Last week, the BBC reported that women generally have found coping with the pandemic more challenging than men. While men are 18% more likely to die from the virus, women admit to struggling with the fallout, mothers even more. Trying to juggle home schooling alongside holding down a job or business and the usual household chores has been a tall order. Women are more likely to have been furloughed and have reported higher levels of stress and anxiety. Mothering Sunday last year was the first Sunday that we did not have a service in church because of Covid. It has been a particularly tough year for all our mums. On behalf of everyone more than ever, I want to say a big thankyou for all that you do keeping the family ship afloat in stormy seas.
I also want to encourage mums; I want us all to find encouragement in our reading today. It is part of a letter which the apostle Paul writes, not to mothers, but to a fledging church in the Greek city of Ephesus and probably other cities too. He writes from prison, possibly in Rome, so he knows what it is to live with restrictions! The main purpose for writing is to teach and build up the church as Christ’s body; the representative of Jesus, continuing his ministry on earth. To be effective, the church should see itself as a family, God’s family.
The reading opens with Paul on his knees in prayer before the Father ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.’ (Ephesians 3.14& 15) Here in lies encouragement right from the start. Families are God’s idea. They are part of the very fabric of the world that he has created, and he wills the absolute best for them.
Not all families are alike. If you have long memories you might recall ‘2point4 Children’, a ninety’s sit com based on a supposed normal family, the Porters; mum and dad and the then average of 2.4 kids. But Paul talks here of every family. While clearly God has provided gender, marriage and procreation as a framework for families to maintain the human race, the term family can and should be applied widely to groups of human beings who associate closely together. God himself is a family: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is the Father of all, the head of the household to which we all belong. Following Jesus’ example, we speak of ‘him’ as ‘Father’ but recognise in God both the feminine and the masculine. In the very first chapter of the bible, Genesis 1, we read that God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1.27)
Families are part of the perfect plans God had in creating the world. Yet, we soon learn in Genesis that they were wrecked by sin when Cain killed his brother Able. We continue to struggle with that legacy of sin which always lurks ready to destroy our family life. Family life in any form is not easy as our royal family has been discovering again of late. The pandemic has put extra strain on all our families and we all need Paul’s prayer and encouragement at this time. What does it consist of?
- Paul prays for strength. Strength here is not physical. We can get that through working out in the gym. Rather it is strength for the inner being. We all need resilience to over come the pandemic along with everything else that live throws at us. We can find it in art, exercise, pets and the support we gain from family and friends. But Paul prays for this strength to come to Christian community through the Holy Spirit. Many things can help and support us in life but as believing people, we should never neglect the gift of God’s Spirit which as this verse reminds us derives from and is according to nothing less than the riches of God’s glory. While other sources of support are drawn from the world where things come and go, the strength for which Paul prays comes from the eternity of God himself. Paul writes elsewhere: ‘Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. Do not overlook or ignore the gift of God’s Spirit to give us that inner strength of character. Pray for it for yourself and like Paul, ask for others to receive the Spirit too.
- Paul prays that the Ephesians would be rooted and grounded in love. (Ephesians 3.17) He mixes metaphors here. Rooted reminds us of a tree, its roots deep in the soil to draw up all the nutrients it needs for growth as well as anchor it against the wind. Established or grounded speaks of businesses or buildings that have solid foundations. As human beings, we too need to be well centred in love. Not the red velvet love of Valentine’s Day or even the motherly love of today but the priceless love of Good Friday when God so loved that he gave himself for the world. As Paul prays, may Christ dwell in our hearts so that we not only benefit from this costly love but root our lives in it.
- Paul prays for knowledge. Not intellectual head knowledge, the kind we get from books and the internet but heart knowledge. He asks that those for who he prays will grasp, will have the power to comprehend the breadth, length, height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. (Ephesians 3.18) The implication is that God himself enables such understanding. As we begin to look again to the final week of Jesus’ ministry on earth culminating in his crucifixion, can we take a step back to survey the wonderous cross once again. It is never something that our heads will fully grasp but my prayer along with Paul is that our hearts will be drawn afresh to its power to heal and to save. Can that be our prayer for others this Easter? That for them as well as us, God’s story may be our story.
This is a central theme of our Lent Course and I want to finish with the reading you will come across tomorrow if you are following it each day. The writer of the notes, Stephen Hance, tells of an adult baptism service in a London church. The reading chosen was the opening 17 verses of Matthew’s gospel where we have a genealogy for Jesus, his family tree. It starts: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…(Matthew 1.1ff) What an odd reading for a baptism service Stephen thought. What will the preacher make of it? When the preacher started, we talked about some of the names in the list especially the less well-known ones. After several minute he turned to those to be baptised and said: ‘Today, your name gets added to this list. Today, your story becomes part of this story of those who have passed through this world in relationship with God. Today, you connect you story with God’s story.
That’s what Paul prayed for the Ephesians, it’s what I pray for all those of you listening that we may all be part of God’s family in Christ, part of his story and gain the encouragement and inner strength from the Holy Spirit. It’s a message of hope for mums, each one of us and every family named under heaven.
Lent 4 Mothering Sunday 14.03.2021