St Barnabas and St Michael’s 18th January 2015
Reading – Ephesians 1:15-23
So what do you want to thank God for this morning?
Over the years I have had many different answers to this question, and some of the things people have shared have been both inspiring and truly humbling. I for one never cease to be amazed by the sheer number of different ways people can tell of God’s goodness and love in their lives, sometimes through big and spectacular answers to prayer, sometimes through a simple blessing in an otherwise ordinary day. But I have to say one thing I do notice when I ask this question is how rarely we as a church thank God for one another. I don’t mean that we fail to appreciate someone when they show particular kindness or demonstrate the love of Christ. What I mean is how rarely, if ever, we simply praise God for our fellow believers and for all He has done in their lives.
Take a moment to think about the person sitting next to you. You may know them very well. You may not know them at all. You may have spoken to them many times before. You may only just be getting acquainted. But the fact this or that person is here in church and hopefully can say God is at work in their life is in itself a most wonderful and truly remarkable miracle, and one that I believe we too often overlook. Are we looking this morning for the proof that God is alive, that God saves, that God changes lives? That proof may well be sitting right next to you today.
OK, you may be feeling anything other than a miracle this morning. You may feel you are the worst possible advert for the Christian faith. But I hope you can agree that God has not given up on you, that despite everything Jesus loves you, and His Spirit is living in you. And that is the wonderful miracle of the Christian faith we should all be praising God for this morning in each other. Because the great wonder and mystery of the Christian faith is that God doesn’t choose people whose lives are sorted, or people who have a particular education or background. He wants to show His grace through the broken, the poor and the needy. And how do we know this? Well, just look around at our church today. Even as I stand here, I can see so much of God’s grace in all of you, and I for one know that I should be so much more thankful for this simple and wonderful fact.
Now today we are carrying on looking at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. There is some debate as to who exactly Paul was addressing when he wrote this epistle, but there’s evidence to suggest he was not only addressing the church he knew so well in Ephesus but some of the congregations in the surrounding area he had never met. Yet even though some of his hearers were strangers to him, he still gave thanks for them. Why? Because, as he heard about all these new churches springing up, he could see evidence of God at work. To use the language of verse 13, these believers had been included in Christ. They had been marked in him (that is Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. They had been chosen, verse 14, to the praise of God’s glory.
No wonder Paul begins our passage today with these words: For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. Because, for all the problems that these new churches were experiencing, God was powerfully at work. It wasn’t simply that there were new groups of people springing up who claimed to be Christian and so ended up going to church. It was also that these people were expressing their faith in powerful acts of love that bore witness to what they believed.
And let’s not forget what a big change this new-found faith meant for the lives of these believers. For many people believing in Jesus meant cutting off family ties. It meant no longer being able to join in with the pagan festivities going on all around them. It meant losing business and income as they could no longer join local trade associations. So when Paul gave thanks for the love they had for all the saints, he wasn’t simply praising God that these Christians behaved so nicely and politely to one another. He was rejoicing that they were caring for one another and giving each other the support they needed to carry on living for Christ, no matter the cost.
It’s not really surprising, then, that as Paul praises God for the believers in and around Ephesus, his thoughts turn to prayer. But again I want you to look closely at the way he prays for them. Verse 17: I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.
Now to understand why exactly Paul prays like this, I want us to think for a moment of some of the songs and hymns we sing in church week by week. We often declare that Love so amazing, so divine demands my life, my soul, my all or that knowing you Jesus, there is no greater thing. But if we are to be really honest with ourselves, our number one priority in life is not really to know Jesus better day by day. Our greatest concern is with our family or our work or even with Plymouth Argyle winning promotion. We express the right intentions, but the other good and proper concerns we face day by day tend to crowd out our desire to grow in the Christian faith.
So what we need when we are faced by so many different claims on our time and our affections is for God to reveal Himself to us so we know how best to live for Him. We need the gift of God’s wisdom to discover what pleases Him in the daily round and common task. So that even though we may face opposition because of our faith, it may become clear that we want to follow Jesus over and above all things, and others see Jesus in us.
That is exactly how Paul prays for the church in Ephesus in this verse: I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. Not in some dry, theoretical way, but in a way that makes a real, practical difference to the life you live seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
And that is how I would suggest we all ought to pray for one another through the coming week. As you think about the person sitting next to you today, let’s not just give thanks for the miracle of their faith. Let’s also pray that God would give them more and more of His Holy Spirit so that day by day they might know Him better, and so give glory to His name.
Of course this raises the question of what exactly it means to know God better. And at this point I better come clean and admit it can be something of a challenge to unravel all that Paul is saying in the next few verses. You see, the problem with a passage like ours in Ephesians is that Paul seems to become over-excited when talking about the great truths of the Christian faith, and everything comes out in one great long sentence. So even though our Bible translations make a great job of trying to give sense and order and punctuation to what he is saying, it can even so sometimes be difficult to unravel his message.
But in essence Paul prays that the believers in Ephesus might know three things:
First of all, in verse 18 the hope to which he has called you. Why does Paul mention hope so many times in all his letters? Very simply, because our hope is something that should mark us out as Christians. We believe in a God who has defeated the power of death through the sacrifice and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. And our lives are called to reflect that faith.
I’m not saying that we will always be visibly living in the power of Christ’s victory. Indeed I know that there are plenty of you who are going through tough times right at this very moment. But what should keep us following Jesus is the knowledge He is walking the deepest valley and darkest path with us and that no matter what the evil one throws at us, nothing can separate us from His love. And if we can live in that hope, even when at times it may seem like only a distant glimmer on the horizon, then we will begin to grow in our understanding of God’s faithfulness and love, in whatever situation we may happen to face.
Secondly, in verse 18, Paul prays that the believers might know the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. Because, sad to say, all too often we do not think of our faith as either riches or as a glorious inheritance. Again, if we are being really honest with ourselves, there are times, aren’t there, when rather we see our faith as a chore: “OK, there’s nothing on TV, so I suppose I better read my Bible”, or as a restriction, “I’d love to go out for a walk this morning but it’s my turn on the rota this Sunday”.
We need God to open the eyes of our hearts so that we fall in love with Jesus again, to realise that our faith is the most precious and valuable thing we ever can have, and that nothing compares to the blessings we receive through the power of His Holy Spirit. After all, nothing puts people off the Christian faith more than believers who are bored, indifferent or simply going through the motions. We should be excited by Jesus, and constantly wondering what He is going to teach us next, shouldn’t we?
And thirdly, building on this, Paul prays that we might know his incomparably great power for us who believe. Because, and this is something that should constantly excite and amaze us, something very special happened when you became a Christian. It wasn’t simply that you decided to follow Jesus, or even that you owned Jesus as your Saviour and Lord. It was that quite literally you were raised up from death to life. As Paul puts it in Eph 2:4-5 – the passage we will be looking at next week – But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.
In other words, when we came to believe, we experienced nothing less than the same resurrection power which raised Jesus from the empty tomb. That’s what Paul tells us here in verses 19-20: That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead. Now do you understand what I meant when I said the person sitting next to you this morning is a miracle? If that person next to you is a believer, God has already worked in his or her life with resurrection power. And indeed every time someone comes to faith, it’s like there’s a mini-Easter Sunday going on as sins are washed away, the power of death is defeated in that person’s life, evil is overcome.
But what’s even more astonishing is that this same resurrection power is available to each one of us on an ongoing basis day by day, week by week. We know that resurrection power more commonly as the Holy Spirit. He is the personal, living presence of Jesus in our hearts ready to testify that no matter who we are, we belong to Him, given all the resources we need to live for Him, able to share in His victory. And if we are serious about knowing Jesus better, then we need to learn to listen to the Spirit and claim His power more and more. Not necessarily in bold, spectacular ways, which in fact may only draw attention to ourselves, but in lives that reflect the fact we belong to Jesus and we are His alone.
Let’s sum up where we have got to so far, because Paul covers an awful lot of material in this passage. Paul tells us we should give thanks for our fellow believers and praise God for their faith in the Lord Jesus and love for all the saints. Paul tells us we should pray that the Lord would enable them to know Him better, and that they would understand more and more the hope, the power and the riches of the Christian faith.
Which is all very well, but how many of us actually pray like that? I certainly know I don’t – at least not very often. Rather when I pray for my fellow believers, I tend to focus on their physical needs, or the difficult situation they are facing, or the fact I am having trouble loving them as Christ commanded. Now I have to say I don’t think it’s wrong to pray like that, but the danger is, all my prayers can end up beginning and ending with myself and my own limited understanding. I give God, as it were, my shopping list with my own points for prayer and then expect to receive the answers I am looking for.
Perhaps the problem I face is one of perspective. Yes, when I pray, I know Jesus is alive and, yes, I believe 100% He is Lord over all things. Yet, if I’m honest, I guess I very rarely reflect on all that this means. That’s why I’ve made a note to myself to take on board what Paul goes on to say in the next couple of verses. Because in verses 20-21 Paul tells us that after Jesus’ work here on earth was completed, the Lord seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
So this Jesus to whom I come in prayer is not a small Saviour or a little Lord. He is the one who reigns over all creation in glory and power and majesty, who has authority over every spiritual power, and who is seated on an eternal throne that will never pass away. How dare I then expect Him to follow my own priorities as if they were more important than His own? Or command Him to act according to my own limited and very partial understanding? Surely my priority when I pray should be to give thanks and praise for the wonder and joy of knowing Him, and to express my desire to know Him better. Because it’s only when I do this, that I will really praise God and pray for my fellow believers after Paul’s own example.
Our praise and our prayer stems from our perspective on Jesus. So let me finish by asking one very simple and very direct question: how big is your view of Jesus this morning? Have you left Him still lying in a manger at Christmas? Do you think of Him as someone who just walked this earth 2000 years ago? Or have you experienced the wonder of a mini Easter Sunday in your heart and own Him as your risen, ascended, majestic Saviour who reigns in all might and power and authority?
Let’s all of us take some time to reflect on that question, and then let us pray after Paul’s own example here before us this morning …
Some suggestions for praying with this passage …
Give thanks for the life of your church and other local churches
Pray for the growth of the church, local and national, world-wide
18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
Pray for greater understanding of God’s vision of the church
And for power for healing for those you know who are unwell or in need
That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Pray for those in power … for our government, Queen, international conflicts, persecution of Christians
Praise and worship …