Ephesians 3:14-21
8th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 26.7.15

Ian Leitch

Every day for twenty years I used to travel from my home in Harrow into the centre of London and back. The crowded train was always jam-packed both ways. If I could get a seat, I always tried to read, but during the homeward journey someone sitting close to me would invariably get on their mobile phone – and speak in a very loud voice. It was very distracting and was impossible for the whole compartment not to overhear them. They usually seemed to be ringing their nearest and dearest, and the conversations were almost always the same. The standard opening was to report the weather conditions – as if they expected them to be different just a few miles down the track – and they rapidly followed up with a request that they be met at the station in the car. Then, they would move on to much more sensitive matters and tell the whole compartment, for example, about the state of their verrucas or other personal details. Sometimes by the time I was sufficiently distracted to notice the conversation was in mid-flow – and that made some of their comments even more enigmatic and intriguing. In short, I never had a boring journey!

In today’s Epistle reading we overhear Paul talking to God in prayer. But we are evidently in the middle of the conversation, as the passage opens with the words, “for this reason”, which prompts us to ask, “For what reason?” Paul spelled out his reason in the earlier part of his letter that Dan spoke about last week.

Paul was a Roman citizen and proud of it, but he languished in prison in Rome, the imperial city. In the Roman Empire a new unity had been created. The pax Romana, the Roman peace, was a very real thing that extended across most of the known world. Kingdoms and states and countries, which had struggled and warred with each other for generations, had been unified in the Roman Empire. In his imprisonment Paul saw how all this unity was centred on Rome; and it may have seemed to him a symbol of how much greater and perfect things would be with everything centred in Christ – what magnificence would exist if the whole disunited world and all humanity were to be gathered into a true and lasting unity.

And so, as we heard last week Paul wrote that “Christ is our peace (2:14)” and of “all the members of the church as a household (2:19) … with Christ as the cornerstone (2:20) … growing into a holy temple in the Lord (2:21) … built together spiritually as a dwelling place for God (2:22)”. As Dan observed they were words that would have shocked the original readers, as they seemed to be subversive and to undermine the Roman Empire. But Paul continues in similar vein. A few verses before this morning’s reading he explains that his task as the apostle to the Gentiles is {to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known (Ephesians 3:9-10)}.

Paul understands that Jesus Christ is God’s instrument of reconciliation in the world, and that the Church is Christ’s instrument of reconciliation. The Church must bring Christ to the whole world; and it is within the Church that all the walls of separation and discrimination must be broken down. It is through the Church that the unity of all discordant elements of the world must be achieved. To bring the whole world into unity in Christ was, and still is, the task of the Church, and it must involve the active participation of every Christian.

When faced with a major undertaking like this, some people will rely on their own abilities and say, “Right, let’s get on with it”. Others of us, perhaps most of us, faced with a massive challenge will say, “I’ve not got the skills or the experience to be useful. I’m out”. But both attitudes ignore the lesson of this morning’s Gospel reading, where five buns and two small fish placed into God’s hands were enough to feed a multitude to their complete satisfaction with food left over. We should never underestimate what God can achieve when we ask Him to work through us.

Paul knows that bringing the world into unity in Christ is a massive undertaking that requires every Christian and so he prays for all his readers. If you’ve been reading Paul’s letter at home, you may have realised that his letter didn’t just go to the Church at Ephesus, but was probably a circular letter going round all the church. Paul prays both for the Christians he knew well – remember he had spent a couple of years at Ephesus (Acts 19) – but he also prays for those who he did not know and who may never have heard of him or his work. Paul prays for every Christian – not only as individual members of the Church but collectively as well – for each of the churches and for each individual member of them. And he asks for those things that are necessary for each church and each of its members to be effective in bringing the world into a unity in Christ.

Specifically, Paul prays for four things:

First, he prays that {you may be granted an inner spiritual strength (Eph 3:16)}. When we want to be strengthened and sustained – to grow as a Christian – we may turn first to the people within our own Church – the believers with whom we worship. We learn and grow through interactions with our fellow Christians. For some, it may be the intimate exchanges that can happen within small groups, meeting for prayer or bible study or discussion – or, perhaps, in one-to-one conversations. Sharing our faith like that is one way that we grow.

But also, we should not forget that we can learn from the witness of believers through the ages – from the saints whose festivals we celebrate, from the people whose hymns we sing, and from the social reformers whose Christian faith led them to undertake acts of courage that changed society. We can always learn and grow stronger from the witness of other Christians, past or present.

Secondly, Paul prays {that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (Eph 3:17)}. The indwelling of Christ in the heart inevitably brings an out-pouring of love. Jesus Christ is not just a concept or an idea in our head. The risen and living Christ comes to us each time we receive the Sacrament. He comes to us through his Word, each time we read and study our Bible. He hears us each time we turn to him in prayer. He enters into us as the living Word, seeking faithful hearts in which to dwell. Where He is, love is outpoured. We recognise Christ living in a Church where the relationships between the members are close and loving, one where each member cares about the others. We see Him in a Church whose love overflows into the neighbouring community – whose members are channels of God’s love to all they meet. We grow in faith as we encounter Christ in prayer, in the Sacrament and through Bible study.

Thirdly, Paul prays that we would have the ability to comprehend all the dimensions of spiritual realities. Referring to the love of God, he prays, somewhat enigmatically, {that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth (Eph 3:18)}. The sentence becomes a little clearer when we realise that in the two previous chapters Paul has described God as {rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4)}, {lavish in his grace (Ephesians 2:7; 3:7)}, {rich in wisdom (Ephesians3:10)} and {a God of great power (Ephesians 1:19)}. Paul is struggling to find a suitable metaphor to speak of the wonders of a multi-dimensional God. And yet, if we have time to listen to one another, we discover stories of faith beyond our own – testimonies that we could never imagine. Acts of kindness and generosity to friends or strangers increase the faith of both parties. In many churches the close loving relationships that develop between members enable them to trust one another with confidence – to share both their joys and their anxieties and problems, and to pray together about them. In all these different ways we can gain an understanding of our multi-dimensional God in a way that we may never have known before.

And fourthly, Paul prays that you would {know the love of Christ that surpasses all other knowledge (Eph 3:19)}. That is not to say that knowing other things is irrelevant for the Christian life. On the contrary, to know all we can about our world is important for life. But to know the love of Christ is not something we can find out there “in the world.” Rather, it has been revealed to us by God, who sent his Son into the world. We celebrate that love whenever we gather for worship. We celebrate it at its most magnificent in the incomparable saving love that took our Lord to the Cross.

So Paul’s prayer poses a number of questions for us. Are we a Church whose members have close relationships with each other, and listen to and learn from the faith journeys of others? Are our decisions in everyday life guided by our prayers and Bible study, such that they lead us to show our love of others through Christ dwelling in our hearts? Do we have such confidence and trust in our fellow Church members and their love that we can share our anxieties and fears with them, and pray together about them? And when we meet together for worship is our main focus the love of Christ and growing in his love? These are the things says Paul that we need, if we are to be effective participants in Christ’s mission to the world – the great task for the Church to bring all humanity into a unity in Christ.

But it is not something we should attempt by ourselves. It must also be our prayer that God will accomplish it all “by his power at work within us,” which always exceeds our expectations. And so, for all of this, we give thanks, as we join with the whole Church, past and present, in glorifying God forever (Ephesians 3:20-21).