Text: Ephesians 3:14-22
One of the effects of modernity, the cultural sea in which we all swim, is disenchantment of the world. We tend to distrust what we cannot see. We tend to be overly rational, even when it is irrational to be hyper-rational! In such an environment, we can fall into the temptation of looking at God, angels, and all things spiritual in a similar manner as we would look at unicorns or goblins: a fine story, but ultimately not real. Looking at God and angels in this way is, of course, antithetical to what we read in Scripture. It is antithetical to our experience as Christians. It is antithetical to the teaching of the Church.
Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, often called “Michaelmas.” Historically, this was one of the most important days in the Western Church Calendar, largely because it was a good marker for the beginning of Autumn. Easter marks Spring, Christmas marks Winter, and Michaelmas marks Autumn. On Michaelmas, we get a small glimpse behind the curtain between things visible and invisible as we remember the angels. In our “for the Epistle” reading from Revelation 12, we see the war in heaven that is behind all spiritual warfare. We see the Dragon, the Devil, attacking the Church, with St. Michael the Archangel leading the armies of the Lord in our defense. We see the Dragon cast down and the Church overcoming him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. In our Gospel reading from Matthew 18, we see Jesus proclaiming the value of little children in God’s Kingdom, complete with a remarkable statement that their guardian angels have a special place before God’s throne.
As we continue in our Trinitytide series through the book of Ephesians, we see that St. Paul gives us another peak behind the curtain. St. Paul shows us some of what is happening on a spiritual level. Please turn in your bibles to Ephesians 3, beginning at the 14th verse:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength 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, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
St. Paul begins with the phrase “for this reason,” pointing us back to what came before in the letter. You may recall that he began last week’s passage from the beginning of Chapter 3 with the same phrase! St. Paul began his thought last week but veered off into a long aside about his ministry to the Gentiles. He’s now picking up where he left off. In other words, the phrase “for this reason” is pointing us back to the end of Chapter 2 in which Paul spoke of the One New Man, the new people united in Christ being built into a Temple, a dwelling-place for God. Because Jew and Gentile have been joined together into a new people, united in Christ, and being built into God’s house, because of this new unity of redeemed humanity from all peoples, Paul bows his knees before the Father.
You may have noticed that we bow from time-to-time in the course of the liturgy. Depending on your background, this may seem strange. The fact is, our bodies ought to reflect our prayers. If we are humble before God, our bodies will also make signs of humility, such as bowing. Our Anglican tradition, like all of the ancient forms of Christianity, recognized that our spiritual lives are not merely in our heads, they’re not merely internal. The faith is not merely cerebral. No, ours is an incarnational faith. In Christ Jesus the invisible God has made himself visible when he took on flesh like ours. Indeed, he took his human body with him when he ascended into heaven. If the ascended Lord Jesus is present before the Father bodily as he ministers in the heavenly Temple, should not we also engage our bodies when we worship the Lord here on earth? Part of the glimpse behind the curtain between this world and the heavenly one is that physicality, humanity, fleshliness is not inherently wicked. Yes, our flesh is currently fallen. But it has nevertheless been redeemed. In fact, what we see here on earth is often a shadow of the greater things that occur in heaven. Revelation 4 shows us the worship before God’s throne in heaven. We pattern our own worship here on earth after that very revelation.
Notice in verse 15 that Paul describes the Father as the one “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” The Greek term for “family” in this verse is “patria” or “fatherhood.” Our earthly fatherhood, our earthly families, are based on God’s own Fatherhood. We do not call God Father because we have projected the earthly familial relationship on him. Rather, he is in essence Father, and our earthly fatherhood comes from him. As we confess in the Creed, “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible.” The First person of the Holy Trinity has always been Father, just as the Second Person has always been Son.
This is an encouraging concept because our earthly fathers all made mistakes in some way. Even the best of fathers fail their children from time-to-time. We fail to be selfless in dealing with our families. We fail to be just in dealing with our families. We fail to love our families the way we should. And here in the Church, when we call our pastors and spiritual leaders “father,” the same is true. Even though I am supposed to represent our Heavenly Father, I am a sinner and can never live up to the fullness of that title. But God’s Fatherhood is perfect. When you think of your earthly father at his best, realize that he is a picture of the even greater goodness of our Heavenly Father. When you see your earthly father at his worst, realize that your Heavenly Father will make up the lack. Even for those whose earthly fathers were completely absent, realize that your Heavenly Father is there for you with perfect love and perfect justice. In today’s passage from Ephesians, St. Paul is giving us a glimpse of true, Heavenly Fatherhood.
As an aside, the passage from Revelation 12 that comes immediately before our Epistle reading today shows our Lord’s blessed Mother as a type or symbol of the Church. Later on in the chapter, the Dragon makes war on the Woman’s other offspring, that is our Lord’s brethren, the children of the Church, but the Lord takes care of the the mother and her offspring. He protects us and the whole Church.
In our Ephesians passage, St. Paul said that he bows before the Father in prayer and worship so “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (verses 16, 17a). A few weeks ago, several of you received the rite of Confirmation when the bishop was here. Just before he anointed you with the Sacred Chrism and laid his hands upon you, the bishop prayed:
Strengthen them, we beseech thee, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and daily increase in them thy manifold gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength the spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and fill them, O Lord, with the spirit of thy holy fear, now and for ever. Amen.
God lavishes his riches upon us in the form of his grace, and that grace is what strengthens us by his Spirit for our Christian life. Wisdom, understanding, spiritual strength, knowledge of true godliness, and fear of the Lord. If we are to live as Christians, we need the spiritual strengthening in our inner man. Again, we have this glimpse behind the curtain. In the World, they think that might makes right. But in the unseen spiritual realm we realize that it is “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.”
All of this comes about when Christ dwells in our hearts through faith. Sometimes we think that faith is something we must drum up. We think of it like the Force in Star Wars: if we believe really, really, hard and concentrate really, really, hard, we can make things happen spiritually. But here’s the secret, the peek behind the curtain: faith isn’t something we manufacture in ourselves. No, faith is a gift from God. That is why Jesus said that even the smallest faith could move mountains: Jesus is the one who’s doing the heavy lifting, not us.
In verses 17b through 19, St. Paul continues his prayer: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength 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, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” When Christ dwells in our hearts by faith, we are rooted and grounded in love. A couple weeks ago, we discussed the supernatural unity that happens when we are united together in Christ. Natural enemies overcome nature and become brethren. The love of Christ creates in us roots of love for each other. We are joined in the inheritance of the saints. Think of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Think of Moses, David, and Isaiah. Think of the Apostles and martyrs, the holy men and women throughout all ages. This is your family. Every time we come to Communion, the curtain is drawn back as we worship God together with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven.
St. Gregory of Nyssa observes that the language of “breath and length and height and depth” is cruciform, shaped like the Cross. And it is also all-encompassing language; the cross brings the love of Christ to all of creation: heaven and earth, and even the underworld. Even the dead are under Christ’s dominion, as we see when he raises the dead. And it is by the cross that we are filled with the fullness of God. God uses the cross to fill us up with himself. Once again, we have a peek behind the curtain: God filling us up as his dwelling place by taking an instrument of curse and torture, and making it the means of salvation, redemption, and unity of all peoples.
St. Paul’s humble prayer, bowing before the Father, naturally flows into a doxology of praise (verse 20):
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
There’s a reason we only get a peek behind the curtain: God’s abundant deeds of power and glory are far more than we can ask or think! They’re far beyond our imagination. We can only handle the small glimpse. St. Jerome writes:
This glory does not extend over the present time only, as if terminating in the age to come. Rather it extends throughout all generations and all ages. It is eternally ineffable. It abides, develops and increases.
The beauty is that this glory is something we also participate in. Notice St. Paul said to him be glory “in the church” (that’s us), “and in Christ Jesus” (into whom we’ve been baptized) “throughout all generations” (including ours). Not only do we see the captain of the Lord’s armies fighting for us, not only do the guardian angels of our children have a special place before God’s throne, but we are also those in whom God manifests his glory, in whom he makes his dwelling place. As we get that peek behind the curtain, we cannot help but sing, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God of Hoss, Heaven and earth are fully of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Previous Posts in our Ephesians Series
Part 1: Ephesians 1:1-14 – “The Family Secret”
Part 2: Ephesians 1:15-23 – “Remembering you in my Prayers”
Part 3: Ephesians 2:1-10 – “From Death Valley to the Highest Peak”
Part 4: Ephesians 2:11-22 – “One New Man”