The Apostle Paul stands as arguably one of the three most influential men in the history of Christianity (obviously behind Jesus and parallel with Peter – and John and Luke could be argued for). His conversion story is so powerful and compelling that it created its own idiom: “a Damascus Road experience”. After his conversion he became the boldest and most unstoppable voice for the grace of Jesus and life-changing power of the Gospel. In practice it seems that Paul was nearly fearless. He was beaten, whipped, jailed, chained, stoned, shipwrecked, mocked, accused, and eventually beheaded; yet nowhere do we read of, or even get hints of, a waivering of Paul’s resolve. His approach to the importance of holiness was to “beat his body into subjection” everyday, his understanding of life began with “that which is of first importance” (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus), and his vocation and mission were marked by signs, wonders, miracles, and revivals that disrupted the very social climate of entire cities on more than one occasion. There is good reason to look to Paul’s writings as treasure. There is good reason to look at his life as an example, not necessarily as a picture of what to be but as as a picture of what it looks like to follow the One who makes us who we are to be.
I began thinking about all of this earlier this morning as I was reading Ephesians. In Ephesians 1, in verses 17 – 23, Paul lets the Ephesian believers in on a prayer that he has been offering to God on their behalf. We see a few prayers of Paul throughout his epistles, but this one always causes me to pause and linger over the content. To the pleasure of Western preachers Paul’s prayer has three basic points. Today I just want to point out the first.
Before we can get look at any of the things Paul says in the prayer one more thing has to be said. The three ideas that Paul prays for are based off of a single theme of recognition. Paul’s prayer is is that the believers would know God through wisdom and revelation. Paul is looking for an internalization of who God is and what He has done, not just a surface level or mental acceptance. The Apostle goes on to say that he is praying for the “eyes of your hearts” to be “enlightened” (v 18). Enlightenment has become something of a dirty word in the church as it has represented The Age of Enlightenment and the elevation of reason and logic over mystery and beauty. But Paul’s use of “enlightenment” here is not about reason or logic, but it is all about letting the most mysterious and inexplicable things sink into the most important places of our hearts.
The first thing Paul longs for the believers to have their hearts see and embrace is “the hope to which he has called you” (v 18). If there is anything that Christianity offers uniquely it is the incredible weight that we place on the idea (and reality) of hope. Hope changes everything. Proverbs says that:
Hope deferred makes the heart sick
We are very capable of existing without hope, but we have no chance of really living without hope. Being alive is different than simply not being dead. Life is about the wonder and mystery of knowing that the next moment, or the next day, or the next year could very well be pregnant with more opportunity, more laughter, more awe, more newness, more promise, or more life than we can imagine. Hope does that. And Paul prays not for the presence of hope in the believer’s life, but for a deeper and greater awareness (enlightenment) of hope in the believer’s life.
Children’s author Shell Silverstein has a short poem called “Listen to the Mustn’ts” that I think gets at what Paul is saying to the church at Ephesus here:
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts.
Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts.
Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me…
Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
– Shell Silverstein
This is hope. After all of the naysayers and heartbreakers have offered their opinions; after all of the coffin-building analysts have told us how bad everything is; after the gossips and sensationalists have wrung out every rumor and gotten drunk on the blood of implications and “might be’s”; after all of the mustn’ts and shouldn’ts and never haves; after all of that we find Paul, on his knees, pleading with God, that our hearts might not be blind to just how beautiful things actually are.
And hope, Paul says, comes directly from the fact that in our weakest and darkest moments God called us. His Spirit reached through the tightly pulled curtains, stretched over the entrance to our dying hearts, and His love began to send sparks of grace, sparks of acceptance, sparks of mercy, and sparks of faith into us until signs of life began to be awakened. Paul prays for the Ephesians, and perhaps for all of us, to look at every other part of life through the lens of God’s calling. If He would call to us when we were lost, how much more is there in store for us now that we’re found? If God would not forsake us in the depth of our sin, how much more will we know His nearness and fullness as we have been covered with Jesus’ righteousness?
What I would suggest is not that we would only hope for the call of God, but that we would find infinite and unbreakable hope because of the call of God. After all, once you’ve had “a Damascus Road experience”, can you really be sure about what might happen on any other road you might take? And that glorious sense of not knowing what beauty might be lurking around the next corner, waiting to bless us is also hope. May we be enlightened to it and by it.