As my sabbatical time began to whittle down I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Glasgow, Scotland. I had the opportunity to spend a significant part of one of those days with Dr. Ward Blanton, a brilliant young scholar that has focused his academic energy on the study of Paul. As a part of the day we toured the museum at the University of Glasgow where a bounty stone signs left from the Roman’s failed attempt to create a wall north of Glasgow reside. These signs were the kinds that were posted at the entrance to cities and along the grand walls that marked the empire to declare the power of Roman and the divinity of emperor. Ward helped me gain a fresh appreciation for how Paul would seize these words and images and recast them to help people understand the power of work of God through Jesus Christ. This morning we come to a prayer by Paul where some of these grand images come to life and draw us to the feet of God.
Our passage invites us into an intimate word from Paul to the Church in Ephesus. This is not a moment of instruction, correction or even encouragement. Instead, we listen in on his heart-felt prayer for them. Paul begins; 14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. Paul paints the picture of him kneeling in prayer. I do not think we fully appreciate this picture in our current context, but when Paul penned these words people prayed standing up. Kneeling was an act of supreme humility. It was reserved for one of great power and status. Paul now leverages some of the political language of the era. The emperor was called “the father of the fatherland,” but Paul twists this image reminding them that God is not just the father of the fatherland; God is the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. [i] Paul wants the church to understand that he offers this prayer from a stance of humility, bringing them before the God of all of creation as offering.
Paul prays; I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. Paul’s words stand in sharp contrast to the rote prayers we learned in our childhood and to the “God bless the sick and the missionaries” prayers we hear in our adulthood. Paul’s prayer is passionate and personal. He prays that that out of the riches of God’s glory that the believers would know the strength and power of the Holy Spirit in the very depths of their souls. He prays that they would experience Christ living in their hearts. Paul’s prayer is that the believers will experience much, much, more than going through the cultural religious motions; his prayer is that they will know what it means to have the power of Spirit of God pulsing through their very being, defining the essence of their lives – that we will know the Spirit of God pulsing through our lives and defining the essence of our lives. Are you ready to open you every aspect of your life to God? Are you ready to let God live in your life and define who you are?
Paul prays: And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge. The love Paul portrays is again much greater than the cultural substitute. For too long we have settled for a cheap copy of God’s love. Major streams of American Christianity have become so focused on legalism that the result is that many, too many, have come to believe that they have to earn God’s love – that God can only love them when their life is in apple pie order and every issue has been addressed. We find ourselves in this unfulfilling quest to “be good,” to behave in a way that meets the expectations of others, to dress in a way that is Sunday morning appropriate, and to act in a way that earns the approval of the other church folks. Whether we realize it or not, we are acting out in attempt to make ourselves worthy of God’s love.
Paul prays for them to experience a love that emerges from the very nature of God. This is a boundless love where all of our means to define it falls short. It is wider, longer, higher, and deeper then we can begin put our hands around. I cannot but think of how Paul speaks of this love in Romans 8 where he teaches; 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is a love that is redemptive and transforming. There is no place in our lives that it cannot permeate and no sin in our lives that it cannot address. It is a love that is encompassing and embracing. It is a love that is sufficient and is at the heart of God’s grace. It is a love that reaches you no matter who you are or what is going on in your live.
Paul prays for them a love that surpasses knowledge. The Gnostics, a dissident group of followers, taught that there was a special knowledge that led you to God. Even in our culture there is a temptation to live out of a head knowledge based on what you have heard taught in sermons or Sunday school classes. But head knowledge is not enough. Paul prays that they will know a love that reshapes and redefines their knowledge. We cannot be defined by what we know about God, we must be defined by our love of God and how God makes us and shapes us as His children. Are you ready to claim a love that knows no bounds and redeem every aspect of your life?
Paul prays —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. This is a truly beautiful room. It is designed to draw us into worship. It is designed to help draw us toward the feet of God. But this place would have beyond the wildest imagination of those that first heard this prayer. They gathered in small simple homes struggling for survival in a hostile political and religious world. They wondered if this young movement of faith would be snuffed out with them. Paul wants them to understand that they love and serve a God bigger than the moment. Paul uses language that they would recognize. It was the language of that would remind them of God filling the vast grand temple. He prays that in the same way God filled the temple that God will also fill them; to fill them to the measure – to the very brim. Can you imagine the fullness of God filling every aspect of your life? Can you image God filling every moment of your life? We have been content with too little. I believe that many of us settle for a splash of God to accent our lives rather than to experience life filled to the brim with the fullness of God.
Paul finishes his prayer with an incredible doxology. He prays; 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. This is one of my favorite passages in Scripture. It reminds me that what God can and will do things well beyond my limitations or the bounds of our resources. God is able to do more than we can begin to image. Even more remarkably, God chooses to work in us! I really like the take that Alan Brehm, a pastor in Houston, brings to this passage. He offers; “If that sounds too good to be true, Paul adds for good measure, ‘[God’s] power at work in us can do far more than we dare ask or imagine’ (Eph. 3:20, CEV). It seems to me that the bottom line in the Christian life is that it’s all something that God does in us; in fact it’s something that only God can do in us.”[ii]
Paul’s prayer is more than a prayer for the church in Ephesus. It is a prayer for us. It is a prayer for you. Paul’s prayer is a description of a life with the God, the God of everything. It is a life that should be defined by God’s presence and love, a love beyond bounds. In this life there is strength for the living through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is promise of a life filled to the brim with God. There is the hope that God can do more in our lives and through our hands than anything we can begin to image. It is a prayer that invites us to move from a tame civilized religion to a passionate life in God and with God. This kind of life allows us to live reflecting God’s glory for all to see. Pray Paul’s prayer for one another. Embrace Paul’s prayer as your way of living life with God. It begins with one step, praying that God will open your eyes, your heart, and your mind to the kind of life you were created for and never settling for less. Amen.
[i] Thomas B. Slater, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary: Ephesians, (Smyth and Helwys: Macon, GA, 2012), p. 92-93. The reference is a citation of a position maintained by Ben Witherington.
[ii] Alan Brehm, “Knowing that You Don’t Know,” August 2009 available online at http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/search/label/Book%20of%20Ephesians on January 30, 2013