Today the Episcopal Church commemorates Phillips Brooks, a noted priest and preacher who was rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square, in Boston, for many years. Brooks was not uncontroversial: there were protests when he was consecrated bishop, a suspicion of defective theology; but he was universally loved by people of all theological stripes in the Back Bay of Boston. He served as bishop for slightly more than a year before his untimely death, and so it’s as a preacher that he is principally remembered. Oh, yes: he also wrote the text that became the well-known hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which is certainly his lasting memorial.
Our first reading for this lesser feast puts front and center a theological conundrum, as St. Paul exhorts his listeners to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge itself. It’s not quite an injunction to know the unknowable, which would be logically impossible, but it’s close. The love of Christ, about which Paul is speaking, is not unknowable, after all: we have ample illustration in the life of Christ himself. Another hymn writer, Horatius Bonar, put it this way, “We read thee best in him who came/ to bear for us the cross of shame,/ sent from the Father from on high,/ our life to live,/ our death to die.”
The love of God as seen in the life of Christ can be known because Christ himself can be known. But the love of Christ itself surpasses what we can know of it: it goes beyond what we can understand or comprehend. St. Paul actually talks about “comprehension” earlier in the passage, calling on Christians in Ephesus to comprehend, along with the whole church, “what is the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:18) of that love. Paul is letting us know here that this is an extensive subject, covering a wide territory: as extensive as Jesus Christ himself, with a range and a scope that is universal. To comprehend something does not mean to encompass it, in order to corral it and domesticate it: here it means to understand, to connect with, to feel the impact of the love of Christ.
That brings us to a last point before application: if there is a challenge for Christians to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, then it’s for a purpose, “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). Now here we really are in the midst of a theological conundrum, as St. Paul prays that finite Christians my be filled with the fullness of the infinite God. Not just finite Christians, mere mortals, dust of the earth, of course; but, more profoundly, broken folk, sinful folk, even the rebellious folk that we are. We are to be filled with the fullness of God.
That’s a tall pastoral order, but that’s exactly what Paul is about here: transformation. St. Paul makes that theme explicit elsewhere: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2); or “[clothe] yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). “The old has passed away; behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17), as Paul writes to the Corinthians.
If we must be filled with all the fullness of God, we will need to be made into new people, new people in Christ. This transformation, this passage into new life, only comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection. To go back to Bonar’s hymn, “We read thy power to bless and save/ e’en in the darkness of the grave;/ still more in resurrection light/ we read the fullness of thy might.” It’s there that we come to know the love of Christ.
I promised application. Transformation, being “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), comes through active participation in the life of Christ. If we are to know the love of Christ which surpasses understanding, we will need to engage in acts of discipleship.
Prayer, for one, following Jesus’ commandment; prayer which shapes and forms us. A discipline of Scripture reading is another practice. Another great preacher, John Donne, pointed out that the point of reading the bible is to apply the words to ourselves: “to find all the histories to be examples to me, all the prophecies to induce a Savior for me, all the Gospel to apply Christ Jesus to me” (John Donne’s Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels). Works of mercy, then, extended to others, by which we serve Jesus himself, and by which we come to love the neighbor as ourselves. Finally, the practice of the sacraments: Holy Baptism, which incorporates us into Christ’s body the church, and gives us his identity; and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, in which Christ himself draws near to us in the sacrament of the altar.
My prayer for you, this day, dear parishioners of the Diocese of Tennessee, is that you may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, and that all of us may be filled with the fullness of God.