Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 26, 2015

2015.07.26 “The God of Immeasurably More” – Ephesians 3: 14 – 21

Central United Methodist Church
“The God of Immeasurably More”
Pastor David L. Haley
Ephesians 3: 14 – 21
July 26th, 2015

Paul in Prison

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 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, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 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 God.

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, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” – Ephesians 3: 14 – 21, the New Revised Standard Version

 

Have you ever experienced someone praying for you?

Perhaps it was a parent, a mother or father. Perhaps it was a pastor, when you were facing a challenging decision or difficult experience; perhaps it was a chaplain, when you were in the hospital concerned about your health. Perhaps it was a church congregation, or a group of friends in faith. To experience someone praying for us is a comforting, often moving experience.

Twenty years ago, in January 1995, when I was going off to Africa with the Board of Global Missions to work in the refugee camps following the Rwandan Holocaust. One of the leaders of my congregation stood up at the end of our worship service the Sunday before I left, and asked the entire congregation to come forward and lay hands on me, as together they all prayed for me and my safety.  Obviously I’ve never forgotten it.

Today, in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, this is what we do, we hear Paul praying – not just for the Ephesians – but in effect for all Christians to come, including us. In his prayer, he commends us to the God of immeasurably more.  Let’s listen in.

But before we do that, let’s review where we are.

According to tradition, Paul writes somewhere around 62 – 63 AD, possibly while under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial. What’s taken him there is the controversy of his cause, which is that not just Jews but also Gentiles – pagans – are welcome in the Christian house, and that without following Jewish law and ritual. This maverick position got him beat up by Jewish Christians on more than one occasion, and he was only saved by Rome, by claiming his Roman citizenship. Now in Rome, he awaits trial.

Like so many of us, Paul’s theological journey went from exclusivism to an generous, grace-filled theology, finally concluding that God’s purpose in Christ was far more than he originally imagined, indeed, as big as the world itself.

And so now – here towards the end of his life – we find Paul saying the amazing things that he says in Ephesians. (And BTW, I find Eugene Peterson’s The Message very helpful in clearly expressing Paul’s thoughts in contemporary language). Paul goes so far to say that the plan of God in Christ is:

“a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.” (1:10)

Most amazingly, we find him writing to Gentiles, non-Jews, of the mystery that has been revealed to him, Paul:

“The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.” (3: 5 – 6)

What Paul is talking about is what we call “progressive theology”: that the revelation of God’s plan for humanity is not “once-and-for-all,” but progressive, continuing through history, perhaps until humanity can receive, comprehend, and embrace it. Even the early church responded slowly and with great resistance to Paul’s insistence that God was now welcoming Gentiles, and that without their observance of the Jewish law. Change comes hard; always has and always will.

By the end of chapter 3, even Paul is so awed by God’s plan in Christ that it brings him to his knees in prayer, not only for the Ephesians, but all of us to come.

Does this make sense to you? That a prisoner under house arrest in Rome, not knowing the outcome of his sentence, might fall to his knees in prayer and praise to God, that other Christians might see what he sees?  What does this say to us in these days of “poor church” and “poor me”? What did Paul see that we are not seeing? Could it be – as we’ll soon see – that despite circumstances – mostly the way we see ourselves – God is still the God of immeasurably more?

And what does Paul pray for us? Let me tell you, as you might imagine, Paul’s convoluted grammar, as expressed in prayer and praise, is not easily reducible to two points and a poem.

Further, when we see what Paul prays for us, we may even find it embarrassing. Whereas we might pray to win the lottery or – more understandably – to be healed of whatever ails us, Paul lifts his sights much higher.

He prays that we might be strengthened by God’s Spirit, not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength. In other words, not that our trials might be removed from us, but that God might give us the strength to face them. As Garrison Keillor might put it, God, give us the strength to do what needs to be done. I’m sure almost everyone of us here this morning, are facing some task or trial, for which we need inner strength. Paul prays that we may find it.

He prays that Christ might live in us, as we open the door and invite him in. While this “inviting Christ into our life” is often portrayed as a one-time event (and obviously it has to begin somewhere), what Paul is saying here is that inviting Christ into our life is a constant, ongoing invitation. After all, isn’t this what we pray in The Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven, to which we might add, “in my life.”

Many years ago I read a small booklet called, “My Heart, Christ’s Home.”  It described, in a literal but humorous way, how this happens.  We let Christ into our lives, into the living room. Except he’s not content just to stay there, he’s in the kitchen and dining room, listening to our family conversation, he’s in the library, checking out our books, he’s in our office, checking out our checkbook, our politics, even checking out the bedroom. And then there’s that one private, locked room, which we’d like to keep that way, but the next thing you know, he’s trying to get in there.  If Christ is going to live in us, let’s face it, that includes every aspect of our life, none of it is hidden or ever foreign to him.

But here’s the amazing motive behind it: because the motive behind it is not judgment, but love. As Paul prays: “I pray that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights!”

Do we understand this yet? Do we understand it as much as Paul understood it while under arrest in Rome? Do we understand it as much as Jesus understood it, as he died on a cross on an outcropping of rock outside Jerusalem, condemned by his enemies and forsaken by his friends? How is it that Christianity today so often seems to be turning the good news of God’s love into the bad news of God’s anger and condemnation? After all this time, do we still “not get it?”

Finally, what Paul prays for us is this: That we might “live full lives, full in the fullness of God.” Full of the fullness of God? What could that possibly mean? Isn’t God in heaven? Is Paul saying that God is also in us?

I had a friend, who would say of another friend, when he was angry and all worked up, that he was “fully pressurized,” meaning, “in a bad way.” Is what Paul is saying here, is that when we are strengthened by God’s strength and Christ dwells in us and we dazzled by God’s love for us, that we are “fully pressurized” by God, “in a good way.” Maybe it’s what St. Irenaeus meant when he said, “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.”

Understandably, I think – given all that he has said – Paul finally goes Pentecostal, and once again, “Theology becomes Doxology.” In a commendation expressed not just to the Ephesians but to hundreds of thousands of congregations since, as translated in The New International Version:

“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, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

It’s no secret right now that most congregations feel we are living in the “dog days” of the American Church. Attendance is down, offerings are down, the number of people who check the “Christian” box in religious surveys is dropping precipitously. And we are worried what the future holds. And yet Paul commends us to a God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work in us.

Likewise, what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, has become seriously deflated in our time, too often becoming assent to intellectual propositions, such as “I believe in Jesus.” And yet here for St. Paul, to be a follower of Christ is to strengthened by God’s strength, inhabited by Christ’ presence, overwhelmed by God’s love, filled with the fullness of God.  Eugene Peterson puts it: ““God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! God does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, God’s Spirit deeply and gently within us.”  So I have found in my life; you too?

Years ago I read that the Denver Zoo received the gift of a large polar bear, but had nowhere to put the bear. So the zoo officials accepted the gift of the bear, and initiated a capital campaign to construct a natural habitat for the bear.  During the construction, the bear was put in a small cage. The space was so small that the bear could only take three steps, turn around, and then take three steps. For one reason or another, the construction took three years. Eventually the new habitat for the bar was finished: it had waterfalls, caves, lots of space. When finally the bear was released into its new home, it looked around, took three steps, turned around, took three steps, turned around, took three steps, you get the picture.

When we focus on our problems, rather than upon the greatness of God and the love and power of God available to us, we are like that bear.

No wonder, even on his knees in a jail cell, Paul became Pentecostal. For no earthly prison nor adverse circumstances can imprison a soul set aflame by the love, power, and wisdom of God:

Glory to God in the church!

Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!

Glory down all the generations!

Glory through all millennia!

Oh, yes!”

 

 

 

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