‘…that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
In today’s epistle, our Holy Spirit inspired teacher, an apostle in the glorious church of Christ, writes to us from the midst of intense suffering. By all outward appearances, St. Paul has been stripped of his very humanity, caged like an animal in a dungeon built to house the evil scum unfit to dwell in Rome’s empire. Of course, Paul has been falsely accused by his enemies, but it seems so very wrong that God’s chosen ambassador to the pagan world should be imprisoned by lies. Where is the power of God in that jail cell? How can God choose and love someone only to watch him suffer?
Earlier in chapter 3, St. Paul has just finished gazing in wonder at the great mystery of God’s undeserved mercy upon the Gentiles of the world, and how God has chosen him to preach ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’ to all men, so that the very rulers of the world might bow down and recognize the true source of all authority and power in the world. Why God wouldn’t simply destroy the heathen nations of the earth, or destroy you and me for that matter, is an enormous mystery we can easily take for granted. Surely, the stink of human injustice and selfishness would most easily be dealt with by flattening the earth and starting again, but as St. Paul tells us in the first chapter of his letter, ‘[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved’ (Ephesians 1:4-6). The beautiful and astonishing mystery of God’s salvation of the new world begins before the foundation of the old, and it is within this unstoppable purpose of God that St. Paul sits in a prison writing to his beloved fellow sons and daughters of the Almighty. The adoption has already happened, and so just as my son can never stop being my son, the sons and daughters of God cannot be ripped away from this eternal union created in the blood of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
So, even in jail, in the city where he will be martyred, St. Paul can get on his knees and connect with the omnipotent God who has power of over all creation, including the rebellious earthly power which has placed him in chains, for there is no power in heaven or on earth which can sever our Holy Spirit-ensured communion with the Father. And if we are everlastingly connected to God, then we are always being strengthened for and within the struggles and pain God will use for our sanctification: our being made holy.
Which raises the question, ‘Is holiness worth it?’ Is holiness worth the suffering all true Christians face as they follow Christ and make themselves the enemy of an evil world? Yes, it’s worth it a thousand times over. Our only goal in this life is holiness, for it is the only thing we will take from this world to the next. All activities and relationships must be judged by how they contribute to the pursuit of holiness. We are married so that we may help our spouses be holy; we are parents so that we may lead our children to holiness; we work hard so that we may be free to spend more time pursuing holiness. A Christian even exercises, not so he can look better in a swimsuit or maybe live a couple more years; rather, he keeps himself in good physical condition so he may better pursue holiness for himself and for his neighbors and for his family. A saved human fights for holiness; the damned and confused long for fleeting pleasures to distract them from their despair. We should approach this daunting task with ‘fear and trembling’ because it is through this calling that we prepare ourselves to stand before the God by which all holiness and righteousness is judged and measured. If we believe we can be a Christian and not pursue holiness as the most important part of our lives then we have been sold a lie which robs us of the love of the cross and our gracious access to the power of God. A lie that robs us of everything capable of outlasting this temporary world.
And so, St. Paul prays for our holiness, and this beautiful prayer bears repeating, ‘that according to the riches of [God’s} glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength 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, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Eph. 3:16-19). St. Paul prays that our inner being may more and more be conquered by the power of the Spirit that our hearts might be the ever more holy space in which Christ reigns supreme.
But, we must be careful not to imagine our hearts or inner beings as some abstract zone of religiosity absent from our everyday lives. If Jesus reigns in our hearts, He reigns in our lives. If we are rooted and grounded in Christian love we must be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ revealed on the cross: a love which surpasses all knowledge because we cannot hope to contain it in our minds. This is the definition of a true mystery: a truth so huge and incomprehensible that our earthly lives are to be spent discovering new facets of its infinite dimensions. Why else do we come together to hear and say the same words over and over again? We hear the Bible and say the liturgy because thousands of years of repetition is an utterly humble acknowledgement that we have not and will not understand the sacrificial love of Christ in this life. No one comes to church once in a while and just owns the cross-shaped love of God; it isn’t that kind of love because that kind of superficial, consumeristic love is ultimately worthless in either a dungeon or on our deathbed. And so it is no surprise as men live lives more and more disconnected from any kind of church St. Paul would recognize that they then find Christ’s love so much more absent and distant. The love of Christ becomes a fairy tale men feel they can pull off the shelf when they need it, rather than the true story of the universe written on our hearts and revealed in our every action. You and I need the love of Christ like a tree needs water; we need it to be the root and grounding and very heart of our lives or we are truly and utterly broken.
And so, we pray for the incomprehensible power of God to save us from our brokenness, to fill us with the incomprehensible love of God revealed for 33 years in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and revealed every day by the church of Christ on her knees and on her feet trying to contain within ourselves the impossible fullness of God. This weight of glory can seem impossible to bear, but there is no one else to bear it. We have been called; we have been chosen to bear it, and we must. For, when we bear it, even if only for the moment of this brief life, we can finally understand that the power and love of God converge on the cross. There, the perfect plan of God and the best part of humanity came together to shout the great mystery of God’s love into the darkness. The mystery which proves that we are not God; the mystery which proclaims that God is bigger than all our dreams and knowledge, and His divine fullness is infinitely greater than anything we can contain. And yet, St. Paul prays that we be filled by this infinity, filled by the infinite and mysterious mercy of the God who would allow Himself to be murdered to save the world—a supernatural love seen in the Christian man or woman who embraces the mystery, chasing after it with everything they have, until the mystery of God’s love fully disarms us, until its majesty and glory force us to stand naked and without defense before the loving, consuming fire which will cleanse all, bring peace to all, and renew all. As we hear from the slaughtered lamb on His eternal throne in Revelation, ‘Behold I make all things new’ (Rev. 21:5). Just like our Lord on the cross, when we approach this mystery, it will kill us, but only in His death do we understand life, only in His death can we face the daily decay of our humanity and the destruction of all we love. We can take that death with joy, because the fallen world cannot strip us of the fullness of God’s righteousness and love placed in our souls by the blooded but unbroken victor of Calvary.
Let us pray with St. Paul, today and every day, that we would accept nothing less than God’s love, that we would be broken apart by the weight of glory, and be forever filled with the overflowing fullness of the Living God.