March 8, 2009
The Church: Empowered by the Spirit
In our text for today, Paul brings to a close the first half of this wonderful letter. If you recall the survey of the entire book that I did several weeks ago, Paul focuses in this first half on the church in the mind of God. In chapters 1-3, he describes God’s great plan to transform the world, creating through Jesus Christ a new and unified community that includes both Jews and Gentilesa community in which all humanly erected walls and barriers are forever broken down. That communitythe churchis in Paul’s mind the masterpiece of God, the ultimate demonstration of God true genius (3:10).
In the second half of the letter, chapters 4-6, Paul moves from theory into practice, if I might put it that way. Having laid out God’s marvelous plan and a stirring description of the church, Paul proceeds to discuss how we are now to put this plan into action. Step by step, Paul will in the chapters that follow give down-to-earth advice and instructions on how to go about being the church in the nitty-gritty of everyday life.
It is precisely at this point of transitionthe movement from theory to practicethat our text for today appears. In Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul concludes his foundational discussion concerning the church and prepares the way for action and implementation. And what does he say? How do we take this glowing depiction of the church as a unified and world-changing community, a depiction that for many of us lies outside the range of our own experience, and actually “do it?” Here is Paul’s answer in a nutshell: We need God. “Wow, Pastor Terry, that’s profound,” you might say. “I’ve never thought about that before. The church needs God. How many years did you spend in college, seminary and graduate school to figure that out?!?” But is it really that obvious to us?
A few years ago, a church leader from Asia came to the U.S. as a guest of a group of American church leaders. During his time here, he visited several churches in various states. All along the way, he commented about spacious facilities, grandiose programs and expansive budgets. As he was about to leave and return home, someone asked him about his overall impressions of the church in the U.S. “It is amazing what you can do here in the U.S.,” he said, “without God.” The longer that I sit with this text and try to grasp the essence of what Paul is writing, the more I keep coming back to this simple conclusion: We can run our meetings, cook our fellowship meals, teach our classes, manage our budget, sing our songs and give our meager offerings on our own, but we cannot be the life-changing and world-transforming church that Paul describes in Ephesians 1-3 without God.
Paul, in this passage, suggests that this is true for a number of reasons. For one thing, we as the church need God because our calling is so great (v. 14). It is striking, if not comical, the way Paul phrases it here. “For this reason,” he begins, referring back to God and his wonderful plan to create a new and unified community through love and grace, “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father,…” Various events and experiences, of course, force people to their knees. Sickness ranks high on the list. I told you before that I never prayed more intensely than when my sister took ill. Crises, like our current economic slide, and threats of danger, bring out our prayerful side. When thieves were breaking into our house in Kenya several years ago, Deb and I prayed in earnest. Struggling children often lead parents into deeper experiences with prayer. A somewhat troubled friend of mine came home one night years ago well after her appointed curfew, snuck in the back door of the house, crept around the corner and began tip-toeing down the hallway to her bedroom. Suddenly, she tripped and fellover her mother who was kneeling there, praying that God would watch over her! Any number of developments and experiences drive all but the most hard-hearted of us to our knees at one time or another.
Paul, however, mentions no such factors here. He’s not struggling to make ends meet, staring into the barrel of a gun, coping with a wayward son or facing academic probation at college. Not at all. What sends Paul to his knees here is the sheer magnitude of what God is up to in the world and the importance of the church in his plan. The realization that the church is God’s masterpiece, the channel through which God’s wisdom is displayed to powers and authorities near and far, causes Paul’s legs to buckle. The work and ministry to which God calls us as a community is great. What we do here is of eternal significance, both for us as well as those outside that we are called to touch. The very thought of it should be enough to send us down to our knees.
As a church, Paul continues, we need God because our own resources are so limited (vv. 16-19). When it comes to enacting God’s plan and living out our calling, we are, on our own, rather like a homeless beggar staring into the window at Sacks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. 26 years ago chocolate in Sacks’ basement went for over $25.00 a pound! The first pair of shoes there that I looked at back thenjust for the fun of it!sold for $500.00. I couldn’t buy them, even if I wanted to. I didn’t have that kind of money.
That is the way it is, Paul points out here, with the work of the church. We can’t do it, even if we want to. In and of ourselves, we don’t have the resources, the tools, the strength or the understanding. We can establish social agencies and community centers, sponsor sporting events and mission trips, offer support groups and activities for all ages, but we cannot build true, authentic churches that minister to the deepest spiritual needs of our dying worldwithout God.
Notice how Paul prays at length on this specific point. He prays that the churches to whom he is writing would be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit (v.16). He prays that Christ would dwell in their hearts, and that their roots would go deeper and deeper into his love (v. 17). And he prays that they would be filled “with all the fullness of God” (vv. 18-19). What do all three of these notable petitions share in common? In each, Paul is praying that these people would be less and less focused on themselves and more and more consumed by the very presence of God. It is, he believes, only as we are overeflowing with God that we are able to live out our calling as a church in this world.
This idea, once again, might appear to be basic theology, and I suppose that it is. But think about it this way. When Christians who are experiencing marital trouble want to make things right, what do they typically do? They follow certain steps and strategies to improve their communication and conflict resolution skills, share their concerns with pastors and counselors, and create new spaces in which both the man and the woman can “rekindle the old fire,” so to speak. Or consider a person struggling to be free of some addiction. An alcoholic seeking release will discard any remaining liquor, attend AA meetings and isolate unhealthy behavioral patterns that heighten their infatuation with booze. Now, imagine this collectively for a moment. Picture a struggling or dying church, hoping to somehow revitalize itself. What might the people there do? Develop new programs, add a staff person, formulate clearer purpose statements, and implement a more workable organizational flow chart.
Please, don’t get me wrong. Steps like these can be very helpful and are generally a vital part of any journey to marital, personal and congregational wholeness. It would be foolish for a struggling married couple to refuse counseling, an alcoholic to leave unopened beer cans in the cabinet, or a dwindling congregation to refuse to implement potentially helpful new strategies. But here is the simple point that Paul is making and that I learned myself several years ago when I was wrestling with an ongoing sin of my own that seemed at times to consume me. After fighting and planning and resistingI was in fact focusing on overcoming the sinI went away on retreat for several days and focused instead on God. As the Holy Spirit empowered me, Christ inhabited me and God more and more filled me, the sin against which I was fighting lost much of its influence over me. The steps that we take and precautions that we put in place can be helpful, to be sure, but true and lasting transformation comes as we are drawn closer and closer to God.
There is, I believe, a powerful lesson here for us at the Grantham Church during these days. As a result of the many conversations that we have had with respect to the congregational process that we are undergoing, certain themes have surfaced again and again. For one thing, many of us sense the need to further clarify and focus our mission, to more carefully realign our ministries. That is fair enough, and we hope to do that in the coming months. Others have commented about the difficulty that they sometimes feel in connecting with people here in a deeper waythey long for more accountability, burden sharing, and so on. As a result, it is important that we rethink ways of doing community, of creating spaces in which people can more easily connect and more readily share what is going on in their lives. And most of us are aware, I assume, of the financial constraints that we are currently under as a church. We are falling further and further behind in our spending plan, so we keep trying strategies and approaches to discuss money and biblical stewardship. If this situation doesn’t improveand the board will be meeting to discuss it tomorrow night, we will soon need to do something drastic to further cut our expenses.
But in all honesty, I’ve increasingly come to believe that, although our strategizing and planning serve an important role in building this church, something deeper needs to take place for us to flourish. We need God here. When I see, for example, that some of us place involvement in the body far lower on our priority scale than is biblically healthywe show up when it suits us and participate when it is convenientI think to myself, “We need God.” When I see limited interest in corporate prayeryou have to remember that I’ve been in prayer meetings in which an entire congregation gathered all night to ask God for rainI think to myself, “We need God.” When I look over the ministry plan that we adopted and notice that so many people give so little of their financial resources to the church, I think, “We need God.” When I see so little concern for people outside the church on the part of many of us, I think to myself, “We need God.” When I sense these and other signs of spiritual lethargy, whether in myself or in others, I think to myself, “We need God.” I’ll be the first to admit that we have any number of tangible issues to address, and a better sermon here or there wouldn’t hurt, either! But the bottom line is this: We need God. Individuals, families, small groups, Sunday School classes, commissions, board and staff, we need God. Our own resources simply run dry, our previous experiences fade. We need a fresh experience, a new outpouring of the Spirit of God in our lives.
And finally, Paul closes this first half of the letter by stating that we need God because our already limited imaginations eventually wither and die (vv. 20-21). Look at v. 20, which serves as the opening of what has become for many of us a frequently heard and moving benediction: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,…” How’s that for a tantalizing pronouncement?!?
Just last week, my son and daughter called my attention to a video clip on youtube. In the clip, Paul Potts, a rather insecure looking mobile phone salesman from south Wales, steps on stage of a television show called “Britain’s Got Talent.” When asked by one of the judges why he is there, Paul responds, “To sing opera.” The three judges simply look at each other in disbelief, and the audience hardly knows what to expect either. “O.K.,” one of the judges announces, “Ready when you are.” With a sheepish nod, Paul signals the sound technician to start the background music. Then, at just the right moment, Paul, with hands opened upward, begins to sing. Within seconds, the judges and audience are in tears, listening to what is undoubtedly among the finest voices they have ever heard. When Paul winds down and brings the song to a close, the judges sit virtually speechless. “You work at a mobile phone warehouse,” the head judge comments, “and you did that? You were fantastic.”
That’s something like what the other Paul is saying here to the churches in and around Ephesusand to us. When we look in the mirror, we perhaps see only school teachers, lawyers, construction workers, office managers and stay-at-home moms and dads. When we look through the church directory, we see men and women, boys and girls, who trip and fall, win some and lose others, and who often feel as though they really make very little of a difference in the world that marches on all around them. When we stand back and think about the Grantham Church, we perhaps think of bricks and mortar and a rather ordinary group of people who gather together, week after week, unnoticed by the rest of the world. When we look at ourselves and our church, we perhaps see mobile phone salesmen and saleswomen and a large mobile phone warehouse.
But God sees more than that. God sees opera singers, full of passion and excitement, waiting to fly like eagles soaring over head. And while we sometimes work hard to preserve what is safe and familiar, guarding our territory and clinging anxiously to what we already know, God is stirring up new thoughts, new ideas and new dreams to replace the old. We need God because our calling is so great. We need God because our own resources run dry. But we also need God to open our hearts and mindsour imaginationsand to enable us to see what people like you and I can actually do if we are sold out 100% to God.