Read Background Text: Ephesians 3:14-21
St. Martin United Church of Christ
Rev. Terry Minchow-Proffitt
The Bible is a public book, or actually, the Bible is a public library of books. We’ve got all sorts of literature in Scripture, such as poetry, parables, hymns, and history. If we’re not careful, we act like it’s all one genre. We take a hymn, like one of the psalms, and forget to read it as a devotional song. Or we read something poetic as if it’s history, or even science. But what we have with the Bible is not one book, but one library of books of multiple genres that the church has said we can trust as a guide and rule for our faith.
For example, it’s easy to forget that today’s passage is a prayer. A prayer contained in a letter that Paul wrote to a church he once served. He begins with, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, . . . “ In other words, “I pray . . . “
When we read it today as a prayer for us, we hear Paul pray that “we 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 we may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
This is our third sermon from Ephesians, which Eugene Peterson calls Paul’s “churchiest” letter. Since he’s exploring the mystery of Christ and church, maybe it should not surprise us that there is so much prayer here. He begins with prayer: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (Eph. 1:3). And in a few pages he will end with prayer: “Pray in the Spirit at all times. . . . Pray also for me. . . . Pray that I may declare the mystery of the gospel boldly . . .” (6:18-20). Paul “bookends” his letter with prayer.
If we pray at all, this is often how we do it. We pray in the morning, then “say our prayers” before we sleep. We say a prayer to begin and conclude our church meetings all the time. Prayers are like the starting gun and the finishing flag. But what about all that goes on in the middle? What about the meeting itself? What about the living of life itself between dawn and dusk? What about when we’re in the shock and throes of grief, or negotiating a deal, or having an argument, or making a tough decision, or flagging in our zeal or patience? What about then? Where is our prayer in the fullness of life?
Well, that’s where we’re in luck today. For this prayer of Paul’s falls at the “transitional center” of Ephesians! Paul prays. He’s a pray-er. His life is a prayer because he knows that this is the only way to experience the fullness of Christ—and he wants in on the juice at the middle of life, not simply at the beginning, not only after the ending.
Herman Melville once said, “I love all men who dive.” You’d expect the author of Moby Dick to say such a thing. But I share his love. Don’t you? Paul dives. He goes deep and explores the prayerful conditions that keep us alive even when we’re overwhelmed and pulled under by life. Some of us dive in; others of us are thrown in! Paul wants all of us to know the oceanic fullness of Christ’s love, its breadth, its length, its height, its depth. Paul wants us to dive deeply into the fullness of Christ’s love that we might know our deepest joy and praise. As St. Irenaeus said, the glory of God is humanity fully alive! God’s unimaginable power is our vitality.
What is prayer? You know what prayer is. You may not do it, but you know what prayer is. You’ve had moments when you connected honestly with another person, when you dropped the self-sufficient façade and came clean with your vulnerability. When we do that with Christ—share our honest joys and our debilitating doubts—that’s prayer. When we connect with God out of compassion for another, or a deep need for another’s help, that’s prayerful. And when our compassion and need drive us to Christ alone, that’s prayer.
Notice that I did not say anything about feelings. I have a few of these, feelings, and I believe in sharing them. I do. But prayer is not made more effective by how we feel. Christian prayer is the attitude and action of entrusting ourselves to the living Christ. Such prayer is not driven by feelings but by faith as a gift.
As Martin Thornton once wrote: “We must re-learn the essential truth that Christian prayer is rather like cleaning a car. When we are lucky enough to have a new one we wash and polish away with enthusiastic fervor, it is a devotional job. When the novelty wears off it becomes rather a nuisance and rather a bore, but we can still clean it efficiently, and here is the one vital point: there is no difference whatever in the result.”
Prayer is the point. Honest connection. Faithful openness. Regardless of our feelings. Fullness of life in the middle of life. St. Martin is where Christ and church, and church and Christ, come together or not at all. There’s no church without Christ, and no Christ without church. It’s in the and: where we pray our way deeper into the fullness—the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love. We dive in, and find ourselves immersed in the unimaginable love of Christ. Amen.