Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 9:30-37
16th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 19.09.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last week, we thought about out passions, our interests.
Well one of my passions is history, and in recent years I’ve take real pleasure in discovering things that I had never known before, things quite simple and well-known, but that had passed me by. For example, all I knew about Alfred the Great, one of England’s greatest leaders, was that he burnt some cakes while sitting in a Somerset marsh. I’ve found the best way for me to learn more is to build up my knowledge gradually – to read a two page children’s summary to his reign, then a chapter of a book on the wider subject of Anglo-Saxons, and then to read a whole biography on him. But I’ve had to build that up gradually. If I had just jumped in the deep end, I think I would have quickly floundered.
Its a bit like that with some of Paul’s writings, and I think especially of the one we have just heard. It is one of the most remarkable passages in all of his writings, so full of mind-blowing thoughts and concepts, and ideas hard at times to get our minds around. The effort to understand is definitely worthwhile, but it can take us time to build up to it.
So lets start by putting it in context. So far in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus there have been two big themes: firstly the blessings we have received in Christ – his love, his forgiveness, his choosing us to be his children. And we saw last week how those blessings enable us to do good works. And the second big theme, which we will focus more on next week, is that of unity, of the church being one in Christ.
And then we get to this passage today. At its simplest Paul is simply praying that the Christians in Ephesus will know God’s power and love in their lives, and that they will grasp how much Christ loves them. If you don’t take away anything more than that, that is probably enough to get started, that in your prayers this week, to pray that your loved ones or others you are praying for will know just how much they are loved by Christ and that they will experience his love and presence this week.
But beneath that bullet-point summary comes a level of depth that is worth us digging into.
Firstly, Paul gives us the reason why he is praying. And in some ways a reason is needed. Why is Paul, a Jewish Christian locked up in prison in Rome, praying for Gentile Christians hundreds of miles away in Turkey, many of whom may have joined the church since his last visit there and so he may not have even met? He is praying for them because, he says, we are all one in Christ, we are one people, we are all children of the same heavenly Father. I have to say that I take more of an interest in events in New Zealand at the moment because I have a nephew living out there – that family connection matters. Paul is saying that that family connection applies to our fellow Christians all around the world – that no matter how different they may be from us, no matter how much we may disagree with them, we pray for them as family.
There is much depth to what Paul prays as well. He prays that the Christians in Ephesus “will be strengthened in their inner being with power through his Spirit”. It is right that we pray about situations and circumstances, that we pray for people’s health, about exams, about challenges in the workplace, about finding the best care package for a loved one. These things matter to us, and it is important to bring those things before our heavenly Father.
But Paul also opens up for us something else – that we pray for the strengthening of people’s inner being, that inner part of us which is the source of resilience, hope, perseverance, patience, thankfulness, love. That we pray that in the midst of what we or others are going through our inner being will be strengthened by God’s Spirit that we will not despair, but find strength and hope. That no matter what, people will know that inner peace and hope.
Paul prays too for the Ephesian Christians that “Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith”. Again, this prayer is less about the external circumstances – and Paul would have known that the Christians in Ephesus were being beaten up and persecuted for their faith – but about what was going on inside, in the soul. We will sometimes write in a card, or say to someone we love, “you are in my heart at all times”. That wherever we are, whatever we are doing, that sense of someone being close to us, of always being in our thoughts, of them shaping our response to situations. And that is what Paul prays may be the case for the Ephesian Christians with Jesus Christ – that he will always be in their thoughts, that he will be shaping the decisions they make, the way they respond to situations, that it will be his love and grace that will shape them.
He then prays that they may grasp something of the wonder of God’s love, its breadth, length, height and depth. Paul knows he is touching on something so profound and infinite that human language or thought cannot express it, and so he prays that they may “know something that surpasses knowledge”. Just as trying to get our minds round the size of the universe is pretty much beyond us, so is trying to capture the vastness of the love of God. But we can pray that we can grow in our appreciation of how great that love is, that God’s love is not limited, or time-bound, that God’s love is the one constant that will never end, never cease, never run-out.
God is constantly making known to us how much he loves us – through the beauty of creation, through the kindness of others, through the peace and strength he gives us in difficult times, and supremely, through the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, as we heard in our gospel reading.
It is so important that we grasp that truth – God loves us, and wants us to know that we are loved, loved abundantly, extravagantly, infinitely and yet personally. When Sarah was about to give birth to our second child, I remember worrying: would I have enough love for a second child? Would my love get divided between two children? But the moment he was born I discovered a miracle: my love wasn’t halved. Instead it expanded. The love I had for one child grew for two. It gave me just a little inkling into what God’s infinite love is like: we can never exhaust it. It never ceases. It never fails.
And finally, Paul prays that the Ephesian Christians will be “filled with all the fullness of God”. Again, Paul is on the very edge of human understanding here. How can an infinite God fill us with all his fullness? But there is a sense here of every part of us, our thoughts, our words, our actions, our character, our emotions, our personality, being infused with the love of God, being filled with God’s presence in every pore of our being.
All of this seems barely possible, so Paul finishes this remarkable prayer with these words: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” In other words, this prayer is not based on us, our faith, our strengths, our own virtue – but on a God who can do far more than we can even imagine, let alone conceive of asking for. When we come to God in prayer, it is he, the God of infinite love, who will strengthen our inner being, who will dwell in our hearts, who will fill us with his fullness.
And so we can join in with that wonderful exclamation of praise that Paul finishes his prayer with: “To God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and forever. Amen.”