How big do you pray? (Mother Beth)
What did we ever do to deserve a reading as fantastic as today’s Epistle? Ephesians is a standout among Paul’s letters for its eloquence, its spiritual depth, and its sweeping vision, and we’re seeing that as we preach through it these six weeks, but this particular passage, where Paul prays for the readers, is a highlight. I suggested in this past Thursday’s Mini-Messenger that before you came to Mass today you pray through it twice, once for yourself and once for us as a church, and I hope you’ll take the lectionary insert home and do that again sometime this week. Put it on your fridge. Carry it in the car. Try to picture what would happen here if God answered this prayer fully for you and for us.
We’ll be going through this passage from beginning to end, so take a look at the text. Follow it as we go through. In fact, if you don’t want to listen to me today, please just keep reading the Ephesians lesson over and over, because I can only hit a very few highlights. Let’s go. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. Paul is telling us that for what needs to happen to happen, he has to turn to God the source of all life. Paul can’t do it. We can’t do it. Only God can do it. So what is it? Here’s the first part of what he wants God to do for you: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit…
Paul is asking God to draw on his infinite riches and power to build up your inner being. He is getting past the surface level of thoughts and opinions and pursuits and talk and asking God to intervene in the depths of the self. So many of us, maybe all of us until we begin to develop a life connected to God, believe that we are our thoughts and opinions and pursuits and talk. That that level of life is where the self is. It’s not. The self is a space beneath all that where God can come to dwell – and not just to dwell, but to be met, and to manage the construction project of making the false you into the real you that we were talking about last week. And in Christ, you can grow into living from your self rather than from your surface.
If we think the real us is up at the level of our thoughts and opinions and pursuits and talk, we will try and deal with God there too – just telling God what we’re thinking about or asking him for things. That’s a great place to begin, but if you grow at all, as all the saints and mystics will tell you, you discover that God is eager to bring you into a prayer located in the inner being. As your spiritual life matures, he seeks to move you into a place where he does more of the work and where you begin to experience him setting you free from the chatter and the self-focus.
The philosopher Peter Kreeft writes about this in our summer book “Prayer for Beginners,” pointing out that encountering God in the inner being, “does not just make a psychological change within us; it makes a chance between us and God, a real objective change. It changes the relationship; it increases the intimacy. It is as real as changing your relationship to the sun by going outdoors.” So Paul is asking for this to happen in you. That God act, inside you, in your true deep self, to give you spiritual nourishment at a level so profound that the rest of your life grows from it. Not up on the surface, but deep inside where God takes up residence and where you can learn to notice and meet him and let him do his work. So, an Ephesians 3 question: Are you going beneath the surface level with God?
So we’ve got: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, -- and now Paul goes on -- and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. In Christianity, all these infinite riches that God offers to us, most especially his very life inside us, are accessed through faith. This is another point on which Kreeft is really helpful. He reminds us that many people misunderstand what faith is and where it’s located. He writes:
“Faith is not some state of mind we work up in ourselves. Faith is simply believing God’s promises. Faith is relative to its object, God… If we rely on feelings or experiences or sincerity or good intentions or reasonings or plans to maintain our sense of the presence of God, we will certainly fail. The reason all those things will fail is that they depend on us, while faith depends on God.” Culturally we contemporary people often struggle with grasping this, and fall into talking about faith as if it were located in us, like an outlook or a quality that we possess.
As an example, our cultural grammar would generate the sentence “her faith is helping her get through this.” Christian grammar would generate the sentence “God is helping her get through this.” Our cultural grammar would generate the sentence “He turned to his faith for support.” Christian grammar would generate the sentence “He turned to God for support.” The help and the support are from God, not from a quality we have. In Christianity faith is not a personal attribute like optimism or stick-to-itiveness. Faith is trust in God; it’s taking God at his word on who he is and what he has promised. So in this particular case: how does Christ dwell in our hearts by faith? He dwells in our hearts by our believing that God is not lying when he says Christ will dwell in our hearts, and acting as if it is true. So, an Ephesians 3 question: Are you exercising faith by trusting and acting on what God says about Christ here?
Going on…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. If we seek and address Christ dwelling in our hearts, if we trust that God is ready to go to work in our inner being, there will begin to be roots going down into the infinite love of God, roots that will earth and ground us in something far better than the chatter and the ideas and the daily grind and the to-do list. I can promise you that God takes this on, as part of his construction project of the real you; he does it, if we don’t crowd him out or keep him on the superficial level. Love will come up through those roots, if you let him do his work in your inner being. So, an Ephesians 3 question: Are you meeting God and allowing him do his work at the heart of who you are?
At this point we move into the second large section of the prayer. I pray that you 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 in this entire section Paul is asking that we will realize what a big deal this is, and how much is possible. It’s more than we can fully grasp with our own intellects, because the size of what we’re talking about is the size of God. It surpasses knowledge. And that’s why Paul kind of slips into poetry -- what is the breadth and length and height and depth. But he asks God to give us the power to comprehend, to begin to raise our expectations for what God might do to the level of what God actually can do.
In many ways the level of our expectations serves to limit what God can do in us; even Jesus faced this, when people didn’t believe he could heal them. Our low expectations can block God’s power because we don’t accept the possibility of all its breadth and length and height and depth, because we don’t realize that this love is a surpassing love. God won’t force this on us; we have to broaden our minds. Paul’s prayer here is that we’d always be open to God saying “And there’s more, and more, and more, and more.” So, an Ephesians 3 question: how high are your expectations this morning that God has more for you?
I pray that you 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. And then just like in a Prayer Book collect, there is a result clause: what will happen if everything Paul is asking God for comes to fruition? Here’s what will happen: so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Do you see how relational and intimate this is? God is not an idea, or a thing, or a theory – he is living selfhood, infinite love that gives himself to us. This is the real presence that comes to us in the Eucharist, for example, but God gives himself in more ways than just sacramentally. Again, back to the summer book. Kreeft writes, “God is not a compromiser, because God is perfect love. …He insists on possessing us totally because he knows we need to possess him totally even if we do not know that yet… To be thus swallowed up by love… is to become what we truly are, to achieve our true identity, the identity we had in the mind of our Creator when he designed us.”
As we go deeper with God, expecting more and allowing more, God’s life expands in us. He can fill us to our capacity to receive him, and he can even increase our capacity to receive him to the point where we become the real, whole selves he dreamed us up as. In the last day, if we belong to Jesus, that will happen fully in you, but it starts now, and the more you allow it the better life is. So, an Ephesians 3 question: can you point to this in yourself? Are you beginning - beginning! - to receive what Paul is praying for? Let’s hear, again, what’s possible.
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you 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 you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Amen, amen, amen.
My last Ephesians 3 question for the morning: Are you praying for that? God inspired Paul to write it because he hopes that you will.
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