Sunday, July 29, 2018
Full Service Audio
So, Chris and I are getting married in less than a week – my brain is already there. But God’s grace is stronger than my wedding brain, so my prayer for all of you today is that you will be able to find some small tidbit of God’s truth for your life within this mishmash of words I’ve managed to string together amidst all the thoughts of DJs and caterers and wedding favours and flowers… Let us pray…
As today my prayer is that my feeble words would somehow speak some of God’s truth into your hearts, most ministers do pray regularly for their churches, both the congregation as a whole as it seeks to be the Body of Christ in the world, and for all of you individually as we are made aware of your specific prayer needs. We always encourage you to send us your prayer requests. And the only thing we love more than to pray for you is to pray with you… if you’re facing a crisis or a dilemma in your life, we’re always glad to pray for you or with you.
Paul is the perfect example of the kind of selfless love for others that we, and all Christians, would do well to emulate. He greatly loved his churches, and expresses that enthusiastically throughout all his letters, including this letter which is presumed to have been sent to new Gentile Christians in Ephesus. Throughout the 6 “chapters” of this letter, he strongly commends them for their perseverance and faithfulness while encouraging them in their faith. In this specific passage from chapter 3 that I read for you this morning, Paul expresses his love for them by praying for them.
It’s fascinating to me that Paul, as he writes this letter, is in prison! He is writing this letter from prison, and instead of asking for anything for himself – either their prayers for him, or that they would take some kind of action on his behalf, or send him anything (maybe money or food) – he tells them that he is praying for them; that even in the midst of his own difficult circumstances, he is still more concerned about them. This is likely because they are fairly new Christians and likely to be discouraged easily, while his own mature faith allows him to stand firm on the foundation of Jesus Christ in all circumstances.
In this letter, in the verses leading up to this morning’s passage, he explains to them that he considers his current suffering to be all a part of God’s plan to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world, and he accepts this with joy, as a sign of God’s grace and favour toward him – the one who had previously been the fiercest enemy of the followers of Jesus. As we sit here today, we are some of the benefactors of his perseverance and faithfulness. But at the time, he was worried that the Ephesians would become discouraged because he had been imprisoned for preaching the gospel, and he wanted to give them strength to deal with that discouragement and any adversity that they themselves may encounter because of their faith.
When we pray, what are the kinds of things we pray for? That we’ll get a good parking spot? That our team will win the championship? Okay, this is confession time! You know that you’ve prayed for those things! Personally, I’m praying for no rain this coming Saturday for our wedding!
Usually when we pray for other people, though, we pray for much more important things, such as health and wellbeing, for protection, and happiness. These are all very good, kind and generous things to pray for; but Paul is praying for something very different here, and it’s worth taking note of.
He is not praying for their comfort, or their wealth, or general happiness, or even for their physical health. He’s not praying that they would be spared adversity or protected from problems… He’s praying for something that transcends all that; he’s praying that no matter what happens in their lives, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in, they would be firmly grounded in the love and power of God, because it is from that grounding that they will have strength beyond themselves to stand firm in faith in the face of any setbacks or discouragement.
These should be our prayers for our church and for each other as well. This is a prayer that we should all memorize (I will try to do so during the month of August!). This is the prayer that I wish you would pray for me, and all the clergy, staff and lay leaders of the church. And it is my sincere prayer for all of you.
Paul prays these 3 prayers – and I’m going to dig a little deeper into each of them in a few moments – because he wants his churches and the individuals in those churches to be strong, and he knows that their strength is to be found in God alone.
But first, let me tell you an interesting story about the power of prayer and of God’s love from this past week:
The UCC has what is called our “General Council” – it’s the highest court of the denomination, and every three years there is a gathering of the UCC from all across Canada. Not everyone goes – each Presbytery and each Conference of the UCC elects commissioners to represent them, half of them clergy and half of them laypeople. General Council is where the major decisions that affect our whole denomination are made, and it can get pretty tense.
I went as an elected commissioner from Toronto Conference in 2012, and it was one of the worst experiences in the church in my life, and I promised myself I would never go back! I won’t get into all the details, but as far as I was concerned, this was the church at its worst and the decisions made were very disappointing. I’m told the following GC in 2015 was even worse, so thankfully I wasn’t there.
Well, this week, despite my vow to never put myself through that again, I went back – the 2018 General Council just finished up on Friday and this time it was held in Oshawa, and so, being local, I was asked to come out for a day and lead morning prayers and volunteer in the Prayer Room for the day, to pray with people who walked in and needed prayer; to pray for the decisions being made and the direction of the church; to pray about the election of the new moderator on Thursday (and by the way, the person chosen – a minister from BC by the name of Rev. Dr. Richard Bott - is someone both Andrew and I know and think well of); and over the course of the week, volunteers prayed for each and every congregation of the UCC by name, out loud (TEMC was scheduled to be prayed for on Tuesday evening). We prayed for the church in the same way that Paul prayed for the churches of which he was a part – that our denomination and all our congregations would be firmly grounded in the love and power of God in Jesus Christ.
Now, volunteering in the prayer room and leading morning prayers might sound ordinary enough – nice, but not all that surprising; but you may be surprised to know that this is the first time as far as anyone can remember that there has been a Prayer Room or morning, mid-day and evening prayers at the triennial gathering of our church … where all the major decisions are being made. Our denomination has historically not put sufficient emphasis on the importance of seeking God’s will and guidance in our decision making. I personally think this has had serious consequences, not the least of which is that the decision-making bodies of the higher courts of the church have not modeled the importance of seeking God’s will for our congregations or for individual believers in the pews.
But this year, a team of 4-5 clergy and denominational staff members initiated a ministry of prayer that began at 7:00 in the morning each day, and ran all day until the evening when discussions and deliberations ended for the day. I received daily updates via email about the tremendous effect this prayer ministry was having on the decisions being made, on the behaviour that was exhibited, and on the overall atmosphere in the room.
I was only there for one day, but while I was there an employee of the denominational headquarters came to ask for prayer for himself, and while he was there he told us that he couldn’t believe the change in atmosphere of this GC compared to the last 2, which he said nearly killed him! This time, the negativity dial was turned way down; people were listening to each other more, and when they spoke or responded there was much more respect and thoughtfulness. Not only that, but people were openly and joyfully talking about Jesus in ways like never before heard at a UCC General Council, at least not in recent decades!
Prayer seems so simple, but it is very powerful and it changes things – it changes people’s attitudes and behaviours, it changes circumstances; and as Paul says, it changes our ability to persevere, whatever the circumstances. It is so clear, as Paul knew, that relying on the wisdom of God changes things; being grounded in the power of God makes us stronger than we ever thought we could be. It makes us wiser and more loving than we ever thought we could be; and being rooted in the love of God changes how we act and how we treat other people.
So, let’s break this prayer down and look at each of Paul’s specific prayers in this passage and explore what they might look like in our lives:
Prayer 1: First, Paul says, “I pray that according to the riches of His glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through His spirit.” The riches of God’s glory are very different from the riches of our glory, aren’t they? The riches of our glory tend to be material things – money, fame, success, opportunities, possessions. These are all things that we find impressive; but they are all things that are external to us, that are finite; they are all things that we can lose in the blink of an eye. We all know stories of people who have “had it all,” but then one life crisis came along unexpectedly and they lost it all, and because this was the riches of their glory they had no foundation left to stand on. They’re like the proverbial foolish man who built his house upon the sand.
The riches of God’s glory are found, as Paul says, in his Holy Spirit which gives us strength and power, and that is something that is internal, that is ours to hold onto in every circumstance of life, and that can never be taken away from us by any person or any crisis. In fact, the deeper the crisis, the more of God’s power and strength we are given through His Holy Spirit.
Paul knows that the Ephesians will face trials as Christians, and his prayer is that they would be strengthened by the Spirit of God, which is their only true source of strength.
Prayer 2: Next, Paul prays “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” We like the thought of Christ dwelling within us, dwelling in our hearts; but we’d like to think that’s where it ends, that we have Jesus in our hearts, that we can feel Him with us as we go about our business. But in the gospel of John, Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I in you.” You…abide in me. And he goes on to make it clear that being his follower means that we abide in him, that we exist and live and work in his kingdom, his sphere of influence, governed by his lordship; and that is active, not passive. It’s something we do, not just something we receive. Christ abiding in us has a passive feel to it – which is nice because it’s where our peace comes from – but Jesus also calls us to move out of our former dwelling places, and to take up residence in His kingdom.
Paul’s prayer here points us in the same direction. He prays that Christ may dwell in your hearts as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” So the implication is that if we are not actively rooting and grounding our lives – everything we think, everything we do - in the love of Christ, then how can we say that Christ dwells in our hearts? It’s when we live – through faith and trust - in the way that Jesus taught us that He comes to dwell in our hearts. This is what Paul wants for the people he loves – that they would confidently trust in the Lord as they live in His way, and thereby know the peace of Christ in their hearts.
Prayer 3: The first prayer was for strength, the second prayer for faith and love; the third prayer is for wisdom, but not for a worldly kind of wisdom. He says, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of Christ.” A deep, abiding knowledge of the depth and breadth and height of God’s love for them will give them strength to stand against any enemies who seek to persecute them. Paul knows that firsthand. He is in prison, and yet it is the knowledge of the lengths God would go to out of love for him – going to the cross – that sustains him in his darkest hours.
We know God loves us. We sing “Jesus loves me, this I know.” I was told all the time right from my earliest childhood, “God loves you!” But there’s knowing…and then there’s comprehending. Knowing in our heads is not the same thing as comprehending. Paul says, he wants them to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge; that is, the love that’s not just in our heads but that penetrates to the deepest parts of our hearts, where we carry our fears, our failures, our losses, our shame, our anger and all those things that rob us of fullness of life. We know God loves us; but do we still know when we’re in the grip of fear; when things don’t go the way we planned; when someone we love dearly has been torn out of our lives; when we’re trapped in a pattern of sin that we can’t get out of. Often, at those times, we’re pretty sure that God does not love us. But Paul wants us to know that this is when God loves us even more. And it is the power of that love that gives us the strength to walk faithfully in all the circumstances of our lives.
Love and power…these are the theme of most novels, movies, artwork that we love; and that’s what this prayer is all about: the love and power of God that we have access to through our Lord Jesus Christ. As NT Wright puts it: “That’s what Paul’s prayer here is all about. Essentially it is a prayer that… Christians may discover the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It means knowing God as the all-loving, all-powerful father; it means putting down roots into that love – or, changing the picture, having that love as the rock-solid foundation for every aspect of one’s life. It means having that love turn into a well-directed and effective energy in one’s personal life. And it means the deep and powerful knowing and loving into which the Christian is invited to enter; or – to put the same thing another way – the knowing and loving which should enter into the Christian.”
Our power comes from Christ; our strength comes from Christ; and when we grasp hold of that power, our prayers have great strength to change things, and we have strength to persevere in faith in all circumstances.
These are my prayers too, for this church and for each one of you: that you would know God as your all-loving, all-powerful father – far above any imperfect, human father – and that this would give you more strength than you ever thought you could have. Amen.