First Reading Genesis 9:8–17
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Psalm Psalm 136:1–9
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good, for God’s mercy endures forever. 2 Give thanks to the God of gods, for God’s mercy endures forever. 3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for God’s mercy endures forever; 4 who alone does great wonders, for God’s mercy endures forever; 5 who by wisdom made the heavens, for God’s mercy endures forever; 6 who spread out the earth upon the waters, for God’s mercy endures forever; 7 who made the great lights—for God’s mercy endures forever; 8 the sun to govern the day, for God’s mercy endures forever; 9 the moon and the stars to govern the night, for God’s mercy endures forever;
Second Reading Ephesians 3:14–21
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Gospel Mark 6:45–56
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. 53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
LOVE THAT SURPASSES KNOWLEDGE
Some of you may have noticed that I did something a bit different this morning. Normally I read the gospel lesson from an NRSV version Bible. Today, however, I read from a Bible my Dad used up until his death in 2005. It was given to me by the family and it’s a Bible I will, from time to time, pull out and use in my studies. I mention this, this morning, because of the images burned into my memory of my father, looking up at me from a well-worn, much marked, Bible asking me questions. The Bible was the source of his inspiration, the place where one of his favorite scripture passage from Romans was written: “Who shall separate us from the love Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:34-35 KJV).
Despite a life of considerable challenge and personal stress after his initial stroke, my father, despite his sight limitations, had most certainly been blessed with the power “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,” a love that surpasses knowledge. My father happily spent his entire life struggling with these truths of the Bible; that God’s forgiveness and love are limitless and through Dad’s questions, he wanted me to struggle as well with the width, height and depth of God’s limitless love. What I have come to realize is, that this is indeed a lifelong task. That from the beginning, from creation, God created us to love and to be in a relationship with Him. However, because of sin, genuine love is a concept that humankind has struggled with from creation and a concept that we continue to grapple with.
It’s difficult to grasp the fact that the root and foundation of creation is love. It “surpasses knowledge.” So far removed are we from the source of creation, so caught up are we in the human transformation of life that we have to struggle and pray and meditate in order to catch even a fleeting glimpse of “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”
We know and understand the love that comes as a reward for being good, for being faithful, for being kind, for giving gifts, and for acting with appropriate behavior. But this isn’t the love that is embedded in the foundation of creation. This isn’t the love that surpasses knowledge. This isn’t the love that Paul prays we might have the power to grasp. God’s love, agape love, is a love that flows freely, without consideration of reward or a plan for recompense. Agape is a love that, because of our sinful nature, is no longer inherent to our human nature.
As self-centered, sinful creatures, we’re much more inclined to return love for love and hostility for hostility. Scripture tells us, “… how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21). If we’re to approach the way of biblical love, we must spend considerable time meditating on what it means when the Bible says we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ.
In the book, The Fire of Your Life by Maggie Ross, there’s the story of a Jewish woman, a holocaust survivor, who every day at 4 p.m. stood outside the door of a New York cathedral, screaming obscenities and cursing at Jesus Christ. Week after week this went on as she vented the pain she had suffered as a survivor of death camps. It was her perception that Christianity had done this to her. One day, Bishop Coleman Myers came out of the church as this woman was screaming. He looked down at her and said in a kind and soft voice, “Why don’t you come in and tell him?” He took her into the chancel of the cathedral and left her alone at the foot of a large cross upon which hung the figure of Jesus. He waited an hour, but didn’t hear anything. When he reentered the chancel the woman was on the floor at the foot of the cross. He laid his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him and said, “Well, he was Jewish, too.”
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:22-23) This isn’t the love we see in Hollywood cinema. God’s love shown to us in Christ is a love that surpasses human understanding. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul calls it the foolishness if the Cross. Paul wrote; “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The foolishness of the cross doesn’t make sense because it takes faith. A faith that accepts the depth, height and width of God’s love. Although we’re called to follow in His steps, it’s only through faith that we’re able to do so. And while it’s difficult to follow in Jesus’ path, we can, with prayer, become transformed by it.
In the book, God’s Word in Man’s Language, author Eugene A. Nida explains that the Indians of eastern Nicaragua and Honduras say that love is “pain of the heart.” The Mayan people of the central highlands of Mexico understand the verse from John 3:16 to read, “God so hurt in his heart that he gave his only son.” Anyone who has loved long enough and deeply enough understands this connection between love and suffering, love and pain. As parents we understand this kind of love for our children. As the girls were growing up, Terry would sometimes say, I may not like you at the moment, but I’ll always love you. God’s love says even though you have hurt me, even though you have wronged me, I still love you. When we review the greatness of many men and women of history, we realize that one of the most outstanding measures of greatness is their capacity for suffering … suffering love.
- Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, describes the difference between love and dependency. Peck wrote, when someone says, “I love him (or her) so much that I just can’t live without him (or her), what you describe is parasitism, not love … Love is the free exercise of choice. Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but choose to live with each other.” Peck continues to describe this condition of dependency as the most common psychiatric disorder.
“People with this disorder, passive dependent people, are so busy seeking to be loved that they have no energy left to love … They are starving people, scrounging wherever they can for food, and with no food of their own to give to others. It’s as if within them they have an inner emptiness, a bottomless pit crying out to be filled but which can never be completely filled … They tolerate loneliness very poorly.”
There are occasional instances in which human acts become the conduits for agape love. But normal human behavior finds us standing behind barriers of political opinion, religious views, and personal differences. We take offense at how some dress. We cling obsessively to personal hurts. We allow our bitterness to separate us not only from neighbors, but from the closest family members. “She hurt me and I can’t forget her words.” “What he said about me was completely fabricated. I’ll never speak to him again.” “They never sent a thank-you note. That’s the last time I do anything for them.” “How could anyone with an ounce of intelligence vote for this candidate or that candidate? I could never associate with someone who would support that political party.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, “We must love them both: those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth, and helped us in the finding of it.” Just because we disagree, just because someone wrongs us, doesn’t mean we stop loving. One of my favorite quotations comes from the ancient philosopher Cicero: “There is no more certain sign of arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and ignorance than to stand apart from those who think differently from us.”
Too often, we allow differences to grow walls among us. How helpful it would be for us to remember that the one for whom we harbor bitterness, the one who holds a different opinion, the one who has different values, the one who dresses oddly … all these are individuals whom Christ loves and for whom He died. Besides, if we stop loving, if we stop communicating, stop reaching out, how will those we have differences with ever know the truth or love of God? May God grant us strength, in our inner being, to grasp the depth of this love of Christ, so that we may attain to fullness of being.
You and I have an incredible resource for achieving greatness in suffering love, for becoming conduits of God’s love. Listen to Paul’s prayer: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
To be filled with the fullness of God! Just think how that could change our behavior toward others. No longer would we reflect our human frailty, our shallow hurts and bitterness, our resentments at the unfairness of life which we all experience. Instead, we could become conduits to sheer love and acceptance and kindness.
Hear the words God speaks to us, just as he spoke to His Son at the Jordan River: “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11 cf). These words remind us that God’s acceptance is not dependent upon our performance. God loves us for who we are, not what we’ve done. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. God sent His only Son so that whosoever believes, whoever confesses their sins with a contrite heart and who does the will of the Father might have forgiveness and eternal life. God proclaimed at our baptism, “You are my son, you are my daughter, you are my beloved. God’s immeasurable love for us is so great that Paul wrote these words: May you have the power, “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” It’s a love that is so great we can only see hints of it in our world today.
Occasionally we’ve seen glimpses of this love reflected in those who have allowed themselves to be used by God in history: Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Oskar Schindler and Martin Luther King Jr, just to name a few from our recent past. These and many others gave of themselves, even at their own personal expense, for their fellowman. But this kind of love shouldn’t be and isn’t relegated to history; you and I see it from time to time in our own circles, perhaps in a mother’s patience or a father’s labor.
One story that reflects this kind of love is about little Willie, the smallest child of a sharecropping family in the 1940s. They had just enough money to survive. One time, through the mother’s careful saving, they had an extra dollar. Wanting something for the entire family, she sent the dollar away to the Sears Roebuck catalog for their first luxury, a small mirror. When it arrived, each family member looked at it. When it got to Willie he gasped in horror. His face was full of scars.
As an infant Willie had been bitten by a dog. As a toddler he had been kicked in the head by a horse. He looked at his mother: “Mama, did you know I looked like this all along?” “Yes, Willie, I knew.” “And you still loved me?” “Yes, of course I loved you, Willie, and I do love you, and I will always love you, because you are mine. You are mine!”
There are times when we look at the scars of our sinfulness and we have to ask the Lord: “Can you love me the way I am? Even though I neglect you, even though I fall short of your will for my life and come to you only at my convenience?” And then in the solitude of our prayers we hear God whisper, “Yes, I love you. I love you because you are mine.” As one preacher put it: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you. There is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you.”
It’s for this reason that we kneel before the Father … and we pray that He may strengthen us with power through His Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And we pray that, being rooted and established in love, we may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. It might take a lifetime of reading, studying, meditating and praying, but it’s worth the effort when we come to know the limitlessness of God’s love and share that love with others.