SERMON: The Dimensions Of A Complete Life, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Dimensions Of A Complete Life Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many, many centuries ago, out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos, a man by the name of John caught a vision of the new Jerusalem descending out of Heaven from God.  One of the greatest glories of this new city of God that John saw was its completeness.  It was not partial and one-sided, but it was complete in all three of its dimensions.  And so, in describing the city in the twenty-first chapter of the book of Revelation, John says this: “The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.”  In other words, this new city of God, this city of ideal humanity, is not an unbalanced entity but it is complete on all sides.

Now John is saying something quite significant here.  For so many of us the book of Revelation is a very difficult book, puzzling to decode.  We look upon it as something of a great enigma wrapped in mystery.  And certainly if we accept the book of Revelation as a record of actual historical occurrences it is a difficult book, shrouded with impenetrable mysteries.  But if we will look beneath the peculiar jargon of its author and the prevailing apocalyptic symbolism, we will find in this book many eternal truths which continue to challenge us.  One such truth is that of this text.  What John is really saying is this: that life as it should be and life at its best is the life that is complete on all sides.

There are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height.  The length of life as we shall think of it here is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions.  It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare.  The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others.  The height of life is the upward reach for God.

These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete.  Life is something of a great triangle.  At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stand other persons, and at the top stands the Supreme, Infinite Person, God.  These three must meet in every individual life if that life is to be complete.

Now let us notice first the length of life.  I have said that this is the dimension of life in which the individual is concerned with developing his inner powers.  It is that dimension of life in which the individual pursued personal ends and ambitions.  This is perhaps the selfish dimension of life, and there is such a thing as moral and rational self-interest.  If one is not concerned about himself he cannot be totally concerned about other selves.

Some years ago a learned rabbi, the late Joshua Liebman, wrote a book entitled Peace of Mind.  He has a chapter in the book entitled, “Love Thyself Properly.”  In this chapter he says in substance that it is impossible to love other selves adequately unless you love your own self properly.  Many people have been plunged into the abyss of emotional fatalism because they did not love themselves properly.  So every individual has a responsibility to be concerned about himself enough to discover what he is made for.  After he discovers his calling he should set out to do it with all the strength and power in his being.  He should do it as if God Almighty called him at this particular moment in history to do it.  He should seek to do his job so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn could not do it better.  No matter how small one thinks his life’s work is in terms of the norms of the world and the so-called big jobs, he must realize that it has cosmic significance if he is serving humanity and doing the will of God.

To carry this to one extreme, if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets as Raphael painted pictures, sweep streets as Michelangelo carved marble, sweep streets as Beethoven composed music, sweep streets as Shakespeare wrote poetry.  Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of Heaven and Earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”  In the words of Douglas Mallock:

If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail;
If you can’t be the sun, be a star
For it isn’t by size that you win or you fail—
Be the best of whatever you are.

When you do this, you have mastered the first dimension of life – the length of life.

But don’t stop here; it is dangerous to stop here.  There are some people who never get beyond this first dimension.  They are brilliant people; often they do an excellent job in developing their inner powers; but they live as if nobody else lived in the world but themselves.  There is nothing more tragic than to find an individual bogged down in the length of life, devoid of the breadth.

The breadth of life is that dimension of life in which we are concerned about others.  An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

You remember one day a man came to Jesus and he raised some significant questions.  Finally he got around to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  This could easily have been a very abstract question left in midair.  But Jesus immediately pulled that question out of midair and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho.  He talked about a certain man who fell among thieves.  Three men passed; two of them on the other side.  And finally another man came and helped the injured man on the ground.  He is known to us as the good Samaritan.  Jesus says in substance that this is a great man.  He was great because he could project the “I” into the “thou.”

So often we say that the priest and the Levite were in a big hurry to get to some ecclesiastical meeting and so they did not have time.  They were concerned about that.  I would rather think of it another way.  I can well imagine that they were quite afraid.  You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road, and the same thing that happened to the man who was robbed and beaten could have happened to them.  So I imagine the first question that the priest and the Levite asked was this: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”  Then the good Samaritan came by, and by the very nature of his concern reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”  And so this man was great because he had the mental equipment for a dangerous altruism.  He was great because he could surround the length of his life with the breadth of life.  He was great not only because he had ascended to certain heights of economic security, but because he could condescend to the depths of human need.

All this had a great deal of bearing in our situation in the world today.  So often racial groups are concerned about the length of life, their economic privileged position, their social status.  So often nations of the world are concerned about the length of life, perpetuating their nationalistic concerns, and their economic ends.  May it not be that the problem in the world today is that individuals as well as nations have been overly concerned with the length of life, devoid of the breadth?  But there is still something to remind us that we are interdependent, that we are all involved in a single process, that we are all somehow caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  Therefore whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars.  As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the way our world is made.  No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent.  We are interdependent.  So John Donne placed it in graphic terms when he affirmed, “No man is an island entire of itself.  Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  Then he goes on to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”  When we discover this, we master the second dimension of life.

Finally, there is a third dimension.  Some people never get beyond the first two dimensions of life.  They master the first two.  They develop their inner powers, they love humanity; but they stop right here.  They end up with the feeling that man is the end of all things and that humanity is God.  Philosophically or theologically, many of them would call themselves humanists.  They seek to live without a sky.  They find themselves bogged down on the horizontal plane without being integrated on the vertical plane.  But if we are to live the complete life we must reach up and discover God.  H. G. Wells was right: “The man who is not religious begins at nowhere and ends at nothing.”  Religion is like a mighty wind that breaks down doors and makes that possible and even easy which seems difficult and impossible.

In our modern world it is easy for us to forget this.  We so often find ourselves unconsciously neglecting this third dimension of life.  Not that we go up and say, “Good-by, God, we are going to leave you now.”  But we become so involved in the things of this world that we are unconsciously carried away by the rushing ride of materialism which leaves us treading in the confused waters of secularism.  We find ourselves living in what Professor Sorokin of Harvard called a sensate civilization, believing that only those things which we can see and touch and to which we can apply our five senses have existence.

Something should remind us once more that the great things in this universe are things that we never see.  You walk out at night and look up at the beautiful stars as they bedeck the heavens like swinging lanterns of eternity, and you think you can see all.  Oh, no.  You can never see the law of gravitation that holds them there.  You walk around this vast campus and you probably have a great esthetic experience as I have had walking about and looking at the beautiful buildings, and you think you see all.  Oh, No.  You can never see the mind of the architect who drew the blueprint.  You can never see the love and the faith and the hope of the individuals who made it so.  You look at me and you think you see Martin Luther King.  You don’t see Martin Luther King; you see my body; but, you must understand, my body can’t think, my body can’t reason.  You don’t see the me that makes me me.  You can never see my personality.

In a real sense everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.  Plato was right: “The visible is a shadow cast by the invisible.”  And so God is still around.  All of our new knowledge, all of our new developments, cannot diminish his being one iota.  These new advances have banished God neither from the microcosmic compass of the atom nor from the vast, unfathomable ranges of interstellar space.  The more we learn about this universe, the more mysterious and awesome it becomes.  God is still here.

So I say to you, seek God and discover him and make him a power in your life.  Without him all of our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest nights.  Without him, life is a meaningless drama with the decisive scenes missing.  But with him we are able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.  With him we are able to rise from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy.  Saint Augustine was right – we were made for God and we will be restless until we find rest in him.

Love yourself, if that means rational, healthy, and moral self-interest.  You are commanded to do that.  That is the length of life.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  You are commanded to do that.  That is the breadth of life.  But never forget that there is a first and even great commandment, “Love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, and all thy soul and all they mind.”  This is the height of life.  And when you do this, you live the complete life.

Thank God for John who, centuries ago, caught a vision of the new Jerusalem.  God grant that those of us who still walk the road of life will catch this vision and decide to move forward to that city of complete life in which the length and the breadth and the height are equal.

O God, our gracious Heavenly Father, we thank three for all of the insights of the ages, and we thank thee for the privilege of having fellowship with thee.  Help us to discover ourselves, to discover our neighbors, and to discover thee, and to make all part of our life.  Grant that we will go now with grim and bold determination to live the complete life.  In the name of spirit of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.

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