Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire Bible is Ephesians 3:14-21. I often include this verse under my name when signing one of my books for someone. I have preached on this passage more than once. So for the meditation on today’s reading from Ephesians, I offer you the following sermon. I know it is longer than my usual blog posts, but I could not decide on a single excerpt since there is so much in this message I want to share again. So, here is the whole enchilada, as they say. Read it when you have time to take it all in….
John Guest tells the story of coming to speak at a youth camp here in the United States many years ago. He arrived at the camp late at night and his hosts ushered him into the camp office that was on the ground floor of an A-frame building. The hosts left John alone in the office for a few moments while they prepared his room. John noticed a pistol hanging on the wall of the office. Having recently come to the United States from the United Kingdom, where guns are not so prevalent, John was fascinated. He took the gun off the wall and began to twirl it on his finger as he had seen various cowboy actors do in American Western movies. When John heard his hosts returning, he quickly put the gun back in place. Then the hosts led John to his room in another building.
Later on that same night, the camp director woke John out of a sound sleep. The director asked him to put on some clothes and come with him immediately. John did so and the director led him back to the camp office. As John walked through the doorway of the office he saw a young man sitting at the desk, slumped over, hand trailing at his side, holding the pistol John had been playing with earlier. This seventeen-year-old boy had taken his own life. On the desk in front of him was a note. The young man had written the words to the Beatles’ song:
All you need is love,
All you need is love,
All you need is love.
Then, he added the words: “Somebody help me.”
The tragedy of that young man’s life was that he did not wait around for the help. He was handsome, athletic, very popular in school, but somewhere deep inside his soul he was hurting and did not feel loved.
To love and be loved is the greatest need of the human heart. Furthermore, I believe that God’s vision for his church is just that—love. I believe God wants for his church to experience his love at a very deep level, and then to share that love with others.
This vision for the church is reflected in a very ancient prayer. It is the prayer of the Apostle Paul for the Church at Ephesus in Asia Minor. Hear Paul’s prayer from Ephesians 3:14-21….
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray 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 to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
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.
I believe that God’s vision for the church, our congregation and all of his church around the world, is to know his love and to make that love known to others. However, how do we realize that vision? I believe Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus gives us a clue. The first step to realizing God’s vision for the church is to pray.
Just before Paul launches into this prayer in the middle of his letter to the Church at Ephesus he writes, “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.” (Ephesians 3:13) Paul was, at this time, in prison, most likely in Rome, because of his testimony for Christ. He knew that his Christian friends in Ephesus were liable to discouragement because of what has happened to him.
There are all sorts of reasons, I suppose, for congregations to get discouraged and to fail to fulfill God’s vision. When this happens, congregations go into decline. However, God gives a way out, and the first step out is through prayer.
For what are we to pray? Paul prayed first that God the Father, out of his glorious riches would strengthen the Ephesian Church with power through his Spirit in their inner being. That is what we always need to be praying for as a church: that God the Father would strengthen us with power through his Spirit at work in our inner being.
I believe that God wants to work in and through us from the inside out. God is not asking us as a congregation or as individuals to measure up to some incredible standard of his by our own power. Rather, he offers us his power.
Some time ago, the elders of Circleville Presbyterian Church began reading The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren. I recommend it to you. In that book, Pastor Rick Warren tells how his church, Saddleback Community in Southern California, grew from nothing to over ten thousand people in seventeen years.
Now, it would be easy for us to read that book and say, “We can never be like Saddleback. We will never grow to have a church that size. We are a small church with not many resources.” It is true we will probably never grow to be the size church that Saddleback has become because we live in a completely different community. However, we do serve the same God that Rick Warren serves, and our God has power to do great things through us just as he has done through Saddleback and countless other congregations around the world. All God wants is for us to let him work through us by his power.
Have you ever thought about how much power God has? My father used to tell the following story to illustrate this. He noted that the physicist sets forth two basic principles within the realm of physics. Briefly stated they are these:
1. Conservation of matter: You cannot destroy matter. You can only alter it in form.
2. Conservation of energy: You cannot create energy. You cannot destroy energy. You can only alter it in form.
Albert Einstein linked these two principles in his formula E=MC2.
Following Einstein’s formula, if we take two and two-tenths pounds of matter (a kilogram) and we reduce it to fragments, or as the scientists say, until our chain of fission is complete, we will end up with 25 billion kilowatt hours of energy. That was equivalent, approximately, at the time my father figured this out many years ago, to the total output of all of our power sources in the entire United States operating at peak efficiency, 24 hours per day for 60 days.
The reverse of this is also true in determining how much energy it would take to bring into existence a kilogram of matter. It would take 25 billion kilowatt hours of energy.
The globe on which we live weighs 6.5 septillion tons. To determine the kilowatt hours of energy necessary to bring the earth into existence you would have to multiply 6.5 septillion tons by 25 billion. This then gives us in kilowatt hours the energy necessary to bring the earth into existence.
The question is: where can you get that much energy? Even if you use all the power sources in the entire world, operating at peak efficiency, 24 hours per day, for 20 billion years, even then you only have a fraction of the energy necessary to bring a world like ours into existence.
Psalm 33 says:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
he puts the deep into storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the people of the world revere him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.
Another way to put this is to say that: God expressed his power and the worlds were formed.
Would you not agree that the God who made the universe, and who raised his Son from the dead, has the power to revitalize our lives and our church? I believe he does. Thus, the first thing we need to pray for ourselves and for our church is what God already wants to do for us: to strengthen us with his power.
Secondly, we need to pray that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith. It is through trusting our lives to Christ’s care that he comes to be at home in us.
Jesus says in Revelation 3:20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”
The interesting thing to me about this verse is that Jesus is talking to people in the church. He is not talking to people who have never known him. He is talking to people who do know him and he is saying, “You are trying to shut me out of your life. Please let me back in!”
If we picture each of our lives like a house, when Jesus first comes into our lives it is like he enters the front door. When he does that, he stands in the hallway, but he has yet to inhabit all the rooms of our lives. That is exactly what he wants to do. Jesus does not simply want to live in the hallway of our lives for the rest of eternity. He wants to come into the living room where we spend a lot of our time. He wants to come into the kitchen. He wants to come into the bedroom. He wants to come into the attic where we store our memories and he wants to heal those. He wants to come into the bathroom and clean us up a bit. He wants to come into the garage or the basement, the place where we put all the bad stuff we do not want anyone else to see. Jesus wants to see it all. He wants to come in and rearrange the house.
If we want to be the church God wants us to be, and if we want to be the individuals God wants us to be, then we need to pray that Jesus would become more and more at home in our hearts, more and more at home in our church. We need to open the rooms of our lives to Jesus’ presence and life-changing power.
The third thing we need to pray for is that we will be rooted and established in love. This is an interesting phrase because Paul is mixing two metaphors here. Trees need to be firmly rooted in good soil if they are going to grow effectively. Houses need to be established on a firm foundation if they are going to withstand the storms of nature. Thus, Paul is saying that our lives need to be firmly rooted and we need to build our lives on a firm foundation. However, what is the soil in which we need to be rooted? What is the foundation we need to build upon? The soil and the foundation are the same: Jesus’ love for us. That is where we must start in the Christian life, and love is that to which we must always go back. If our lives are not firmly rooted and established in Jesus’ love for us then we will never develop healthy, productive, happy lives.
I remember when I first understood something about Jesus’ love for me. I was twelve years old, listening to a preacher on television. He told a story about a boy my age whose family was always picking on him. One day the boy had finally had enough; he walked away from his criticizing parents and siblings and ran down the hallway to his bedroom in tears. However, is grandmother was standing in the way and she stopped him; she put her hands on his shoulders, she looked him in the eyes and said, “I have heard everything that everyone else has been saying about you and I just want you to know this: I love you and believe in you.”
When I heard that story, I was going through a stage in my life where I was being picked on at school, seemingly all the time. However, in that moment I could see Jesus stopping me in the hallway of life, putting his hands on my shoulders, looking me in the eyes and saying: “I have heard all that they have been saying about you and I just want you to know: I love you and believe in you.”
I believe that is what Jesus is saying to you today. I believe that is what Jesus is saying to our church today. All we have to do is receive that love, become firmly rooted in it, build our lives upon it, and then we will accomplish all that God envisions for us individually and as a church.
I have a verse of Scripture framed and hanging in my closet. I got it when I was in college and it encouraged me through those years, and through the challenges of seminary, and it continues to encourage me as I look at it from day to day. The Scripture contains four simple words of Jesus: “Remain in my love.” That is all we need to do—and Jesus will do the rest through us.
A fourth thing we can pray for is connected to the third. We can pray along with Paul that we may have power, along with other believers, to grasp the magnitude of Christ’s love. “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”
If the love of Christ is the foundation of our lives then we cannot live in isolation. God wants us to begin to try to grasp the magnitude of Christ’s love for us, but he does not want us to do that alone. He wants us to grasp the magnitude of the love of Christ along with other believers in him, other saints.
That is why coming together for worship and fellowship is so important. When we have trouble seeing God’s love for us through our own eyes, we can see it through the eyes of our brothers and sisters in Christ. You have reminded me of God’s love through your love and support through the challenges we have endured recently as a church. I am grateful for that. We need each other to be able to even begin to grasp the magnitude of Christ’s love.
Paul’s prayer, at this point, is a curious one because he is praying that we will be able to grasp that which is unattainable. He prays that we will be able to know the unknowable. The love of Christ for us is so great that we can never see the end of it or truly measure its width, length, height, or depth.
Nonetheless, I believe God wants us to try to grasp the magnitude of Christ’s love for us so that, in the process, we will as Fanny Crosby puts it: get lost in his love. It sounds crazy, but after all, the Christian life is, in a way, a crazy thing.
I appreciate what A. W. Tozer says about this:
A Christian is an odd number, anyway. He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen, talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot see; expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another; empties himself in order to be full; admits he is wrong so he can be declared right; goes down in order to get up; is strongest when he is weakest; richest when he is poorest and happiest when he feels the worst. He dies so he can live; forsakes in order to have; gives away so he can keep; sees the invisible; hears the inaudible; and knows that which passeth knowledge.
The fourth thing that Paul prays for and that we need to pray for is that we will be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Blaise Pascal once wrote,
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. God alone is man’s true good….
We need to pray for one another that we would seek to fill our emptiness with the only one who can truly satisfy our need: God himself.
Thus, if we want to realize God’s vision for his church we need to pray. However, we would be remiss if we did not notice and put into practice the second major thing Paul talks about here. Step #2 to realizing God’s vision for the church is to give him the glory.
Paul prays, “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.”
Why should we give God the glory and honor for the good that happens in our lives and in our church? First, we should do it because he is able. He is able to do more than we can ask or imagine. If we settle for only what we as individuals can accomplish in this life, or if we settle for what we can do together with others, we will be impoverished people. God can do more than what we can do on our own. He can do more than what all of humanity working together can do. He can do more than we ask or imagine.
John Newton once wrote in a hymn, “Thou art coming to a King, large petitions with thee bring.” We need to come to God with large requests as individuals and as a church, knowing that he is going to do far more for us, in us, and through us, than what we ask. God has great dreams for you. God has great dreams for his Church. He will bring those dreams into reality. Therefore, he deserves all the honor and all the glory.
Second, we should give him all the honor and glory for what he is going to do for us in the future because he wants to receive glory through his church. It is amazing to me that Paul would say, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.” I can understand how Jesus gave glory and honor to the Father through his life, death, and resurrection from the dead. However, how does the Church give him glory, the Church that seems to fail all the time? I do not understand it, but I doubt that Paul’s prayer or ours will go unanswered. Even though Jesus is a hard act to follow, I do believe that if we ask God to be honored through our church then he will receive honor through us—even if he has to bring us low to accomplish it.
A final note: we need to recognize that God wants to receive glory and honor through the church not just on an occasion, but through all generations, forever and ever.
One of my favorite places I like to visit every time I go to Oxford, England, is a tiny little church called St. Margaret’s in the village of Binsey. The church building itself dates to the twelfth century, but people were worshipping on that spot, perhaps for centuries before that.
I have never been to a worship service with a congregation at St. Margaret’s, but the door to the church is always open. Thus, I have gone in, on occasion, and had my own private worship service, singing the doxology, confessing the Apostles’ Creed, saying the Lord’s Prayer out loud and hearing my voice echo off the ancient stone walls of that sacred place. Worshipping Christ in that place where people have worshipped him for hundreds of years has had a profound affect upon my life. It has reminded me that I am part of a movement that has been going for millennia and that I want to pass it on to the next generation.
If God is going to receive glory through his church, not just for centuries, but for ever, then we need to build his church and grow his church on the right foundation. The only foundation that will last is the love of Jesus Christ. If we build on that foundation, then we, with God’s help, will be building a church that will last, and that will give him glory from generation to generation.