Out of the Great Love
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Ephesians 2: 1-7
John 3: 11-17
I have a lot of affection for the Cookie Monster. He is a loveable guy with googley eyes and blue fur. But he appears to have a cookie problem. I was searching on the Internet this week for information about the Cookie Monster because I was thinking about him when I discovered that the Cookie Monster is now being used to promote the eating of healthy fruits and vegetables.
Someone walked past my office today while I was watching a cartoon on the Internet with the Cookie Monster and Grover at Groverís fruit stand. After they walked past, they whispered to someone else in the outer office: ďIs the pastor watching Cookie Monster and Grover cartoons?Ē Yes.
But even in the cartoons, the Cookie Monster only eats the fruits and vegetables in the cartoons because he knows that after he eats his fruits and vegetables, there will be a cookie. The Cookie Monster is a loveable guy. But, heís got a cookie problem. I empathize with the Cookie Monster.
One of the things I am doing this fall is trying to pay attention in my own personal study life and in my preaching to the book of Ephesians. It is a small book in the New Testament, only six chapters, but it is thick and dense, full of material.†
book of Ephesians was most likely written after the death of the Apostle
Paul. It attempts to summarize the teachings of the Apostle Paul, using his
own voice, and then to move beyond the Apostle Paulís teaching, because the
Apostle Paulís theology was no longer adequate for the Church fully at this
point in history. For one thing, the Apostle Paul had assumed that Jesus
Christ would be returning for a second time quickly. The Apostle Paulís teaching
and theology, valuable as they are, were written with a sort of stop-gap mentality
of how do we live in this brief in-between time between Jesusí ascension into
heaven and Jesusí return to establish the
By the time the book of Ephesians was written, it was clear that the time between Jesusí ascension and return was not going to be so brief. It was not going to be just one generation as so many people had supposed. The church was beginning to realize that it had to start figuring out how to be the church for the long haul, not just how to hold on until Jesus came again. The church had to start figuring out how to live in the world as Christians. Day by day, the church was beginning to realize that it had to take a new look at the meaning and the significance of Jesus Christ and what Jesus Christ was doing in peopleís lives and in the world.
book of Ephesians is the beginning of a theological search that frankly we
are still engaged in today Ė to understand what Jesus Christ means for our lives
here and now, and not just in some future
Now in the verses read from the second chapter of Ephesians this morning, the writer of Ephesians lays out his kernel understanding, his core understanding, his basic understanding of what he believes Jesus Christ accomplished in his life, death and resurrection.† There are many, many implications of this that have to be lived out, but the writer of Ephesians says in these few verses we heard this morning what he believes Jesusí basic and essential accomplishment was, what God did through Jesus Christ.† †
His description of this has two parts: The first part is a description of our human condition. The second part is a description of what God does in Jesus Christ in response to our human condition.
First, our human condition: Ephesians 2:3 says: ďAll of us [meaning everyone: Jew and Gentile; in our time we would say: Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female, straight and gay, differently-abled, big and small, all ethnicities, races, all of us] once lived Ö in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and sense, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.Ē
Now this is where I need to go very slowly. I need to keep listening, because as soon as I start using words like ďpassions of the fleshĒ and ďdesires of the flesh and senses,Ē some of you are going to stop listening because you have heard preachers use this to scold you. I want us to try to understand what Ephesians is really saying here. Itís not about scolding us because we have been bad or because we have succumbed to passions of the flesh or to desires of the flesh. This is about something much more profound than you think it is.†
So, first of all, I want you to stop and stay with me and not think I am talking about what you assume I am so that you can hear what I think the writer of Ephesians is really saying.
What the writer of Ephesians is saying is that we are all addicted to cookies. We are all Cookie Monsters. There are cookies that we are chasing and that we need because those cookies make us feel better about ourselves. When the Cookie Monster is eating his cookie, he doesnít feel like a monster. When we are eating our cookies, we donít feel like the children of wrath, at least not for that instant. But as soon as we have eaten the cookie to keep from feeling like the children of wrath, to keep from feeling like the universe condemns us, cannot accept us, and cannot love us, we need to chase another cookie. One cookie... Another cookie... Another cookieÖ
The real powerful cookies that we chase are not physical. This isnít about the flesh in the sense that we usually assume the term is used. This is about living in the world where so often we donít feel like the universe can accept us. We are children of the wrath that the universe is scolding and angry with and condemning of us. The cookies make us feel, at least for a moment, that we are O.K.
Those cookies can be anything. One of the things that the Apostle Paul taught us is that, as often as not, religion can be a cookie. The most altruistic things in life can be a cookie. Read again sometime the 13th chapter of First Corinthians.† ďThough I speak in the tongues of mortals or of angelsÖ. Though I am a profound articulator of truth.Ö Good thing, great thing Ė but if I do it in order to feel O.K. about myself and not because of love, I am merely a loud noise.† If I have all prophecy and all knowledge, if I have enough faith to move mountains, but I do it in order to feel O.K. about myself and not because of love, it doesnít make any difference.Ē The Apostle Paul even says: ďIf I give all my money away to the poorÖĒ [not such a good thing to talk about maybe the Sunday before Stewardship Sunday, but letís be real]. The Apostle Paul says: ďEven if I give away all my money to the poor and give my body to be burned, and my motivation is simply to feel O.K. about myself and not to feel like a child of wrath, I gain nothing.Ē†
All of us have cookies that we use to keep from feeling like monsters, like children of wrath. They are much more sophisticated than the usual things to which we feel ourselves addicted.
I can tell you what my cookie is.† My cookie is competence. I feel O.K. about myself if I think I am performing competently. As soon as I feel as though I have screwed up, I feel like a child of wrath. As long as I am feeling competent, I feel like maybe the universe doesnít hate me. But as soon as I screw up, I feel like a child of wrath.†
What is your cookie? What is the cookie that keeps you from feeling like a child of wrath, at least for a moment?† Anything, even the most lofty and altruistic of human activities can be cookie, and probably is. Thatís part of the teaching of the Apostle Paul. Even the law turns out to be a cookie.
Now let me say again that Ephesians isnít scolding us because of this. It isnít saying we are bad because we use these things to keep from feeling like children of wrath. Ephesians is saying it is the human condition we all are stuck in.
Ephesians goes on to say that it is a condition that is killing us. Ephesians calls this condition ďdeath.Ē Ephesians says: ďYou were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the airÖĒ [breathing the same air we all breathe, doing the same things we all do in order to feel O.K. about ourselves].
This always needing another cookie, another cookie, another cookie, is Ė Ephesians says Ė death. For one thing, it doesnít work. †If I need to feel competent to feel O.K. about myself, I will never be competent enough. It never ends. As soon as I get through one day without screwing up too badly, there is another day that I got to be competent in, and then there is another day I got to be competent in. I am never competent enough not to feel like a child of wrath.
If your cookie is somebody loving you, there is no one who is going to be able to love you enough. If your cookie is success, you will never going to be able to be successful enough or long enough. If your cookie is attention, you are never, ever going to get enough attention for long enough to feel good enough not to feel like a child of wrath.
So this is our human condition. All of us are Cookie Monsters and there arenít enough cookies to keep us from feeling like children of wrath.
In Ephesians, the meaning and the significance of Jesus Christ is understood in the context of this mess weíre in, this human condition, living in the passions of the flesh, always looking for something to make us feel O.K., like weíre not children of wrath.
God responds to this in Jesus Christ, responds to our human condition in Jesus Christ. What Ephesians says is that God who has seen the situation we have got ourselves in and who is rich in mercy, ďout of the great love with which [God] has loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ Ė saved us by grace Ė and raised us up with Christ and seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come [Godís] kindness and mercy and love will be shown to everyone in Christ Jesus.Ē
In other words, out of Godís great love, we are raised from this condition of needing more and more of whatever it is that we need to feel O.K. about ourselves. We are raised out of that condition by the great love of God of which there is enough for everyone, of which there is enough for me, of which there is enough for you, of which there is enough for our hungry spirits. Itís not anything we do, Ephesians says, it is something that is given to us and we simply receive.†† †
The biggest problem with needing all the cookies is that it destroys community, and without community there isnít really any love. You never see the Cookie Monster sitting down with a plate of cookies, and people gathered around him, and everyone munching on and enjoying their cookies together because as soon as the Cookie Monster gets there, there are no cookies left for anybody else since he needs them too desperately himself.
If competence is my cookie, and I need to be competent all the time, I canít let you have any. If my cookie is success and I need to have success all the time, you canít have any. If my cookie is attention, you canít have any. If my cookie is control, you canít have any.
Our need for whatever it is that helps us to escape the sense that we are children of wrath creates a wrathful world. It creates a cycle where our wrath is more and more empowered as the world becomes more competitive and more warlike and more angry in this endless cycle that Ephesians calls death.
Out of the great love, which is God, God pours love into the world, bucketful after bucketful, so that it can wash over us and we can experience love rather than wrath. This is what will free us from our cookie problem and bring us to life and raise us to heavenly places with Christ. Godís love is a great love and there is plenty of it for everyone. If you feel like you need to compete for it, itís not Godís love. Godís love is a free gift of grace. So you canít get it by competing with other people for it. If you feel like you need to earn it, itís not Godís love because Godís love isnít earn-able. You canít do anything to deserve it. All we can do is to surrender to it, to let it come to us, this great love of which there is enough for everyone, for everyone.
Iíve decided to give up trying to be competent for a while. Iím just going to give up trying to be competent for a while. Iím going to give everybody else around me the chance to be competent. You all be competent for a while. I am going to experiment with giving up my cookie. I wasnít doing a very good at being competent any way, so Iím going to give it up for a while. Iím just going to blunder around for awhile, and see how it goes. I want to experiment with giving up my need.
There is nothing wrong with being competent. There is a problem with needing to be competent. There is nothing wrong with success. There is a problem with needing to be successful. There is nothing wrong with power or control. There is a problem with needing to have power and control.
If it is not a free gift that we simply receive, it is not the great love of God. It is, instead, a passion of the flesh which keeps us enslaved in the place where we are and feel like children of wrath.
So, what is your cookie?
Godís love is so great that if we will surrender to it and receive it, we can live in community. We can live in Christ rather than in competition. We can be reconciled to one another. We can let the walls that we keep between us come tumbling down. We can eat the bread which has been broken for us instead of needing the cookie.