Archive for July, 2015

Ephesians 3:14-21

July 28, 2015

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but the Epistle runs over me like a sluice of words.  I do sense the writer’s passion, and I jump to attention at the thought of being “filled with all the fullness of God.”  What I do not fathom is how to tie all those wonderful words to my actual life.  What would it feel like to be “filled with the fulness of God”?

Suppose we asked Jesus to interpret this Epistle reading.  I imagine he would say that the writer was describing what he, Jesus, called the kingdom of God.  Since that was Jesus’ main teaching, I’d like to explore what he meant by kingdom of God; and in the process it might give us an idea of what the Epistle writer meant by being “filled with the fulness of God.”

Here’s my approach to understanding the kingdom of God.  In 1985 Stuart and I were living in California, within a five mile radius of Stanford Hospital.  A family from Boston had been accepted into the Hospital’s heart-lung transplant program, provided they could find housing within a five mile radius of the hospital.  We volunteered.

Laura was in her 30’s and had had a weak heart from birth.  Now it was showing signs of giving out.  She and her mother and father came to live with us in the spring, and it was not until summer a year later that a heart-lung became available — donated by a young motorcycle rider.  Those were 14 heart-wringing months.  Laura’s finger nails became blue, and then more and more blue.  She came to the table for meals, but as the months went by she had to lie down and rest more and more frequently between bites.

The call came from the hospital just in time, as it seemed to me.  The day after the surgery I went to visit Laura.  She was still in bed, but her fingernails were pink, her eyes sparkled, and her voice was full of inflection.  I witnessed a nearly instant transformation.

Laura’s experience helps me understand Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God.  Judaism in Jesus’ day centered around the sacrificial system in the temple.  People brought an animal to the temple; a priest would slay it; and drain out all of the blood.  This draining was the crucial thing.  The people could take the carcass and they might make a feast with it; but the blood belonged to God.  The blood stood for life.  The blood was sacred.  I like to think that if you brought an animal to the priest you stood by as it was slaughtered with your hand on its head, signifying that this animal was standing in for you.  Symbolically, you were giving your life to God.

Laura’s experience helped me actually feel why Judaism attached such awe to blood.  Through it God gave life and God took away life.  Given all that I’ve just said, imagine the shock Jesus’ disciples felt at the last supper.  Jesus told them to drink blood — to imbibe what was sacred, what must not be touched.  He was giving them more than a tame metaphor.  When they drank that wine they would be taking into themselves Jesus’ own life.  Their hands and arms must have trembled and shook as they passed the cup, one to another.

Jesus knew — so to speak — that after he was gone the spiritual fingernails of his disciples would begin to turn blue.  It wouldn’t be enough for them to repeat what he had taught them; though that was essential too.  He needed them to have access to the same spiritual life that he had.  That is, they needed to have access to the kingdom of God.  You could say that his blood needed to flow in their veins.

In fact, during his whole ministry Jesus had seen people going about with blue fingernails, as it were.  He sees people in our day in that condition, too.  We take religion to be a matter of concepts, of right beliefs and of correct practices.  All of Jesus’ teaching aimed at a spiritual heart-lung transplant.  That is what he had in mind when he spoke about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God was not just another concept, like truth or justice or salvation.  The kingdom of God was an experience of the whole body, of being immersed in love.  St. Paul put it this way, “In [the kingdom of God] we live and move and have our being.”  Or as Jesus said to his disciples, “….[Y]ou will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

There is a level of reality — the kingdom of God — that is deeper than concepts and practices.  Jesus could not define or explain the kingdom of God in his teaching, because it is not a concept; it is an experience, like waking up from surgery pulsing with energy.

The kingdom of God takes us out of our heads and into our hearts and bodies.  It takes us out of our ideas and into a felt sense of our common life — a felt sense of the same blood flowing in you as flows in me.

Perhaps you are asking yourself this.  Why is what I am saying not just one more concept?  How does it become a living part of us?  How does the wine we receive at communion cease to be a nice ritual and become an actual transfusion — bringing forth pink fingernails, sparkling eyes, and a voice full of inflection?

Let’s go back to Laura.  Laura was dying; she had blood, but she needed more than blood.  She needed a heart and lungs to make it red.  What is the spiritual equivalent of that pair of organs?  Isn’t it prayer?

Prayer is not necessarily, or even primarily a matter of words.  Prayer is simple, grateful attention.  It can be practiced in the garden, at the easel, or in quiet repose with a loving, listening, divine presence.  Simple, grateful attention can be practiced in good health and in bad, in carefree times and times of worry.  Prayer, however we practice it, pumps the blood of Christ into every cell of our being, bringing love and eternal life.  Or as the writer to the Ephesians put it, through prayer ,“we may be filled with all the fullness of God.”