Yesterday (click here to view) I wrote about a prayer of Paul that I am particularly fond of in Ephesians 1. I talked about the first of three enlightenments that Paul desired for the believers in Ephesus, that they would begin to deeply understand the hope that derives from God’s calling. Today I want to look at the second thing that Paul prayed for:
“the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints”
As Paul kneels to pray we should ask ourselves what one of the most influential Christians in history sees as a top priority as he talks to God on behalf of those he love. Hope seems to be a big enough idea and qualifies relatively easily, but the question looms large for many, “when is he going to really pray for the important stuff, like people keeping away from sin or looking more intently for the end of the world?” And to questions like those Paul prays not for sinless lives, physical healings, or the overthrow of wicked political leaders; no, Paul prays that we would recognize how rich we are in the currency of the Kingdom of Heaven: people. Paul prays for us to see our fellow Christians as a treasure that we have inherited. Friendship, fellowship, and true person-to-person accountability is the windfall of prosperity in the church that, too often, goes unclaimed.
I read this story (among other stories in this article) and it struck me as something that Paul might have agreed with as an allegory of the church:
A homeless man supposed to be living on the streets of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia fled police who were bringing him news of a $6-million inheritance. Tomas Martinez, 67, apparently thought the police were about to arrest him for his alcohol and drug habits. The man disappeared without a trace, causing Bolivian newspapers to speak of him in 2000 as a “new millionaire paradoxically not knowing his fortune”. The inheritance came to Mr Martinez from his ex-wife, Ines Gajardo Olivares, who inherited the money herself from family members. She evidently did not blame him for leaving her several years ago.
The (un)lucky man has never been found.
In our world we can see our Christian brothers and sisters as the people that we are supposed to sit with on Sundays, or even the people that we have to grit our teeth and love, despite how we may feel, if we want to go to Heaven. I’ve been around church long enough to have heard the expression, “you’ve got to love me if you want to go to Heaven” more times than I can count. It’s the kind of thing that a preacher / teacher / leader / mischievous person says when they are planning on saying / doing / asking for something that they know people won’t like. But the expression itself is strange in that it sees Heaven as the thing of highest worth or the thing that matters most, where Paul seems to be elevating relationship and friendship within the community of faith to the level of God’s inheritance for us. Loving each other, according to Paul, is not the requirement or qualification to “get Heaven”, but mutual affection and close relationship is itself seen as the prize.
Paul’s language of inheritance here makes this a different kind of prayer. He isn’t just saying that when we get together we can use each other as resources to endure till the end, he is saying that once the end gets here we will find that one of the most profound parts of the treasure we have been seeking has been sharing a pew or a booth or a sweaty 15 passenger van or a corner of an altar for much of our life. Paul’s prayer is not FOR community, remember, he is praying that the eyes of our hearts would be opened TO community. He isn’t looking to give us a step-by-step process about getting into community, but instead that we would realize and recognize the community we have already inherited. Saints in our homes, saints in our churches, saints in our community, saints around the world – all of these people are seen by Paul as God’s great inheritance to us. And this inheritance will continue past the end of the world we know and into the redeemed and newly created world to come. Christian brothers and sisters are not a means to an end, they are themselves a significant part of the end (and to be clear, I am referring to eternity as “end”, so the expression is more than a bit ironic).
Perhaps because I have two small children, or perhaps because I act like a child more than I should, I tend to appreciate children’s stories that are able to put into simple language the deep truths of life. A. A. Milne originally penned the Winnie the Pooh stories, and in those stories he wrote a profound friendship between Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. The Hundred Acre Woods saw these two friends through many adventures and trials, and they always found that the most valuable thing they had was each other. One line that Milne wrote is simple enough for a 4 year old to understand, but contains enough depth to be quoted in a discussion on the theology of the Apostle Paul.
“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer,” Pooh answered.
– A.A. Milne
If there is even a hint of prosperity theology in the New Testament it is found here. We are not rich because of money, possessions, position, or influence. We do not count wealth to be something that can be quantified and deposited. We do not find our most valuable resources in lock-boxes, safes, or Swiss accounts. We understand that the lavish blessings of God are to be found in the saints who have gone before us, paving our own paths with their prayers and offering us invaluable insights through their words. We see treasure in the eyes, words, presence, and prayers of those who presently walk beside us through the bright days of happiness and the dim times of hardship. And we know that we are prosperous because saints never truly die, they live forever in fellowship and loving community by the power of the resurrection. But that resurrection is the third point in Paul’s prayer, and I will save that for another day. For now it is enough to look at the number of saints that we know and interact with on a daily basis and quote the old song “Give Thanks” as it says, “let the poor say I am rich.”