Yr B ~ Pentecost 8 ~ Ephesians 3:14-21
Ephesians 3:14-21 happens to be my absolute favourite passage of scripture in the entire Bible. I have it posted on my wall in my study here and I try to read it just about every day. I even reference it on my business card. I just love the way it speaks to me – it’s not a “here’s why you should be a believer” kind of text – it’s more of an “I’m so glad that you seek to walk in the Way of Jesus and here’s an encouraging reminder of why that’s such an awesome thing to give your life to” text.
I love that it’s a prayer from a leader to a group of Christians. The prayer begins: “For this reason I bow my knees before God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory…” – It all starts with the “riches of God’s glory” – God’s awesomeness, God’s wondrous Presence – that’s our reference point – that’s the ground and foundation of everything we are.
Then the author (probably Paul) prays for 4 things for the Ephesians – for the church. He prays that
(1) “God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Holy Spirit,” and
(2) “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” Then he prays that we
(3) “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,” and
(4) “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
So, it’s from God’s presence that we may be strengthened through the Holy Spirit and be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ. God – Spirit – Christ – it’s a Trinitarian prayer. God’s presence empowers us through the Holy Spirit, and Christ dwells in our hearts and roots us and grounds us in God’s love.
This kind of love is broad and long and high and deep – it’s multi-dimensional – it’s mind-bogglingly expansive – and we’re invited to intimately know this love that surpasses knowledge. It’s a beautiful paradox – we can know the unknowable. And the self-giving, compassionate love of Christ becomes our new paradigm. Strength, rooted presence, awareness and comprehension of God, and the love of Christ.
Let’s look at these 4 things more fully.
The first thing “Paul” prays for the Ephesians here is strength. Strength is a foundational aspect of faith. You need strength whether you’re up or down – and it especially comes in handy when you’re down. Apart from wishing away your problem, what’s the next most useful thing we could receive from God? – strength!
Now, where does this strength show itself? In our biceps? – no, it’s not physical strength.
In our will? – well, partly, because strength of character and will can help us avoid many of the problems we stumble our way into.
But mostly the kind of strength Paul’s talking about and praying for is spiritual strength – strength in our inner being that comes with power through the Holy Spirit – strength that becomes a rich reservoir of faith to draw on in good times and especially in bad times.
Phillips Brooks said “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger people! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle but you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”
“I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Holy Spirit…”
“…And that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”
I’m sure you’ve heard before that we are intended to be the dwelling place of the holy – that buildings are not God’s temples – we are. This second petition in Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians focuses on that very thing – that Christ may dwell in our hearts – that Christ’s presence, synonymous here with the Holy Spirit, may increasingly reside in us as we are being rooted and grounded in love.
I absolutely love the word “rooted” here. It may be the most powerful word in the passage for me.
Rootedness happens slowly over time.
Rootedness requires nourishment and light.
Rootedness speaks to stability and assuredness – not to never change but to be anchored in God as we’re transformed. We’re to be rooted in God’s love – rich and fertile soil indeed!
Let’s think about trees for a minute and how their roots grow. If the nutrients in the soil are plentiful and the area is well irrigated the tree’s root system will tend to be shallow. It can get everything it needs from near the surface. If, on the other hand, nutrients and water are harder to come by – the roots will go out in search of what the tree so desperately needs.
It’s important that this idea of rootedness is linked with the idea of strength – because if a tree is never tested or stressed it will not grow strong – but if it encounters even the regular complement of life’s storms its roots will grow stronger and deeper as it seeks to more firmly anchor itself in the soil.
And so Paul prayed for strength for his church, and for rootedness.
Then he 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” – of God. It’s a prayer for awareness – for awe – for wonder. We cannot possibly fathom God’s breadth and length and height and depth on our own – so Paul prays for power for us. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to see the invisible – to know the unknowable – to comprehend that which is completely beyond us.
This is why we study and learn about God and Jesus – so that we can begin to comprehend God’s intention for us – and then we trust in the Spirit to open our minds and show us those things that we can’t see on our own.
And the final petition in this prayer is that they “may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” We need the Spirit to help us comprehend and to know that we are loved by Christ.
Friends, we are loved in ways that we cannot possibly imagine – in a deeper, stronger, fuller, truer, more complete way than any love we have ever known. Followers know they are loved by Christ.
But what’s the point of Christ’s love? – to keep it? – is that what he did? No, he gave love away. That was the whole point. So to know the love of Christ isn’t just to realize that you’re loved (although that is key) it’s to love as Christ loved.
To know the love of Christ is to love as Christ loved – which means to live as Christ lived.
The love of Christ is not some sappy, syrupy, Hallmark-card kind of love. It’s not the kind of love that depends on attraction or beauty or desirability. Jesus loved the unlovely – he attracted the unattractive – he desired the undesirable – because he knew that all are God’s children and all are worthy of love.
What kind of love does Christ call us to? Poet John Oxenham describes it like this:
Love ever gives.
And ever stands
With open hands.
And while it lives,
For this is love’s prerogative —
To give, and give, and give.
Why does Paul pray all this stuff for the church?
Why would we want strength – why would we want to be rooted in God’s love and be indwelt by the Spirit – why is it a good thing to be able to comprehend God – why would we want to live like Christ?
Here it is: Verse 19 – “so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Filled with God’s fullness.
Friends, this is what it’s all about – why we have churches like this, and why we expend so much energy in growing faith – so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Doesn’t that sound good? Wouldn’t you love to be filled with all the fullness of God?
Wouldn’t it be great to be filled with Joy – Love – Grace – Peace – Thankfulness – Acceptance – Forgiveness – Purpose – Passion – Goodness – Gentleness – Kindness – Patience – Self-Control – Faithfulness – Compassion – ‘cause that’s what God’s fullness looks like.
One morning R.C. Chapman, a devout Christian, was asked how he was feeling. “I’m burdened this morning!” was his reply. But his happy countenance contradicted his words. So the questioner exclaimed in surprise, “Are you really burdened, Mr. Chapman?” “Yes, but it’s a wonderful burden–it’s an overabundance of blessings for which I cannot find enough time or words to express my gratitude!”
Paul prays these 4 things for the Ephesians so that they may be filled with all the fullness of God – burdened with an overabundance of blessings.
But that implies that without strength, rootedness, comprehension and the love of Christ one cannot be filled with all the fullness of God. Well that just makes sense, doesn’t it?
I mean, how could one experience the fullness of God without a strong faith?
How could one be filled without being rooted in love and indwelt by the Spirit?
How could one fathom the incredible blessing of being filled without an awareness of God’s Presence and a comprehension of what it all means?
How could one possibly experience fullness without experiencing self-giving love?
One of the great tragedies of the modern age is that we can have just about anything we desire just about anytime we desire it. We are products of the age of instant gratification. So we hear about being filled with the fullness of God and we say “ok, lay it on me! I want it now!”
But the important things in life just don’t work that way. They take time – and effort – and trust. You can’t hurry growth no matter how much you want the fruit. And you can’t expect to harvest fruit if you plant weeds. Somebody once said “Christians spend 6 days a week sowing their wild oats and 1 day a week praying for crop failure!”
Paul’s prayer was ultimately for the people to experience the fruit of being filled with the fullness of God.
It was the prayer of a leader of a church for his church. Because that’s what church leaders spend a lot of time doing.
This isn’t just a 1st century thing – leaders still pray for their churches all the time. I pray for you just about every day. I come into the sanctuary – enjoy some quiet time – and I pray for you. Sometimes individually, sometimes collectively. But mostly what I pray something like what Paul did:
I pray that God will grant you strength and faith.
I pray that you’ll experience spiritual growth and rootedness as the Christ dwells within you.
I pray that your minds will be expanded by the Holy Spirit and that you’ll become ever more aware of God’s Presence, and experience awe and wonder, and that our intellects may continually be challenged and grown.
And I especially pray that we may all come to really know the love of Christ and to have it transform us so that we may become more like him – that we may follow him more fully.
I don’t very often pray for stuff like the 3 B’s – more bodies, bigger budgets and better buildings. Those are important things that flow out of the primary thing.
So, what is the primary thing that I pray for? What’s the first and foremost purpose of the church? What is “job #1”?
It can be said in several ways, but Ephesians 3 says it beautifully in verse 19 – “I pray that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
That’s what it’s all about – everything else flows out of that.
And fullness comes through noticing the Presence of God always and everywhere – through openness and mindfulness – through our growing faith – through strength and rootedness – through comprehension and through the love of Christ.
And so, today, and every day, that is my prayer for you and this United Church of ours. Churches struggle with bodies, budgets and buildings because they don’t focus enough on strength, rootedness, comprehension and the love of Christ. It really is that simple.
A called-out group of followers of the Way of Jesus that are continually growing in their strength of faith is irresistible.
Saints who are rooted and grounded in God’s love with the Holy Spirit dwelling within them attract notice.
Worshippers who marvel at the mystery and wonder of God with awe and seek to let the power of the Spirit bring comprehension to their minds have something to say to the world that others can’t convey.
And followers of Jesus who know his love – a love that surpasses knowledge – live lives that are overflowing with compassion, harmony, justice, and peace – lives that make others say, “I wonder what makes her tick? Where can I get me some of that?”
A church that learns to focus on strength, rootedness, comprehension and the love of Christ understands that the bodies, the budget, and the buildings will then take care of themselves.
That is the wisdom of faith.
That is my prayer for you – through all these things – that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
(vv.20-21) “Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”