The following article was written to provide preachers with some suggestive options for a sermon that proclaims the message of Ephesians 3:14-21. If you were preaching a sermon on this text ... or listening to one ... where would you want the emphasis to fall? What is the Word from God from these verse for our time and place? for you at this point in your life?
Imagine a sermon in the form of a prayer. Here, in the midst of this letter to the infant church in Ephesus, Paul prays. He prays for the congregation. He knows that he cannot give the congregation what it needs in order to be sustained in the face of the struggles that lie ahead. He knows, too, that being the church is not a self-help project. The church must learn to rely upon God, not itself. Perhaps the sermon will take its shape from the shape of this text, describing the prayer that the preacher has for the congregation.
When a text begins, as this one does, with “For this reason ...” the preacher needs to read back in order to locate the passage within the logic of the letter. This passage follows on Paul’s description of his ministry to the Gentiles. He is a messenger of the “boundless riches of Christ” (vs. 8) to those who were once beyond the pale. This is “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (vs. 9). This description of the out reaching mission of God that gives Paul his vocation concludes with the apostle bowing his knees “before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” (vs. 14).
This suggests a dramatic beginning for the sermon. The preacher turns in awe to the God met in Jesus Christ, acknowledging the One who is the namesake of every human family. The theme running through Ephesians continues here. There is no nation, clan or family - no person - who is beyond the love of God. This may seem an obvious claim in a church on a Sunday morning. But it may be difficult for the congregation to believe. Even on a sunny summer morning the gathered congregation brings together people with a myriad of secret hurts and private shames and lost hope. The congregation itself may be struggling to trust in God as it greys and dwindles. So the turn to God is made because only God can help. And God’s help is needed now.
The sermon, like the prayer offered in this text, may now move in three parts. Paul intercedes twice for the congregation - once for its heart and once for its mind - before he offers a remarkable benediction. Paul begins by praying for power in the congregation’s inner being. He longs for Christ to live in the hearts of the congregation as it is “being rooted and grounded in love” (vs. 17). In praying for inner strengthening and for Christ’s indwelling Paul knows that the church is at risk. Instead of warning the congregation to be on guard lest it lose faith he turns to God and asks for the power that is needed in the church. A sermon that takes its lead from Paul will name the places where the congregation needs strengthening in its “inner being” (vs. 16). This longing for a life “rooted and grounded in love” (vs. 17) is a way of confessing the truth - to God and to one another - that we are at risk of living a life together that is rooted and grounded in fear and self-preservation rather than in Christ.
Now the sermon can shift from a prayer for the congregation’s heart to an intercession for its mind: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend ... to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (vss. 18-19). This love, says Paul, is cosmically immense: “what is the breadth and length and height and depth” (vs. 18). If the first intercession in this sermonic prayer is that the congregation experience the love of God in its heart and soul, then the second intercession is that the church comes to grasp in its intellect that this grace is utterly massive and awesome beyond all imagining. The preacher will struggle all week to find the words that will press the Sunday School language of “Jesus loves me” deeper, breaking this love open so that the sermon is not simply proclaiming a greeting card faith of cliches and platitudes. Perhaps the pastor knows the lifelong struggle of some in the congregation to understand and believe in God’s love for all people. Now instead of trying to convince or explain the love of God the preacher can confess to the congregation that only God can answer this prayer for understanding. Like Paul, the pastor longs for the congregation to be “filled with all the fullness of God” (vs. 19).
Is it asking too much? Is it possible that a congregation with all its weaknesses and troubles and fears and misunderstanding can be filled with God, indwelt by Christ? Paul knows that the congregation is wondering how this prayer can possibly be answered. The preacher will want to name it, too. It is the reason that the sermon rightly ends where Paul ends this text - focused on God: “Now to him who by the power at work in us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory” (vss. 20-21). Paul gives the preacher the words to testify that God is already at work in the congregation. This massive holy power is present even in our fumbling attempts to live faithfully, lovingly and courageously in the face of our troubles. Our daring prayers to be strengthened in faith and to comprehend God’s grace are not asking too much. In fact, God is able to “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine”(vs. 20)! In announcing this gospel truth the preacher may well discover that the very thing that has been prayed for has been given. The congregation rises stronger in faith, grounded more firmly in love and filled by the fullness of a God who answers prayer.
- Edwin Searcy (from "Feasting on the Word" Year B)