s a lot of things we could point to, I suppose: the radical shifts in popular culture over the past few decades; changes in family dynamics and our whole concept of community; the intrusion of technology and media into the center of our daily lives; and yes, quite honestly, the inability of some of our churches to make the appropriate changes to reach the next generations. Even more than this, however, I would suggest to you this morning that it comes down to something very basic (and very biblical) about our lives in the 21st century: that we, even we who would number ourselves among people of faith, have lost touch with just how very “big” our God truly is.
It’s true, friends – we live in an age where self-awareness and self-improvement go hand in hand with spiritual enrichment; we’re in a culture of massive information and rampant discernment in which every “truth” is challenged, and every mystery of life and living gets rapidly cut down to size! Even in the church today, where we of this generation are often referred to as “post-modern” Christians, we’ve had a tendency to try and recreate God in our own image, as it were; that is, shifting our understanding of the divine so that it’ll be small enough to fit into our thinking and work comfortably in our lives.
And when that happens, well… you end up with a faith that at best is watered down and at worst is no faith at all; and you have a church that might well exist from Sunday to Sunday, but ultimately has no real life, no true significance or purpose, all because it’s lost its connection to the mighty, awesome God of our true faith.
Now, as it turns out, this particular concern for the church is nothing new, and our scripture reading this morning – from Paul’s letter to Ephesians – bears this out. The church at Ephesus, you see, had begun to think that its world was falling apart, that evil had the upper hand, and that perhaps this new gospel that Paul had brought to them was not as big nor as filled with power as they had once believed. And so Paul prays for them; that these Christians might have the help they need to face all the troubles of the world; that God himself would show them the immense scope of the true power they’d been given; that through Christ dwelling in them and “being rooted and grounded in love,” they would have “the power to comprehend …what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” so that they “may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
What an amazing prayer that is, and so applicable to us in this generation! When life and the world seems to conspire to shrink our perception of the greatness and glory of God, what a blessing it is to discover that God is bigger than anything we can imagine; how great it is that the reality of God’s presence and power, manifest in the Christ and bestowed in the Holy Spirit, can encourage in us a faith that is bold, vibrant and alive in the face of a world and a culture that’s anything but.
So, given all this, the question becomes then: are we, as Paul prays that we might be, “filled with all the fullness of God?” Have we really, as the world has seemed to dictate, let ourselves shrink right along with our concept of who God is, or can it be said as persons and as a people that we are big enough for a bigger God? It’s our answer to that question that makes all the difference in our lives moving forward; and might I add, it will make all the difference as we venture into to the places of ministry where God leads us.
Let me tell you a story. Many years back when I was still a fairly young pastor, I was asked to do a funeral for an older man I’d never met, and who had little or no relationship with any church. I was told by the funeral director that this man, and I quote, “embraced the biker lifestyle,” and so did all his family and friends; and that I might want to know that going in.
Now, I’d met a few bikers before, and what he’d said didn’t seem like a big deal; but, friends, I wasn’t prepared for this! This was every ‘60’s era “Hell’s Angels” motorcycle gang movie you ever saw, and it was all playing out in the funeral home chapel, with me in my white shirt, tie and clergy robe standing right there in the middle of it! To say it wasn’t a “typical funeral” was to put it mildly: everyone was dressed in denim, leathers and bandannas; no hymns to speak of, just George Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today;” there were eulogies given with language that was PG-13 at best; and as loved ones filed by the coffin, there were placed there mementos to be buried with the deceased, everything from posters and bandannas to a bottle of Jack Daniels and a few things I’m not even going to mention from this pulpit!
It was a unique experience, to say the least, and I don’t mind telling you that it made me a little uncomfortable …but not for the reasons you might think. Yes, this was a rough crowd, but as I started talking with them, really looking at them, I realized you could see in their faces so much of the pain and struggle of life, all of it written on the lines on their faces. I remember standing up to speak wondering what I could possibly say to these people about faith or about God’s promise of life abundant and eternal; if there was anything at all that might mean something to them at that moment. Because what I’d found at that funeral home – the people I’d gotten to know that day – were no longer this bunch of rowdy bikers, but a family; brothers and sisters who were filled with grief and confusion and anger over the loss of someone they loved; people who truly needed and were crying out for the love and comfort of Jesus Christ!
Where it really hit me, though, was afterward at the committal service. There’d been a 50-motorcycle escort to the cemetery; someone had put a Harley-Davidson sticker on back of the hearse! And when I’d done my part in the service, and given the blessing for all to go in peace, instead of everybody leaving, all these bikers just kept standing there for the longest time! Finally, one by one, almost everyone came over and shook my hand and thanked me for being there. While this is going on, there’s this one man circling around and drawing closer to me, as if he were trying to get the courage to come up and speak; and friends, this was the biggest, burliest, and frankly, the meanest looking man I think I’d ever seen in my life – I mean, he’s got the leathers and the studs and the chains, the earrings, the tattoos and the whole bit – and now he’s headed in my direction!
And barely able to look me in the eyes, this man reached out to me with these two huge, beefy, leather-lined hands and grabbed my hand to shake it. “Ya done good,” was all he could say. And I could see that he’d been crying his eyes out.
And that was it; for one, wonderful, awe-filled moment my puny little, white-shirt-and-tie modern mind comprehended what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the majesty of God. I was reminded in a glorious fashion that God in Christ in bigger than the boxes we put him into; that God is not just devoted to the church-goers and the suit-wearers and the so-called “righteous uprights,” but also and especially to these who cried out to him in grief and anguish. Here was the God who brings comfort, hope and unending peace to the people he loves; a God big enough and then some to do far more abundantly than any of them, or any of us could ever ask or imagine.
It was a holy moment.
And I’m telling you this story today because it seems to me that when our vision as Christian people – our vision for life, our vision for the world, our vision for this wonderful church – when our vision becomes big enough for a bigger God, when we allow ourselves to be filled with all of God’s fullness of blessing and purpose, there’s no telling the kind of holy moments we’ll experience. There would be no way that we could adequately measure the vibrancy of our life together, no limit to the ministries of love and care that begin here with us and extend ever outward to all of those who are in deep need of the riches of God’s glory and of Christ’s redeeming love. And there’s no predicting just how much we would grow in this place – in numbers, yes, but even more in spirit.
Beloved, are we big enough for a bigger God, for a greater vision, a larger gospel and a higher cause? That’s the question for us to ponder as we come to the Lord’s Table this morning. But know this: it all starts when we let God truly be almighty, let the love of Christ surpass even our knowledge, and let his Spirit fill us with God’s fullness, moving us into a brand new future full of real hope.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry