Mr. Brandon Smee
In our Ephesians reading, Paul writes: “I pray that you might have the power 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 - so that you might be filled with all the fullness of God.” Paul’s prayer is very familiar to me. When I was in college, my pastor used it as a blessing every Sunday. Its words drew me in even as they eluded me. The breadth, length, height, and depth of what exactly? How can we know love that surpasses knowledge? That should be impossible, right? Is Paul confused, or is he onto something profound? And what does it mean to be filled with the fullness of God? Can we ourselves be filled?
I think we’re all seeking the breadth, length, height, and depth that Paul names. To say it another way, we’re trying to get away from everything that’s formless and void. In the Bible, the writer of Genesis calls the world formless and void until God speaks forth creation in all its goodness. God turns emptiness into substance. But when sin and evil obscure God’s presence among us, creation gets warped out of shape, and it forgets its nature. Formlessness and emptiness spread. We don’t have to look far to see this happening today: ecological crises, pandemics, violence, and systemic oppression. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Even in this room, there are personal struggles with debt, relationships, illness, and loss. This is not how God spoke creation to be. This is the formless and void, the emptiness at work. Paul’s prayer on the other hand turns us to a different possibility. He points us from the world of emptiness to a world that has substance. He takes us with him from the void to the fullness that has breadth, length, height, and depth.
But what really is this breadth, length, height, and depth that we’re looking for? Theologians are of diverse opinions. Augustine said it’s the Cross because it has four dimensions. John Calvin said it’s the four virtues of love, hope, patience, and humility. But even Calvin conceded that his answer was no less made-up than St. Ambrose’s proposal that it’s the four dimensions of a sphere. Imagine that! The apostle Paul praying a geometry lesson over the Church of Ephesus!
But Paul isn’t talking about geometry, or even Calvin’s virtues. He’s going much further, to the very heart of existence. The breadth and length are the unmeasurable span, the height and depth are the unsearchable distance. We’re talking about the power behind creation itself, the Word by which God speaks it, the same Word that gives form to all things. This creative force should be a mystery outside our reach. But for Paul, it isn’t far at all. With God’s help, we can comprehend it. The mystery of the creation has descended to where we are. In Christ, we take hold of it. Our Lord Jesus is all of who God is united with all of what we are. In Jesus, we behold the broad, high, and deep things of God. He makes the unknowable known.
What does it look like for Christ to make the unknowable known? In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus does something impossible with ordinary things. He takes one boy’s lunch and feeds thousands of hungry people. Some scholars have ventured scientific explanations of this event. The most incredible proposal I’ve heard is that Jesus had a massive secret storehouse of food in a cave out of sight. The disciples were clandestinely carrying baskets of food out of the secret pantry. Another proposal holds that the boy sharing his lunch reminded people that they also had food enough to share with others, so that everyone ate.
But both of these explanations take something vital out of the story - the unknowable becoming known. How does one lunch become 5000 lunches? How does that happen in real-time? I don’t know, but they ate the bread and fish. They gathered leftovers. To the emptiness of their stomachs, Jesus’ blessing brought abundance. And in the same way, Jesus brings the fullness of God to the world. He does impossible things with the ordinary, filling what’s empty. The hungry people could never have found this fullness by their own effort, but God puts it within our grasp in Christ: unknowable love made known.
Jesus is the length, breadth, height, and depth. Jesus makes known the love that is beyond knowledge. Jesus contains the fullness of God within all of what we are. This vision of Christ is what Paul is praying the Ephesians will comprehend. We may wonder what it looks like to comprehend that vision. Paul puts it simply at the end of his petition: us, filled with all the fullness of God.
There are biblical examples of people full of God. The Blessed Virgin Mary exemplifies having the fullness of God within you She bears Christ in her body. In her, we see that God gives fullness completely out of sheer love and grace, and entirely apart from our power and ability.
In the Old Testament, Deborah got the power to prophesy and delivered the people of Israel from their enemies. She did so despite the male-dominated culture against her. Full of God’s Spirit, she became a place of God’s work on earth.
And let’s not forget the writer of this letter, the Apostle Paul. He started off bent on oppressing the vulnerable to protect the purity of his nation. But, he transformed into one whose life’s work was bringing Gentiles and Jews together in Christ. The fullness of God looks like the power to turn from violence and to draw people to Our Lord.
But this fullness doesn’t just happen in the biblical past. We see it today. Every time a friend in Christ struggling with substance use experiences sobriety, we see it. When people who have suffered abuse find safety, we see it. When the traumatized find healing in the family of God, and when the poor and oppressed find supply, jubilee, and justice, we see it. The fullness of God brings the holy action of God. This is the power working within us, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. In all these ways, the emptiness of the world becomes the more-than-enough of God. We are not only filled, but we receive the power to answer Jesus’ call to find the hungry something to eat. God in us begins to renew the form of the world. The Spirit of Christ makes us places where God fills creation again.
This fullness is not far from us. Even if it feels far. Today we have another meal which Christ will supply. Every sacrament makes unknowable love known, but particularly in the Eucharist, we are filled with the spiritual food and drink of new and unending life in Christ. Even if we cannot see the breadth, length, height, and depth of these elements, the bread and wine are not empty. In them, we receive the very body and blood of Christ.
God’s fullness fills us as we partake of this sacrament, as we pray, and as we do God’s sacred work. Here God brings fullness to the emptiness of our world and we see the length, breadth, height, and depth despite its current formlessness. By grace, our lives show the mystery of God just as Christ’s life does. For this, ultimately, is what it means to have the fullness of God: Christ in us. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!