Following the Lectionary means that sometimes you must include or reference passages that are not part of the given readings. It points to the value of the habit of reading around the Text under consideration. Biting off bits here and there may make for exegetical trouble. In the event you would like a solid sermon on the first half of Ephesians 3 before or after the sermon, I recommend my friend Jason Micheli’s, Digression to Doxology.
Did You Know You Were Full?
People who know about our bodies tell us that it takes our brains longer to realize we are full from a meal than it does our stomachs. We may not know until thirty minutes after a meal what our stomachs, which can hold up to 17 cups, already know. Chemicals that signal our satisfaction take time to travel through the blood to the brain. This explains why we often think we ate just enough only later to feel like that old Alka-Seltzer commercial, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
The idea that we know this and still eat after we are full may help us understand why Paul prays that Christians in Ephesus may comprehend what is incomprehensible. He prays,
That they may know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
If we stay with the analogy of our stomachs and our brains, we might say that our experiences in life do not immediately connect us with our understanding of God’s love. We need to be reminded. We need to reflect. We then find ourselves praying.
When Paul begins to pray, he actually starts in verse 1 of this chapter,
For this reason . . .
But, like you and me who often want to explain what it is we will say, Paul gives us one of his classically long sentences to describe that the Gospel is what reveals the love of God. It comes on the heels of telling the Gentile Christians they have been brought near through the body of Jesus. There is no longer a wall of hostility between them and the Jews. God in Christ put the hostility to death. The very claim is cause to praise God.
It is this sequence that calls back to the way our experiences are often like the stomach that receives what it needs only to take some time for the brain to catch up. Prayer is one means to help our hearts catch up with what we have encountered. In this case, Paul has every cause to praise God when he thinks about what it means that hostilities have been ended and together all people, that is every people group, is being built together into God’s dwelling by His Spirit.
When we get to verse 14, where Stacie began when she read our Text, Paul starts again,
For this reason . . .
Now that he has caught his readers up that the Gospel, the Good News, that God revealed himself in Christ and brought us from death to life, breaking down the walls of hostility between us, he breaks out in prayer.
The experiences of God’s love now gives the occasion to meditate on the consequences of God’s love. In his prayer, Paul describes his hopes that are bound up in what God has done in Christ. He is not praying for what we must do. He prays that we receive power not that we would exert some power.
Notice what Scott Hoezee points out,
He does not pray that they will be healthy and safe.
He does not pray they will be successful and wealthy.
He does not pray that they will find a way to stand up to political foes in the Roman Empire.
He does not pray that they might experience their best life now.
No, he prays for strength by the Spirit to bring Christ more fully into their hearts.
And then he prays they might receive power, but not political power, not worldly clout to legislate their version of morality for pagan Ephesus, not brawny power with which to defeat their enemies.
No, he prays they may receive power to grasp something very nearly ungraspable: how wide and how long and how high and how deep is the love of Christ so that through this glorious piece of ineffable knowledge they might be filled up to the very brim of their lives with God’s own fullness.
Human beings tend to refuse God’s own fullness.
Something has changed.
Or, our normal resistance to God’s fullness has taken on a new form. What are the obstacles to life that when we encounter the beauty of God’s love it does not seem to fill us with God’s own fullness?
We might illustrate it with something as simple as saying Grace at our meals.
Christians, us, have become unsure of what to do about praying for our meals in public. We do not want to pray in public as a show of our spirituality. Jesus warned of practicing our piety before others. We don’t want to come off as though we are shaming others who have not bothered to say Grace before their meal. There is something deeper at work that that. Today we are far removed from how we get our food. When we are eating out, we only know that the food prepared was purchased and delivered to the restaurant. We are often too busy to think about from where it came.
Sure, we may select a place that uses organic and local fare. But even at that, we are more curious about the menu than that something beyond our expertise and care causes crops to grow. Too often we have bought the idea that the food we enjoy is firmly in the hands of those who harvest, package and produce the foods we eat. We have closed off the process to the One who made the Sun to shine and the rain to fall. Without these elements, not to mention the soil, we could not produce enough for all of to eat.
These are not intentional oversights. Instead, we have fallen prey to the idea that God is no longer needed. We trust those that tell us how all our experiences and events in life occur. It is less that people no longer believe in God. It is more that God is no longer needed. Human beings have sought to escape God. Over time we have slowly explained how it all works. Rather than recognize the reality of a loving God, it seems far more important that we take the credit simply by knowing how water falls and heat helps plants to grow. This is our inheritance. It is our experience.
When we take the time to examine what is necessary for crops to grow, we must admit that we cannot make water and we cannot generate the Sun. We may seed clouds but that is no guarantee there will be rain. We may manufacture grow lights. But, for the needs of the nearly 7 billion people on the planet we can scarcely lay claim we could manufacture and deploy enough light. What’s more, the problem may not be our ability but our interest. We may not care if others eat, so long as we do.
This moves us from food to fellowship.
When we move from food to fellowship, we find it even more compelling to consider the beauty of God’s love. When we assume we have all we need thereby living as there is no need for God, we face the problem of something more than food. Were it possible that human beings had the internal capacity to break down the walls of hostility within themselves, one would think we would have already figured that out given the long history of humanity.
Who views you with hostility today?
Who do you view with hostility?
Our current climate clearly illustrates that we do not possess the skill set to overcome hostilities. And, what’s more, when Christians determine it is more important to our identity we will ignore the Gospel that declares an end to hostility and we will participate without much thought. Here is one reason we need to hear the Gospel week in and week out. We need to hear of God’s love revealed in Christ Jesus.
It was this very reality that captured Paul. His own heart had been rid of hostility for those proclaiming the Messiah had come. What had been rooted and grounded permanently in his heart was the love of God – for all people. This was not his natural interest. It was not something he simply needed to discover within himself. No. He was confronted with Love, by Love and now indwelled by Love. His message was less about the accuracy of your interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures and more about how in Christ Jesus God revealed his love for all.
This love he had both experienced and witnessed prompted his reflection such that he knew it was not something he came up with but had been given him by Love, in Love.
It is that he took the time to reflect on his life.
Another reason we gather from week to week is to provide space where we, together, reflect on the beauty of God’s love. Our lives are busy and distracted. If we do not intentionally make room to reflect, to meditate, on our experiences and how they reveal the love of God, we will give in to our more natural tendencies to decide we no longer need God to find peace in a hostile world, if indeed we may find peace.
Paul is praying they, we, would be filled with the fullness of God. We know too well what captures our heart captures our mind and imagination. We then give ourselves in service to that which we give our allegiance. Paul prays that since Christ indwells Christians, a point he made in that long sentence in chapter 1, that Christians would be strengthened toward the very Christ that is within us.
The Spirit and the gift of faith combine to produce in us an awareness that God is with us, that Christ dwells in us. Love is the evidence. Love is the source. Love is the means. It is here that Paul describes what is difficult to grasp but that we are enabled to grasp it – Christ’s love. It surpasses knowledge.
Paul is not suggesting that we have special knowledge. He is indicating that our attempts at love leave us short of grasping God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. When we read 1 Corinthians 13 we find Paul describing the love that overtakes us, that forms us anew. His words were born out of a desire for Christians to grasp something different about love than what they were accustomed. If you listen carefully when read, you find that the description of Love is not exactly what comes to mind when we hear the word love.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
It should not be missed that Paul’s description of the way of Love is given to the Church. Reflecting on Love we might do what Nathan has encouraged us from time to time, substitute love with Jesus Christ. The conflict, even the hostilities that arose within the church, risked muting one of the very ways Paul told the Ephesian Christians how the Gospel, the Good News, would be known.
This grace was given to me – the least of all the saints – to proclaim to the Gentiles the incalculable riches of Christ, and to shed light for all about the administration of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. This is so that God’s multi-faceted wisdom may now be made known through the church . . .
We may well hear and respond to the Gospel as individuals, but the means to get the word out is through a group of people captured by the Love of God such that our relationships bear witness that in Christ’s body the walls of hostility have been torn down.
Let the Love of God dwell in your hearts through faith.
With Paul, let’s pray that we would be rooted and established in love, that we may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.
In Christ, by the Spirit, you are full!
*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version.