• When Billie and I visit people in prison, we often find that they have a very limited and sometimes distorted perspective of reality as well as a lack of hope. Part of our role is to help them understand the bigger picture and to encourage them that there is hope for their future life after and beyond prison.
• When St Paul wrote letters from prison it worked the other way round. It was the free people on the outside who had a limited perspective and Paul the prisoner who had amazing vision and who wrote to encourage them.
• Gareth recently told me about a rhinoceros he saw at a zoo. Although it was living in a large field with plenty of space to roam around in, this rhino would just spend all its time walking in a tiny figure of 8 pattern. The reason for this odd behaviour was that it had been rescued from a circus where it was always enclosed in a cage or a small ring. Even though it had been liberated, the bars of the cage might as well still have been there.
• The Christians Paul wrote to at Ephesus were a bit like that rhinoceros. They didn’t have any particular faults to be corrected or problems to be addressed (as the Galatians and Corinthians did), but the Ephesians were not making good use of their liberty as Christians. They were still living small, restricted lives and not having the impact they should have been having on their neighbours or on society.
• From my research I’d say some of the self-imposed limitations at Ephesus were (a) the mixture in the Church of Jewish and Gentile believers who didn’t see each other as equals and (b) the fact that Christianity was seen as a threat to commerce (going back to the silversmiths’ riot recorded in Acts 19).
• Whatever the reasons, Paul recognised that this Church was not fulfilling its potential and that he needed to cast some vision their way.
• So Paul writes about his thankfulness for the Ephesian Christians’ faith in Jesus and their love for each other. These things are good, but more is required. They need to move beyond a gratitude for their personal salvation and a love of like-minded people. So Paul prays for them and he tells them the content of his prayer for them (a smart move!)
• Paul’s prayer is that God will give them wisdom and revelation (or vision) through the Holy Spirit, enabling them to know God better and especially that their hearts will be lit up with understanding of the full extent of the hope God has called them to and the power he has given them to work for that hope – to work with God in realising that hope.
• He goes on to explain that the power which raised the crucified Jesus from the dead is also available to raise the Church to life so that it really can be the body of Christ at work in the world.
The Scope and Range of Christ
• But it is the scale of Paul’s vision of the extent of Christ’s work which is most striking. It is a vast, breathtaking vision in which Jesus ovrrules every power and includes all things, including all people, within his glorious kingdom.
• False gods and goddesses like the Ephesian Artemis, human kingdoms and empires like that of Rome and even the greatest commercial enterprises are all dwarfed by the power, the range and the riches of the comprehensive Kingdom in which Christ reigns; both in the present age and in the age to come.
• Paul lifts his readers’ heads up, opens the curtains of heaven and says LOOK what God is doing, LOOK what God is calling you to participate in! Against the bright colours of this vision, everything else pales into insignificance and the habits and insecurities and limitations we surround ourselves with just fall away.
• This may sound like wishful thinking but it is actually a reliable message of hope, firmly grounded in God’s nature and God’s promises.
Patrick Regan and XLP
• Caroline recently told me about the work of Patrick Regan of the charity XLP which works with the perpetrators and victims of gang violence in some of the most dangerous parts of London.
• In a recent article in Youthwork magazine, Patrick describes a time when he was about to be interviewd on national television following yet another pointless murder of an innocent young man by some gang members. Just before going on air, the interviewer, hardened and tired by years of reporting bad news, expressed her opinion that this was simply a lost generation.
• He writes: “As the cameras started rolling and the red light shone telling me we were live on air, my mind was scrambling around trying to think of the best way to address this lack of hope. There was no doubt about it, things were bad and seemed to be getting worse. I saw it every day in my work … But despite all of that, I couldn’t agree with the presenter’s conclusion. I locked eyes with this woman who thought there was no hope for this generation of young people and said, ‘I refuse to believe this is a lost generation. I am convinced that if we tackle the drivers of why these things happen, we can bring about change. Hope is a refusal to accept a situation as it is.’” (my italics)
• Patrick Regan goes on to describe some of the signs of hope he sees in ‘gangland’, like green shoots of grass growing up through the cracks in the concrete of despair, growing towards the light. You could say he is a naive optimist, but he goes on to show that, like the message of Paul to the Ephesians, his hope is grounded firmly in biblical truth and the promises of God.
• Speaking of the healing, reconciling, forgiving ministry of Jesus, Patrick says it reminds us that “We have a God who cares, who gets involved; we have a God who loves. This is the activity of the King; this is the work of the kingdom, an indication of what is to come. This is what the church is called to do. Rather than simply hanging around on earth, doing our own thing in our own way, and waiting to die and ‘go to heaven’, our God has called us to partner with him in realising his ultimate purposes of recreating heaven and earth to be all God intends it to be.”
• Like St Paul, Patrick Regan challenges us to lift up our heads and see things from God’s perspective, to see the significance of our lives within the story of what God is doing, which is making all things new in Christ. We are the people of hope and boy does our world need hope!
So what about us?
• Do you see any similarities in our lives with those Ephesian Christians, holding themselves back from living a fully effective Christian life, or that rhinoceros, walking round in tiny circles in an invisible cage, or the TV presenter who sees no hope?
• What is holding us back, restricting us? Are there prayers we dare not pray – people and situations we do not believe God has the power to change? Are you kidding me? Listen to St Paul! Consider the almighty, death defeating, resurrection power of Christ. The vast boundless scope of his everlasting Kingdom. There is nothing he cannot do, no wrong he cannot put right, no hard heart he can’t melt, no sinner he can’t cleanse!
• Let’s lift up our heads and see what God is doing and then join in, with love, with faith, with hope and with confidence. God is stirring up something very special in this Church and many other Churches throughout the world and the key to all of it is prayer. I urge you to join in the prayer activities of the Church because that’s where the green shoots of hope are rising. Read through the list of thoughts and suggestions which came out of the recent 24-7 Prayer Room - see how God is challenging and inspiring us - and don’t miss the next one in February. Why not join a Home Group or a Prayer Triplet – because the changes we need and which God wants to see won’t happen unless we pray together.
• Let’s end by praying that wonderful prayer of St Paul for ourselves, for each other and for all people and let’s keep on praying it until God tells us we can stop!
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” Amen.
Appendix – Notes from the Prayer Room 21-23 October 2011
• Remembering the continuing debt to love one another.
• Smile, patience, kindness, acts of love, listen, be there open our hearts to God and to others.
• Be open and hospitable and vulnerable
• Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God
• Practice random acts of kindness
• Focus on the main principles of our faith and not be drawn into debates on secondary doctrines
• By knowing each others needs and doing things the way God wants
• Preach the gospel wherever you go, use words if you must (St Francis of Assisi)
• To remember to set a place for the unknown guest at our table
• Strive to keep unity of the church in the spirit of the bond of peace
• Not get so absorbed in our daily duties and stress so we don’t have time for God and people around us. Pause for a moment and think and ask God to help us to see the needs of other people close to us.
• Open the hearts of others through God’s love and service
• Get our hands dirty together in our community
• Find a plan to help people through organisations like St Egidio mission
• For everything we don’t like, to resolve to do something constructive and positive to bless someone instead of complaining about it. Pay it forward – find ways to do kindness without expecting anything in return. When I feel uncomfortable, to listen to that discomfort and to explore why it disturbs me and maybe its me, not them who is the problem.
• Pray and intercede for each other even when its hard going and we don’t want to
• Ask God to give us true compassion and love for people so that we will love and respect each other and see the needs around us. And then put love into action.
• Reach out to make us a growing community
• Love God and love what God loves
• Love and talk to each other with kindness, honesty and respect
• Do an act of kindness for a neighbour you don’t know well
• Get to know each other better and be open and trusting to each other
• Be fair and giving
• Be ready to do God’s will at all times and in all places
• Be patient, loving and kind, event when it doesn’t come naturally
• For our love to be honest, slow to speak, quick to listen, slow to get angry and quick to be compassionate. Letting the love of God rule our hearts.
• Ask God, listen to his answers and walk the path He lights up for us.
• Might not THIS be just where we should start, build from and have at our heart. What if we embraced 24/7 prayer and if the Lord wanted it to become interdenominational and interlingual? Just how wrong can we go it we put passionate prayer and closeness to God at the soft centre of our community and the way we relate to others? Pray about it! If we keep praying, the rest with come of itself.
• More ecumenical prayer and bible study homegroups
• Trips and excursions to spiritual places nearby
• Offer hospitality, listening and friendship
• Picnics in the park, public events open invites
• To pray with others