Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
The Olympic Games started this week. Of course, it was supposed to be last summer. These are the 2020 Olympics. But COVID disrupted the games, as it has disrupted everything else. Even postponed by a year, there are still serious concerns about the relative safety of holding an international sporting event. Japan only has a 23% vaccination rate. Now all of the amazing sporting venues that have been constructed specially for this competition are hosting their events, but without any fans in attendance. But even though it may not be under the best conditions, the Olympics are on.
I really love the Olympics. Melissa does too. We’re the sort of people who have definitely had a house rule that, during the Olympics, nothing can be on the TV except the Olympics. I remember watching the Sydney Olympics together in the first year of our marriage. I remember setting up multiple screens when we lived in Coos Bay so we could watch more than one event at the same time. That was the first time the internet was good enough to do that. Of course now, with everything streaming and on-demand, we can watch any and every event that we want. Even while we were camping on Friday night, we made sure to watch the opening ceremonies.
And I will watch pretty much any Olympic sport there is. It doesn’t have to be the most popular or the most flashy. In the winter, one of my favorites is curling. I can watch it for hours. I really enjoy watching rowing and canoeing. I enjoyed seeing skateboarding and 3×3 basketball for the first time last night.
Of course, one of the big draws of the Olympic Games is the international nature of the competition. Athletes from more than 200 nations are competing in the games. It brings the whole world together, even nations who are at war with one another. Twice every four years they come together to compete in peace.
I noticed a connection in the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians for this morning. The author tells the audience that he bows down in prayer to God the Father, and then he says something that describes the Father. In the NRSV, it’s translated, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. The CEB translates it, “Every ethnic group in heaven or on earth is recognized by him.” We could also say that “every nation in heaven or on earth owes its identity to God.”
It doesn’t matter where we come from. It doesn’t matter what language we speak, or the color of skin, or the texture of our hair. It doesn’t matter how wealthy our country is. It doesn’t matter how much military might our nation has. We all stand equal before God. We all ultimately derive our identity from the God who created all of us.
That same phrase can also be translated to say that all parenthood derives its name from the parenthood of God. To the extant that we pass on life to the next generation, it is because we are first granted life by God. As we share love with our children, it is because God has first loved us and in doing so taught us the meaning of love.
There’s another really interesting detail in that line. Every nation gets its identity from God. But it’s not just every earthly nation. It says, every nation in heaven or on earth gets its identity from God. Every nation in heaven, every heavenly parent gets its name from God. I’m not even sure what that means. Is Ephesians trying to talk about nations of angels. Are we supposed to be imagining some other kinds of heavenly beings. I’m not sure; and I don’t know that many people quite understand what the author is trying to get at here. But it’s still sort of powerful to imagine that the community of nations extends even beyond earth. Even if one day we discover life on other planets, Ephesians tells us that we are all one because we are all created, all parented, by God.
There are a lot of different sports that compete at the Olympics. Some are individual sports. Others are team sports. Some are pure tests of speed, measured in minutes and seconds. Some are measures of distance, measured in meters. Some are measured in goals or points. Still others have to be decided by judges.
Since the founding of the modern games, the Olympic motto has been Citius, Altius, Fortius. The Latin translates as faster, higher, stronger. Continually improve. Push the limits. Break the records. Set new standards.
Again, I found another connection between the games and our passage from Ephesians. In the Olympics, we’re talking about measuring achievement. Well, the Bible passage also talks about measuring. It talks about measuring the length and width and height and depth of something. “I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp the width and length, height and depth,” of this thing, “together with all believers.” And what is the thing that we should be able to measure? The thing we should strive to measure is love. We should be able to measure the dimensions of love.
It’s an interesting way that Ephesians talks about measuring the dimensions of love. It starts with this: “As a result of having strong roots in love.” In order to measure the dimensions of love, we have to be rooted in love. We have to be grounded in love. We have to have the experience of love in order to begin to suss out its size.
Ephesians goes on, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of love. Is it that any saint, any believer, has the power to measure the dimensions of love? Perhaps. But maybe it is the case that we can only measure the dimensions of love with all the saints. Maybe we can only understand the dimensions of love when we measure it together.
Ephesians continues, “I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge.” Know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Yes, you heard it right. Ephesians wants us to know something that can’t be known, to know the unknowable love of God.
How high is God’s love? So high you can’t get over it. How low is God’s love? So low you can’t get under it. How wide is God’s love? So wide you can’t get around it. Rooted in the grace of God’s love, and together with all of the saints, we can only begin to fathom its dimensions.
Like I mentioned before, the motto of the Olympics has always been faster, higher, stronger. But at the opening ceremonies the other night, they announced the first change in this motto in the games 125-year history. The change was prompted by the strange conditions of this last year in the COVID-19 pandemic.
And it was so noticeable in the opening ceremonies. It’s usually a huge event. Tens of thousands of fans in the stands. Ten thousand athletes on the stadium floor. Hundreds participating in the show.
But it was noticeably small and noticeably empty this time. COVID has effected the whole world, and it’s meant that just about every venue at this Olympics will be just about empty all the time. It’s just not safe for people to get together. We’ve experienced our own version of that, and it’s hard. It’s sad. It is draining and disappointing. And yet, we have to endure it.
And it’s that experience that changed the motto of the Olympics. No longer faster, higher, stronger. Now it is “Citius, Altius, Fortius—Communiter”: faster, higher, stronger—together. Strangely, it is the experience of separation that reminds us just how much we need each other.
When the IOC President, Thomas Bach, introduced it, he used the same word over and over. He used the word solidarity. That is the property that brings us together. Solidarity.
But, of course, we have another, more familiar word for the same thing. What we mean when we talk about togetherness, what we mean when we talk about solidarity, is love. Godly love. The kind of love whose dimensions we cannot calculate. The kind of love that is immeasurably wide, immeasurably long, immeasurably deep, immeasurably high. The kind of love that reaches out to the other, even across differences, across nationality, across language, across race, across class. We are now pressed to continually improve in love, push the limits of love, to break the records of love, to set new standards of love.
And this is possible because of how astonishingly much, how incomprehensibly much God loves us. God loves us enough to grant us life. God loves us enough to give up god-ness and become human for us. God loves us enough to heal and restore us. God loves us enough to die for us. God loves us enough to break the power of death for us. And it is that love that gives birth to our love, that gives birth to our solidarity, that gives birth to our together, and that teaches us that we all, every nation in heaven or on earth, are known, named, and loved by God.