February 8, 2009
The Church: The Masterpiece of God
“The Church: Subservient to Christ”
Paula D’Arcy, author of several best selling books related to spirituality and human development, established the Red Bird Foundation in 2001. The purpose of this non-profit organization is to create learning opportunities for needy people from all over the world to experience personal and spiritual growth. A few years ago, the Red Bird Foundation invited 12 teachers from Lithuania to come to the United States to taste freedom and to see what is possible when people can live and work without harsh governmental restraints. You might recall that Lithuania, a Baltic State situated between Poland and Russia, was for over 50 years oppressed by its communist occupiers. In response to the invitation, eleven of the twelve teachers were granted visas and made the trip.
These eleven Lithuanian teachers arrived here in the U.S. in August and were taken to Laity Lodge, a beautiful retreat center some two hours northwest of San Antonio in the hill country of Texas. It didn’t take long, however, before the sponsors realized that their guests were unable to “take in” the experience. “Why did you bring us here?” some of the teachers asked. “What are you going to do to us?” others nervously inquired. Two of the Lithuanians were too scared to even leave their bedrooms! For years, these teachers and others like them had heard over and over again, “The capitalists in America are evil. They’re out to get us. You can’t trust them for even a moment. They’re always looking out only for themselves.” So, the teachers naturally assumed that Paula and her associates were up to no good, secretly plotting to do them in. And only with the passing of time and the ongoing extension of gracious hospitality did this deeply ingrained perception of Americans begin to break down. “I think I’m being given love here,” one of the teachers eventually said. “Maybe these people really are not out to get us after all.”
Here in Ephesians 1:15-23, we find very much the same dynamic going on. Like the Lithuanians’ harmful view of all capitalists in the West, we humans often inherit, pick up or are taught an equally unreliable and destructive view of God. We may get it from our parents, our churches, the culture around us, the books we read, and even our own sacred texts if we don’t look at them carefully. To many people, God is cold, harsh, judgmental, oppressive and distant. And as a result, we end up hiding in our spiritual bedrooms or abandoning God altogether. That’s the issue that Paul addressed in 1:3-14. “The God that I have come to know,” he writes, “is active in human affairs, personal and knowable, and loving.” That is the God of Paul, and that is the God of Scripture.
But saying that and experiencing it are two very different things. Which brings us to today’s passage in Ephesians 1:15-23. Having laid out a more healthy and biblical view of God in the preceding section, Paul now moves on and prays that his readers might actually be able to grasp and live in the grace, goodness and strength of God.
After giving thanks for his readers and the faith that they have demonstrated, Paul now prays for them. Be sure to notice just what he prays for. Paul says nothing about the various requests that we are most familiar with. He doesn’t pray for the sick. He doesn’t pray for broken families. He doesn’t mention anyone looking for work. There is nothing wrong with praying for such things, of course, and other passages in the Bible certainly encourage us to do so. But Paul’s mind is elsewhere. To him, such prayers, though important, are symptomatic of a deeper problem. The major problem facing people in the world and people in the church, is not cancer, divorce, or unemployment, but spiritual blindness. He asks God to open the eyes of his readers so that they might be able to see who God really is and what he longs to do in and through their lives. He prays that this great and loving God of his would do a surgical procedure on the hearts of these people and help them to notice what would otherwise remain hidden. He wants them to know this same God and to experience him in the same way that he now does. People, Paul realizes, are often short-sighted. Their vision is blurred, their views of the world obstructed, their awareness of God limited. “Help them to see,” Paul prays. “Open the eyes of their hearts so that they can experience you in all of your glory.”
That is the central prayer, isn’t it? I suspect that most of us have at one time or another offered at least a version of this prayer. We pray that our children who are struggling with their faith and are caught up in the things of the world might catch a glimpse of God and his goodness. We pray that our students who care so little about their work and who have no apparent sense of purpose might catch a glimpse of God and all that he wants to do in their lives. We pray for spouses, parents, friends, colleagues and neighbors who have little or no awareness of God in their lives“Lord, open their eyes and help them to see.” This is the foundational prayer, for when people truly see God, they then see everything else differently as wellsickness, employment, relationships.
But what does Paul want us, his readers, to see? What does he long for us to recognize? Paul mentions three specific things here. First, he prays that we would know (experience, appreciate, understand, relate to) the hope to which God calls us. Paul refers to hope infrequently in Ephesians, but he does refer to the evil in the present world often enough to give us a clear sense of what he no doubt has in mind. In 2:1-2, Paul depicts the world as a demonic place, under the control of evil spirits that are in opposition to all the ways of God. In 5:3-16, he describes a corrupt world, a world full of every sin and temptation in the books. And in 6:10-13, Paul speaks of an oppressed world, held captive by structural forces that wring the very life out of it. The world in Paul’s mind is not only fallen, but manipulated by spirits from without and strangled by forces from within. It is a scary place, a threatening place, a difficult place to find your way through. A place where people like us can easily get lost, drift off the road, make a wrong turn, smack into a bridge abutment, experience engine failure, or encounter flash floods. The world is a dangerous place.
I’m generally good with directions. Typically, if I go somewhere once, I can find my way back there a second time. But there are occasions when I find myself so disoriented or unfamiliar with my surroundings that I have no clue how to get wherever I am going. At times like that, I can only “hope” that someone else with me knows better than I do where we are and which way to go. Like the time a few years ago when some of us here were at a pastors’ seminar in Lancaster County. We wanted to go for lunch, and we decided to go to a restaurant somewhere on Rt. 30. I know the main roads in Lancaster, including Rt. 30, but I am far less familiar with the many side roads that seem to run in every direction. I got in the car with Pauline and Elvin, who both lived there for many years, and within minutes I had no idea where we were. At some point, I looked over at Elvin and said, “I’m sure glad that you know where you are going.” And it was funny. A short time later, the back road that we were on intersected with Rt. 30, just a stone’s throw from the restaurant.
Have you ever said to someone in the car, “I’m sure glad that you know where we are and where we are going”? That’s hope. That’s what Paul is praying for here. He wants us to live in the awareness that God knows where we are and where we are going.
Hope describes our countenance or perspective during the journey.
Second, Paul asks that we might know the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints. He prays, in other words, that we might have a sense of what awaits us at the end of the journey. Think for a moment about the effects that an earthly inheritance often has on people. A friend of mine just called me yesterday, noticeably upset. Among other problems that have struck his family, he mentioned to me that his father, who refused to let anyone else in on his financial decisions, had just lost over a million dollars. The loss of that money had serious implications, not just for the father, but for my friend as well. The father now lacks the funds to continue living where he is, and the son loses much of his inheritance and the possibilities that it offered. When you have a promised inheritance, you can, of course, become even greedier and either live high off the hog or stash everything away for fear of the future. Some people do that. Paul dismisses such an attitude elsewhere. “Shall we sin so that grace may abound? Shall we do whatever we want because God will take care of us anyway? Heavens, no!”
But look at it another way. When you have a promised inheritance, you can cling less to what you have and give more freely. You can, to put it another way, live a bit more recklesslyin the best sense of the term. When you have a promised inheritance, you can pay less attention to the gimmicks and empty promises of the world around you. And when you have a promised inheritance, you can plan in ways that you otherwise might not. This friend of mine, for example. He is a very generous person who gives a lot away. He pays little attention to things of the worldhe doesn’t crave for money and possessions. And he dreams a lot. He sometimes spoke of using his inheritance to buy and run a retreat house where people could come to get away from the everyday concerns of their lives. For my friend, his anticipated inheritance freed him to dream bigger and bolder dreams than he would have otherwise. When you have an inheritance waiting, you can give more freely, dream more boldly, and endure times of hardship more courageously, knowing that better days lie ahead. Inheritance describes the reward at the end of the journey.
And finally, Paul prays that we might know the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe. Power is a recurring theme in Ephesians, and it must have been a common topic of discussion among Paul’s readers. The city of Ephesus was itself an influential city in the Roman Empire, a city where the emperors of Rome were honored and celebrated. Ephesus was as well a place where religious cults and movements also flourished. In some ways similar to Jerusalem today, where you can feel the religious electricity in the air as you walk around, Ephesus was full of people worshiping this god or that and practicing one religious ritual after another. And as they did, power was often at the forefront of their minds. They practiced their religion in order to gain power, and they believed in a wide continuum of gods, goddesses and unnamed forces whose power they sought to tame or even control. So much in Ephesus and the surrounding area centered on power or the powers.
For Paul, however, the various sources of power in Ephesus were almost comical compared to the power of his God, the power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The gods, goddesses and principalities supposedly alive and well in Ephesus were to Paul of little account. The gods of Ephesus? An uncharged, double A battery. The God who raised Jesus from the dead? A nuclear power plant. The gods of Ephesus? A broken hand shovel. The God who raised Jesus from the dead? A Euclid rock hauler. The gods of Ephesus? A leaky faucet. The God who raised Jesus from the dead? A raging flood. The gods of Ephesus? A used band aid lying on the ground. The God who raised Jesus from the dead? An entire warehouse of the finest medicines. In Paul’s mind, the greatest demonstration of power in human history took place when God raised Jesus from the dead and elevated him to a position of power and authority above every other power in heaven and earthpast, present and future.
And here is the striking thing. That same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work within our lives as individuals and our corporate life as a church. Power refers to the resources that God makes available to his people as they take the journey from this world to the next.
As we read through this letter to the Ephesians, we may be inclined to take these words of Paul and apply them to our own individual lives. Feel free to do that. When God opens the eyes of our own hearts, we can live in hope, knowing that God will guide us through even the most difficult stretches of the trip and lead us safely to our destination. We can give generously and dream boldly, knowing that God has a priceless inheritance reserved for us. And we can live confidently, knowing that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to those of us who serve the Lord today.
At the same time, however, we must remember that Paul is writing here primarily with churches in mind, congregations like ours that he cares deeply about. As a result, we can travel together in the hope that God knows where we are as a church and where we are going. I don’t know how many times in recent months I’ve said to God, “I’m sure glad that you know where you are going!” We can give generously, serve recklessly and dream boldly, knowing that God has a vast inheritance reserved for us. And we can move ahead with confidence and courage, name our weaknesses and seize our opportunities, knowing that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in our own congregation.
During the coming week, would you join me in praying this same prayer that Paul prayed 2,000 years ago for a cluster of churches in and around Ephesus? Would you pray that God would continue to open the eyes of this community so that we together might know the hope around us, the inheritance awaiting us, and the power available to us?