open book on a table

“Prayers of the Saints”

A sermon drawn from Ephesians 1:15-23

Our text for All Saints’ Day this year is from the letter to the Ephesians – which actually may originally have been a more general letter, to all the Gentile churches in Asia Minor, so we think it was just addressed to “the saints” – which makes it particularly appropriate for All Saints’ Day.

It might actually have been written by a disciple of Paul’s – but it’s easier to say “Paul” than “the author of Ephesians.” We think it was written late in the first century, which mainly matters for us because we think both the author and the recipients were people who were starting to come to terms with the fact that Jesus wasn’t coming back right away – so this project of living a Christian life as the Church was going to be a long-term one. … People like us, in other words.

Let’s notice, too, that most of these verses amount to a prayer: the author is telling the saints what his prayer is for them. So as we read this text, let’s think about what it would mean for us to know that someone we know, and trust, and admire, and look up to is praying this way for us …

Would that feel good – to know this is someone’s prayer for us?

To know that someone is thanking God for us, and is praying for us to receive a spirit – an inner presence – of wisdom, and of revelation?

Especially if we think of a “spirit of revelation” as something like what some of the Old Testament prophets had – an inner sense of clarity that “yes, this is the right thing to do,” or “oh, that’s what this means, that’s what this event or this sign is about” … a clear insight into some situation. A spirit of wisdom and revelation would be handy as we are making our way through life –

So, wouldn’t it feel good to know that someone is praying for us to receive this spirit, as a gift from God, as a by-product of gaining more and more familiarity with God, coming to know God, and for that spirit to have the effect of lighting up the eyes of our hearts?

The word Paul uses there is literally a word that describes the rays of the sun streaming in. Then in this light, he thinks, we’ll be able to perceive how much hope we have, and how rich we really are as children of God in the company of the saints, not in money but in human value, and we’ll be able to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us, who believe according to the working of his great power.”

It’s not exactly a prayer that God will use this great power on behalf of the saints, it’s a prayer that the saints will be able to see and to know how God’s power works, to see and to know it for what it is, so they’ll see and know that God is already putting it to work in them and their lives. Their faith itself is one sign of it.

Paul sees this. And wants the saints to see it – because seeing it will make a difference in how they think about their lives, how they’ll live their lives. So he’s praying constantly that God will make it more and more possible for them to see it. That God will give them the spirit that will give them the light to see it by. Because, this illuminating spirit comes from God, and more specifically, from becoming familiar with God, from getting to know God.

So, Paul is praying this prayer for the saints, and tells them so, and if we were those saints, I do think knowing this would make us feel pretty good.

I know for a fact that this idea made my Mom feel good … this idea … here’s how it sounds in this translation: , this idea that the same mighty strength that God put to work when He raised Christ out of death is the mighty strength that is at work in us. I know it, because she told me so, one morning, when I was visiting at their home in Kentucky, and she was sitting on the bed with all her morning books and readings, which was something she did every morning; so had I wandered in to say good morning, and she shoved an old copy of the Bible at me – and it was specifically the old “Good News for Modern Man” one that I’d gotten for youth group back in 1970 – the one that looked like it was covered in newspaper, with “Good News” in big red letters – and she said “here, read this” – and this was this text we have for today, verses 18-19 or so, because she said, “the way this translation says it is the one I like the best” … that the same mighty strength that God used to raise Jesus Christ from the dead is at work in us.

That’s a little memory of my mom that has stuck with me all these years … little, but vivid and meaningful, of something she really wanted to pass on to me as her daughter, something she really wanted me to know. I feel like that must be how Paul wanted to pass it on to the Ephesians … wanted them to see, to know, what they were really a part of …

That, as the saints, they’re part of something cosmic. That Jesus is seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places far above all these other powers. We need to be reminded of that, because where we live, in this world, it’s easy to get the idea that the “powers that be” around us, the ones we can see, are the ones who are really in charge. Paul is saying, no, that’s not how it really is. And furthermore, we are members of Christ’s family, and what belongs to Jesus Christ also belongs to the Church, which is Christ’s body … so this reality he sees and wants the saints to see is really big …

much, much bigger than what we probably normally think when we think about “being Christian” … or however we describe that, maybe as “being believers” or as “following Christ,” or maybe even as “being religious” …

but however we think about our Christian lives, we probably usually think of them as something pretty unremarkable – as ordinary daily life. It’s unusual for us to think of our ordinary daily lives as participating now in the cosmic phenomenon that Paul is describing here …

Most of us don’t even usually think of ourselves as “saints” or “holy ones,” at least not most of the time, even though we have probably heard countless times over the years in church that the term “saints” refers to all believers, all Christians, and so it definitely does include us. We probably do know that when say we believe in the “communion of saints,” we are not just talking about the famous saints who have dates on the calendar, saints like Mary and Peter and Paul. We’re also talking about the whole church of every time and place, including the less famous saints, people we knew in real life, people we grew up with, people who taught our Sunday school classes and who sat in church with us and who sang in choir and made food for church pitch-in dinners and lived – and live, for that matter – faithful lives, persistently working away at loving God with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength, and their neighbors as themselves.

Whenever we recite the Apostles’ Creed together, we affirm our faith in that communion of saints, our trust that somehow – whether we see it or feel it or not – we are, in fact, belong to a community of all these saints, do in fact have a connection with them, and an important kind of spiritual communication with them.

We might even feel that connection and that communication from time to time – the most common way may be when we have a vivid memory of one of those saints that influences the day somehow …

Maybe it’s a lesson we learned from someone, not even necessarily something “religious,” but something really practical, like “you do not have to tell someone everything you’ve heard someone else say about them.”

Maybe it’s a practice that grew on us and became important to us because that person did it … I have to say, it was really my grandmother who taught me to read the Bible and to love reading it, and I have a particularly vivid memory of driving in the car … somewhere, I might have been nine or ten, and her explaining the words of Psalm 121 … “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from whence cometh my help – my help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth …” It was one of her favorite ones, and she wanted to make sure that I knew it, and knew what it meant, that it was one of the promises God makes to His people …

We all have stories like this – stories of how we have been influenced, encouraged, helped, perhaps corrected or even rescued, guided, included, … incorporated into this community of saints, and those stories and their ongoing impact on our lives are part of what we mean by “the communion of saints.”

So what Paul asks for in this prayer is for the saints to see all that ordinary daily life stuff for what it is: to know it for the glorious inheritance it is. Paul prays that these saints, who are coming to know God more and more, and who are receiving this spirit of wisdom and revelation from God more and more, and are having light shine on the eyes of their hearts, will know how rich they are to share this glorious inheritance of Christ among the saints … will see it as priceless and significant. Richer than powerball winners.

It would feel good, I think, to know that someone was praying this way for us.

But in fact … and I have to admit, I only just saw it somewhat clearly this week, because it was All Saints and because we were going to be reading this scripture here on Sunday … in fact, we can know that someone is praying this way for us.

Maybe not these exact words, but words that are prayers for our well-being and for our health and healing and for our growth, prayers that we will see and will know what will help us in our ordinary, daily lives in this difficult world …

Because we do think the saints of the communion of saints pray for us, and we do think Jesus prays for us … the Bible tells us so, that is an article of our faith …

We don’t think about this or talk about it a lot; we Presbyterians don’t pray to the saints, the way our Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian neighbors do, so we don’t spend much time talking about what the prayers of the saints mean for us. So we may forget, or never have thought much about, the invisible side of the church, which Paul here says fills all in all as the body of Christ, and which is actively at work behind the scenes on our behalf, and on behalf of the world, interceding along with Christ for the welfare of the saints who are still in the world, visibly struggling with everything that is still broken in this world, making an effort to hold it together, and where possible to make things better for people.

Someone is praying that prayer for us. The members of the communion of saints who surround us are asking, and working in a mysterious way, for the eyes of our hearts to have plenty of light, so that we will know how much hope there is in this Christian way of life, and know what it means to be really rich in life, and to understand something about how the immeasurable greatness of God’s power is already, and constantly, at work in us.

And in the same way that the saints pray that prayer for us, we can pray that prayer for one another, for others – because we’re part of that communion of saints, too.

And praying for others is, we think, also one of the best ways we have of coming to know God, and of opening up the curtains on the eyes of our hearts.

So one very concrete thing we might want to take away from All Saints’ Day could be to include some of this prayer in our own prayer life … just pause sometime during the day and think of someone on the prayer list, or someone in our lives, and pray that light will shine on the eyes of their hearts, that they will be able to see and to know the hope they have in Christ, the life they have in Christ, and the power of God in Christ that is at work in them.

Because if it helps us to know, or at least to think, that someone is praying this prayer for us, imagine what it will do for others.

And in that way, by putting it to good use, we can actively praise God for that mighty strength at work in us, and enjoy that glorious inheritance we have among the saints.

etching - praying hands

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Praying Hands (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer. Wikimedia

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