We totally shifted gears this week and jumped all the way to the New Testament letters into Ephesians. Eugene Peterson, in his book, Practice Resurrection points out that Ephesians is the only letter in the New Testament not written in response to a problem. Instead, it’s a description of a healthy community of followers of Jesus. In a time with all sorts of church problems, I think that makes it a really refreshing read. Thoughts on our first snippet, Ephesians 1:15-23 are below.
Today we’re moving from the old stories of David, to the other end of the Bible into a letter called Ephesians. We’ll be here for the next five weeks.
Some context. Ephesus was a town in the Roman empire, with a small church founded by an eloquent Jew named Apollos, probably in the late 40s. When Paul got there in 52 there were twelve members. Twelve! (And we think we’re a small church!) These people grabbed Paul’s heart, and he ended up staying for two or three years.
This letter was written after that—maybe by Paul, maybe not, maybe by someone who came after him. Scholars are divided on the question. To be honest, in this situation, I’m not sure it makes a difference. We’ll call the author Paul, even though we know it may or may not be.
It’s also not clear if the letter was originally intended for the people at Ephesus. That greeting got added later. In some ways this doesn’t matter much either. What we know for sure is that this is a letter, written by a particular person to a specific congregation. It is not an essay, or a treatise; it’s a letter. It’s relational.
This is the only letter to a church in the New Testament that’s not written to correct or fix anything.
Ephesians is more of a description of what church is really, fundamentally supposed to be about, which, to my mind, makes it insanely relevant for our time.
We are living in a time of massive social shifts in the religious landscape. Most of our neighbors have taken stock and decided that church—whatever it is—is not worth being a part of. Which raises the question: why do we come here on Sunday mornings, and Tuesday nights? Why are we connected to each other, people we might not ever encounter or choose to be with otherwise? What are we doing here?
The letter to the Ephesians may be helpful as we ask these questions because sketches out what a healthy church looks like, one that is rooted in God’s love and flourishing. It is a reminder and a revelation of what makes church church. It’s like the blueprint of a house. It reveals the underlying structure, the foundation and hope and meaning of this whole living our faith together in community business.
Paul begins the letter with a long exclamation of praise to God. That’s how our worship begins, too. It’s pretty much always a good place to start.
And then Paul moves into a prayer. Listen now, from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, verses 15-23:
From the time I first heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of the holy ones, I have never stopped thanking God for you and remembering you in my prayers.
I pray that the God of our Savior Jesus Christ, the God of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, to bring you to a rich knowledge of the Creator. I pray that God will enlighten the eyes of your heart so that you can see the hope this call holds for you, the promised glories that God’s holy ones will inherit, and the infinitely great power that is exercised for us who believe.
This power is evident in the strength of God’s power at work in Jesus, the power used to raise Christ from the dead and to seat Christ in heaven at God’s right hand, far above every sovereignty, authority, power, or dominion, and above any other name that can be named—not only in this age, but also in the age to come. God has put all things under Christ’s feet and made Christ, as the ruler of everything, the head of the church, and the church is Christ’s body; it’s the fullness of the One who fills all in all.
Huh. Well, that’s hard to follow. Who’d like to go back to David?
Let’s break it down. The first sentence is more or less Paul clearing his throat. He says, you are people marked by your faith and love. That’s a pretty great thing to be known for.
You all are like that, too, you know. You’re a community marked by love.
When Joseph and I came a year and a half ago to interview, and met some of you for the first time, we had a long dinner with the PNC the first night. When we got done with dinner, we got back to the hotel, and the first thing Joseph said was, I’m in love. I was too. We fell in love with the love we encountered among you. The five of you we met that night were a true representation of who you all are—a community marked by love.
Whoever we are and whatever we’re doing here at Bethany, we may not be perfect. In fact, I’m sure we’re not. I know I’m not. But you are church marked by love—love for each other, love that is concrete and enduring, love that makes space for new life and love that lasts. That’s worth giving thanks for.
Then Paul says, I pray for you. I am always praying for you. The heart of this passage is prayer.
Paul prays that the Ephesians would be given a spirit of wisdom and revelation, that God will enlighten the eyes of their hearts. We know what the eyes of the heart are. It’s not about 20/20 vision. It’s the kind of vision where you can look at an open field and see the outline of a house not yet built. It’s the kind of vision were you look at your beloved and see their flaws and gifts, all mixed in together in the glorious alchemy of a human soul.
We need the eyes of our heart to be open, to be enlightened, if we’re going to see God’s presence, if we’re going to see the true shape of the church, if we’re going to see anything that actually matters in this world.
Paul prays they will see three things with their open eyes: that they will see the hope of life with Christ, the abundance of that life, and the power at work in Christ. Hope, abundance, and power.
It is easy, and reasonable, to feel hopeless or to struggle to have hope. We know ourselves to be broken and flawed. We know people around us are hurting and often hurtful. We know this is true both interpersonally and globally. Given all that, where exactly is there good reason for hope?
Paul prays that the Ephesians will be able to see cause for hope in their life with Christ, that they would not be defeated by the hopelessness of the world, but, with enlightened eyes, would see cause for hope.
It is also easy to feel like there is not enough, to feel like our lives are marked by scarcity—scarcity of money, of time, of energy, or compassion or ability. This might be an area where we as a congregation struggle some. We worry we won’t have enough people or energy to do the things we want to do.
Paul prays that the Ephesians will have eyes to see the richness that surrounds them, the abundance of God’s gifts, that they would be captivated not by their poverty, but by the blessings that surround them morning, noon, and night.
And it is easy to feel God is absent, not engaged in our world. We read the Bible and see stories of God parting the waters and making walls come tumbling down and making crippled legs leap and dance for joy. And then we look around and there are no walls tumbling down, except for abandoned buildings, there are no crippled legs suddenly made strong, and thankfully, Puget Sound is staying right where it’s always been. Where is this power? Is it all a pipe dream?
Paul prays that the Ephesians will have eyes to see God’s power at work. We sometimes have testimony here at Bethany. Those testimonies are often an exercise in opening the eyes of our heart to see what God’s power looks like in real lives. Sometimes it looks like healing after divorce, or love after deep grief, or faith strengthened through, not in spite of, serious doubt. We need the eyes of our heart to be open to see that kind of power.
This is Paul’s prayer: that they be able to see reason for hope, see an abundance of blessing, see God’s power at work. I don’t know about you, but some days, I really need that prayer.
And then Paul tells the Ephesians the trust on which this prayer rests. He prays this not in vain hope or as an empty nicety, but in the trust that God’s love—real, breathing, here, now, in the flesh love—extends to the very highest heights and the deepest depths. That love, the love we meet in Christ, is at the heart of everything. It is a fullness that fills all in all.
Paul prays that this love would open their eyes so that they might look at the hopelessness and scarcity and powerlessness apparent in life and instead see the hope of Christ, an abundance of blessing, and great power at work.
This is our first word about what church is, what we’re doing here. We’re prayer people—we pray for each other, our neighbors, our world; and we are prayed for.
We may not understand why we pray. We may not have a fully developed theology of prayer. We may not know what to pray for. That’s okay. That kind of understanding can develop as we go. Prayer is a practice that teaches us what we need to know as we go along. As Paul describes what it is to be church, he first models it by praying for them.
Maybe today you need someone to pray for you. Maybe you need to pray for someone else. Maybe we just need to rest in prayer. This is how we are called to be church today, by praying. I’d like to invite you to pray this prayer with me. You are welcome to pray with eyes open or closed. I will say a line, and then you are welcome to repeat it after me, lifting someone up in prayer, or simply resting in the words. Let us pray.
I pray that the God of our Savior Jesus Christ, the God of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, to bring you to a rich knowledge of the Creator. I pray that God will enlighten the eyes of your heart so that you can see the hope this call holds for you, the promised glories that God’s holy ones will inherit, and the infinitely great power that is at work for us who believe. Amen.by Sarah W. Wiles August 5, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA