Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 25, 2021
Ephesians 3:14-21 Commentary
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s first five words, “I kneel before the Father” (14) suggests that its hearers are eavesdropping on Paul’s prayer. However, the Scriptures’ prayers always almost make me wonder, “How do you preach about an inspired yet overheard prayer?” and “Should we even preach about an overheard prayer?”
But Jesus’ friends might argue that this is a prayer not just about and for Ephesus’ Christians, but also about and for Jesus’ followers of all times and places. By implication, then, the Holy Spirit can use this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to reveal something about both God and all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Paul begins that Lesson by saying, “For this reason …” (14). That implies that we’re not just reading a prayer. This phrase also suggests that the RCL, in a sense, dumps us right smack in the middle of Paul’s train of thought.
What, then is that interrupted train of thought? Why does Paul kneel in prayer for his Ephesian adopted brothers and sisters in Christ? In Ephesians 3’s first 13 verses he shows that God has graciously included gentiles in God’s promises to the Jews. Because God has also made gentiles members of Christ’s body, they too have access to God. Gentiles also are, by God’s grace, part of God’s “whole family in heaven and on earth” (14).
However, the apostle realizes that for Jews and Gentiles to learn, absorb and respond to this, they will need to be “filled to the full measure of all the fullness of God” (19) and will need God “to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (20). In order for that to happen, Paul senses he must freely and confidently “approach God,” (12), that is, pray to the Lord.
The apostles’ repeated use of the 2nd person “you” and “your” in this text shows he’s praying not primarily for individual Christians, but for the whole community of faith that’s now made up of both Jews and gentiles. It’s a model for the Church that sometimes prays more frequently for Jesus’ individual friends or the local church than for the worldwide Body of Christ.
Obviously this Sunday’s Lesson’s original reference is to Ephesian Christians. Yet to the extent that it’s applicable to all Christians, it’s also a prayer even for 21st century Christians. So for what does Paul pray for us? He prays for power, “that out of his glorious riches [God] may strengthen [us] with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being” (16).
One’s “inner being” is a highly mysterious concept. However, it at least seems to refer to that place in us where our sinful and sanctified selves struggle for supremacy. Jesus’ friends are graced to know that God empowers “the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24) to overcome “the old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (4:22).
This happens, however, only by the power of God’s Holy Spirit who dwells in God’s adopted children’s hearts. The Hebrew word for “dwell” (katoiskai) is that of staying rather than just “passing through.” So the apostle invites us to picture the Spirit as not just moving in, but also unpacking the Spirit’s bags and making himself at home within God’s dearly beloved people.
That at least suggests that God draws us closer to God and each other as Christ’s Spirit makes Christ’s self (and we give him space) more and more at home in us. That, in turn, at least invites Ephesians 3’s proclaimers to explore with our hearers how can we can make Christ’s Spirit feel “more at home” within us.
In verse 18, however, Paul also asks the Lord to grant Ephesians’ readers the power to grasp the full breadth of Christ’s love. That request suggests that even those in whom Christ’s Spirit makes the Spirit’s home don’t naturally recognize the full scope of Christ’s love. Even Jesus’ friends naturally shrink the scope of this love to just our loved ones, people just like us, Christians or us.
So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is a good reminder that God invites Jesus’ friends to pray for the creation, its climate, water, soil and air. Yet the Scriptural testimony is also to God’s love not just for the whole creation, but also all those in it. Christ’s life and prayer on the cross show that he was willing to pray not just for his friend, but also even for his enemies. So it’s appropriate that Paul prays that Jesus’ friends will let the Spirit stretch our emotions, thoughts and motivation to conform us to God’s love for everything and everyone God creates.
But for this to happen we’ll need the help of “all the saints” (18). It’s, after all, naturally impossible for us to love as God loves all by ourselves. So Paul summons all of Christ’s adopted brothers and sisters to come together in order to fully grasp Christ’s love’ width, length, height and depth. Plumbing the immense scope of Christ’s love is, in other words, a community project.
In verse 19 Paul adds a prayer for God to fill the Ephesian Christians with what he calls “the fullness of God.” That fullness is, to say the least, yet another highly mysterious concept. But some scholars suggest that it at least contains a sense of becoming as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. That Paul may be praying that his siblings in Christ quite simply become more and more like Jesus.
What shape does such Christ-likeness take in those in whom the Spirit dwells? It looks like love that’s as inclusive as God’s. It includes a holiness that begins to resemble God’s. Christ-likeness also opens itself up to the Spirit’s transformation to make Jesus’ friends imitators of God.
Yet it’s almost as if as Paul writes, he becomes conscious of just how unlikely such human holiness is. Perhaps that’s why he bursts out into text’s closing doxology. While even those in whom the Spirit makes the Spirit’s home are less than what Paul prays for, God, whose thoughts and ways are higher than ours, “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (20). That “power” is already at work within” God’s naturally powerless adopted sons and daughters. Yet it will also continue throughout all generations as well as forever and ever.
In a book of his collected sermons, Will Willimon writes about his father-in-law, Carl Parker who retired from the ministry for the third time in the fall of 1989. At the time he declared that, at long last, it was time for him to retire for good and “move to the mountains of Hendersonville [S.C.] to live among the Floridians.”
At his retirement service Parker wanted some “sweet soprano voices to sing his favorite, ‘The Ninety-and-Nine’.” Parker also preached what Willimon calls “something about the depth and breadth, the height and width of the love of God. . .”
“Then,” writes Willimon, Parker “spoke about the man who was to die in the electric chair in South Carolina the next day. . . Somebody had held a service of remembrance for this man’s victims and their families. He had killed a couple of people and maimed others in his rampage of terror. The preacher at that service had declared that he wished they would let him ‘throw the switch on this piece of refuse who destroyed those innocent lives.
“Pastor Parker, “ Willimon continues, then “went into lurid detail describing the crimes of this man. ‘And yet,’ Parker added, ‘today’s Scripture, as well as the sweet song we have heard, says that God loves that man on death row, values his soul just as much as God values us.’
“The congregation got quieter and quieter as Parker went on: “According to Jesus’ story of the Lost Sheep, God will gladly leave us ninety-and-nine gathered here in the fold this morning and go to Columbia to death row to get hold of that one lost sheep. And when God finds him, God’s more happy to have him than to have all of us safe ones here in church.”
Willimon then drolly notes how, at the end of the service, “the congregation seemed a lot more willing to let Preacher Parker go on and retire to Hendersonville.”
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