The Love of Christ
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, September 24, 2023
“To comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.”
UNIVERSITY STUDENTS across the street are studying, reading, experimenting, attending lectures, talking and debating the great issues. For centuries students have sought higher knowledge and honed their skills for the lives they will lead. College is an important time of finding out who you are. While students cram facts and ideas into their heads about the world around them, they are making a discovery even more astounding—like the little galleons of Columbus, they sail into the New World port that is themselves.
That which goes out comes back at the same time. It’s like the basic law of physics that says every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Whack a stick at a tree trunk, and the tree trunk makes a painful reverberation down the length of that stick into your hand. Punch me in the nose, and my nose punches you in the fist. Learn psychology, and you can’t help practicing on yourself. The English you read becomes the language you speak. Write a song, and the song writes a little bit of you. Columbus may have discovered and named Indians on a beach in the New World, but those Indians discovered an Italian, and Spanish sailors.
When children become adults, they make the most magical and earth shattering of discoveries. They find their hearts. And hearts can love. Now, love is not just a feeling, but it evokes a great many feelings: elation, joy, excitement, fear, dread, panic, and heartache to name a few.
The greatest commands of God are to love, so we are really in trouble thinking that love is a feeling. Your feelings come unbidden, for the most part. I may wake up anxious. I feel annoyed at the news. I am excited about meeting someone. I can’t help these feelings. They may be the results of choices I’ve made in the forgotten past, attitudes I’ve fostered in relating to my world, but my feelings are part of me, like my digestion or my breathing. I don’t know how God can judge my soul for my feelings. So, what kind of command is it: to love?
St. Paul writes a powerful prayer he offers on his knees. It’s one of the most beautiful requests ever made. He prays to God “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Eph 3:15-19 Christ is to dwell in our hearts, rooting us in love, in order to bring about a kind of knowledge. This is strong stuff, graduate work, a doctoral thesis. What’s he mean? Someday I’ll know. But let’s observe what we can.
The core of the prayer is to “know the love of Christ.” What is the love of Christ, and how are we to know it? We read His great story in the Gospel accounts. We come before an altar and together we sense the heart of worship. We come to faith in this amazing Person who is both God and man, alive so long ago, and alive above us still. His words touch the deepest longings of our hearts. His assurances that we are forgiven, and that He has opened a way for us to eternal life, strengthen our resolve to remain in the company of this Jesus. The knowledge of this great Person causes us to want Him, and we feel the stirrings of love. The most amazing fact we might learn about this wisest of men is that long before we ever knew anything about Him, He knew about you and me, and He loved us enough to die for our lives. His love came first. Our love responds. Romans 5:8 What goes out comes back again.
He loves us, in fact, He loves all people, everywhere, in all times. Yet it’s not the kind of love that says, “I love everybody.” It’s not possible for you or me to love this way, but He can love every person like it’s the most important relationship of all. To die for. So, you are loved by Christ, not in a collective kind of way, as to love “the masses.” Jesus says, “I love you, (fill this space with your own name).” And you start to love Him back. But love is more than a feeling. Perhaps love is a kind of knowledge.
Jesus said the world hates Him because He exposes its evil. John 7:8 The world is comprised of those who have heard of him and reject His love. They may change their minds, but now they hate Him. He loves them still. He says those who love Him obey Him and keep His word. John 14:21-24 We then see love is more than a feeling that runs away with you.
After His Resurrection, Jesus met with St. Peter on the lake shore and asked him, “Do you love me?” It bothered the Apostle to be asked that, and he objected that the Lord already knew he loved Him. Peter had failed Jesus the night of His arrest, three times denying Him. Now three times Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” By the end, Peter was in tears. But tears came to cleanse the guilt he had borne since that night. We know, now, that Jesus loves us. If the brutal image of a man nailed to a cross isn’t evidence of His love for you, you’re not paying attention. It’s shocking, but He must shock us into this knowledge. It’s shocking that God might indeed so love the world. His kind of love should shock us, like the paddles on a defibrillator.
Years ago, I watched a man die on the floor of Augie’s Cafe, just prior to a concert that had filled the place. His heart failed. EMTs responded and many compressions were administered, with several shocks of defibrillator paddles to jump start his heart. Whap! went the current. Nothing. They kept working. A friend and I stood six feet away and we prayed for him, but I knew he wasn’t making it. An ambulance stood silent outside. Seven or more times they shocked him, when they found a pulse, and breathing. Quickly, they lifted him on a gurney and off to Enloe Hospital. It was 8 months before I ever heard more. His wife called to claim their patio chairs left behind, and told me he was fine.
Jesus jump starts our hearts when we realize how much He loves us, He was even willing that His own heart burst, and be pierced with a Roman blade, for love of us. It’s not pretty. It isn’t a feeling. It’s a sacrifice. It’s powerful. This is to save your souls. This is a muscular love, passionate love. It makes the earth shake. Will you love this Savior, this man who holds out nail-scarred hands and says, “Father, forgive him, forgive her”? “Do you love me?” He asks us on our shore.
Paul prays that we know the love of Christ. I think he speaks of a two-way street. This isn’t a passive kind of knowledge. Nothing you learn can leave you unchanged. To know Him is to love Him. To know His love is to love Him back. That which goes out comes back again. And there’s another reason this love is more than a feeling.
Feelings can’t be kept up forever. You feel thrilled in one moment; Jesus has personally touched your heart. To see and touch His feet can send you into raptures of adoration and gratitude. Our best moments of worship remain in our memories and feed us for years. But the feeling departs as life pours back in, and we lose the thread of it when a person argues with us and gives us the stink eye. It’s hard to focus on loving Jesus all the time, and even if we could, He never commanded us to feel a feeling. We are to love Him with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds and all our strength. Matt 12:30 Our hearts may respond with feelings, but our wills, our minds, our bodies may act this love out differently than we might describe as fondness. Our minds feed on knowledge and that exalts us when we know God in a new and dramatic way. If we can express it, all the better. That’s loving Christ, too.
Even if we can’t love Him 100% every moment with feeling, we have made a commitment to take Him as Lord and Savior, to believe He is God the Son forever, born of the Virgin Mary, who died to save us, and rose again bodily the 3rd day. Holding that faith undaunted in this contrary world is an act of loving Jesus. Being willing to confess it in the face of opposition is loving Him. Prayer is conversation with your loved One. That’s love too. Moving through life with the certainty of heaven, that He came for you and will come again for you: that’s love. It’s your response to the love He declared for you and still declares. “Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the world.” Matt 28:20
Once we have taken up this cause, He meets us in it and empowers us to keep the faith and stay the course. His Spirit comes within, and we get smarter. He will go on loving us, and nothing will separate us from His outpouring. Nothing ever will cause Him to back off from us. We may back off ourselves, but He pursues us. We can grow cold and offended, but that relationship has more chapters to write, more passages to enter, and He pursues us. His love never fails. It is beguiling.
Christ lives in our hearts because we believe. Love is the ground of this relationship, first comprised of His love toward us, and now our love is added and we grow in this love, like flowers in good soil. Our hearts soar as we grow upward and see the shining Lord above, like the sun in the sky. He is the Son in heaven. His love reaches us and our love responds. A different kind of knowledge comes to be, and we experience God in ways we never imagined. The saints walk before us, and with them we begin to observe dimensions never dreamed of: height, width, breadth and depth. The Love of Christ is both His love—love from Christ—and our love—you and I loving Christ. Once joined in Him, we can’t help this equal and opposite reaction: we will love as He loves. The loves touch, merge, and become one. It surpasses knowledge and feeling and earthly experience, and finally runs out of adequate words. And we just dwell in it. Solid, like granite, clear as crystal, golden as the light of dawn, and fresh as a spring morning: the love of Christ beckons us. What goes out comes back to us, and we are lost in love.