A sermon on Ephesians 3:14-21/
Good morning! It’s wonderful to be with you today; my name is Hannah and I work for Viva as Doorsteps Project Manager. Viva is an international children’s charity which grows locally-led partnerships who are committed to working together so that children are safe, well, and able to fulfil their God-given potential and last year we reached 2.2 million children in 26 countries. Doorsteps is the name of Viva’s network here in Oxford and I help co-ordinate its work with children, young people, and families. I know that for many of you here, you are already familiar with the work of Viva, you have been and continue to be, very much part of the Viva family in how you have championed and supported us over the years. So let me begin by saying a big thank you to you for your support, and I apologise if anything I say today is repeating things you already know about Viva and our work with children around the world.
So let’s begin with these great words one from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul loves the people in the Church of Ephesus, it’s so clear: ‘I pray that out of God’s glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.’ This entire passage gets to the heart of what so much of the New Testament is about: we are a family of people together, in other New Testament letters, Paul describes this family as being one body, united in the person of Jesus Christ. Unity, togetherness, are hallmarks of Paul’s theology and this is what drives him to pray for the Church at Ephesus and to praise God for them. He loves them, he wants the best for them.
The distinctive thing about Viva, its USP if you like, is our networking pattern. We have 38 networks around the world, partnerships of churches and other organisations working together for the good of others. The founder of Viva was volunteering in Bolivia and he found that on a Monday evening there were all these different churches providing food for homeless children but then they weren’t there for the rest of the week, so Tuesday-Sunday these children starved. Through the simple act of connecting these churches, the children were fed more often. By the process of networking rather than owning, we go some way to achieving this unity that Paul, inspired by Jesus, longs for.
From this passage, there are three things I would like us to go away knowing today: we are named, we are loved, and we are empowered.
Verse 14, ‘for this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.’ Names are a big deal. It’s why names are often carried on through families, why we have affectionate nicknames for our close friends and families, and it’s why when people call us bad names, it really hurts – names matter.
In Viva’s Guatemala network, there is a project called ‘I Exist’ which is helping children from the poorest communities receive birth registration. Unregistered children lack basic rights such as education and health care. They are invisible to the stage and because of this are highly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. There are currently an estimated 600,000 children in Guatemala who do not have a birth certificate. Viva has been working with the government authority responsible to change this situation. By setting up birth registration centres in local churches which are part of our network, we have so far given over 5000 children registration.
Maggie’s family has not had the money to register her. When she was five years old, she was rushed to hospital needing a gall bladder operation. What made the situation even more distressing was that her mother didn’t know if she would be allowed to return home afterwards, because she wasn’t registered and her father was unwilling to co-operate. Viva managed to step in before it was too late. They were able to obtain a medical report from the health centre where Maggie was born so they could register Maggie using only her mother’s name. Today, Maggie has recovered well from her operation. Birth registration is a complex process, but by giving this to Maggie, we are changing her life for the long-run as she can now access basic rights such as health and education.
Maggie is named. We are all named. We all have the right to accept our place as children of God, whose image we bear. We can be confident of our identity and the innate human dignity it affords each and every one of us. So claim your name which comes from Heaven.
I chose this passage in Ephesians to reflect on today because it is one of my favourites, with this bit in particular just the most moving and wonderful: ‘And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.’ Just take a moment to reflect on that, how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ for you, for me, for everyone. It’s really quite astounding.
If you are familiar with any early years studies, then you may know that being loved in the first year of your life really has the power to make or break a person. There was a report on this recently by the BBC titled ‘the children who are confused by love.’ It looks at children who have suffered abuse and neglect who can often become violent and distressed at the thought of being loved and that, once shown love and affection, become fearful of it going away.
Being loved can and does have a transformative effect on people. At Doorsteps, Viva’s Oxford-based network, we run a project called Find Your Fire which is for young people who could do with a bit of extra input in building their resilience and realising their potential. We had one young guy show up to the first session and he spent the whole of that session with his hood up, crying and we had no idea why. It was only afterwards that his school told us that he has ASD and a host of other learning disabilities and so he was just really overwhelmed by being in a new environment with new people. And we had weeks go by where we barely got a word out of him and he wouldn’t engage and he wouldn’t make eye contact. But we kept persevering. And now he engages with us and with the programme, he makes eye contact with us, he gets involved in group discussions – he has blossomed. At a recent session when he had a bit of a wobble and one of the youth work team went after him and he said to them ‘why are you doing this for me?’ To which she replied ‘because I care.’
Realising you are loved and letting that have its transformative effect can be a slow process. It’s been a long year at Find Your Fire where there were weeks where I thought we’re not making any progress, this is exhausting. But the week in, week out, showing up, showing we care, showing we think each of these young people is inherently valuable has paid off.
And how much greater is the love of God for each and every one of us.
There’s a song by an American worship pastor which has these lyrics, ‘oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God. Oh it chases me down, fights ‘til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine. I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still you gave this love away. Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.’
God’s love, it’s of unfathomable proportions. Do you know just how fantastically and wonderfully and how overwhelmingly you are loved?
Paul’s final exhortation in this passage to his named and loved friends in Ephesus is that they may know the power of God at work within each of them, how they are empowered beyond anything they can dare imagine.
When we take up the call on our lives which God has empowered us to do, amazing things happen. Halima lives in Uganda. She left school are she fell ill and her family could no longer afford her school fees as all their money was spent on her treatment. Thinking she would never go to school again, Halima began to lose interest in education. Then she met Stella. Stella had been a student at a Creative Learning Centre, an initiative part of Viva’s network in Uganda, which help build confidence and catch up with missed education with the ultimate aim of reintegrating the children back into mainstream school. Stella encouraged Halima to enrol in the Creative Learning Centre in her community. There she received teaching and mentoring which inspired her to return to school. Today, Halima loves studying and has enrolled at a nearby school where she hopes to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer and fighting for the rights of others. She is empowered to make a difference.
Then there’s Puja, who lives in India. She’s seventeen years old and she has a disability and has suffered from low self-esteem because of the physical abnormality she has. She took part in Viva’s network programme in Patna, called Dare To Be Different. It gives the girls who take part value-based life skills training dealing with issues including rights abuse, self-esteem, media impact, peer pressure, sex and sexuality, adolescent health and making the right choices. Puja said that the training has infused in her the realisation that she is unique and beautiful saying, and I love this, ‘I feel confident and believe I lack nothing.’ I feel confident and believe I lack nothing. To be empowered is not just to believe you can change the world, it is to know that who you are is wonderful, is known, is loved, is created by a relational and powerful and living God. Claim your name, claim your love, and claim the empowerment by God to change the world around you.
You are named by the God of the universe, you are loved with a love of unfathomable dimensions, through God, you are empowered to follow his call and his leading to where you can make a difference. Viva doesn’t care about its own name, but the names of the people all over the world bringing help and hope to children at risk. We know names like Maggie and Halima and Puja because we know the names Carmen, Mim, and Devesh, the people in those countries who just wanted to make a difference to the children in their community. We love them and so our work is to empower them in their work.
God knows us. He has named each and every one of us. And he loves us. Receive the empowerment that comes from those two foundational and indisputable truths.