Monday, October 02, 2017

Sermon on Ephesians 3:13-21, for the 16th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr Lectionary), "Know the Surpassing Love of Christ"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Today in our reading from Ephesians 3, a tender scene unfolds between the Apostle Paul, and the church in Ephesus, to whom he is writing. In the book of Acts, we learn that this congregation was especially dear to Paul’s heart, as he spent three years there, the longest we know of any of the mission churches he served. And the tenderness of the scene is that Paul appeals that they not lose heart or be discouraged because of his suffering, and he is bowing his knees in prayer to God the Father, praying for their strength. He is already confident of their sincere faith, but now is boldly praying for growth in their spiritual maturity, knowledge, and resilience to suffering and tests. I could say the same, that I’m confident of your sincere faith, and also pray, as do all pastors, for your spiritual growth.
Paul’s suffering was that he was writing this letter from prison. As often in his ministry, he was in chains for the Gospel. Boldly proclaiming Jesus Christ frequently landed him in hot water with the authorities, and Paul was jailed again and again for his faith. But Paul is not concerned for his own discomfort or captivity, but for how it has discouraged the Christians of Ephesus. He had seen it proven time and again, that God could work powerfully, even in the midst of imprisonment and suffering. So Paul is actually encouraging and comforting them! Don’t lose heart over my suffering, which is your glory.
One of my former professors explains this puzzling phrase. What does he mean that his suffering is their glory? Glory comes from what no one else could or would do. Glory is an exceptional honor, for rare and outstanding sacrifice or work. Glory is not always seen, acknowledged, or rewarded. A soldier who bravely leads the charge, a unit of firefighters that risk their lives to rescue a family from a burning building, mother who sacrifices everything for her child—each has a unique and different measure of glory. But here, Paul’s suffering was the glory of the Ephesians, because he was faithfully teaching the free Gospel of Jesus Christ, and was enduring every hardship to do so. His willingness to endure all this for them, witnessed to the incomparable greatness of the life that God gives, and the glory of what Christ has done. Why else would anyone willingly suffer all this? Paul’s service was done in praise of God’s incomparable works. He knew the Gospel of Jesus made it more than worth it all.
This is why Paul says he is taking the knee in prayer to the Father—to ask that God strengthen the Ephesians. Paul desires that they be filled with and know the surpassing love of Christ Jesus. Notice that this prayer is very Trinitarian—Paul prays to the Father, counts on God’s answer because of the riches of God’s glory, and prays the Spirit would strengthen their inner being, and Christ would dwell in their hearts. Father, Spirit, and Christ, each working in unison, in harmony, for the salvation and strengthening of the believers. His prayer is clearly grounded in the riches of God’s glory, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the indwelling of Jesus Christ in our hearts. So clearly do we depend on God, as His children. So clearly are we recipients of God’s blessing and His power to work. This is what we mean by grace. A Christian radio host pointed out that as humans we are always wandering astray—but never wandering (accidentally) towards more reliance on God’s grace. The very opposite—we are always wandering towards more independence and self-reliance.
This is why Paul so enthusiastically proclaims grace in the letter to the Ephesians. It’s why, Lord willing, I aim to do the very same. Constantly, week after week, reminding you of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. What we don’t often realize, is that the more we try to take credit or rely on ourselves, the more credit or glory we steal from God. The more that we try to do on our own, the less we are relying on God. But do you know how much we have to rely on God? Ephesians 2:5 tells us we were dead in our sins. How much can you do when you are dead? Nothing! And he goes on to say we were made alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. All the credit goes to Christ Jesus. Until this sinful flesh dies, we constantly have to be redirected to that truth, that we are 100% dependent on the grace of Jesus Christ.
That same radio show on grace talked about why we have this need, this dependence. It comes from our total depravity, the depth of our sin before God. We humans are usually offended by the claim that we are through and through, full of sin, apart from God. But if you consider it a little more carefully, you will realize that this magnifies and glorifies the love of God, who did what no one else could or would do. God loved us and sent His Son to save us, even when we were still sinners. Even when we were His enemies. It takes an incomparable love to do that. It wouldn’t require so great a love to love people who were already pretty good. Once again, when we minimize our sinfulness (in our own minds only), we are also minimizing the greatness of God’s grace. But when we grasp the true awfulness of rebellion against God—of turning away from Him, then it begins to dawn on us how awesome and mighty is God’s love. We realize how glorious and difficult what Christ did was.
Paul so earnestly wants the Spirit and Christ to dwell in us, so that we may be rooted and grounded in love [and] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. You know you can go to the theater to see a 3D movie, and take off the glasses, but you will only see 2 dimensions, and it will be a little blurry. Paul is praying that we would have the strength to comprehend the dimensions of Christ’s love. Without Christ and His Spirit in us, we can’t begin to grasp the greatness of God’s love.
Living on Maui, I know you have all stood before some awesome, sprawling, breath-taking scenes of God’s created splendor. Whether the vista of sunrise and the crater on Haleakala, or the green valley and mountains of West Maui, the surrounding islands and the sunset, or gorgeous scenes of tropical growth—I hope you have had the experience of standing before a breathtaking vista, and just trying to drink it all in with your eyes. And I hope you weren’t in a rush, ignored it or turned away. You could, of course “sip” at the scene by just glancing quickly, and then turning your head back down to the ground, or to your cell phone, or whatever else might be occupying your thoughts or seem more urgent at the moment—but you’d really be missing out. On the other hand you could drink it all in deeply. Have you stood and just stared and stared at the greatness, the expanse of the sky and the stars, and tried to imagine how broad, how long, how high and how deep is the universe? Have you stood with wonderment at the sunsets or the mountains and simply been unable to drink it all in with your eyes? Sometimes we need someone to pull our arm and force us to look up with our eyes to appreciate and open our eyes to the wonder of something truly magnificent.
So it is with appreciating how broad, how long, how high, and how deep is Christ’s love for us. God first has to be pulling at our inner being with His Holy Spirit, Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith, to open our eyes and lift our heads, to try to soak in the marvelous goodness and unfathomable dimensions of God’s love for us. It’s a sight too big to take in at once. And when we consider our insignificance and our sinfulness, and how nevertheless Christ loves us and gave Himself up for us in such an outpouring of God’s love, it should never cease to amaze us. Not in a lifetime can we exhaust the Scriptures or the riches of God’s glory, to become bored with or sated with the knowledge of God, if we seek earnestly. And yet we can, and often do, content ourselves to just quickly “sip” and then return to our ever increasing world of distraction. Or we let our sight get clouded by sin and the worries of the world, and we lose focus, or even blind our eyes to Christ’s love. We can either go through life oblivious to the glory of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, or we can have our eyes opened by Christ and see from the revelation of Scripture, the matchless love of Christ Jesus for us.
So we pray with Paul that God strengthen us with the Spirit and that Christ would dwell in our hearts. That our blind eyes would  see, and we’d be given the strength to comprehend the vast dimensions of His love. Paul is gushing to describe the goodness of God, as he strings together so many superlatives or statements about the greatness or excesses of God’s power and love all through the book of Ephesians. Just in our reading: Surpassing knowledge, fullness of God, far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. We too, filled with the fullness of God, can delight in and overflow with the goodness of what God has done for us. Even if our words fall short to express it, as for Paul. Just like they do when we behold something truly wondrous and breathtaking. It’s a most profound mystery that God has united us to Jesus, and made Him to dwell so closely in our hearts. Cleansing our unclean hearts and making a holy dwelling in us.
In baptism we are united with Christ Jesus, and as we said before, even though we were formerly dead in our sins, God made us alive together in Christ Jesus. United with Him, we die to sin is in Him, and we rise to new life in Him. God joins us to His new life in baptism, and so with that knowledge, let us see that Christ’s glory does not go unseen or unacknowledged among us, but that we acknowledge and praise God for all His great glory, together with St. Paul: Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. United by faith to Christ Jesus, God can accomplish do in us so much more than we ask or think—we are too hesitant and shy in our prayers—we can and should ask boldly for God to work in our lives, confident of His riches and love. Truly God does what no one else could or would do—to Him be all the glory, forever and ever, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In Ephesians 3:13, what is Paul suffering for them (the Ephesians)? Ephesians 3:1; 4:1. Why would this not be a reason for them to be discouraged, from Paul’s perspective? Cf. Philippians 1:12-14.
  2. Paul says his sufferings are for their glory. If glory means “that which no one else could or would do”—how does Paul’s suffering on their behalf tell of the great uniqueness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
  3. In Ephesians 3:14, Paul says he “bow[s his] knees before the Father.” What does this mean? In v. 16-19 try to identify the main verbs that describe what Paul’s asking God to do for them.
  4. In Ephesians 3:14-15, there is a play on words in the original Greek, between the word “Father” and “family” (which is “fatherhood” in Greek). How is every family in heaven or on earth, or all “fatherhood” named for God the Father? Ephesians 4:6; Malachi 2:10; Deuteronomy 32:4-9.
  5. Note that this passage clearly teaches of the Father, Christ, and the Spirit. Where does the work of the Spirit and of Christ take root? Ephesians 3:16-17. What gifts do they bestow, what works do they accomplish in us?
  6. In Ephesians 3:18-20, Paul uses several “superlative” phrases to describe how God’s love and power exceeds what we can grasp or think. Which are those phrases? Why is it so fitting to describe the work of Jesus in this way? Think back to question #2 about glory. How does this glory uniquely and supremely belong to Jesus Christ?
  7. When we are filled with the sense of the awesomeness of God’s incredible grace for us, what does it encourage and empower us to do? Ephesians 3:19-20. Also, as in vs. 13, we can learn how to not lose heart in our own sufferings, and give glory to God for His mercy and salvation. 

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