THE Prayer Book Epistle reading for today contains a wonderful spiritual resource for Christians to draw on in their prayers for one another in their local churches.
The passage is from the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letter to the church in 1st century Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia (now western Turkey):
‘Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen’ (Ephesians 3v13-21 – King James Version).
Paul spent three years proclaiming the gospel in Ephesus from around AD 53 to 56, as related in the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 20 and 21). He therefore knew many of the members of the Ephesian church personally. He wrote his letter to this church and perhaps other churches in Asia, if the epistle had a broader circulation, from a prison in an unknown location or possibly whilst chained to a Roman soldier under house arrest in Rome, as described in Acts 28.
It is significant that Paul felt the need to urge the Ephesian Christians not to be discouraged by the fact that he was suffering imprisonment because of official hostility to the gospel message he had preached to them: ‘Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.’ Paul’s ministry in Ephesus had been hugely successful with many people in the city and further afield in Asia becoming Christians.
After witnessing the glorious success of Paul’s preaching, these new converts might have felt that the humiliation of imprisonment was somehow a sign of divine displeasure against him. But Paul insisted that his suffering for the gospel was for their glory. It was the apostolic gospel that had brought them eternal salvation from God’s wrath on sin in a fallen world with the gift of the Holy Spirit guaranteeing them a glorious inheritance in God’s future new creation, Paul had already told them in his letter. Therefore, they should not be ashamed of Paul’s suffering for the gospel that had brought them such a glorious salvation.
Paul then told them what he prayed for them whilst he was chained up in prison for the gospel. In essence, he prayed that God would strengthen them to persevere in their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as they drew on the divine power of the Holy Spirit within their eternal souls; and that they would have the God-given ability to grasp the glorious dimensions of God’s saving love in Christ, which surpasses human knowledge, as they looked forward to the full flowering of their eternal salvation to be revealed at the Lord’s Second Coming.
One of the great privileges of pastoral ministry is praying for members of the congregation by name. It is quite possible in the case of some individuals, perhaps new Christians without any other believers in their family or social circle, that the local minister is the only person on earth praying for them. Paul’s prayer is a model for the pastor as he prays for Christ’s flock as a body and for the individuals in it.
But this New Testament prayer should not be exclusive to the pastor. Any Christian can draw on it as he or she prays for other members of the church they belong to. It is not an abstract prayer; it should be prayed for named individuals in the church family, that they would know the ‘breadth, and length, and depth, and height’ of God’s saving love in Christ.
Today’s Collect for the 16th Sunday after Trinity is a beautiful corporate prayer for the preservation of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church:
‘O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church; and because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’