A Bible Study Inspired by a Hymn
Text: Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr., 1923-2007
(Lutheran Service Book 535)
(Primary Biblical Reference: Ephesians 3:17b–18)
How wide the love of Christ!
It knows not class or race
But holds our one humanity
Within its broad embrace
How long the love of Christ!
Its patience will not cease
Until this broken world is bound
In everlasting peace.
How high the love of Christ!
Beyond all thought it soars.
And yet upon our passing lives
Unmeasured mercy pours.
How deep the love of Christ,
Descending to a cross!
He bears within His wounded hands
All human pain and loss.
All praise to You, O Christ,
For love whose depth and height,
Whose length and breadth fill time and space
With endless life and light!
“How Wide the Love of Christ” was written by Herman G. Stuempfle Jr. (1923-2007). Stuempfle was a pastor, professor, seminary president, and wildly published author of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. After retiring he wrote the bulk of his estimated 550 hymns, of which at least half have been published. The Lutheran Service Book has 15 of his hymns. (You can find them listed on page 1001 under his name.) Stuempfle was always mindful of the link between preaching and hymn writing, saying “hymns are the sung testimony to God’s mighty acts of grace and judgment,” and creating hymns always remained for him a part of his “fundamental vocation to communicate the Gospel.”
The fact that there are 15 of Stuemphfle’s hymns in LSB accents two points I’ve often made. 1) Church music is the most ecumenical aspect of the faith. Write a good hymn and it will get used, even if the people using are in different denominations. Stuemphfle was a member of the ELCA, a denomination the LC-MS is not in fellowship with and with which we have some significant theological differences. Nonetheless we use these Stuemphfle hymns because they have sound theology and are good poetry. 2) You should not judge a whole denomination by its leaders. Those leaders may represent the majority voice, but not necessarily the voice of all. And now, on to the study.
In Ephesians 3:17 Paul shares with the Church some of what he is praying for in reference to them and us (see 3:14, 20). He prays that we have a specific foundation, which is to be “rooted and grounded in love.” This is not just any kind of love, but God’s love for us in Christ our Lord. So we aren’t talking about how I love a good salad, or how a young couple might fall in love, or how someone loves their best friend. This is the self-giving agape love that flows from the Divine heart. It is the love that compelled Father to send the Son so that the world might be saved (John 3:16). So, in verse 4, we sing “How deep the love of Christ, Descending to a cross! He bears within His wounded hands, All human pain and loss.” Actually every verse in “How Wide the Love of Christ” refers to this amazing love.
In refering to this love which is the foundation for us, Stuempfle works off of Ephesians 3:18-19 to get his wide, long, high, and deep images:
… 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Verse one sings of how “wide” the love of Christ is. Verse two sings of how “long” the love of Christ is. Verse three sings of how “high” the love of Christ is. Verse four sings of how “deep” the love of Christ is. Verse five combines it all.
Build on this foundation of Christ’s love our approach to the fallen world is utterly changed. So Paul can write to the Galatians:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)
First we should notice how Paul squarely places the origin of our relationship with Christ, our being built on the foundation of his love, in our baptism. Through baptism God’s forgiveness and love comes to us, even to children (Acts 2:38-39). Of course Paul does not intend to neglect the power of God manifest through his word (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12). This foundation of Christ’s love (“rooted and grounded”) destroys the divisions fallen humanity clings to (slave, free, male, female, Jew, Gentile, Republican, Democrat, Southerner, Northerner, etc.). As Stuempfle put it, “It knows not class or race, But holds our one humanity, Within its broad embrace.” The Church is unique, different from anything the world has to offer.
This love of Christ is the very definition of patience, as Peter reminds us:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
The hymn reflects this patience in verse two. That the goal is the maximum number of individuals reaching heaven is reflected in the hymn when we sing of “everlasting peace.” Such peace is found only through Christ. It begins partially here and continues into eternity.
Though the hymn focuses on the love of Christ, we need to remember that none of this is possible without the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies us through the Word and Sacraments. That we are built on and grounded in the foundation of Christ’s redemptive love is the Spirit’s work.
Without the Holy Spirit, working through Word and Sacrament (the Means of Grace), we would be unable to grasp “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love in Christ Jesus. But with that work we can be strengthened “to comprehend” it. The Scriptures are to be searched so that the Holy Spirit can help us to grow in faith and understanding. I should point out that “Word” is not limited to the Bible. All good sermons, good Bible studies, good books, good liturgies, good hymns, carry that word. Shoot, even some not so good sermons, Bible studies, books, liturgies and hymns, carry nuggets the Spirit can use.
The results of availing ourselves of the Means of Grace is that we will more readily know the love of Christ and be filled with the “fullness of God,” gladly living as His sanctified people (Ephesians 3:19). To connect to the love of God in Christ Jesus is to connect to who we are becoming as we are transformed into his image (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18).
This blessing comes to those in the Holy Christian Church. Notice what Paul says about it in Ephesians 4:4:
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—
Through God’s grace we are in the Church. We are to regard all believers as being one in Christ, part of the one Holy, Christian and Apostolic Church, the Body of Christ. All are the beneficiaries of the patience of God. All are worshiping our mysterious and loving God. All are recipients of his great mercy. All are justified by grace through faith in him and his atoning death. All are destined for eternity with God. So we join with all the saints throughout time to praise Christ, “whose length and breadth fill time and space, with endless life and light!”
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert