Last Sunday, my husband, Jay, and I drove to Charlotte to watch a professional soccer game. As we walked from the car to the stadium we passed a man with signs placed along the sidewalk. Each listing condemnations and things he considered false truths. He clearly had an idea of who God is and what or who God loves and doesn’t love and anything contrary to his beliefs would mark you for an eternity of flames and torture.
Now, we didn’t speak to this man, but usually in situations like that, even when I tell them I am a Methodist pastor, I am told that I don’t believe in God the right way, my femaleness combined with a position of spiritual leadership has inevitably put me on God’s Do Not Call list.
This always makes me wonder: are we worshiping the same God, following the same Jesus, do we all have to believe the same way, or is it more like the directions we are given by GPS?
When we typed in the address for the stadium on the way to the game, we were sent I-40 to Hickory, through Gastonia to Charlotte. On the way home, we were sent to Greenville SC to catch I-26 back home. So clearly there are multiple ways to get to our destination. We have our preferred routes and maybe we have pitstops planned along one route that doesn’t exist on another, but they will both get you where you want to go.
(Now, let me just say this. I think this man thought he was doing and believing the right things, I don’t like them. Any religion which offers more hate than love, more condemnation than grace and more rules than relationship is on the wrong path. But I also acknowledge he’d probably think the same thing about me.)
The writer of Ephesians is clearly not a stranger to this phenomenon. There have always been differing views on what it means to follow Jesus. In his day it was the Jewish versus Gentile believers. Those who followed Paul thought differently than those who followed Apollos or James, or Thomas or any of the other apostles and missionaries for Christ in the early church.
Today it is Evangelicalism compared to Mainline Protestant compared to Catholic or Orthodox. We all worship God and believe in Jesus, but how we get there and what we do along the way is different.
As Paul writes this letter, he realizes no matter what path we are on, there is value in the common threads which bring us together; prayer, deepening our relationship with God and being strengthened for service. So, Paul prays for the church. Prays for you and me, and that man on the street. Paul prays we would know that we all belong to the same God and Father. That we may be strengthened in our faith, that Christ would dwell in our hearts, that we would be rooted and grounded in love, and that we may know with every ounce of our being the abundance and awe inspiriting love God has for us and all of God’s children.
He prays that we would be so filled with God’s Spirit that we could see past the limitations of our own physical bodies, our own narrow vision of God and God’s desires for us and that we would trust God so explicitly with all that we are and all that we have that we would be able to accomplish things for Christ that are beyond our wildest imaginations which will continue well past when our life has ended.
This prayer is huge. Just reading it seems overwhelming. It is something we want so badly for ourselves, for our church and for those who don’t yet know Jesus. When we spend time thinking about this kind of love, it is hard to not get giddy with excitement.
It’s like hearing someone say I love you for the first time. Our hearts race, faces flush, we get butterflies in our stomachs, you can hardly sit still and you cannot wait to shout it from the mountaintop.
It is just too much to bear. And sometimes, we are so overwhelmed with our own love, gratitude, and excitement we don’t know where to start. How do you show your love for them? Words, songs, poetry or do you do nice things for them, buy gifts, do favors or go to the ends of the earth for them?
This happens when it comes to God and how we respond to God’s love for us too.
For some, the focus is on words. Have you said the prayer, confessed your faith in front of others, been baptized, and do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? There is a strong focus for many on words; on reading scripture, praying, preaching, professing and sharing testimony, using words to convince the world that they too need a personal relationship with Jesus. They spend a lot of time being rooted and grounded in their love and relationship with God. But for some, it ends there.
Then there are others who focus on action. They want to show others the height and depth and breadth of love through their willingness to go to the ends of the earth for someone else. These are your volunteers, your workers, the ones who are challenging the church to dream big dreams, try something new for Jesus. They may not talk about Jesus a lot. Their mantra is akin to the words of St Francis “preach often, only using words when necessary”. They may say – what’s the use of telling someone Jesus loves them if their stomachs are grumbling so loudly that your words are drowned out? They believe you show someone the love of God by loving them and meeting their needs. But they may not stop working long enough to talk about Jesus or listen to him.
Both ways are needed. We all have different love languages (Gary Chapman). Someone may be more likely to respond to one and not the other. But each on their own doesn’t fulfill what God has imagined for us. We need both.
Those whose primary focus is words and a person’s internal relationship with God can forget we are called and saved for a purpose. In extreme circumstances a person may spend all day in prayer, telling God how much they love Jesus, and neglect to love their neighbor. Jesus tells us the way we treat others, is the way we treat him. What good does it do to tell Jesus we love him if we aren’t willing to be kind when we meet him?
On the other hand, those whose focus is on action often neglect to introduce others to their reason for giving and helping. And the danger for them is they work so hard and give so much that they run out of fuel. They burn out and dry up. They don’t have the roots in personal prayer and relationship with God to sustain them when times get difficult. They may not receive the spiritual nourishment they need to do the work of God. And, without it, they fall into the trap of believing they are accomplishing tasks by their own power and will and may even forget who they are serving.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism tells us there can be no personal holiness without social holiness and no social holiness without personal holiness. We need both to be whole and both to grow in our faith and in our relationship with God.
To fully experience the breadth, and length and height and depth of the love of God in Christ, we must access it in our quiet private devotional times and personal prayer, but we also must access it in service to and with others, helping, loving and encouraging people you know and those you don’t.
Jesus isn’t just in the heart, or in this room. Jesus is out there. Why would you want to profess your love for someone and never meet them face to face?
This is how we come to a better understanding of how much we are loved. But this is also how we learn to expand our imaginations and begin to dream big God-sized dreams and given the strength and desire to seek after them.
God doesn’t want you to sit at home, comfortable with your own ideas, and limitations. There is a whole world of love and promise out there for you. Nor does God want you to go out in the world on your own, a lone ranger fixing the problems of the world by yourself. God wants you to take the Spirit with you fueled by worship, study, and prayer.
We need both, we need each other, to encourage our weaknesses, support our efforts at stepping out of our comfort zone, and to hold each other accountable. People of prayer need people of action to bring them along and people of action need people of prayer to help them slow down and refocus on God’s will.
Jesus wants you to experience all the dimensions of his love, not just one. Allow Jesus to love you- inside and out.