Monthly Letter – February 2017

Dear Friends

I know they say that you can have too much of a good thing: I don’t know who ‘they’ are – but I’m going to run the risk anyway, and expand a bit more on what we’ve been starting to look at in our Sunday morning worship.

“Immeasurably More…” That’s the title we’re using for the series of studies on Paul’s great letter to the church at Ephesus. It’s fair enough, surely, to use the man’s own words as the title; especially since they describe as well as anything else (and certainly as succinctly as anything else) the essence of what he’s on about in these six riveting chapters of Scripture.

Not just more, but immeasurably more.

That’s what God is able and pleased to do in and through our flawed and faltering lives – more; immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine. And that’s because of who God is, of course: more, immeasurably more than all we could think or comprehend. Wiser and stronger, and purer and kinder, and richer and bolder and safer, than any mere mortal could even begin to take in.

God is in Himself so much more, immeasurably more, than all that our stunted, stubborn minds can start to grasp. Stubborn? Well, surely yes. It’s a stubborn trait of intellectual pride which makes us think (subconsciously perhaps, I grant you, half the time) that somehow what there is to know about the Lord can all – in truth it should all be comprehended by the minds of us mere mortals.

Impossible. Our minds are made to measure. And when we’re faced by that which can’t be measured, well we’re wired by God in such a way that reason is intended then to melt away to wonder. Which is when the stubborn streak kicks in. God gets ‘cropped’ to fit the largest frame to which our minds will stretch.

We’re happy to live with just such a down-sized sort of deity. We miss the point completely, of course, when we do. And that’s why Ephesians is never a comfortable book. Comforting, yes, when properly understood: but never all that comfortable, for the teaching Paul gives in this letter explodes from the start such a limited view of the Lord, and insists that we ‘know’ what in truth will go way beyond knowledge, and accept how immeasurably greater He is in every regard than anything we might have thought.

And because He is in Himself so immeasurably more than all we might think or conceive, He’s as able as well then to do so immeasurably more than all we might ask or even think. More than that, He’s not just able to do so, but actually pleased and willing to do so! More. More. Immeasurably more.

But we find that hard to accept. Hard to believe, except in some nominal sense, and then harder still, I suspect, to apply to our everyday lives. Which in some ways is precisely why the letter was written in the first place: it’s a pastor’s letter, full of that awareness of the obstacles to growth; the teaching of a pastor who’s attuned to all the flaws there are within the human heart which make it hard to take on board such elevated truth, and mean we end up merely paddling in the shallower pools of gospel life instead of swimming in the surging seas of grace.

Why do we find it so hard to accept and apply to our lives this glorious truth that our God is both able and pleased to do so immeasurably more than all that we ask or think? I think there are at least these three persistent reasons.

First, there’s a theological reason. Our view of God is often subtly flawed. We have not adequately grasped either the power of God or the love of God.

We believe in miracles, for instance – how could we not, since the miracle of a stunning resurrection is right there at the bedrock of our faith? But we view them as an oddity, akin to how we might regard some people with twelve fingers. I mean, sure, they happen, but they’re hardly what we’d think of as ‘main-line’. Miracles are there at the freak-ish end of faith.

God’s power is thus subtly reduced to the standard sort of measurements we use: and we find that we’re really ‘rationalists’ still at core. Theory is trumped by a sober sort of realism. God could do a whole load of things perhaps: but He probably wouldn’t and almost certainly, therefore, He won’t. Our theology is often, in practice, quite flawed.

And not just in terms of God’s power – in terms of His love as well.

Again, we know the theory: God loves us big time. We’re pointed right back to the cross, which simply can’t be explained without our having recourse to the wonderful love of the Lord. Or was that again out there at the freak-ish end of fervour on the part of God, a once in a blue moon demonstration of a love which is more normally restrained? Does God really love us that much? Always? So much that He’d open the doors of heaven and pour out everything? Again and again and again? Really?

Our theology can start to get quite twitchy at the absolute extravagance of God’s amazing grace. Which leads on to the second reason why it’s hard for us to take on board the ‘immeasurably more’ in God’s grace.

There’s an essentially spiritual reason as well. That’s to say, there are still in us all the remains of a gospel of ‘works’; the dregs of a sense of dessert still slop around the caverns of our hearts and infuse all our thinking with a thorough-going, performance-based perspective on the dealings that God has with us in Christ. There’s a deep-seated spiritual pride in us all which refuses politely to die; and this pride is a thing which will wriggle and squirm in its death throes far down in our souls, and it’s this which disdains such extravagant favour being shown us by God.

This reluctance to rule out dessert as a factor in how God will act then shuts our eyes to the humbling dimensions of grace, and the startling ‘immeasurably more’ He is able and willing to do.

There’s often a third, more ‘cultural’ reason for the struggles which we have in both accepting and applying to ourselves this ‘immeasurably more’ of the gospel. For those familiar with a culture (or sub-culture) of ‘asceticism’, this facet of the gospel of God’s grace is hard to take.

There’s something not right when you start to enjoy life too much. That has often been a hallmark of religion in our land. We follow a crucified Saviour, and therefore, like Him, we are called, are we not, (this is how this culture thinks) to be men and women of sorrows, acquainted with suffering? ‘Bless us, Lord (but not too much or it could get a bit embarrassing).’ I’m painting, I know, a caricature. But it’s there as often as not as part of the shadowy ‘culture’ from which we’ve been brought to the kingdom. And we need to learn that the austerity gospel is as harmful to true growth in Christ as the so-called prosperity gospel now doing its rounds. The ‘immeasurably more’ of the gospel means just what it says on the tin – we’ve been blessed by God with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ!

But the moment you get just how big this all is, then up steps master Oliver, the boy who goes looking for ‘More’. Or his older female counterpart, a lady we all know as Eve.

Because ‘more’ dates back to Eden. There’s a wrong sort of ‘more’ Eve went seeking: and there’s a wrong sort of ‘more’ we, too, are so prone to pursue.

The Lord gave the pair back in Eden immeasurably more than all they’d have asked for or had dreamed of. All the trees in the lavishly watered, wonderfully fertile garden – they’re commanded by God to enjoy all this fruit. Except just one.

Are you seeing that? It’s more than their being allowed by God to eat the fruit: immeasurably more. It’s more than their merely being invited by God to enjoy the fruit: immeasurably more. They’re commanded by God to enjoy it all! There’s nothing ascetic about that is there?

But in the face of all that, God’s ‘immeasurably much’, Eve will insist on just that little bit more. And we’re her children. We’re the same. We want more. More of a say in how to live life. More of the freedom to do as we like. No restrictions at all. It’s license rather than freedom for which, deep down, we always hanker.

And before we even see what’s going on, we’re swinging from our legalism to license with the skill of a seasoned trapeze artist. Through the same deceptive scheming of the serpent in the garden, the ‘immeasurably more’ of the gospel becomes “I’m measurably more …” in our thinking: I’m measurably more able and worthy to make up the rules for myself: I’m measurably more .. well, you start making it up for yourself.

It’s a tightrope we’re summoned to walk. And Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is as good a pole as any to provide the sort of balance in our living that we need. May we learn to walk well with our Lord!

Yours in Jesus Christ our Lord

Jeremy Middleton