You might remember a couple of weeks ago I had the dubious pleasure of preaching on the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. I have to admit I was probably filled with even less joy when I looked at the readings for today and the first one that popped up was David and Bathsheba. A story of temptation and desire. A story of peoples’ inability to make the right choices. A story of how when people try and put things right themselves without the involvement of God’s presence and wisdom that they cause even more pain and hurt. A story of an infallible man. And yet also the story of a man who has been remembered throughout the years as a great king.
I’m sure we can all relate to the pain and hurt caused by the action of David in this story, whether through our own personal experience or that of our friends or families. But I don’t really want to dwell on that this morning, so imagine my relief when I looked at the New Testament lesson and saw it was from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Now often, the thought of preaching on Paul’s letters also doesn’t fill me with much joy. Whilst theologically brilliant they can be rather dense, longwinded and not particularly easy to understand. But Ephesians is a little different. In fact some people have even suggested that Paul didn’t write this letter as its style is a little simpler. However, the likelihood is, is that Paul wrote this letter whilst he was in prison for his faith, to a group of churches in the Ephesus area. However, the real reason I was particularly pleased with the epistle reading this morning is that the prayer contained within it, were the verses that my mum told me were her prayer for me on my confirmation day around 30 years ago.
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Now whilst my mother has long since forgotten that these were the verses that she prayed for me, I have read and prayed them on a regular basis since, both for me and for other people. There have been many books written about prayer, how to pray, what to pray, when to pray. I think sometimes it can be easier to read what other people have written about prayer than to actually get on and pray. And yet prayer, spending time in the presence of God, in conversation with God, has to be an intrinsic part of our Christian faith.
Our Gospel reading today about the feeding of the 5000 contains the line that I always find particularly fascinating
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming towards him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
He knew that he was going to be able to feed all the people. But it needed the little boy to offer his lunch and Andrew to actually bring it before Jesus before it could happen. It needed people to offer the little that they had for God’s power to be demonstrated. When David in our Old Testament lesson tried to sort things out without God’s help things went terribly wrong and ended in an innocent man losing his life. But here the disciples can’t see their own earthly solution to a problem but bring a suggestion before Jesus. And Jesus takes the little that have and blesses it into abundance.
And intercessory prayer needs us to bring our needs before God to enable him to act, to offer the little that we have as the start of a solution. For example, we need to pray for our governments and rulers, bring them before God and ask that he grants them wisdom. We don’t need to know the whole solution, how to achieve world peace and an end to poverty but we do need to offer our leaders to God so he can work through them. And likewise for many other situations.
So Paul tells the Ephesians that he is praying for them. Very often we think of prayer as a solitary exercise and don’t tell people we are praying for them. Really praying for them. The commonly used phrase after tragic events these days “thoughts and prayers with the victims” has come under fire recently as what can prayer really do. Why aren’t you actually out doing something rather than just saying you are thinking and praying for people. But how many of the politicians and others writing these condolences are actually praying, really praying, praying that God really will make a difference.
Paul doesn’t just say my thoughts and prayers are with you, he tells the Ephesians what he is praying and he describes how he is praying. The Jewish tradition was to pray standing up, but Paul says that he is kneeling before the Father, bowing his knees before the almighty God.
The first thing he prays is that Christ will strengthen the Ephesians through the power of his Spirit so Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith. Paul is in prison. It would be very easy for the new Christians to fall away so he prays they will be strengthened. Something we need to pray for ourselves and each other when times are tough, not necessarily from persecution, but just from all the different things that life throws.
Now the next part of the prayer as a direct translation of the Greek actually says
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep
The natural response to that is to grasp what that is so wide and long and high and deep.
The NIV translation of the bible that we heard this morning tries to answer that question by adding in words that aren’t there “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”. I wonder if Paul was being deliberately vague to make us stop and pause and wonder about God’s character. Not just his love, but his mercy, his grace, his compassion, his faithfulness, all the things preaches on and writes about in his letters. But he goes on “and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”.
For me, these verses sum up the very heart of the need for the gospel message, and why we need to pray this prayer of Paul’s for each other. To know the love of the most holy God, totally supreme and majestic, who in his love for his creation was willing to give up his son’s life in the most horrific way, so that he could renew his relationship with us. And whilst it has been said that surely this is a cruel sadistic God that would send his son to death, it is through the Trinitarian nature of our God that he was not just sending his son, but was giving totally and completely of himself. If we could even start to grasp just how much God loves us then the way that we live our lives should be totally transformed. If we started to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, of the most holy God, then the way that we act and treat other people should be completely different. But even if we don’t, even if we continue to fall short, God will continue to love us. Not the selfish human love that we heard about in our reading about David and Bathsheba but the sacrificial love of God.
And Paul finishes his prayer
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!
We saw in our gospel reading how the disciples brought the small amount of food that was there to Jesus and how he blessed it and it was distributed amongst all the people. And at the end the disciples were there gathering up the excess.
Whilst God is mighty in power and able to act and intervene in the world, much of his work in the world is done through his power at work within us. In the Western world we seem to have split apart prayer and action. That is why phrases like our thoughts and prayers are with the victims can appear so meaningless. Prayer should bring together the deepening love and relationship of the person praying with Almighty God with the power flowing from God to, and through, that person. This is the essence of Paul’s prayer for these new Christians. That they would put down deep strong roots into God’s love and to let his power be acted out in their lives. But it is equally important to continue to pray this however long we have been a Christian, that through our prayer for our loved ones, our community and our world that God’s power would flow through us, filling us with a sense of new possibilities, new tasks, and a new energy to accomplish them.