From the Inside Out

July 29, 2018/Ephesians 3:14-21


Some people are prolific letter writers.  I’m talking about real letters, the kind that requires ink and nice stationery and postage stamps.  Most of us don’t do letters anymore.  Maybe the occasional card or note, but not real letters.

The only time I recall getting a real letter from either of our children was when Christopher was at Parris Island.  Boot camp was the first time in Christopher’s life that he was isolated from family and friends.  His world narrowed to the recruits in his platoon and the drill instructors who directed every moment of his day.  And it was the first time in his life that we were kept away from him.

Marine recruits are not allowed telephone or internet privileges, so he couldn’t call or email or text.  Instead he wrote long letters describing his experiences, always ending with how much he loved and missed us.  One letter about midway through the 12 weeks of boot camp consisted of a list of messages for friends and other family members, along with a request: “Send Gold Bond, chap stick, stamps, and 80 protein bars for the platoon.”  Ending, he wrote, “Most importantly, know that I love y’all so much and not only can I not wait to see y’all but that y’all also are my motivation.”

***

Paul was a prolific letter writer.  Paul’s letters to churches around the Mediterranean carried guidance and instruction, news about his ministry, praise for the work of the churches, correction when they strayed, and prayers for their future.  While Christopher’s letters from Parris Island seemed slow in arriving, the churches went for lengthy periods without hearing anything from the man who had taught them about Jesus.  When they did arrive, his letters were passed around the communities, read aloud, and no doubt pondered over.  Sometimes his words could be harsh, as when he wrote to the Galatians in dismay at their straying from the gospel.

Of all of Paul’s letters, the one I would want to receive would be the one he wrote to the Ephesians.  As he reached the end of his message, he included words of instruction for their life together in family and community, but the bulk of the letter conveys his deep love for them and his thankfulness for their faith.  Most beautiful are the words he writes about halfway through, describing his joy in praying for them that their faith might increase.

“I pray that you might be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,” he writes.  “I pray that you might 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 you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

“Paul’s hope is that they would be taken over by Christ.  He prays that they will be strengthened … from the inside out by the power of God’s Spirit.”[1]

We have no way of knowing how long it had been since Paul had preached in Ephesus.  We don’t know how many weeks or months had passed, what struggles that new church might have faced, what persecution they might have undergone.  As they gathered in homes and shared meals and prayed together, they no doubt longed for a word of encouragement.  They no doubt thirsted for some sign that they were on track, that things would be all right, that the God they had come to know through Paul would not now desert them.

But even as they did all the things Paul had taught them to do, they no doubt felt, at times, as if God was a distant witness to their work.  And no matter how hard they worked, how diligently they prayed, how strictly they obeyed Paul’s teaching, they no doubt wondered if God was with them.

In her book Everything Happens for a Reason, Duke Divinity professor Kate Bowler describes her life with stage 4 cancer.  She had approached life as a challenge that she could “super-achieve” her way through.  That was how she approached her relationship with God, too.  But in the emptiness of her hospital room, she discovered God’s presence in a very real way.

I think the great surprise for me was that God is there no matter what.  [It doesn’t] require effort, even, or correct belief, always, or the right kind of prayer.  When I was in the hospital, God was somehow there.  And in the worst moments of my life, for some reason there is more than enough.  And that’s just the Holy Spirit.  That’s the only prosperity gospel I’m super into — it’s the one in which, for some reason, God chooses to fill in the cracks.[2]

The people who surrounded her with care and food and babysitting became the physical hands and feet of God.  “At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God,” she writes, “I was not reduced to ashes.  I felt like I was floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees. … They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.”[3]

Paul yearns for the church at Ephesus to experience the same physical fullness of faith that Kate experienced.  He prays for them to grasp “the vastness of the love of Christ, so they may be filled with the fullness of God.”[4]  If they are struggling in his absence, if they are wondering if the story is true, if they are longing for some sign, for certainty, Paul prays that God will enhance their faith as only God can.  “He turns to God and asks for the power that is needed in the church.”[5]

The gospel reading for this Sunday is John’s story of the feeding of the five thousand.  “An impossible task!” the disciples tell Jesus.  “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” Philip insists.

“When it is all too easy to get overwhelmed by the breadth of the hunger in the world, the length to which people will go to get more power, wealth, and influence, the height of the abuse of the vulnerable, the depth to which humanity sinks, we inevitably look at the five loaves and two fishes and ask with Philip, ‘What are they among so many people?’  That’s when Jesus says, ‘Make the people sit down.’  Stop and watch.  Know that even when we fail the test of faith, Jesus is faithful.  When we are empty, Jesus gives bread that satisfies.  When we worry that there is not enough, the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love means that there are baskets of leftovers and nothing will be lost.”[6]

Paul knew God was already at work in the church at Ephesus.  And Paul’s letter reassures us that “God is already at work in [our] congregation.  This massive, holy power is present even in our fumbling attempts to live faithfully, lovingly, and courageously in the face of our troubles.  God is able to ‘accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine.’!”[7]  Even feeding five thousand hungry souls.

[1] Karen Chakoian, Feasting on the Word B/3, 280

[2] Catherine Woodiwiss, “Optimism v. Dying,” Sojourners, August 2018

[3] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason, 121

[4] Chakoian, 280

[5] Edwin Searcy, Feasting on the Word B/3, 281

[6] Jill Duffield, Looking into the lectionary, July 23, 2018

[7] Ibid., 283

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