Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

The first seven words of this text — “I bow my knees before the Father” — make it clear that we are overhearing prayer.

July 29, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21

The first seven words of this text — “I bow my knees before the Father” — make it clear that we are overhearing prayer.

The question that leaps to mind is, “How do you preach on an overheard prayer? Should I?” 

I remember as a child tiptoeing past the living room where my parents, faithful in morning devotions, were praying. Sometimes I heard them praying for my older brother and me. It can be faintly embarrassing to eavesdrop on prayer — a little like listening in on someone’s personal phone conversation. But prayer on our behalf can be a revelation — about ourselves, and about God.

Hearing my parent’s prayers, I learned that to them, the two of us were a sacred trust, worth praying for. The simple fact of their daily praying let me know they recognized their limits as parents. There was so much they could not do for us, so much from which they couldn’t shield us. Their praying also told me what they believed about God. They believed they could entrust us to hands stronger than their own, a Love wiser than their own.

The prayer before us today, of course, was intended to be overheard. Generation upon generation, the church has handed this text on to us, confident that these petitions include us, and that we, too, need to overhear. All through these verses, the plural second person pronouns (“you”) make clear that it is the community being lifted to God here. If overheard prayer reveals something of ourselves to us, the first revelation to be gleaned is that experiencing fellowship with God is tangled up in being bonded to each other. Christians are blessed with each other — and stuck with each other. Maybe Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s philosophical beagle in the Charles Schulz comic strip, “Peanuts,” said it best: “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” Our lives depend on community with each other, in all its messiness.

The experiments in “community” living that emerged out of the culture of the 1970s come to mind. “Community” was part of the rhetoric of that decade. As old structures crumbled around us, some dared to imagine — and try — new ones, including interdependent communities fueled by utopian visions. In theory, like-minded folk equipped with guitars and good will would share space, agriculture, income, possessions, and child-rearing. Unsurprisingly, these experiments had a short lifespan. Such interdependence is hard work.

Christians can be every bit as territorial and opinionated as anyone else. No wonder the apostolic prayer begins with a petition for the presence of the Trinity to move in with us. God forges us into communities, and then it takes nothing less than the power of the Trinity to keep us there. The prayer suggests that progress will be slow — a crop inching toward fruitfulness, a building rising brick by brick, both anchored in a love that can do what knowledge cannot (verse 19).

Theology is good for us, but only love reconciles. A preacher might consider a move in the sermon where she lets her congregation in on her own prayers for them. How does she pray for them? What does she pray? What is that confidence in God that motivates her prayers?

A second, quite different preaching approach is possible — one that holds this text up to the light of its Old Testament allusions. Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the text’s lyrical but ambiguous references to “filling,” “fullness,” and “glory.” But these grand-scale, fairly abstract terms may well be drawn from the Old Testament.

An intriguing possibility is that the prayer, and much of the “filling,” “dwelling, and “glory” language of the book as a whole, connects to Old Testament traditions of the glory of God filling worship spaces — tabernacle and temple. The wilderness tabernacle, once completed, fills with the cloud of divine presence (Exodus 40:34-38). At the completion of Solomon’s temple, the glory of God comes down to fill the “holy of holies” (1 Kings 8:10-11). Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple of a purified Israel leads to the same scene: the glory of God fills the new temple of a future restoration (Ezekiel 43:2-5).

Shifting to Ephesians, we find that the human community of mainly non-Jewish believers is envisioned as a “dwelling place” for God. If we grant that most of the first 13 verses of chapter 3 can be read as an extended footnote on the imprisonment of Paul, we find close a close linguistic link between the end of chapter 2 and the way today’s text begins. The apostle prays, beginning in 3:14, for God to “fill” this new “dwelling place” that is the church. Even the mysterious language of “breadth, length, height, and depth” echoes OT texts that instruct about temple proportions. The apostle prays for a church filled in every dimension by God, with and for the glory of God.

Caution is in order when handling the soaring language of a text like this. There is a difference between holding up a poem or prayer to the light, so as to illuminate it, and hacking it to bits with every tool in the dissection kit until, sadly, the parts are less than the whole. A good sermon will set this prayer alongside Old Testament allusions and let them resonate, but resist unnecessary allegory and dissection.

Notably, the ethical portion of Ephesians follows this prayer; it does not precede it. The indwelling presence of God is sheer and utter gift, not a reward for merit. God chooses to live among us, God’s glory fills us. This is sheer grace, unimaginable possibility, life-giving hope.