A sermon based on Ephesians 3:14-21 by Nathan Nettleton
We usually think of gratitude as something we express because it is polite to do so and because the person who has done something will feel better if we express our appreciation. We do it for them, rather than for ourselves. I don’t want to, even for a moment, suggest that we should take a more selfish and utilitarian approach to gratitude, but I think that the reading we heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is suggesting that gratitude is one of the keys to becoming the people we really want to be. So I’d like us to look briefly at what Paul was saying in the hope that it can lead us more deeply into the mystery of what we are doing here this evening, and thereby take us a bit further on our journey of growth into the fullness of life.
The passage was very much an explosion of gratitude, as you no doubt noticed. Paul says that when he thinks about what God has done, he falls to his knees, overwhelmed by gratitude. And out of that gratitude come not only his prayers of thanks and praise, but his prayers for others, for the church, for the Christians in Ephesus, for us.
And in his prayers the first thing he notes is that this one whom he is praying to is our Father, our Mother, the God who conceived us. And it is thereby in this God that we find both our life and our true identity. So right there, at the start of this exuberant prayer of gratitude, Paul has named the ultimate quests of every human being. Identity and purpose. Who am I? What is authentic life? How many of the world’s tormented and dysfunctional people have fallen into their chaos because of their inability to find answers to those questions. It’s often not their own fault, they have had their sense of identity and their perspective on life stolen or destroyed by the callous and abusive behaviour of others. But how ever it happens, you hear it over and over and most of us hear it to some extent within ourselves. “I’m not really sure who I am. I feel like life just happens around me without ever being able to get a sense of what I’m on about, of what makes it meaningful and worthwhile for me.” We know those voices.
And Paul knows those voices. So as he recognises and explodes with gratitude over what God has done, he prays that God’s Spirit may get into us and make us strong in our inner beings. Can you see the connection here? It doesn’t matter how strong and together a person may appear on the outside, if you don’t know who you are or what your life is about, you’ll be lacking in inner strength. At the end of the day a Mr Universe with the heart of a souffle is a sad and pathetic figure. Just listen to the story we heard of David – everybody’s hero, but power and wealth and adulation have so weakened him inside that there’s no integrity left. He’s out of control. A bit of simple voyeurism is soon adultery and finally murder, because he no longer has a clear grasp on who he is and what his life is about. A pathetic and dangerous figure. A long way from the image of Jesus who sees the crowd adoring him and wanting him to be their great hero, and he knows himself well enough to turn his back and walk away.
So Paul prays that the Holy Spirit will put steel into every fibre of our being. He prays that we will be solidly grounded and that our roots will sink deep into the love of Christ Jesus. Inner strength; solidly grounded; deep roots. If you’re anything like me, you’d love to hear phrases like that used every time someone described you.
But then there is an interesting move in his prayer. He doesn’t pray that we’ll be able to look inside ourselves and get in touch with ourselves in new ways so that we can discover this strength. Instead he prays that w might begin to comprehend who God is and what God has done, and be overwhelmed with gratitude just like he is. And I don’t think that this is a change of subject. It seems to me that Paul is saying that we need to get our minds around who God is and what God is doing in us and for us if we want to discover the truth about ourselves. He’s looping back to his opening observation, that we find our life and our identity in God.
If you want to get in touch with your true identity, you need to begin to see yourself through the eyes of God. You need to hear the name God has given you. You need to get a sense of just how in love with you God actually is. Most of you have had some experience of how much your sense of self is strengthened by the experience of being loved and valued by someone else. Well if you want to discover who you are in all your true beauty and integrity, so that every fibre of your being becomes as strong as steel, you will need to fully experience what it is to be deeply, madly, passionately, exuberantly loved by God.
But there is, at first glance, a bit of a catch 22 there isn’t there? It is in expressing our gratitude to God that we begin to catch the vision of God’s love for us, but we need to have sense of that love in order to have any gratitude to express. Well part of the answer is just that it’s a cyclic thing. In much the same as you experience it in your human relationship, the more appreciation you show for the love you receive, the more you seem to receive. Love and appreciation feed one another. We experience it a bit that way with God, but it’s not quite the same because God’s love is always far greater than we have been able to experience.
There is another dimension to this with God, and it is quite important in understanding why it is we gather here each Sunday and join with one another in prayers during the week. We gather to join our voices with the voices of others. An in doing that we don’t just offer a kind of lowest-common-denominator prayer, a prayer that can authentically voice something all of us can fully own. We actually do the opposite. We commit ourselves to joining our voices with prayers that express things beyond what we can fully comprehend and way beyond anything we have fully experienced. We join our voices to prayers that capture something of the gathered vision and wisdom and ecstatic praise of God’s people of every place and time. Gathered together this is the prayer of the church, and we join with it, not because we can authentically pray all of it as our own individual prayer, but because we want to grow into it. As individuals we join with the collective voice, so that the collective wisdom and experience might become authentically our own.
You don’t have to understand every prayer and every action in this liturgy tonight. Comprehensive understanding is not a prerequisite to participation. Quite the opposite. Participation is the only way you will ever understand. The liturgy is a sacred song and dance, filled with gratitude and praise and wonder at the glory of God and the astonishing love and goodness of God for us and for all of creation. And it is by participating in that sacred song and dance that you will begin to own that gratitude and wonder for yourself, and it is within that that you will discover who you are and all that your life is meant to be. And you will know, deep in every fibre of your being, that all the glory belongs to God, both now and for ever. Amen.