Very rarely in the gospels do we see the disciples get one right. Luke 11:1 is one of those rare moments. The disciples come to Jesus asking for something they lack. They do not know how to pray: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” This move is instructive for us as far to often people assume they know how to pray OR feel as if prayer is a hopeless and aimless endeavor. In response, Jesus gives the disciples a great gift: The Lord’s Prayer. This prayer becomes both the content and the school of prayer. It teaches the disciples what to say and how to speak to their Father in Heaven.
How do you pray? When you pray, what do you ask? As a father, I pray daily for my children. I pray for their health, their education, their friendships, and future relationships. I ask God to protect them and provide for them. I would venture to guess many of our prayers sound like this. These are perfectly delightful prayers to our Father’s ears. Nonetheless, I am struck today by the fact that Paul’s prayers for his beloved Ephesians do not focus so much on their physical or social well-being, but on the most important thing: That they know and love Christ Jesus!
This Sunday, preachers ought to address the prayer life of their congregations, teaching them to pray like Jesus taught us to pray, teaching them to pray like Paul prayed. How can we learn to pray, not just for physical or social well-being, but for faith, hope, and love when the physical and social are lacking? How can we begin to focus on Christ’s work for us, in and among us in our prayers?
Paul is clearly a student in the school of Jesus-given prayers. Whether or not he has the Lord’s Prayer in mind as he writes Ephesians, this letter is saturated in language directed towards the Father’s listening ear. The letter opens with the Berakah prayer, praising God for all His saving work in Jesus Christ (1:3-14). Paul immediately follows this with a prayer for the Ephesians, that in light of Christ’s saving work, God would give them, “...a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (1:15-23). Then, at the point where the letter is transitioning into its second section, Paul is again praying. “Now, here at the center of the letter, we come upon this strategically placed payer that keeps the letter centered in prayer.” Specifically, he prays that the faith and lives of the Ephesians would be consumed with Jesus.
Paul prays this prayer of encouragement from a place of suffering. “So, I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory” (3:13). Prayers for the faith of the Church--prayed in love from a place of suffering--not only define much of Paul’s ministry, but are formed by the Christ they imitate. Jesus, after all, cried out for forgiveness for those who crucified Him. Suffering and hardship have a way of directing our hearts and minds to Christ Jesus. For prayers from a place of suffering, the preacher would do well by spending time in the Psalms to learn how to pray in such painful times. As he suffers, Paul prays in the way of faith, fixing his eyes, and our eyes, on Jesus.
Suffering and hardship have a way of directing our hearts and minds to Christ Jesus.
In my own personal experience, I find it somewhat awkward to preach someone else’s prayer. These are Paul’s God-directed, heartfelt cries. I feel out of place presuming upon them in a sermon for the sake of others. Nonetheless, this is Paul’s prayer and the Holy Spirit had him deliver it to us through these scriptures. It has been given us to preach. So, what is it he wants to impress upon the Ephesians with these phrases? How do each of them prevent the Christian from losing heart in the face of suffering, be it Paul’s or their own/our own? How do these prayers deliver Christ to us?
I find the most faithful structure for delivering a sermon on someone else’s prayer is Verse-by-Verse exposition of the text. In this way, the preacher is able to focus in on each line of the prayer, emphasizing what Paul is saying phrase by phrase. The preacher can effectively convey what it means to have Christ dwell in our hearts through faith and how that:
- grounds one in love
- strengthens us to grasp the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s love
- gives knowledge of Christ’s love
- fills one with the knowledge of God
Christ in the Text
The preacher would do well to remember that the indwelling of Christ is not something Paul really hopes the Ephesians find one day. The answer to Paul’s prayer depends on the riches of God’s glory, not on the work of the Church. The presence of Christ in and among His people is a gift granted in baptism, sacrament, and preaching by God’s grace. It is not a future reality which must be achieved. It is the preaching of the already present Jesus who gives strength and endurance in the midst of trials. He is already here now, bearing up His Church. This promise must be delivered in order to comfort the Church. Paul is praying that the Ephesians (and all Christians) would stand firm in what they have already received from God in Christ. So, do not preach a “how to find Christ in suffering” sort of sermon. Rather, deliver the promise: Christ’s presence gives strength, knowledge, etc.
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians exemplifies faithful prayer in the midst of all life’s circumstances. It reminds us of and encourages us with the truth that Christ dwells with each of His own in the baptized community no matter what it is they are facing in life. In all circumstances, Christ is at work doing “...far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (3:20). After all, this Christ who dwells among us is the One who put on our flesh, suffered, died, and rose again for us. He reigns from God’s right hand among us for our good. Preach this and your sermon, just like Paul’s prayer, will give God, “...glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations” (3:21).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Ephesians 3:14-21.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Ephesians 3:14-21.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Ephesians 3:14-21.