Text: Eph. 3:14-21
This kind of a weird place to start, but I would like to begin our reflection on this passage from Ephesians by thinking about an animal—a very intelligent animal—the octopus.
Here in Canada the octopus can be found on both the Pacific and the Atlantic coasts. Can you picture an octopus? Its body looks like a grocery bag with eyes and arms. They can range in size from less than an inch to 20 feet. That’s from the tip of one arm to another. The octopus has no backbone.
The blood of the octopus is copper-based, so it’s bluish. The octopus is a master of camouflage. It can change its color to match its background. It can change the texture of its skin. It can even change its shape to look like a threatening fish or a snake. It moves through the water with undulations, like a liquid within a liquid.
The octopus is smart. It can smell and taste with its arms. It can recognize and distinguish between various human faces. One university in New Zealand had trouble with an octopus who didn’t like to have the lights on and learned to squirt water at the light bulb shorting the circuit.
The octopus has about the same number of neurons as a dog. But the majority of them are in its arms. This means its arms can do things independently. The arms can taste, touch and move without input from the brain. So, where our nervous systems are centralized, the nervous system of the octopus is more spread around it’s body. Peter Godfrey-Smith, writing in the Scientific American says, the octopus is “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”
The octopus is a creature very unlike ourselves. If you read about them, one thing you’ll pick up quickly is that we have a hard time saying how intelligent the octopus is. We are used to thinking of intelligent creatures as being solid, as moving about like we do, and having easily identifiable, large brains. The octopus has a different sort of intelligence: arms that can taste and think on their own, a body that can shape-shift. It is an alien intelligence.
The punch in our reading from Ephesians 3 comes from a similar dynamic: deep difference. If the octopus shows us a different way to be intelligent, our reading suggests that God shows us a different way to love. If the octopus shows us an alien intelligence, God shows us an alien love. Where the octopus’s alien intelligence evokes our curiosity, the alien love of God is the seed of our hope.
Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus divides rather neatly in half. The letter actually seems to have been intended as a circular; it deals with general issues. The first part is a birds-eye perspective of the great work that God did in Jesus Christ. God has created a new, expansive family—a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural family. In the second half of the letter Paul describes the way of life that flows from and makes possible the unity of this new family. Our reading comes from the exact end of that first half of the letter. That’s why the words just beyond the end of our reading are these: “I therefore . . . .” In other words, because of this divine invasion through Jesus, this alien encounter “. . . make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
What we heard, then, was a prayer capping off the first half of the book and preparing us for the “therefore.” It was a prayer for strength. It was a prayer for comprehension. It was a prayer of praise.
There are a few key terms in the passage we heard from Ephesians 3. One, obviously is ‘love’. Paul prays that the community in Ephesus would be “rooted and grounded in love.” He prays that they would “know the love of Christ.” He asserts that in knowing the love of Christ (catch this) the creator of the universe would dwell in them.
There are the descriptions of divine generosity. Paul prays that the Ephesian community would be strengthened internally by God’s Spirit in line with the riches of God’s glory. God’s love is described as having a scale almost impossible to comprehend. The Spirit’s power will accomplish “abundantly” more than the community could even ask.
Then there are the terms related to knowledge. Paul prays that the community in Ephesus would “have the power to comprehend” this love. He prays that they would “know” this love, and he admits that the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge.” Then Paul proclaims that the power at work in the Ephesian community is “abundantly far more” than can even be imagined.
This “abundantly far more,” this beyond comprehension, this unimaginable scale, this surpassing of knowledge—this alien love is what Paul sees as the solution to the challenges that plague the churches of the first century.
Many of those churches were still struggling with the differences brought on by their multi-ethnic character. If the ancient law of the Hebrews was no longer to prescribe their shared way of life, what would? How could they actually be an expansive, inclusive family with a shared identity and a shared sense of purpose? Those were the questions that prompted this letter.
Communities today certainly have some of these challenges. We have other challenges as well. How do we come together as a community of Jesus’ students, especially now? How do we come together when there is so much to grieve, so much that has been lost in the last year and a half: lives lost, relationships lost, time with loved-ones lost, professional opportunities lost, educational opportunities lost, sleep lost, and, yes, peace and unity lost.
It is had to imagine a solution. It is hard to imagine a way to heal. It is hard to imagine being comfortable together again. And so–thankfully, I think–our scripture passages point to something alien, something just beyond our imagination, something we need help to comprehend. Yes, this passage points to something, “abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.” It is an octopus for our inner being.
The love of God, the love of the One who created all that is. The love that existed before there was any other. We may well know the love of our parents or our grandparents, but God’s love is different. We may well know the love of a friend or a spouse, but God’s love is different. It is alien.
God’s love is bigger, in breadth and length and height. God’s love is older: it existed before creation itself. God’s love is deeper: loving us before we existed. God’s love is not contingent: it always wants to the best for us. God’s love is not just shown in small tokens of chocolate, gold or diamonds: it is shown in the being of the earth itself, in the heat of the sun, in the milky way galaxy. God’s love is more than an embrace, it is taking on flesh, walking beside us, even unto death.
In this, different, foreign, strange love—this love that surpasses, this love that is God’s—there is hope. There is hope beyond what we can imagine.
Interested in the octopus? Here are a few articles to get you started: