A sermon preached by Reader Eleanor Childs on 22 November 2020
I wonder if you were to ask a person in the street how they would identify a Christian what they would say. What would you say are the main characteristics of a Christian? Our Scripture for today gives us some light on what these characteristics are, or at least should be. Paul is writing to the young church at Ephesus. And he says, ‘ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you,’ (‘saints’ was the name used for all Christians then). These are the marks of a Christian – faith in Jesus Christ and love for one another . We notice that Paul doesn’t pat them on the head and say ‘Well done!’ No, he thanks God for them, for it is God who is at work in their lives.
Now If I had founded a church and it was thriving so well that news of its faith and love was spreading, I think I might have been satisfied and would have felt I needn’t keep praying for them, but not so Paul, he is constantly remembering them in his prayers, because he wants them to grow. In every profession or walk of life, there is always more to learn, to experience, to receive. The doctor, the cook, the teacher, the farmer, the mechanic all need to keep growing in knowledge and keeping abreast of developments. And it is no different for the Christian. If we’re not growing as Christians, we are stagnating. We need to keep growing and developing. And the field of knowledge for Christians is wide.
The first area we are to grow in is in our relationship with God. Most of us can chat about our relationships with friends and family, How would you chat about your relationship with God? Is it growing and developing? Paul prays that God will give the Ephesians ‘the spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better.’ Someone has said that a friendship which does not grow closer with the years tends to vanish with the years. Ordinary relationships need time, attention, shared interests and wisdom. How much more so when that relationship is with God. We need wisdom and revelation here from the Holy Spirit, but we also need to study Scripture, to pray and to spend time in God’s presence, and share his interests, get involved in what he is doing in our community.
Paul prays too that the church will have a growing realisation of the Christian hope to which they are called. Don’t we need this in today’s world where division, despair, disease, and depression are rife? Paul prays ‘that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you. ‘ He is praying again for revelation, illumination, enlightenment so his hearers have a true perception of reality. What we believe about ourselves and our future has a huge influence on how we feel and act. We have been forgiven, we have new life in Christ, we have a glorious future. It is all too easy as Christians to go through life sleep-walking and believing the world’s estimation of reality. If the Christian message is true, the world is on the way not to dissolution but to consummation, when Christ returns and there is a new heaven and a new earth where peace and justice and love reign supreme. That is the hope of our Christian calling and it’s not mere wishful pie in the sky when we die, for our hope is grounded not only in Christ’s promises but in our experience of forgiveness and love and the gift of the Spirit now. I confess that I can all too easily join people in catastrophising about the state of the world, but that is to forget my Christian hope. St Paul in spite of a terribly tough life was brimming over with hope. ‘If Christ is for us, who can be against us?’ he says. And ‘ Who shall separate us from the love of Christ … I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. ‘ And again, ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ Christians of all people should look to the future with hope.
So Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians, that they may have a deeper relationship with God, that they may have a growing realization of the hope of their calling.And that’s not all that Paul prays for. He asks God that the Ephesians may also know in experience ‘his incomparably great power for us who believe.‘ When was the last time you were blown away by the experience of the power of God? I expect many of us can think of a time when an impossible situation was changed in response to earnest prayer; when a loved one was miraculously healed; when someone on a self-destructive path had an encounter with Christ which turned their life around. This power is available for ‘us who believe.’ Faith connects us to God’s power. You remember in the gospels when Jesus visited his own hometown, it says, ‘he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.’ God’s power is demonstrated most often – though not always – in response to faith. Paul points to the supreme example of God’s almighty power in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The resurrection and ascension express the measure of the Father’s power made available to men. Paul expresses his wish in Philippians 3 ‘that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection’.
Jesus is now exalted to God’s right hand, above all rule and authority, power and dominion, says Paul. When Jesus met with his disciples for the final time before he ascended to the Father, he told them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.’ It is by his authority that Christians throughout the ages have gone out and done so in the face of oppression and opposition and experienced his power at work in them and in the world. If you look at the history of Christian missions you see that most of them started with individuals or groups taking seriously Jesus’ authority and obeying his command, and in doing so have experienced his incomparably great power at work in them and in the world. One of the missions our church supports is CAP and you can read its history – it started with one man who experienced God’s amazing power in his own life and took God at his word and set out in faith to help those in poverty and debt. He has experienced miracles of God’s power and provision in hopeless circumstances and God’s heart of love for the poor and underprivileged.
Paul goes on to say, ‘God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.’ This Sunday in our church calendar is called the Sunday of Christ the King. Earlier in the chapter Paul has said that God’s ultimate plan is ‘to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.’ We the church are the body of Christ. What an amazing metaphor with all it implies:– being responsive to the head which directs and controls all activity; each part intimately connected to each other and to the head. What unity and co-operation and responsiveness that suggests!
So Paul proclaims in this letter that our God is a god of love and of hope and of power. He is King of Kings! Joy to the world! The Lord is King!
I want to finish with another prayer of Paul’s later in this same epistle which gathers up and develops what he has been saying : ‘I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all the saints, to grasp how high and wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 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, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.’