Prepared for Howey-in-the-Hills Community Church
Primary Text Ephesians 3:14-19
Today’s passage comes from the middle of the letter to the Ephesians, just after Paul has described what he might call today a mission statement “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 an eclectic group… people who had grown up worshipping the God Jesus called Father. And people who had grown up worshipping all sorts of gods and goddesses. But Paul saw all of them as children of God who were expected to grow and mature in their faith, whether they started out Jews or not.
In this prayer, we see Paul’s love and hopes for the church in this prayer. You may have noticed a few echoes from the prayer in chapter 1. Paul refers again to God’s abundant riches – the promised reward to come for us as heirs with Christ. We again hear about God’s power, the resurrection power that was displayed for us in Christ, and the way that the Spirit imparts it to us. And Paul describes 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.
The second part of this prayer is what grabs me every time… 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. And we are meant to live as a reflection of that love. When Jesus was challenged to give asked about the law, how we are meant to live –Jesus collapsed the ten commandments into two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as 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 Christ’s love is.
This thing is, we can’t. As sinful people in a broken world, our experiences in life and love are always going to get in the way of truly understanding how Christ loves us. Sometimes, they even get in the way of BELIEVING God loves us.
While I was in Iowa in May for graduation, I had time to catch up with my seminary friends. I heard stories of cancer beaten back and 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 future pastors, there were stories of churches facing hard times and churches working toward a new future.
Change the names and locations, and the stories I heard in Iowa could have about us, right here in Central Florida… right here at Howey-in-the-Hills. 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 or corrections. We offer hope. We become friends. Neighbors.
Some of Paul’s friends in Ephesus would have told the stories they had heard as children… stories from what we call the Old Testament. These stories of captivity, wandering in the wilderness, exile, the many ways 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, when the people cried out, God was there. God was with them. 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. When the baskets passed by a second time, we would choose a new slip, promising to pray for that person and their need right then and over the coming weeks. To be honest, I had no idea what to write. So I just put down the first words that came to mind: Joy in the midst of chaos
Soon, I was doing Greek and Old Testament survey homework at least 2-3 hours a night, taking books with me wherever I went, in parking lots, on business trips, even a couple of visits to the ER. Soon after, my husband Paul started back to work on his doctorate. That made TWO part-time grad students working full time while raising a teenager. When things got really crazy or hard or stressful, and trust me, they did, the words and images in Psalm 121 would come to mind.
God was watching over me in the late nights, during my morning and afternoon commutes, in all the odd places I studied. My comings and goings, 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, I needed 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 the surgery, but not this. The reality that we could lose our child knocked the air right out of me.
I found myself crying out to God. I needed desperately to know that the chaos and darkness would not consume us. That God would not leave us there, feeling lost and alone.
Another picture that came to me from the book of Zephaniah – the prophet describes the people of Israel as a child, standing helpless and lost, arms hanging limp. But even though they had strayed, God would not desert them:
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. Just as Paul and I would come when our own little one woke up crying and alone in his crib. Holding, ssshhhssshing, humming, consoling… and yet ready to take on whatever scary shadow monsters had crept in.
God, the mighty warrior takes delight in us. God, the nurturing parent, rejoices over us in singing.
And if God can rejoice over me, knowing that I struggle to trust, believe, hope, love and become 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 moments, days and seasons in our lives when we need to experience God’s presence in silence and in the company of others who know and love us in our messiness. But there is more… Paul is praying for our experiences of God’s love to reveal to us the power that indwells, fills, and compels us to go. To become part of God’s mission of reconciliation and love.
God’s love within us is the resurrection power of Christ. We claim that power as sufficient for own salvation. And for our own sanctification, our growing Christ-likeness. But that power is also within us for the sake of the world. It all comes back to the greatest commandment: loving God with heart, soul mind and strength. And the second that is like it.. loving neighbors as ourselves.
You see, Paul’s descriptions of Godly living throughout Ephesians are not meant to be a rule book. We don’t do the good things we do or avoid the sins we might enjoy in order to earn points or avoid demerits. We make those choices out of love for God. And out of love for the people around us.
In the movie “As Good as it Gets” Jack Nicholson plays a really prickly man. He has some significant obsessive compulsive behaviors, but he is also just a rude, socially inept person. He becomes enamored with a waitress who is kind to him. And as he attempts to develop a bond with her, he struggles. But because of her, he chooses to make changes in his life that he had refused to make before. He says she is the reason, saying, “You make me want to be a better man.”
God makes me want to be a better human. And makes me want to make this world a better place.
God’s love makes me want to see God’s Kingdom come on earth right here. Right now. I want to see less starvation, less rejection and anger, less arrogance and pride in the face of complex problems.
The resurrection power that God exercised in Christ and pours into us, it ought to make us more loving.
More willing to set aside what we want or what we enjoy for the sake of others who struggle to experience God’s love.
Do you know that 80% of Americans are not actively engaged in any sort of religion practice?
Now, many of them claim Christianity or some other faith tradition, especially here in the South. But you could poll 100 people under the age of 30, and 50 of them have never stepped foot in a church.
That is certainly true of my child’s friends. Now, that number shifts downward in my generation and those older than me. But there are still an awful lot of people not hearing the good news of God’s love this morning. And every Sunday morning.
That means our whole lives must bear witness to the transforming power of Christ.
That’s 24 hours a day – well, take out 8 hours of sleep each night, and we still have 112 hours a week– to steward wisely. Do we choose to give to God time in prayer and in studying the scripture? How much time is spent singing uplifting songs and hymns? How much in fellowship, building up others?
All of these are the things that root us and ground us in God’s love. All so that we can love the world well.
Rooted and Grounded…
SO THAT we can love the people we encounter in our workplaces, grocery stores, parks, and gathering places;
SO THAT we can love annoying drivers and difficult relatives;
SO THAT we can, as Paul instructs, submit to one another in love;
Rooted and Grounded…
SO THAT we can be a voice of hope and truth;
SO THAT others see Christ in us and long for the fruits of the Spirit they experience around us
Rooted and Grounded in love…
SO THAT we can welcome others into our midst, when we are gathered to worship, gathered to play, or gathered to learn.
God loves us, transforms us, and calls us to grow. God sings over us, quiets us and grounds us in love. May God empower us, fuel us, and fill us this and every day then send us to love the world.
In Christ’s name. Amen.