[This message was delivered at the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY on July 25, 2021, based on Ephesians 3″14-21 and 2 Samuel 11. It can be watched had heard on the Community of the Savior site on Facebook.]
Do you pray for churches? I do. Perhaps it’s because I have worked for churches. I mention three regularly: Brunswick Church, where I served as a pastor for 38 years, Community of the Savior, where I served as a supporting pastor for about six years, and Perinton Presbyterian, where I now serve as a part time associate pastor. When I am driving and pass a church building, I usually offer a brief prayer for the congregation that meets there.
Do you pray for churches? If so, do you tend to pray for churches having trouble or church that seem healthy? I wonder if we tend to pray more for churches in trouble than for churches that aren’t in obvious trouble.
I pray for churches that are in the news for bad reasons. I hate it when churches make headlines for their sins. When I read in 2 Samuel 11 about King David and his affair with Bathsheba, I wince. What was David thinking? He was the best king of Israel to come along, successful in battle and in unifying a once divided country. He had a tender heart and was a skilled shepherd. He sees a woman, not his wife, bathing and decides he has to have her. Because he is king, he can do that. And he does.
I remember an interview of Bill Clinton by Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes.” It was after Clinton’s presidency, airing on June 20, 2004. At one point, Wallace asked him, Mr. President, why did you do it (referring to Clinton’s affair with White House Intern Monica Lewinsky)? Clinton answered, and I quote, “Just because I could.” He then said that was a terrible excuse, but it was his truth. His power allowed him to do that. He is not alone in that. Men in power, from presidents to pastors, too often do such things. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester has about 475 legal suits against it for priests and church leaders sexually violating people in the churches. Those suits are before a U. S. Bankruptcy court currently, because the diocese declared bankruptcy knowing it could never pay the millions of dollars it likely will have to pay soon.
Protestant church leaders are not exempt. Ravi Zacharias, a global evangelist and apologist, whose books have sold millions, has been credibly charged by numerous woman with inappropriate touch and sexual advances. The ministry that bears his name has admitted that the charges are essentially true. Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Church, one of the most known and respected megachurches in the country, retired in shame as he was credibly charged with inappropriate advances and touches to women on the church staff. Jerry Falwell, Jr., resigned as president of Liberty University in similar circumstances. When we pray for churches, let’s also pray for their pastors, by name.
What David did still happens. People in power, especially men, can readily yield to the temptations that power gives them. David’s life and reign would never be the same. He showed repentance and, I believe, received God’s forgiveness, but the ramifications of his sin were enormous. His early promise as the man after God’s own heart would never be fully realized.
Paul prays for the church in Ephesus in our epistle reading today. I find it notable that Paul includes at least one prayer in every one of his letters to churches. Ephesians has the two longest of these prayers, one in chapter one and today’s in chapter 3. It is notable that Ephesians is not a correction letter, but an encouragement letter. The one before us follows a section on how Jesus has been breaking down the wall that long stood between Jews and Gentiles, culminating in two towering statements. The first is Ephesians 2:14-16: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,and might reconcile both groups to God in one body.”
The second is the summary in 3:6: “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” That is the backdrop for this prayer. There cannot be, in Paul’s view and God’s design, one church for Jews and another for Gentiles. In our time, with the proliferation of denominations (at last count about 45,000 in the world!), we have white churches and Black churches. It ought not to be so, though I appreciate the historic reasons Blacks and other minority groups have developed their own churches, where they can be free and can freely lead and serve. But the New Testament has a loftier vision of the church, where walls and barriers fall because of the grace of Jesus.
The thrust of Paul’s prayer is that God will strengthen them. Churches are not very good at strengthening themselves. When they work at strengthening themselves, it can be dangerous, playing into numbers games and competition. Paul never prays for them to strengthen themselves, but that they will be strengthened by the triune God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are invoked in this prayer. Rather than try to strengthen ourselves, we do better to humble ourselves and pray for the strengthening work of the Lord in our midst.
The prayer crescendos with a four-dimensional grid. In terms of physical dimensions, we know there are three: height, width, and depth. A painting deals with two; a sculpture deals with three. But a really good painting can evoke the dimension of depth. High definition TVs promise that now, but 3-D movies do it better if we are willing to wear those funky glasses they hand out. Paul is not content with three dimensions when considering the love of Christ. He goes for four: “I pray that you may have the power 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, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (3:18-19). By going four dimensional, Paul is entering the Twilight Zone, going beyond what was known into new realms of reality.
The Church is facing some enormous challenges today. In more educated and wealthy countries, like much of Europe and North America, people are leaving churches in droves or never entering them. One of the groups most resistant to getting the Covid vaccination shots is white evangelical Christians. The church culture seems as divided as the political culture. The emerging generations, like the millennials, are in great numbers seeing the Church as hopelessly legalistic, judgmental, hypocritical, self-serving, and rigid. They are not perceiving or experiencing the Church as all caught up in the love of Christ. They are often saying, “We like Jesus. We find him fascinating, but we have no interest in the Church that so often looks nothing like Jesus.” The Barna Group, which studies trends in Protestant-evangelical churches in the United States, estimates that about 2/3s of the children and youth in our churches today—kids that go to Sunday school, faith formation, confirmation classes, and youth groups—will not be in churches as adults. Church, we have work to do.
Am I discouraged by this? Yes, but I am far from hopeless. Because I love Jesus, I love the Church, even with all its imperfections. Even though I am troubled by much that passes for Christianity today, I love churches, like Brunswick Church, Community of the Savior, and Perinton Presbyterian. I know those churches well enough to know some of their struggles and imperfections, but I love them. And I pray for them regularly, like every morning.
Let’s hear that prayer in Ephesians 3 again, this time in “The Message”:
My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in us as we open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, we’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.
God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. Glory to God in the church! Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations! Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!
I live in hope. The church has a prayer.