Ephesians 3: Knowing the Unknowable Love of God
Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9
Psalm 114 (was supposed to be Psalm 116)
Today is the third week of our four week series on the letter to the Ephesians. There are two things from the previous weeks that it is important for us to know in order to really hear our passage from Ephesians 3 this morning. First of all, we learned that we are assured of our salvation in Christ because, through Jesus, God loved us from the foundation of the world, God loves us now, and God will love us after death and into eternity in God’s presence. If this is true for us, it is true for other people as well. Secondly, last week we looked in depth at Ephesians chapter in 2:11-22 where God’s inclusion of the Gentiles is explained. We learned that Christianity was originally brought to the Jews, but God initiated including Gentiles as well. We saw how the early church wrestled with this, even learning about some early Christian texts that were not included in the New Testament that actively argued for the exclusion of the Gentiles. We learned that God, in Jesus, breaks down dividing walls and destroys hostilities that divide people. God did this with the original controversy about including Gentiles in the church and God continues to do this throughout history as different dividing walls and hostilities emerge. As Ephesians 2:14 says, Jesus is our peace, and all hostilities and dividing walls were destroyed on the cross. According to Ephesians 2:15, Jesus creates one new humanity in which all are citizens. In the context of the early church when this was debated, the New Testament argues for the radical inclusion of those who have traditionally been excluded.
Turning to our passage for this morning, Ephesians 3:14 begins with “For this reason I bow my knees before [God]...” The reason that is meant is the inclusion of the Gentiles as equal citizens with the Jews in God’s one new humanity. And the next verse, 3:15 reiterates this point of radical inclusion. It says that “every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” from God, the Father of Jesus Christ. This is an important point. It means, again, all people in all times and in all places. The letter here refers to EVERY family in heaven and on earth. Just as Jew and Gentile in chapter two refers to all people, so every family here in chapter 3 also refers to all people. The author of our letter is driven to worship by bowing down to God, because God planned to include all people in the plan of salvation through Jesus from before the foundation of the world. This is central to the Gospel and a reason to worship.
After this introduction, we have a prayer. The prayer comes in two parts. Both parts pray that the Ephesians would change, would understand God better, especially God’s love. The first part is verses 16-17, where it says, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” The prayer hopes that people will be strengthened in their inner being. That’s a change, being strengthened inside. It says that we would be strengthened with power through the Spirit. If we remember from Ascension Sunday, and even the sermon at Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding, we learned that God’s power is love. This prayer also asks that Christ may dwell in our hearts. The heart in the ancient world was considered the seat of knowledge. For us today, that is our brains. This prayer, then is asking that our inner self, what we would call our heart knowledge, and our rational side, what ancients called the heart, but what we call the mind...this prayer is asking that our inner-self and our minds would be changed by God. And it ends with “as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” That is the key to all of it, that God’s love has brought about this amazing creation of one new humanity in Jesus, and we as God’s people, are changing inside because of God’s presence in our lives. We are being rooted and grounded in love.
It’s as if love is a new soil, it’s a new garden, and we are being planted in it. When you transplant a perennial plant, one of those plants that stays in your garden and comes back on its own year after year, it goes into shock at first and completely wilts. But after a while, it recovers and stands up again. But for a year or two, sometimes longer, it won’t produce flowers or fruit or much growth at all that we can see. Because in the first year, sometimes the first few years, it makes roots. Without a healthy root system, it can’t make flowers or fruit. It is the same for us, we are being rooted and grounded in love by God. It takes a while for our roots to get established, before we can produce fruit, before we can love others as God has loved us.
The second part of this prayer is in verse 18-19, where the prayer is about us learning about how big and profound God’s love really is. It says this, “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.” This part of the prayer is also praying for the Ephesians to change. The prayer hopes that they would know God’s love. In Japanese tradition, they talk about blessing in all six regions: north, south, east, west, up, and down. It is supposed to be comprehensive, everywhere. That is what is meant here. That we would know the breadth and length, the height and depth of God’s love. The fact that God’s love is everywhere, it is comprehensive, and it is huge. God is eternal, God’s love is infinite.
The magnitude of God’s love is incomprehensible, and that’s even what the next part of the prayer says, but it asks for a miracle: in verse 19 it asks that we would “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” As I said before, this prayer is asking us to change. To know something that surpasses knowledge requires that we be changed. We can’t know it on our own and we don’t know it yet.
I was a Psychology major in college so I am always interested in what the latest studies show. My Dad was a professor in Education Finance at the University of Southern California. I was a Trojan for 9 years of my life. USC has a Creativity and Brain Institute and in 2016, they published an article about the backfire effect. The backfire effect describes the response in our brains when we encounter new ideas that contradict what we already know. Our brains respond with a fight or flight response when we are confronted with a new idea that contradicts what we already know. When human beings are presented with a new idea our first instinct is to respond with anger and defensiveness and to dismiss the idea. We respond with the backfire effect. This is part of human nature; it is how our brains work. That’s why this prayer is about being changed by God and learning how to know the unknowable. As it says in 1 Corinthians 1:25: [paraphrase] Human wisdom is foolishness to God. We should never expect that we really know God’s love, but we should pray to know this love that surpasses knowledge. We should expect that God will answer that prayer and that anything that we learn will trigger the backfire effect in us. It will be beyond anything that we know now. Every time God teaches us a new aspect of the breadth, width, height, and depth of God’s love we will be like transplanted perennials, going into shock, wilting, protesting; the backfire effect will make us want to dig in our heals and tell God, “No!”
You know the age-old worry that every child has when a new sibling is born. They worry about whether their parents will still love them. But love always grows. It’s not divided and it doesn’t shrink. The end of prayer asks that we would be “filled with all the fullness of God.” We will grow each time God teaches us the unknowable. And if we can learn to set aside the backfire effect, we will find that even our hearts can expand to hold an unending and ever-growing love that surpasses knowledge.
God is always going to work in our lives to help us grow wider, longer, higher, and deeper into God’s love. How can we do that? Our life experiences influence what we think about God’s love. And God knows this, which is why God uses analogies from human life to describe it. We have some of these beautiful analogies in our Hosea passage today. In Hosea 11:3-4 we learn that God’s love is like teaching children how to walk, taking someone into your arms, healing. It is described as cords of human kindness, and bands of love. God’s love is like people who lift infants to their cheeks. God’s love is like people who bend down to children’s levels and feed them. The beautiful thing about God describing God’s love in this way is that we learn something about how to learn about God’s love. We learn about God’s love when people do these things for us. And we also learn about God’s love by doing them for others. Not only do we spread God’s love, but we also learn about God’s love. The image of someone lifting an infant to their cheek seems so tender and peaceful, but in reality, the infant is usually screaming at the top of their lungs and needs something in order to feel better. This makes me think of the importance of patience in the Christian life. But it also reminds me that God will lift us to God’s cheek no matter how much we scream and protest, that God will hold us and bounce us and do whatever tender, loving thing it takes to help us get through it.
The part that says that God will bend down to a child’s level reminds me that God knows that knowing God’s unknowable love is hard for us. So God bends down to our level, and teaches us where we are. We might think that we will never grow up. That we will forever be small, that God’s love will remain incomprehensible to us, that to us, certain people will always be on the other side of that dividing wall because we just can’t imagine ever understanding a love big enough to include them. Well, that’s why this passage today ends with this very famous benediction. Starting in verse 20 it says, “Now to God, who by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
God is working in us. God is bending down to our level. God is lifting us up to God’s cheek. We should expect that God will do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine. We should expect that as we grow in our relationship with Jesus that God will do amazing things that we would never have thought of. Amen.