Your love is extravagant

Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-21

What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “extravagant?”

By definition extravagance has to do with a lack of restraint in spending money or using resources. It’s a word associated with luxury, lavishness, comfort and indulgence. An extravagance is usually something optional, over-the-top and unnecessary, a waste really.

Yet Scripture tells us that God’s love for us is extravagant.

High and wide and deep and long, it breaks through our human dimensions of time and space. Intimate and endless, it transcends our reason and understanding. Inclusive and enduring, it defies all earthly limits and all our efforts to contain and control it.

In our Gospel this week, we read of God’s extravagant love being unveiled to a large crowd of people who had followed Jesus across Lake Galilee because of his power to heal the sick. Among them was also a large number of pilgrims heading towards Jerusalem to offer the traditional unblemished lamb as a Passover sacrifice in memory of their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Now, we know from Mark’s retelling of this event that the disciples had recently returned from their own healing and teaching ministries and were tired, so Jesus had taken them off to a desolate place along the shoreline in the hope of having some time to eat and rest and share with them.

But when he was confronted by this mass of about 15 000 people (including the women and children of the group) so desperate to know of the power and presence of God moving among them that they had run on foot to get ahead of him, Jesus’s heart was full of compassion.

Because God’s love for us is extravagant: high and wide and deep and long, it breaks through our human dimensions of time and space so we’re never unwelcome, never unwanted, never intruding. When we reach for God, our needs are met with power, our deepest longings with loving-kindness.

Knowing full-well how he would deal with the massive crowd who just longed to be near him, Jesus asked one of his disciples, Philip, where they could buy enough food to offer hospitality to them all.

Philip’s reply is interesting in the way in which it demonstrates the difference between our own mindset and God’s. Notice how Philip actually avoids the question that Jesus asks of “where” this food can be bought and responds with how much it would cost if everyone was to have even a little piece.

Philip was blind to the extravagance of Christ’s intentions because of his own preoccupation with numbers: the size of the crowd, the cost of the food, how much – or how little – each person could have in order to keep their expenditure to a minimum. In Philip’s eyes, the extravagance of love that would be demonstrated by feeding a crowd of this size was reduced to a more symbolic act of offering a mere mouthful – and even that was beyond their current financial limitations!

His friend and fellow disciple was a little more creative. At least Andrew took the initiative to find a nearby food source. But even as he presented the child with his five barley loaves (a poor man’s bread) and two small fish, he evaluated what was on offer against what was needed and concluded that it just wasn’t enough.

But God’s love for us is extravagant … even though we are slow to comprehend both its nearness and its magnitude. Intimate and endless, it transcends our reason and understanding. When we focus on our limits, God reveals the untold riches of God’s glory and favour. When we are driven by the sense of “not enough,” God unveils a power and a plan beyond what we could ever have imagined or guessed at or requested.

So Jesus instructed the disciples to have everyone sit down. Imagine what welcome words those must have been to these desperate, hopeful, hurting people who had run so far from their homes to find him in the desolate place.

And he took the little that was on offer from one of the little ones in the gathering – who, for the record, isn’t named or even numbered among the 5000 because of his young age – and he gave thanks to God and began breaking it so that the disciples could share it out among the people.

Miraculously, the food multiplied, and everyone ate as much as they wanted, until they were completely satisfied. From the little that was offered, grew – in the breaking and the sharing – not just enough to feed 15 000 people, but more than enough with twelve baskets full of leftovers being gathered together!

Because God’s love for us is extravagant … but in no way over-the-top nor unnecessary nor wasteful. Inclusive and enduring, it defies all earthly limits and all our efforts to contain and control it.

Growing from a little, multiplying through dividing and sharing, this is what the table, the cross, the church, the kingdom of God is all about!

Yet, the immediate response of the people to this extravagant love was the desire to take hold of Jesus and forcefully make him their king. God-with-them on a grassy hill no longer measured up to their ambitious scheme to overthrow their Roman rulers so Jesus withdrew into the hills from the God-over-our-enemies mentality that even today seeks to cleave and crush and conquer.

Even the disciples were in danger of getting sucked in to this predictable plot which is why – in the other gospel accounts – Jesus, in fact, commanded them to head across the lake towards Bethsaida without him.

Their inability to control and contain the extravagance of God’s love, God’s plans, God’s kingdom was soon made apparent as a strong wind began to blow and the waves got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and they couldn’t even manage to get themselves to where they wanted to go.

But Jesus came towards them, walking on the water, speaking words of profound truth and deep peace: “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” And they happily took him into the boat with them and landed immediately at the place where they wanted to go – even though, through their own strained efforts, they had only made it about halfway to the opposite shore.

Those words in the Aramaic allude more strongly to “you know who I AM” than just “it is I.” Against the backdrop of darkness and the desolate place, at the time of Passover, with the manna-like provision of bread and the Moses-like power over the sea, these words are the climax of this chapter and the heart of the Good News: that Christ Jesus, the son of the Great I AM WHO I AM and I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE is the extravagance of God’s love given shape, present and active and moving among us.

As they landed at Bethsaida, on the opposite end of the lake to Jerusalem, Jesus resumed his work of bringing God’s great love for the world within reach of everyone. Soon everyone would hear him confess …

“I AM the bread of life,”

“I AM the light of the world,”

“I AM the good shepherd,”

“I AM the way, the truth, and the life.”

And they would know it was true for he fed the 5000, restored sight to the blind, sought out those for whom society no longer cared, and rose from the dead to restore to us the very fullness of life.

As we gather as church in a particular time and a particular place, we sit in fellowship with one another and in the refreshing presence of God to be met by the extravagance of God’s love and fed from the Bread of life.

The challenge though is not to try to control or contain what we receive as though God’s love is not enough but to allow the resting place of God’s love to become the very source and root of our life as the people of God within our particular community.

God’s love for us is extravagant. May our love for the world be no less high or wide or deep or long.

 

Called is at our core

For as many years as I have been involved in ministry within the Church, I have wondered:

What is the essential difference between those who call themselves Christians and those who affiliate themselves with a different religion or belief system?

It is a question which goes to the heart of who we are and what on earth we’re here for.  It gives shape to the way that we work, that we celebrate, that we love, that we give, that we speak, that we rest.  It is the core that keeps us standing and steady in spite of the challenges and difficulties of life, that allows us to move and dance with God’s Spirit, that enables us to reach out connect in a meaningful and life-giving manner with the world around us.

At our core is the fact that we have heard God calling us and have chosen to respond in a particular way that opens up new life: new ways of being and seeing and doing.

Each and every person in the world – whether Christian or non-Christian – has a special, God-given calling on their life.

George Bernard Shaw wrote:

This is the true joy of life; the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature rather than a feverish selfish little cloud of ailments complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Within every human being lies a hunger for significance; a need to know that our lives count for something; a deep-seated desire to leave the world a different place because we were here.

For many, this desire can become an overwhelming drive that leads down the path of increasing narcissism and inflated egos, but for the Christian this “drive” should manifest instead as an ongoing, unfolding call to discover who we are and why we were created.

As I understand it today, my unique calling is to use my sense of play and prayerful imagination to create opportunities for others to connect more deeply with God, with themselves, and with others.  It is a calling which has grown through my Sunday School years, to my acceptance of Christ as Lord during my adolescence, to the years spent preaching in churches and teaching in schools, to that moment when I first took off my shoes and stepped out from behind the pulpit in answer to the deepening invitation to come before God as I was.

The journey to discovering our life’s calling can be a daunting one.  Sometimes we may be afraid to undertake it because we’re not sure we’ll like where God might lead us.  Sometimes we simply don’t know where to begin, but Ephesians 1:3-23 reveals three calls common to all Christians that might provide a meaningful starting point for further exploration.

Ephesians 1:3-6 We are called to be children of God

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in my adult life is that God is not a God of demand and expectation but a God of grace and invitation.  God does not love us because of what we do or accomplish.  God’s favor is not swayed by the size of our house or the number of degrees on the wall.  God does not smite us because we’re late for church or forgot to say grace before supper.  Nor does God pour down riches upon us because we’ve been very, very good or put an exorbitant amount into the collection plate.

God does not need us to boost his ego or to prove his importance. God does not desire us to serve him blindly as slaves do a master.  This is what Paul tells the Ephesians that long before the foundations of the earth had been laid, he had settled on you and me as the focus of his love and blessing – and so we are called to be his family, his beloved sons and daughters.  We are invited into intimacy and unbreakable relationship with our Father God who makes us whole and holy through his great love for us.

The problem with this wonderful father-daughter/father-son image is that all too often we get stuck in the terrible toddler or teen years of our faith: we mistake the invitation for permission to behave like spoiled, self-centered brats who throw tantrums when we don’t get our own way or slam the bedroom door when we don’t like what daddy has to say.

The call to be children of God is a call to grow up and mature under the example, the affirmation, and the discipline of a dad who is strong and compassionate, just and forgiving, firm and creative, wise and good.

It is a call to discover which of his attributes we have inherited and to take responsibility for exercising them in a manner that brings honor to the family name.

It’s a call to exercise our free will and independence knowing that God is always available for a loving conversation when we’re uncertain of our choices or worried that we’ve somehow let him down.

It’s a call to celebrate our kinship, our connectedness – both to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to every single man, woman, and child who was knit together by God regardless of their race, color, gender, religion, sexual preference, socio-economic status or whatever other label we use to separate and compare ourselves.

We are all called to be children of the God who imagined, made, and named every one of us “very good.”

Ephesians 1:7-14 We are called to be united with Christ

This, this is the call that we think we know off by heart.  We hear it in the Gospel reading each week.  We sing glorious, spirit-lifting songs day in and day out about what Jesus means to us: how his sacrifice on the cross has set us free from the power of sin; how his resurrection from the grave has made us victorious, even over death; how one day he will come again to establish a new heaven and a new earth.

But the call to be united with Christ does far beyond a few “thank you’s” or uplifted arms or Easter tears.

For to be united with him means joining our hearts, our minds, our mission with his:

  • his plans become our plans,
  • his anger at the injustices of this world, our anger,
  • his defense of the adulteress about to be stoned to death, our protection of all sinners who stand in the place of judgment and condemnation,
  • his arms welcoming in the little children, our advocacy for the vulnerable and the voiceless,
  • his feeding of the five thousand, our responsibility for those living below the bread line.

Even his sacrifice upon the cross becomes the life that we are willing to lay down for another.

“It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for,” Paul tells the Church in Ephesus.

The call to be united with Christ is a call to look beyond the fortune and the fame and the protection and the power that we so often mistakenly equate with the abundance of life promised in Christ to the sacrifice and servanthood of Jesus that will make our lives truly significant.

It is a call to discover our part in the overall purpose that he is working out right now – in everything and everyone – for a praising and glorious life, an eternal life of peace and hope and love and unity.

Sounds good?

If we’re deeply honest with ourselves the promise of Christ’s shalom is actually problematic in terms of our desire to be centre stage and our tendency to evaluate the quality of our life against another’s.  When others are in hell, we can say that we are blessed, but what happens if everyone is blessed?

Sadly, our superior worth is all-too-often proven by how much more we have or know.  And one of the “mores” that we love to hold over others is the fact that Christ is on our side – as if he only cares for the fraction of the world known by his name and nobody else.

The call to be united with Christ is a call to the cross with our judgements and pride, with our pet hates and secret ambitions, with our going-through-the-motions-to-see-what-we-can-get kind of faith, with our prejudiced pictures of who doesn’t belong with us in heaven – so that we can be free. And not just barely free.  Abundantly free! that we might love and liberate those still bound by the fear of penalties and punishments.

Ephesians 1:15-23 We are called to be the Church through which God speaks and acts.

Not the Catholic Church. Nor the Methodist Church. Not Matthew’s Party Church.  While we may find meaning in the doctrines and practices of a particular denomination, the Church of Christ is far more than that.

Neither are we called to be the followers of Paul or Peter or whatever particular pastor or minister passed through a while back with the most wonderful personality or glorious preaching style.

We are not called to be the church with the biggest sanctuary, the best worship team, or the most miracles.  We are certainly not called to be the church on the corner in competition with the church on the other corner.  Or the church for the old people as opposed to the church with the young people.  Or the church for the black people instead of the church for the white people.

We are not called to be the church on the margins who piously keeps her hands clean of the politics and priorities of the world.

We’re not called to be a lovely little community club which gathers for the entertainment and upliftment of its fee-paying, card-carrying, uniform-wearing* members.

We are nit called to be a charity or a non-profit organization that gives handouts to the helpless and feels a little bit better about ourselves.

We are called to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts.  That’s it!  That’s our role.  That’s our significance.  That’s our calling: to engage with energy and passion in the utter extravagance of God’s work at the centre of human life and activity.

God calls us to get messy – to be hands on – where life and death and joy and pain are happening.  In shopping centers and schools, in retirement villages and paintball arcades, in hospitals and homes, in huge corporations and small home businesses, God longs to speak and act and chooses to do so with and through us.

The call to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts is a call to put aside personal plans and agendas, to challenge ungodly acts and self-centered ambitions in our structures and our leadership, to place Christ again at the centre of our discernment and decisions, to be the agent by which God fills everything with his presence – and not our own.

How do we reclaim the integrity of this call in an era of alternative truths and decaying moral values?

Paul prays for the Ephesians: that they will be intelligent and discerning enough to get to know God personally; that they will stay focussed and clear in the way of life that Jesus has opened up to them; and that they may see exactly what it is that God is calling them to do.

As you seek to follow the call of Christ within your community and Christian life may you hear the call to be a child of God and commit to knowing him personally.

May you receive the call to be united with Christ and stay focussed on his sacrifice and servanthood.

May you be challenged by the call to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts and engage with what it is exactly that you need to do and be in order to be the centre of your community and not just a church on the periphery of human life.

And may God give you endless energy and boundless strength to fill everything with his presence.

 

 

*A note on uniforms: this is not a dig at the various church organizations or denominations that wear uniforms, but a general comment about the standards of uniformity that have crept into our churches.  The “youth” often have a dress code that is different to the “elders” of the church, that is different to the moms, that is different to the singles hoping to find a good match etc.

 

 

Grow up!

In Ephesians 4:1-16, the apostle Paul provides a perfect picture of what it means to be a Christian: walk – no! RUN – on the road God has called us to travel. No one sitting on their hands idle. No one strolling down a path that leads to nowhere. No one declaring at the top of their lungs, “I’ll do it my way!” No fits and starts; no frantic, inconsistent bursts of activity … but all of us, as part of a Christian community, traveling together in the same direction, sharing:

  • the same faith,
  • the same hope,
  • the same baptism,
  • the same God and Father of all.

In essence, in this passage, Paul instructs those who call themselves Christians to act like grown ups: pouring themselves out for each other in acts of love, accepting one another’s differences, mending any disagreements, serving one another with humility and discipline.

It’s actually a little offensive, especially as adults, to be told that we need to grow up but when we look closely at our actions or talk to those who have left the church disillusioned, it becomes a pertinent word for us when …

… we come to the table to share in the body and blood of Christ but are actually not speaking to each other because of deep-seated mistrust and resentment …

… we are so moved by our Sunday worship that we sign up for a ministry or a course we  feel that God is calling us to but within a week have lost all passion and energy and will to show up and let God surprise us …

… we can’t wait to make it to a leadership position because then we no longer have to be a follower but have the power to pursue our own picture, to advance our own agenda …

… we pick and choose Scripture in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves and others downright terrible about themselves …

… we make others pay for the privilege of worshipping with us, praying with us, fellowshipping with us or learning with us, rather than tithing consistently so that the church can do whatever, whenever she hears the Spirit prompting …

… we show up only if we’re interested in who’s preaching or what they have to say or, simply, have an errand-free morning for a change …

… we claim to love the uniqueness, the newness of a church community then set out to make it exactly the same as the one from which we came …

… we just can’t seem to show up on time – not for one another; not even for God …

… we stop showing up at all because we no longer “feel” the worship or know the songs or like the way that things are being done ….

Paul reminds us that in many ways we are still infants, small children, spiritual babes who God wants to grow up knowing the whole truth and telling it in love.

And the truth begins with:

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,
a sinner, a fake, a fraud,
a babe in the woods who has failed to stay on your straight paths
but strolled off on my own meandering way.

Forgive me for 
the poverty of my faith,
the withholding of my love,
the enormity of my ego,
the strife in my relationships,
the lack of discipline in my discipleship
and humility in my leadership.

Show me how I cling to my childish ways;
strip me of my preconceived ideas and grand notions;
put me into deep waters where I will learn to depend on your strength and your grace;
comfort and sustain me as I experience the pain of growth
and the inconvenience of having to change direction
and learning to walk at a new pace.

In the name of the One who descended to the dead
and ascended into heaven,
may I be free from the things that hold me back –
the hurts, the grudges, the time pressures, the secret ambitions –
that I may move rhythmically and easily 
with you and with all your beloved:
a fully mature adult;
fully developed;
fully alive, in and through, and with Christ.

Me, me, me is the language of infants whose world revolves around their needs; the talk of toddlers throwing tantrums in the middle of the floor when they cannot get their way.

“We” is the language that permeates us with Oneness;  that connects us with the triune nature of God; that allows our differences to become gifts to one another and our disagreements to be dealt with humbly and gently, even as we stay together through the difficulty and discomfort of conflict or change.

May there be more of “we” and less of “me” as we surrender to Christ as the source of everything we do and the head who keeps us in step with each other.

 

The Promises of Parenthood

In Ephesians 3:14-21 we see that the family – as an ideal – is an expression of God’s great love for us, and a means by which we grow in the knowledge and understanding and experience of how wide and long and deep and high that love is.

As God is community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – so God gives us community that we may never have to walk alone through the trials and turmoil of life; that there may be a place, a space, where we are truly and intimately known; that there may be for each of us an opportunity to experience an unconditional love which gives us a tiny glimpse at the face of a God who lived and died and rose for love that we might live life to its fullest.

The reality is that in many homes these days, horrific things happen. They are places of hurt and heartache rather than the safe haven that God intended because we have forgotten to root our family lives in the example and foundation of God’s love for us and to treat each member of our families as a sacred, precious gift to us.

And so moments where Christian parents profess their desire to raise their children in homes established by God’s love are particularly solemn occasions as profound promises are made:

Will you take Jessie to your home
and cherish her in the morning,
guide her in the noontime,
comfort her in the evening?
Will you show her the earth and all her blessings,
The kindliness of her Maker,
The grace of the Spirit upon each thing,
And the benefits of Christ’s healing Gospel?
So when she comes to leave your house to travel her own path
She may trust in the generous clasp of God’s own hands
And walk with God until her days’ end
And know her final dwelling place as her home from home?
With the help of God, we will.

(Promises written by Tess Ward)