Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Prayer for the Church's Holiness

Ephesians 3:16-21 I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. 17 Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God's love and keep you strong. 18 And may you have the power to understand, as all God's people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. 19 May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. 20 Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. 21 Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

COMMENT: Without a doubt, this is my favorite Pauline prayer from the Bible, and perhaps falls in my top three, along with the Lord's Prayers (the Our Father and The High Priestly). Why do I love this prayer. First of all, I truly believe in the goal of this prayer - the end result, the final aim - it is the glory of God. The doxology of verses 20-21 is well known and loved, although it is typically used as a promise of blessing for us rather than a summation of the great purpose of life - to glorify God (and enjoy God forever - Westminster Shorter Catechism). As I was reading Isaiah 43 this morning in the Daily Office, God's word reaffirmed this truth: "Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will gather you and your children from east and west. 6 I will say to the north and south, 'Bring my sons and daughters back to Israel from the distant corners of the earth. 7 Bring all who claim me as their God, for I have made them for my glory. It was I who created them.'"(Isaiah 43:5-7, NLT). 

True prayer must finally end in doxology, and this prayer gives God all praise and glory for the grand work of salvation. It is significant that this doxology not only concludes the prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19, it also concludes the doctrinal section of Ephesians 1-3, where Paul unfolds the entire plan of God, from the foundation of the world - to reconcile and bring together all things in Christ. God is glorified (honored, God's  presence is made known) as God's work is done in Christ Jesus in and through the church. We are created, called, redeemed, reconciled, and empowered to bring glory, honor and praise to God through the Son, Jesus Christ, in the power of God's Holy Spirit. Not only is this prayer doxological, it is, as all Christian prayer and Christian ministry must be, thoroughly trinitarian.

Another aspect of this prayer that is cause for deep reflection, is that while the end of the prayer is God's glory, the means of the prayer is God's power - power that is at work in us (verse 20, Greek is energe0 - God's power energizes us). The NLT translates verse 16: I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Traditionally, it reads: out of the riches of God's own glory, may you be strengthened with power through the Spirit in your inner being. Either way, we are reminded of the truth that I also read in the Daily Office this morning...Psalm 20:7 - Some trust in chariots and horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God... The power at work in us is God's power, flowing from the superabundance of God's impressive presence (the riches of God's glory) and extended graciously toward us in Jesus Christ... We have this treasure in earthen vessels (jars of clay) to show that the greatness of this power is God's not ours (2Corinthians 4:7).

Finally, what I appreciate about Paul's prayer is that the heart of the matter is love. It is impossible to read or pray this prayer reflectively and not realize that God's intention and plan for the church is to be a people whose life together and life for the world is marked by love... our roots are to be deeply embedded in the soil of God's love... love is to be the pursuit of all our knowing, both intellectually and experientially... love is the fulness of God that is our holiness - a fulness on display in God's Son (see Colossians 1:19 and 2:9) and it is this very fulness (holiness=love) that we come to share in Christ, so that God's fulness is also on display in the church when we live out of, through, and into God's holiness; that is, when we love one another.

Yet this is where the church fails miserably in her witness - in this very arena of love. When one of her members or pastors is wounded, she abandons them, bleeding and dying in the deserts or battlefields of life... when there is disagreement, in the name of all that is "right" she divides and usually devours the one with the less power... she neglects the poor and the "other" justifying herself with insidious words such as "target audience" or "homogeneity"... she cares more for broken buildings than she does for broken bodies (watch her raise money for new carpet versus opening her doors to shelter the homeless on a cold winter night) ... she is quick to tell the spiritual babe how to live, but does not patiently walk alongside that infant until the babe in Christ is strong enough to walk on her/his own... she proclaims a message of unlimited forgiveness from God, but is stingy in her offer of forgiveness to the one who has slipped up and fallen short... time and again, the church lacks the power, the resources, and the resolve to extend grace, mercy, and love to each other. 

This prayer is for the holiness of the church, and as the good Mr. Wesley emphasized again and again, the essence of holiness is love. But it is not cheap talk about love... it is love embodied, incarnate, lived out in the flesh and blood existence of our bodily lives - where life is always messy and compromised and tarnished and subject to sin... but where love always overcomes our human frailties and failures. You hear so much these days about what the church needs to survive and thrive in these days of crisis - and the answer, for me, is in this prayer - we need the power of God to love one another and the world for the glory and praise of God.

Nobody encapsulates the heart of this prayer for the church's holiness more powerfully than Charles Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling; All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion, Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation; Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit, Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit; Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning, Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver, Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never, Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing, Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing, Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation; Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory, Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Soli Deo gloria

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