Sermon prepared from Oviedo Presbyterian Church. Primary scripture: Ephesians 3:14-21
I must confess that the letter to the Ephesians has been on my heart and mind for several months now. I blame it on Dr. M, actually. While I was working with her at the Presbytery office last winter, I asked her what book I should work with for a preaching class. She thought for a minute and landed on Ephesians. And so I grabbed a few commentaries and my Greek dictionary and dove in.
I had no idea at the time that God was going to bring me back to this letter time and again throughout the Spring and summer. I promise not to preach the whole letter in one sermon… but I do encourage you to read it as a whole sometime. It is a lovely letter to the church in Ephesus centuries ago and the church here and now.
The prayer J read to you comes in the middle of the letter, after Paul has described what we would call today the mission Dei – the mission of God – “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
For Paul, that meant bringing the hope of God’s saving grace to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Which is why the church he planted in Ephesus was made up of both of those groups… people who had grown up in a tradition that worshipped the God that Jesus called Father. And people who had grown up worshipping all sorts of gods and goddesses. Paul saw them all the same- as children of God who were expected to grow and mature in their faith. He also understood the challenges that these differences would bring to the discipleship process. This prayer helps us understand what Paul saw as key to the church in Ephesus being able to move forward together.
1. that out of his glorious riches God may strengthen you with power through the Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
2. And that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and
3. to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
In the first section of his prayer, we see how each person of the Trinity is actively engaged in our lives as believers. It is faith that allows Christ to indwell us. But that faith is weak unless God strengthens us by empowering the Spirit to prepare us. The beauty of this prayer is that Paul claims for the Ephesians (and us) the lavish generosity of God – not only through the self-giving of Christ, but through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In some ways this echoes one the high priestly prayer in John. First, Jesus prayed for his disciples and the generations coming after who believe, not because they saw him and walked around with him, but because we heard and believed the good news. Jesus then prays that as we come together in love, we would be one, so that when people encounter his followers – the church – they too might see Christ. And thus believe in God.
The second part of Paul’s prayer is what makes that faith and unity possible… It starts with the claim that believers are to be rooted and grounded in love. Like plants that seek nourishment and stability from good soil, we are sustained and supported by love. The love that Christ saw as so foundational that he collapsed the ten commandments into two- Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Paul’s prayer is that we would not only begin by loving, but that it would afford us the power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is Christ’s love is for us.
This thing is, we can’t. As sinful people in a broken world, our experiences of love are always going to get in the way of truly understanding the way Christ loves us. Sometimes, the way the world treats us can get in the way of believing that God loves us.
While I was in Iowa with my seminary friends, we did a lot of catching up… I heard stories of cancer beaten back and stories of cancer battles lost. Stories of families struggling because of job loss. I heard about untimely deaths, new babies; newly emptied nests, weddings and divorces. And since we’re a bunch of Presbyterians, there were stories of churches dealing with the fallout of the polity changes that came about this summer. There seems to be plenty weighing on people’s minds and hearts these days.
Change the names and the places, and the stories I heard in Iowa could have about us, right here in Central Florida… right here at Oviedo Pres. That’s the thing about stories… they draw us in because we can see ourselves in them. They remind us of our own experiences of fear, joy, anger, happiness, loss.
The other thing about stories is they tend to prompt us to tell a story in return… one that binds us to the other person in shared experience. We commiserate. We console. We teach. We offer solutions and corrections. We offer hope. We become a neighbors… a community.
Some of Paul’s friends in Ephesus would have used stories they had heard as children… stories from what we would call the Old Testament. And these stories of Captivity, Wandering in the wilderness, Exile, even in the many many ways that God’s people managed to get it wrong over and over… All of these stories point to the fact that in the midst of calamity and chaos, whether of their own making or out of their control…. God was there. God was with them. And God could redeem even the worst situations,
I love the way the Psalms – without telling the whole story – bear out this truth over and over again. My grandparents often cited Psalm 121 as a favorite. I didn’t really understand that back when I was young and single. Now? Well, let me tell you a story…
During the closing chapel service of my first seminary study trip, we were asked to write a prayer request on a slip of paper and drop it in a basket as it was passed down the rows. When the basket passed by a second time, we pulled a slip of paper out of the basket. We were to pray for that person and their need right then and over the coming weeks as appropriate. I had no idea what to write and the basket was getting close…. So I just put down the first words that came to mind: Joy in the midst of chaos. I didn’t even know what it meant.
Well, it wasn’t long before I was doing Greek and Old Testament survey homework at least 2-3 hours a night, taking books with me wherever I went… in the car, at the park, at the Emergency Room a couple of times. And when my husband started his own graduate program at UCF, the crazy went up another notch.
And when things got really crazy or hard or stressful, the words and images in Psalm 121 would come to mind… God was watching over me in the late nights, in the morning and afternoon commutes, in the parking lots when I read by flashlight and other odd places I studied. My coming and going, my steps of faith that seemed so uncertain…none of that was beyond God’s reach or out of God’s sight. Remembering that psalm brought me joy… joy in the midst of chaos.
By year 3, that request had evolved into a need for hope in the midst of darkness.
Two Januarys ago, in the course of 24 hours, my best friend’s daughter had brain surgery and our child was hospitalized for severe depression. We had prepared for A’s surgery, but not this. The reality that we could lose J knocked the air right out of me. I was stunned, almost paralyzed. I found myself crying out to God and needing desperately to know that the chaos and darkness would not consume us. That God would not leave us there, feeling lost and alone.
The picture that came to me was from the book of Zephaniah (yes, I know, he’s not one of the prophets that people talk about a lot) But toward the end of the prophecy, he describes the people of Israel as a child, standing helpless and lost, arms hanging limp. But even though they had strayed, they could trust that God would not leave them alone in their distress:
15b The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.
16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp.
17 The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”
God was watching over the people of Israel, much like my husband and I would do when our own little one would wake up crying and alone in his crib. Holding, ssshhhssshing, humming, consoling… and yet ready to take on whatever scary shadow monsters were under the bed or in the closet or outside the window in the night. God, the mighty warrior takes delight in us. God, the nurturing parent, rejoices over us in singing.
But God sent more than verses and images to our family. God provided friends who had been through these trials, whose stories pointed to God’s presence in the midst of confusion and frustration. God provided people who surrounded us with prayer, people who would just listen without judging. God loved us through the love of our neighbors. We were able to laugh and sing with God again, rejoicing in small victories and in God’s constant presence.
And if God can rejoice over me – knowing that I struggle to trust, believe, hope, love and be the woman God made me to be… From the heights of heavens to the pits of despair, God’s love really IS that high, that deep.
If God can rejoice over me- knowing that every day there will be sins of omission and commission… And still offer pardon that removes my sin as far as the east is from the west… God’s love is wide, indeed.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans he asks – who will separate from the love of Christ? His response is unwavering… “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.“
God’s love is, was and ever will be deep enough, wide enough and high enough to reach me, no matter the chaos and pain I experience in life. No matter whether it is of my own making or out of my control.
God’s love is, was and ever will be deep enough, wide enough and high enough to reach you, no matter the chaos and pain you experience in life. No matter whether it is of your own making or out of your control.
There are seasons in our lives that we need to rest. That we need to experience God’s presence in silence and in the company of others who know and love us in our messiness. These are the very experiences that can root us and ground us in God’s love and nourish our growth. But those experiences cannot be the end of the process for a growing maturing follower. Paul seems to be praying for our experiences of God’s love to become the sort of knowledge that indwells, fills, and compels us to go out and be part of God’s mission of reconciliation and love.
My experiencing God as joy and hope in the midst of a chaotic life is worth so much more than my learning to trust. But not if I keep it to myself. My experiences are like those of the disciples and those of the people of Israel – going back generations: they are stories that be told so that I might point people to God’s faithful presence.
In the midst of a world that feels particularly broken and chaotic, I urge you to press on in faith. Trust that God’s grace is as deep, wide and high as God’s love and is sufficient for each day. And know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, whohave been called according to his purpose. And until you can tell your own story, tell the story that underlies them all. God loved this world enough to send Jesus – not to condemn, but to save. And that is good news in the face of any storm life brings us.