From this church, we can look out the windows to see the construction of the Crosstown LRT. And across the street from our home, we can see cranes working on a new apartment building. So naturally we ask: “How big? How big will this be?”
That is the natural question whenever we see work-in-progress. And Paul helps us answer that same question when looking at the work-in-progress construction site of our life in Christ.
Before we look at this week’s reading from Ephesians 3, let us look back to connect the dots from where we started our journey with Paul and the Ephesians.
In our introduction to Ephesians, Beth pointed out words like blessing, chosen, adoption, inheritance, and lavished. In that chapter, Paul is retelling and celebrating “the story of what God has done in the past, what is unfolding in the present and what the future holds.” And then last week, we heard how we had been excluded: as Gentiles we were cut off from the Jews, and as sinners we were also estranged from God. But Jesus Christ, through his death, broke down the dividing wall, putting to death hostility between peoples. At the same time, Jesus reconciled us, sinful humans, to God, so that we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (2:19)
The first two chapters of Ephesians have been Paul’s explanation of God’s work for us through Jesus Christ.
And this brings us to our passage today. What does Paul do next? He bows his knees in prayer before God the Father. His prayer is a series of requests, petitions to God.
Perhaps the most familiar prayers are prayers of supplication, where we bring our requests before God. Prayer is the spiritual discipline that “ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father” (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline), and so the entirety of today’s service is a collective prayer, as we often hear Beth say, “Let us continue in prayer…”.
The acronym ACTS is a helpful way to remember the different elements of prayer: Adoration (Praise & Hymns), Confession, Thanksgiving (“Eucharist” is the same word in Greek) and Supplication.
Let’s look closer at what Paul is requesting in his prayer, because it is unusual and amazing.
Paul is not asking God to grant the Ephesians daily provisions (bread, water, clothing, shelter), or to grant them wealth and health, or safety and security. These can be significant things and Paul is keenly aware since he is writing this letter from prison.
Instead, Paul prays three petitions to God for the young Ephesian church:
- that you may be strengthened
- that you may be able to comprehend
- so that you may be filled
The purpose of Paul’s petitions build on each other and finally, that last petition is “so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Let’s step through these petitions, one-by-one to see how big Paul is talking.
In the first petition, Paul prays that the Ephesian church may be strengthened. This is a common Christian request: strengthening; and even more necessary for the early church who were facing many challenges and persecutions from all sides, Romans and Jews. But Paul did not tell them to “buck up” and find strength in themselves. Instead, Paul asks the Triune God to strengthen them: that the Father would grant them power through the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, and that Jesus Christ would indwell their hearts.
When Paul talks about your inner being and your hearts, he is referring to your emotions (gut feeling) and your intellect. Greeks thought that the heart was the center of personality, where the rational mind sat. So Christ will dwell and occupy your emotions and your thoughts.
Paul concludes his first petition of strengthening by saying, “as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” This phrase doesn’t have the “that you may be” of the other petitions because Paul recognizes that this has already started and is already happening. Love is the soil in which we believers are to be rooted, the foundation on which we are to be grounded. As Christians, our starting point, our anchor is God’s eternal love, not our own wishy-washy, on-and-off love.
Paul’s second petition for the Ephesians continues around God’s love: for them to be able to comprehend and to know the vastness of the love of Christ. Being rooted and grounded in God’s love is just the starting point of Christian faith. Paul now prays that the Ephesians may be able to comprehend and know even more of the love of Christ.
Our faith might have started with a small recognition of God’s love demonstrated by Jesus Christ dying on the cross for our sins, but there is so much more to God’s love. Paul prays that you may be able to comprehend and to know all the dimensions of the love of Christ.
We can think of the breadth of love that reaches across all peoples; the length of love that reaches into eternity; the height of love that reaches into heaven; and the depth of that love that reaches down even to the dead. That is how big God’s love is. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says something similar, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). God’s love is so big that there is nowhere that it cannot reach.
But how can we know and comprehend and know something that surpasses knowledge? Paul is hinting at both rational understanding and experiential knowledge: knowing about God’s love and experiencing God’s love. Another translation uses “grasping” at the physical dimensions of God’s love, since it is not just a metaphorical or spiritual reality; God’s love is also a tangible and physical reality. That’s why Paul includes “with all the saints,” since this all-embracing love is not about individual contemplation, but it is lived and shared in the community of believers. Whenever Paul writes “you” he is referring to the church, a group of believers, not an isolated individual.
The remaining 3 chapters of Ephesians describe the practical and tangible ways that God’s love is demonstrated in and through the church, through relationships, families, and work.
And the last petition is the top of Paul’s prayer, the summit. That you may be strengthen… that you may be able to comprehend… ultimately, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
So then, what is the fullness of God? It is the divine life, power and presence of God. This is how big Paul is praying: that God would ultimately fill the Ephesians with all the fullness of God in all his divine attributes: goodness, wisdom, love, power, holiness, and so on. This is how big Paul is talking. This is Paul’s prayer for Christians, for the whole church.
All three of these petitions are directed to God, because each petition requires God’s work, God’s intervention. We ask God to strengthen us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ in our hearts and minds. Then we also ask God to give us the ability to comprehend the great vastness of his love. And finally, we ask God to fill us with the amazing and divine fullness of God.
We go from explaining God’s work for us in the first two chapters, to praying for God’s work in us, to transform us.
Since all of these things are God’s work, Paul closes his prayer with praise and adoration (remember ACTS) back to God. The closing of his prayer, “to him be the glory” matches the beginning, “according to the riches of his glory.”
We might know that God is able to accomplish abundantly. In our Gospel reading, we heard how Jesus fed 5000 men (likely more than 12,000 with women and children). But God accomplishes this far more than we can ask or imagine: Jesus fed 12,000 and they still had leftovers!
Maybe you are unable to comprehend the vastness of the love of God. Or you are unable to imagine the fullness of God.
But thanks be to God that his power is already at work within us, starting to transform us. And he is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.
Regardless of where you are in your Christian faith, we can follow Paul and pray to God for strengthening, for comprehension of Christ’s love, and for his fullness within us.
So let us together pray bigger:
Now we humbly bow our knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. Together we pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that we may be strengthened in our inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love.
We pray that each of us, together with all the saints in God’s church, may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to God the Father 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, forever and ever.