Sermon: The Length and Breadth and Height and Depth of God’s Love

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, July 25th 2021

John 6:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

‘I pray that you may 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 all knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of Christ.’ (Ephesians 3:18-19) How do you know when someone loves you? There are various ways. Perhaps they tell you: ‘I love you.’ Maybe you need to ask, ‘do you love me?’, and you hope to get a ‘yes’. Others might put it in writing, or say it with flowers, or chocolates, and let’s not forget, ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’. Words can be cheap. Just because someone says something does not make it so. Even the most extravagant gesture might be calculated to impress rather than express true love. When, however, someone sets out to meet your deepest needs, without any intention of receiving anything in return, that’s love.

So how do we know God loves us? Paul, writing to the Christians in Ephesus wants those who hear and read his letter to better understand the love that God has for each one of us: ‘I pray that you may 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 all knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of Christ.’ (Ephesians 3:18-19)

Paul is concerned that they should have a profound understanding and appreciation of what it means to be loved by God. Paul wants them (and anyone else who hears or reads his letter) to know the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love. He wants everyone to stop, take a breath, and consider what’s involved in being loved by God. For to be loved by God is to be loved completely.

We are loved completely because we are loved by the whole of God. The phrase, ‘Holy Trinity’, never appears in the Bible. It’s a doctrine that the Church later declared as our best understanding of God, yet at times the Bible comes close to it. Today’s reading from Ephesians is one of those times: ‘for this reason,’ writes Paul, ‘I bow my knees to the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name … that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.’ (3:15, 16, 17)

First, God’s love is made known to us through the gift of life itself: every family in heaven and earth takes its name and existence from the one who created it. There can be no greater first sign of God’s love than that God gave us life. This we need in order to exist. It is the gift we could not obtain for ourselves; the one that God was under no obligation to give to us. It’s a gift of grace; a gift of love.

And Paul believes that having given the gift of life, God stays available to us, present with us, throughout that life. That’s the implication of Paul’s prayer: ‘I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened … through his Spirit.’ (3:16) Having gifted us life, God does not then absent God’s self from us, but remains with us, through good times and the not so good times. How do you know someone loves you? When they stick by you.

And that leads us to the third person of the Holy Trinity: Jesus Christ. To understand God’s love for us in a human way (we’re all human, after all) we meet God in a human being: Jesus Christ. That’s what this church is about: ‘St Columba’s United Reformed Church aims to show the love of God, made known to us through Jesus Christ.’ As Paul put it to the Ephesian Christians, ‘I pray you know … the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.’ (3:19)

This love of God in Christ is made known to us supremely through the cross, but Jesus’s life on earth is consistent with what happens at the cross. So for a concrete example of God’s love, look at Jesus feeding five thousand people. These people were in the most basic need – they were hungry, physically hungry. When my grandfather was out of work, a neighbour tried to comfort him by saying, ‘well, as long as you’ve got your health, Mr Cochrane,’ to which he replied, ‘and when I’m healthy I have my appetite.’ They needed to be fed.

And Jesus owed them nothing. In fact, at the end of this feeding episode (for which he made no charge) he realised that they wanted to make him a king, or try to do so, and he declined to have anything to do with it. (6:15) You know someone loves you when they give you what you most deeply need while under no obligation to do so. It’s simply an act of love. This episode of feeding five thousand is a pointer to the love of God at work in Jesus Christ, using things of God’s creation (bread and fish) to give life to creatures of God’s creation (people like me and you).

Paul wrote, ‘I pray that you may 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 all knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of Christ.’ (Ephesians 3:18-19) When we see and appreciate God’s love in the gift of life itself, when we recognise God’s love in the continued presence of God with us today, when we experience God’s love in the life and work of Jesus Christ; God all and one, providing what we need to live, then Paul’s prayer is answered – we know the love of God.

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