This is a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Ephesians 3:14-21.
Isn’t it nice when you have one of those moments when you can recognise that you’ve got something right? A good mark, or positive annual review, or a child saying “I love you,” those moments encourage us and help us keep going.
And if we pay attention to this morning’s reading from Ephesians, we might see one of those moments for this parish.
Here’s what I mean. Last week, at the parish planning meeting, we spent some time trying to identify a set of core values for the parish; values which could then guide the decisions we make, and how we communicate about who we are. And our core values came out as being a community of love and care, of deep connections and meaningful relationships. That’s what came from the stories we shared of what had been truly meaningful experiences for us here.
And then we listen in on Paul’s prayer that the Ephesians may be “rooted and grounded in love,” may comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ. What Paul puts forward here as so important for the Ephesian church; we’ve just identified as being something we already do well, and value doing well. We identified that we are rooted and grounded in love, and that our knowledge of the love of Christ has shaped our relationships and our life together in deeply profound ways.
That’s us getting something very right. Let’s acknowledge and celebrate that! (What do you think about “grounded in love” as a parish motto, I wonder? Perhaps we could do worse?)
So taking this bit of the letter as an affirmation of who we are, and as an encouragement to keep doing that well, let’s have a deeper look at what Paul has to say.
Notice that Paul starts this prayer section of his letter by saying that “I bow… before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” He’s not just being grandiose – although Paul’s not above a rhetorical flourish – but he’s making an important point. In a multicultural, cosmopolitan city like Ephesus, where tensions between different cultural groups were not uncommon, Paul points out that God has a fatherly relationship to every human group. Not just Jews, or gentiles, or Romans, or Greeks, or Persians or whomever else might have been there, but every family in heaven and on earth.
And the point of this is to highlight that God is big.
It might seem obvious, and we forget, sometimes, how important these basic things are. But Paul’s point is that our God and Father isn’t just the God of our tribe, or our area, or our ancestors. He’s not just committed to our little group and no one else. He’s on about the flourishing of all the families of the earth. His love reaches beyond those who are near, and even beyond those whom we might hope to bring near.
If we’re going to be rooted and grounded in God’s love, the first thing we have to get is just how big, how universal in scope, that love is. Our hearts are going to have to expand as we play our part in God’s loving plans for the whole world.
Then, after addressing his prayer to this big God, Paul makes his petition; and it is, in effect, that God’s kingdom may come. That the good future God has planned and prepared, and is propelling us towards, might be brought just that little bit closer, in the life of the church; being made real and concrete in the ordinary stuff of the common life of the little Christian community in Ephesus.
So Paul prays that, according to the riches of God’s glory – the riches which are our birthright through baptism – the church might actually be able to live lives shaped by a vision of that hope; that good future of God.
Now here’s something important that kind of gets lost in English. All the “you”s and “your”s in this prayer are plural. This is not a prayer for the strengthening of individuals, but of the community. Let me read you the key sentences put in a way which makes that clear and personalised to us:
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that the community of this parish may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in the heart of the community through faith, as the community is being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that the community 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 the community may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Our pew sheet reminds us each week that we are “witnesses to the risen Christ in our midst” but this pushes it one step further; the risen Christ needs to be not just in our midst but in the heart of our community and all its doings – not just our liturgies but our conversations, our meetings, our social gatherings and our various outreach activities – and that is how we are rooted and grounded in love.
And it’s together – in community, and in the quality of our relationships – that we have the power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ; the love of Christ which arises ultimately from the dynamic, over-flowing love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s in our relationships with one another that the quality of that love, expressed in deep and loving and mutual relationship, can be known by us in some way, even though it ultimately surpasses any human knowledge. And it’s in that way that we – as a parish community – may be filled with all the fullness of God. To be rooted and grounded in love is to be rooted and grounded in relationships which mirror the qualities of God’s relationships; and that quality of relationship is the riches of God’s glory which Paul prays that the Ephesians might have.
It’s layer upon layer of imagery trying somehow to give us some idea of what God is calling us to be.
But as I said at the beginning, we can recognise that in this, at least, we’ve already made a good beginning. We have a community marked by loving and caring relationships. Not that we don’t have more growing to do; of course we do. But we can be encouraged that we’re on the way in growing the way Paul was encouraging the Ephesians to grow. So let’s be purposeful in continuing in that way!