A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 29, 2012.
Psalm 145:10-18; Ephesians 3:14-21
What is the longest trip you have ever taken? My first trip abroad was at the invitation of the Baptist World Alliance. In January of 1986 a group of us went to what was then the Soviet Union. In partnership with the European Central Mennonite Committee, the Alliance had published William Barclay’s popular New Testament commentary in the Russian language. In what was the very first crack in the Soviet communist wall, the government allowed these books to be sent to a number of churches. Our purpose in going there was to help dedicate these books with the pastors and congregational leaders.
By way of Paris, we went from Moscow to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and then to Leningrad, what had been, and is now again, St. Petersburg. Then we journeyed back to Moscow, from which we came home. Needless to say, it was an eye-and-heart-opening trip for me.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to England, to Scotland, and six years ago to East Africa. Traveling to such places is not easy, but definitely worth the effort. The one place I have yet to experience, that is truly on my bucket list, is the Holy Lands. If any of you want to go with me, let me know.
Where have you journeyed, and how did you get there? Well, whether you are a seasoned traveler or a staunch homebody, there is one trip that each of us needs to make – indeed, must make, sooner or later – and it may just be the most difficult journey of all. You may not have to put up with invasive airport security searches or sit for hours in crowded, uncomfortable seats, but it’s a tough trip nonetheless. It is the journey of faith, from one’s head to one’s heart, or from one’s heart to one’s head. It is measured only in inches, but there’s a sense in which it is indeed the longest and greatest, and possibly most arduous, trip we will ever take.
The Apostle Paul was a traveler too. In fact, we are told in scripture that this sometimes got him into trouble, if for no other reason than he went to places and encountered people who did not appreciate his way of expressing life and faith. Paul could, I would imagine – again, from what we know of him in scripture – be a bit too forceful at times, maybe even a bit irritating and overbearing. That’s a pretty good recipe for not being able to stay in one place too long.
And like just about every one of us, Paul sometimes left in such haste – occasionally out of necessity – that he forgot some of his personal items and left them behind. He writes his young friend and colleague Timothy and implores him to come see him. Paul can’t come to him, you see, because once again he is in prison. Being forceful and irritating, not to mention overbearing, can sometimes get you thrown into the hoosegow.
“When you come,” Paul says to Timothy (not if but when), “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (1 Timothy 4:13). Paul was always rushing off from pillar to post, and sometimes he forgot some stuff. Has that ever happened to you?
In writing to his friends in the Ephesian church, once again because he is incarcerated, he refers to his sufferings. “They are for your glory,” he tells them (3:13). And then he begins to pray for them, a prayer of intercession (which just may very well be the most vital kind of prayer), referring to his Heavenly Father. “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.” And then he mentions the two arrival points at which his prayer is directed. “…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… that you may have the power to comprehend…”
Heart and mind, mind and heart. When you are able to safely maneuver the treacherous distance between the two, you have indeed come a long way in your faith.
And make no mistake about it: sometimes, there is a long, long distance between the two. What I would like to do today is to try and narrow that distance, or at least encourage you so that the journey between the two is not quite as difficult as you might have found it before. Do you think we can do that? Let’s give it a try, shall we?
Some people have an encounter with Christ that is based solely on either emotion or reason. Because of our heritage as Baptists of the South, religious faith often begins with the emotional. When that is true, and the emotional level flattens out (as it always does eventually), what are we left with? There is little or nothing to sustain us. If it is strictly based on one’s ability to reason out the different and various elements of faith, one’s spiritual experience can become dull and lifeless, or filled with more questions than answers. What I think Paul would tell us is that there can be, and should be, a balance between the two extremes.
He certainly encountered both ends of the faith spectrum. There were those folks over in Corinth who put such a value on religious ecstasy that Paul wrote an entire essay about it. He said that if a person could speak in the tongues of angels and even have such faith as to move mountains, but did not have love, everything else isn’t worth a hoot or a holler (that’s not exactly the expression he uses, but you get the idea). But read the remainder of his letter to the Corinthians and you will find him using both reason and thoughtful emotion in expressing his deep, deep theology of the resurrected life. Paul encouraged his friends to have a balanced, reasoned faith.
But don’t just take Paul’s word for it. Begin with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, read his parables, consider the length and breadth to which he went to share his expression of God’s kingdom to those who would believe.
As my friend John Killinger puts it, “He was the most honest man who ever lived. He gave full measure in everything he did. He never tempered his words to people of power and influence. He never misrepresented the truth. He was outspoken and courageous to the very end, dying on a cross because he could not be bought or intimidated. He was closer to God than any other person who ever expressed an interest in religion. From his childhood, devotion was his food and drink. He prayed as if God were as real as the hand at the end of his arm. Even as he was dying, he recommitted his soul to his heavenly Father.”1
If only, if only we could even begin to be like that, we could literally change our world!
If you’re willing to stay with me on this, the next question is inevitable. How do we do it? How do we approach a faith that has any resemblance whatsoever to the One who gave it to us in the first place? How do we make that long, long, difficult journey between the mind and heart?
Here is what I have come up with. If it fits your experience, or even your willingness to consider it, then come along with me and we’ll make the journey together…
I believe that in this murky distance between mind and heart, when it comes to faith in Jesus Christ, we must first acknowledge the mystery that is there. Yes, we have the teachings of Jesus. Yes, the testimony of people like Paul is available to us. Nothing that you and I believe – nothing that we have reasoned or felt – was created in a vacuum. We have those who have come before us to thank for the level of faith we have. But even with all this, in Paul’s own words, what we do have in terms of our understanding of faith is like looking through a dark, dark mirror. As it is right now, we cannot see clearly. If you tried to reason all that out, it would tie you up in knots. If you solely accepted that on the basis of emotion, my guess is it would not last. There has to be a balance.
After all, those who took the message of Jesus and ran with it made some awfully incredible claims about him. God embodied in one man. Jesus the Christ who “in the beginning (that is, when the world was created) was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus able to overcome the laws of nature and healing those who were sick, bringing back to life those who were dead, feeding from mere scraps thousands who were hungry. Jesus overcoming death and coming back to resurrected life. Jesus sending his Spirit to dwell in those who would believe in him. And that’s just a start to what his followers said about the One who died on that Roman cross.
You can see, can’t you, how such bold claims could lead to more questions than answers, especially for those who tend to be reasonable people? Oh, you will encounter from time to time those who think they have all the answers when it comes to faith. If that ever happens to you, my advice to you is to excuse yourself as quickly as you can and walk in the other direction. You do not need to keep such company.
There is an old Celtic story about a monk who died and was interred in the monastery wall. Three days later, the monks heard noises coming from inside the crypt. When they removed the stone they found their brother alive. He was full of wonderment, saying, “Oh, brothers, I’ve been there! I’ve seen it! And it’s nothing at all like the way our theology says it is!” So they put him back in the wall and sealed the crypt again.2
That’s what happens when we take the mystery of our faith and reduce it to a set of beliefs that more resemble our preconceived and very human ideas and limited concepts than it does the remarkable and redeeming presence of God’s Spirit.
The precise purpose of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is to help create in them a living, breathing faith that is not shut up in cryptic walls. It is to be that which gives us hope in the midst of hopelessness and a reason to go on when all the ways of life seem closed to us. Paul recognized, as Edwin Searcy says, “that we are at risk of living a life together that is rooted and grounded in fear and self-preservation rather than in Christ.”3
Instead, we have available to us – as individuals and as a church – to be “rooted and grounded in love,” to have the power to comprehend… the length and height and depth” of God’s grace, “and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” to “be filled with all the fullness of God.” I don’t know about you, but the idea of that boggles my mind and it floods my heart.
It happened to Malcolm Muggeridge. Have you ever heard of him? He was British, you know. Anyone with the name of Malcolm Muggeridge just has to be British. In his time he was a well-known journalist as well as an outspoken critic of the church. But something happened, invaded his heart and turned him around. He was once a guest of William Buckley’s Firing Line TV program. Buckley asked him what made the change? After years of denouncing the church, why was he now so deeply involved in it?
In the church, Muggeridge explained, he felt a “sense of homecoming, of picking up the threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that has long been ringing, of finding a place at a table that has long been left vacant.” It is “a wonderfully fulfilling thing,” he said, and he comes away from church “feeling enormously happy.”4
His experiences as a journalist required Muggeridge to travel literally around the world. But he finally made the longest and most fulfilling journey of all when he allowed himself to be graced by Christ.
“Filled with the fullness of God,” is the way the apostle puts it, “filled with the fullness of God.” Just imagine, “filled with the fullness of God.” Do you think that’s anything like a “sense of homecoming, of picking up the threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that has long been ringing, of finding a place at a table that has long been left vacant”?
It requires both the heart and the mind, the mind and the heart to believe in such a thing. But if you will, it calls for you to pack your bags. Are you ready?
Lord, we journey best with both a reasoned and a heart-felt faith. Help us find the balance as we walk with you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1John Killinger, “What Is Right With the Church,” unpublished sermon, May 19, 1985.
2Parker Palmer, “Taking Pen in Hand,” The Christian Century, September 7, 2010.
3Edwin Searcy, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 281.