A Prayer for the People of God -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9B (Ephesians 3)

Praying Hands, Peter Paul Rubens

Ephesians 3:14-21 New Revised Standard Version

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


                According to the Ephesian letter, Paul (the attributed author of the letter), has been commissioned to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. In fact, we’re told by the author that he is a prisoner for Christ on behalf of the Gentiles. Because of his efforts on their behalf Gentiles who had once lived outside the family of God are now fellow heirs with the Jews of the inheritance that comes from God through Christ (Eph. 3:1-6). That is, it is through Jesus that the Gentiles gain access to the family of God. As we all know family dynamics can be tricky, especially when those who were once considered outsiders become part of the family, whether through marriage or adoption. Nevertheless, as we saw in the previous reading from Ephesians 2 Christ has broken down the walls of hostility that had divided Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:11-22). Therefore, knowing all this, Paul invites us to go before God in faith with all boldness and confidence. As for him, he is praying for the people who apparently are concerned about his own suffering that they do not lose heart (Eph. 3:11-13). That prayer might be designed to reassure the recipients of the letter that suffering does not mean abandonment by God.  

                So, Paul prays (remember that for our purposes we’re not engaging in the conversation about the identity of the author). Prayer stands at the center of the Christian experience, for prayer is our means of communicating with God. Prayer comes in various forms, including song. Here in Ephesians 3, while the author speaks of coming before God with boldness and confidence, this doesn’t involve brashness. There is confidence, but also humility in this approach to God. Thus, when Paul comes before God, he takes a position of submission bowing his knees before the Father. Interestingly, the posture Paul recommends is similar to a curtsy rather than lying prostrate before God (as we see elsewhere in the New Testament). It appears that while Paul recommends approaching God in humility, it’s not a posture of obeisance. That might suggest a more relational posture without suggesting one is God’s equal.

                Paul refers here to God in terms of being our Father from whom every family on earth takes its name. In other, God is the source of our identity as members of the family of God, which we enter through Christ. As such, we become “fellow heirs” (Eph. 3:6). This is a patriarchal statement that reflects the patriarchal culture out of which it emerged. If we understand the point Paul makes here, then we can think more broadly in parental/familial images that are more reflective of our own cultural contexts. The point I would take from this is that we are all members of the same family and that our identity as members of that family comes from God. In an age of division and hostility, remembering that we are part of one family might be the means for moving toward a new way of living on this earth. As Sammy Alfaro writes: “The cosmic fatherhood of God envisioned here surpasses all religious, political, ethnic, and even spatial boundaries. For whether in the spiritual or earthly realm, all families receive their names from God” [Connections, p. 187].

                With this posture revealed, we turn to the prayer itself. It has three basic petitions. In the first petition, we’re invited to ask God to strengthen the recipients of the letter in their inner being with power through God’s Spirit. This occurs because Christ dwells in their hearts through faith as they are rooted and grounded in love. Secondly, Paul asks prays that they would have the power to comprehend, along with all the saints, the “breadth and length, and height and depth” of that love. Finally, he prays that they would be filled with God’s fulness as discovered in the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge. Although there is not at this point a fully developed Trinitarian theology, you can see hints of the Trinity here as we are invited to participate in God’s nature through the Spirit and through Christ. All of this provides a foundation for understanding the nature of the church as the body of Christ. Each of these petitions focuses on the inner preparation needed to fulfill the tasks that lay before them. Yes, there is work to do on behalf of God’s realm, which has been revealed in the resurrection of Jesus.      

                According to the letter, Paul is in prison because of his preaching. If this is Paul, that prison could be anywhere as he had a habit of getting arrested. But he’s not concerned about himself. He’s concerned about the recipients of the letter. He wants God to strengthen them so they can fulfill their calling. The question then, for us, concerns the nature of our prayers for one another. It’s likely we’ve not spent a lot of time in jail lately (unless you’ve been on the frontlines of one of the protests). How might the church be strengthened, and for what purpose? As I survey the current situation (and I do so from the more comfortable space of early retirement), the church faces the challenges of emerging from COVID. Depending on where you are living, the virus may still be circulating widely due to low vaccine rates. Even if the situation is better (and safer) the challenges are many. One of the big questions has to do with whether the people will be coming back after being away for more than a year. Other challenges are facing the church, challenges that could create deep hostility within the congregation. There is the rise of Christian nationalism that has made itself present in churches. Is Jesus an American or is he Lord of all?  There is the ongoing scourge of racism that continues to be present in our communities. So, how do we live into a vision of inclusion and reconciliation when important steps of repentance have yet to take place.

                As we ponder these questions and concerns, we come to the close of the passage. The prayer that Paul offers concludes with a doxology. He gives praise to God whose power is at work in the church so that the members of the community are “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. (vs. 20). Therefore, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (vs. 21). And so we pray for the people of God that together we might give glory to God in the church and in Christ Jesus forever!

Image attribution: Rubens, Peter Paul, 1577-1640. Praying Hands, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58682 [retrieved July 17, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rubens_Praying_Hands.jpg.


Popular Posts