Monday, 27 April 2015

Three big prayers: a talk for the parish service of rededication


This is a good passage for an Annual Meeting

Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians and he thanks God for their faith and love.



'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' (v15)

This is a community of people who love God and who love one another. And Paul thinks of who they have at the very centre of their lives: when I heard about ‘Your faith in the Lord Jesus

When I look at the Christians in Bury St Edmunds and specifically at St Peter's and St Mary's,  I see so much to give thanks for. Your love for the word of God, your desire that Christ will be preached and made known, your prayer for each other, for other Christians and for people in all places; for your love for each other, the care and support that you show, the small groups, your hospitality and generousity, your willingness to serve, your welcome of newcomers, your commitment to God’s standards, and your desire to see our churches grow so that the name of Jesus is exalted.

And I give thanks for you.

But Paul also prays for the Christians in Ephesus.

It is, what I would call, one of the big prayers.

We tend to pray little prayers: little prayers are usually focused only on this life. We ask God to help us out, to heal us or those we love, to make our stuff go well, to give us wisdom in a particular situation. We pray that those we love may be happy, fulfilled, wealthy, healthy.

Paul's prayer is a big prayer: because it is not so much a prayer for the Ephesian believers here and now (Paul does pray for those sorts of prayers: for courage to speak the message, that God would take away a thorn in his flesh), but a prayer for them for eternity.

It is a prayer which begins in verse 17, gets interrupted at 2.1 (where Paul gets carried away describing the grace of God), is resumed in 3.1, and immediately broken off again, and completed in 3.14-21.

And as we rededicate ourselves, this is a good prayer to pray for each other.

1. We pray that we may get to know our Father God better

“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”. (v17)

That really is what we are all about.
We are on a journey, seeking to get to know God better. If we have received Jesus we already are sons and daughters of God. But we need to grow in our relationship with our heavenly Father. We need to grow in our knowledge of God.

It is where the bible language of the difference between justification and sanctification is so helpful. We are justified by faith, forgiven, seated with Christ in heaven. But the Spirit still needs to change us, sanctify us, make us holy, so that we might become what we are. 

To grow in our knowledge of God is not really about growing in our knowledge about God. This is about growing in knowledge of God - heart knowledge. It is about growing in faith, learning to trust him more, to love him more.

This  is gift – it comes from the Spirit. That is why Paul prays!  It is the Spirit who shows us our need for God, the love of God, who helps us see God at work (Nicodemus). it is the Spirit of revelation who helps us to see that all things come from God and belong to God. It is the Spirit who cries out from within our spirit to God (Romans 9). It is the Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts. It is the Spirit who gives us a love for the word of God, a love for his people and ultimately love for God.

And so with Paul we pray that we might get to know our Father better.

That means we must attend to the inner life, to the heart life (v2 speaks of the eyes of our heart): spending time in prayer, reading his Word, regular worship, going on things like retreats, humbling yourself and doing what you don’t want to do, making ourselves accountable, making ourselves less so that others become more, costly obedience.

I was struck by something that I read by Henri Nouwen. He said he thought that as he grew older he would enjoy deeper intimacy with God. But, he continued, it was the exact opposite. Prayer became harder. There were new doubts. God seemed more absent. But he did not despair, because he realised that what God was growing his faith. He was making him go deeper, stripping him of those things on which he had relied, bringing him to a place where his faith did not depend on his feeling, but on simple obedience.

2. We pray that we may know the hope to which he calls us.   

I think that the next bit of the verse expands on this: ‘the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints’ (v18).

Others do not. They think that Paul is praying for two things: that we would know the hope, and that we would know how precious the saints (all of us – in our uniqueness and difference and rich diversity) are to God.

So I focus on the first part. Paul prays that we would know the hope to which God calls us.

Christians are now people. But we are also then people. We live in the now in the light of the then.

Paul has already spoken of our hope in the first few verses of this chapter:
In Christ we are holy and blameless in his sight, but we long for that day when we really are holy and blameless in his sight
We long for the day when we will see him as he is and become like him (1 John 3.2), when we know the love of God and are filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3.19)
We long for the day when all things in heaven and earth, natural things – created things – animals – nature, will be brought together in their rightful place under the authority of Christ (v22).

I’m going to be controversial. I can’t help reading the Green manifesto and saying ‘Yes’ to so much that is there. It really does offer an alternative vision for society. But it is the same reaction that I had when as a teenager I read the communist manifesto (with the exception of the anti God-bit). Yes we long for a society that is fair and equal, where everyone has the same opportunities (wherever they live – not just in this part of the globe), where there are no nuclear weapons and human beings live in harmony with nature.

But there is one major problem: human sinfulness, corruption and greed. It affects even the clearest of visionaries. And so when they tried to turn the communist vision into reality, it failed. What was meant to bring liberty to people brought slavery; what was meant to bring paradise brought the terror of the labour camps and what was meant to bring equality brought hypocrisy and totalitarianism.

As Christians we do believe in the vision of a fair and equal world, where there is justice, abundance, security; where the old and young, black and white, Asian – African – European – Indo-Chinese – American – Australasian live as a common humanity, and together we live in harmony with nature. Read Isaiah and his vision for the coming Kingdom.

And yes, we should live in the light of that. We should work and struggle because we know that the Kingdom is coming. Maybe even vote Green. But we must realise that we will not see that vision of the world fulfilled, that type of society instituted until the King of the Kingdom comes. 

So I pray we may know our hope. The hope of resurrection and transformation, not just for us but for all of creation.

It is a hope which will inspire our work: whether that is, for you, the call to politics; the call to some work which seeks to put right an injustice – gross inequality, anti-trafficking, seeking the freedom of those who are slaves (Dalit freedom network), working with orphans in Zimbabwe or providing support for refugees in Syria, protecting against environmental abuse, providing a foster home, helping those in debt, working with those with learning disabilities.

But because that vision can only be finally fulfilled when the king comes, please do not turn your work into your god. Do not build your life on it. You will be deeply frustrated and become disillusioned, or you will become judgemental, puritanical (in the worst sense of the word) and prescriptive.

But if you place your work under the authority of the coming king, then even if you don’t see any results, you know that the work that you do is not in vain. One day God will take that work and use it, I don't know how, to bring about the glorious transformation on that day when history as we know it ends and Jesus returns as judge and Lord. And then he will establish his kingdom of justice, rightness, harmony and peace, where there will be no more sickness, suffering or death.

3. We pray that we may know the power of God

‘And what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe’ (v19).

Paul tells us about this power.
It is the power that raised Jesus from the dead and lifted him to the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places.
It is the power which will draw all things to Christ.
It is the power of love.

This is the power which brings life to spiritually dead people and which raises us so that we are seated in Christ in the heavenly places.
This is the power which transforms us so that we become what we already are: holy, righteous, full of love and peace and joy and patience and kindness.
It is the power which means that when we seek God he opens the door of the coming kingdom and gives us glimpses of the future life in healings or even resurrections.
It is the power that enables us to persevere when the road gets tough (remember that Paul is writing this letter as a prisoner cf. Ephesians 3.1)
It is the power which releases us to praise.
It is the power which emboldens us to speak of Jesus, even when there is hostility.
It is the power which equips us to serve and give sacrificially.
This is the power which promises to keep us if or when we suffer for our faith
It is the power which doesn’t always do wonderful things, but which brings us to our knees, sometimes even to that place of desolation, but through that to the place of greatest security and joy - ultimate dependence on God.

I pray for us as a church that we will know more of this power. I pray this coming year that we will see people coming to him, being converted; that we will see people growing in love for him and changing; that we will see people stepping up to the mark in order to serve in new ways for them.

Of course we pray the little prayers

But with Paul we are also invited to pray the big prayers:

That we will know our God and Father better,
That we will know the hope that he gives us – together with all the saints (those whom he has called and those who are yet to respond to his call), and

That we will know the power of God at work in us and through us. 

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