A Pastor’s Prayer

Proper 17,  July 26, 2015

Ephesians 3:14-21

In memoriam Millie Skanes

I had actually intended to talk about the story of David and Bathsheba today, such a wonderful rich human Old Testament tale of adultery and betrayal.  But we are all a little bit too raw this morning to be taken on such rolicking adventures. When we come together as we do today, with aching hearts and shaken to our core, what we really need, I think, is to be reminded of why we come here.  We need to hear the basics again, to let our timid spirits be strengthened by the gospel.  It is the epistle reading, from Ephesians, that I think really wants to speak to us this morning; so I invite you to join me in listening to what it has to say to us.

The passage we just heard come from the midpoint in the letter to the Ephesians, where the author sums up the argument of the first three chapters in a prayer.  It is the prayer of a pastor for his congregation.  We don’t know exactly who this pastor was: while the letter does bear the name of Paul, scholars are divided as to whether it was written by Paul himself or one of his followers, who  certainly wrote some of the letters in his name.  It doesn’t really matter. What we need to know is that this is the prayer of a pastor for his congregation, a prayer full of love – the particular love that we pastors have for you, our congregation, the love expressed by the earnest and intense wishes of this prayer.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.

You may feel that you must be missing something here, that this line doesn’t quite make sense. What we are missing is a pun that has gotten lost in translation from the Greek. The great theme of Ephesians, which we have been hearing about over the past couple of weeks, is that Christ has reconciled the divisions between people, and brought together Jew and Gentile into one church. When we come here, we come from many different backgrounds, but we stand together in our common humanity before the Father of all.

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,

The first part of the prayer is a prayer for strength, strength in our inner being. I am reminded of what is sometimes said about courage, a truth we have to be reminded of: namely, that courage does not mean you are not afraid; courage is about confronting fear and going on even when you are afraid.  The same thing could be said of other things as well: faith does not mean blind conviction that leaves no room for doubt; it is about trusting God in the midst of doubt. Hope is not optimism; it is what happens when we face all the things that make us despair, and yet still look for new opportunities. Joy is not an empty happiness that distracts us from sorrow and heartbreak; it is the rich embracing of all of life, the pain as well as the happiness, and celebrating it all as good. And so it is with strength, too; the strength of a Christian is not absolute power that knows no weakness. It is the strength that comes to us in our weakness and frailty, and helps us to go on.

Why do we come here? I think, I hope, in part at least because here is a place where we don’t have to wear the mask of being always strong, always happy, always brave. This is a place where we don’t care about the mask, we care about our “inner being” – where we are allowed to be sometimes weak, or afraid, or sorrowful, or in despair.  Where we can be honest about the toll that living a life and loving others can sometimes take on us; where we can uphold one another in friendship and prayer; where we can seek the strength in our weakness that comes from the power of God.

The prayer continues:

 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,
as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

An interesting turn of phrase:  that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  Some would have us believe that faith is mainly about Christ dwelling in our heads, about having the right ideas about God. Well, ideas are important too, but what is most important in faith is having Christ in our hearts. What faith really means is that we love Jesus Christ, love this figure, so familiar and so strange at the same time, love his compassion, his courageous embrace of vulnerability, his wisdom, his tenderness, his fierce call for justice. And that loving him, holding him in our hearts, we allow this same compassion and vulnerability and wisdom and tenderness and fierceness to shape our lives, and to flow out to others.

And that is surely another reason why we come here: to remind ourselves that love is not something we do, something which sometimes burns hot and sometimes grows cold, all according to our small powers; but that love is a great river that flows from God to God’s creation, for all eternity, and that our part is to choose to step into this river and become part of it. We come here to invite Christ to dwell in our hearts, to try to let our lives be rooted and grounded in his love.

And so the prayer continues:

 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.

There is nothing small about the love of God. It is not an idea we can file away and be done with (yes, God is love, correct); it is a reality we continue to work to understand, something we must seek the power to comprehend, something that surpasses knowledge. It has breadth and length and height and depth. It has to be such a vast love, because it is what will redeem the world. And there is so much pain and brokenness and despair in this world, that if God’s love is to redeem it, it must be vaster indeed than we can imagine. If we are stuck with our Sunday school faith in a love that is meek and mild and comforting and small, how will we find the courage to look at how terrible the suffering of others can be in this world? We would have to go around with our eyes cast down, caught up in our own little cares – and even there, if our understanding of God’s love is too small, we would have to live in denial of our own deepest pain. This is an invitation, and a prayer, that we might continue to enter more fully into the love of God, that we might learn to see the brokenness and agony of this world with the eyes of God, that we might let our hearts be broken, as his heart is broken, by the suffering of others – and in this way begin to learn how vast, how broad and long and high and deep the love of God is.

We don’t do this alone. We do it, as the prayer says, “with all the saints.”  That is why we come here: to be here with our fellow “saints”, to share their burdens in loving care, to receive their compassion and concern, to be inspired by their example of courage and strength and joy and hope. We come here so that in our dealings with one another we might learn to comprehend more of the love of God, of its breadth and length and height and depth.

And finally, the prayer ends with the doxology, so familiar to us from the end of each of our services:

 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, for ever and ever. Amen.

Two things to note here.  First of all, we are a work in progress. No surprise here – I suspect most of us are all too aware of how unfinished we are, how far we have to go in letting Christ dwell in our hearts and so shape our lives on the pattern of his love. But it doesn’t hurt to hear it again and to be reminded that is just the way it is: God’s power is at work in us, which means we are each one of us a bit of a construction site, with our own holes and scaffolding and piles of rubble and areas where one should only venture when you’re wearing a hard hat. That is what each one of us looks like inside. And it’s okay. God is not finished with us yet.

And that’s the other thing to note: the promise that is contained here, the promise that never fails to stir us, Sunday for Sunday, that God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. When we look at ourselves, sometimes that is hard to believe; we can sometimes feel so stuck in our old ways that it seems impossible we could be changed. But we are a work in progress, and when the power of the love of God is at work in us, we can’t even begin to imagine the ways in which it can transform us.

We may come here some days with heavy hearts, grieving, anxious, hopeless, or afraid. But the reason we come, is to connect anew with the love of Christ, to step again into that river of grace, to root and ground ourselves afresh in him. That love will comfort and strengthen us, particularly when we are weak and vulnerable; it will knit us together in a community of that shared love; it will transform us to live our lives more fully in that love. To God be the glory, from generation to generation, in the church and in Christ Jesus, Amen.