Suffering and Glory
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| September 11, 2016| Ephesians 3:13-21
Therefore I ask that you do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height; to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:13‑21
The Apostle Paul is in prison. If Paul preached the truth would not God be on his side? And if God were on his side would he not vindicate his servant? The fact that Paul is in prison in Rome – and he would not leave prison alive – might suggest to the casual religious observer that he’s not a raging success! Jailbirds aren’t the most credible preachers.
But the casual religious observer is blind. Paul’s ministry can’t be stopped – it can’t even be hindered – by any manmade prison. He wants the Christians in Ephesus to know this. Don’t lose heart at my suffering, he says. My suffering is your glory. He who suffered for our sins graciously grants us the privilege of suffering in his name. No Christian should ever be discouraged or ashamed or troubled about having to suffer on account of confessing the faith. It is an honor to be conformed to the suffering of Christ.
To the Romans Paul wrote,
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
The outward condition in which we Christians find ourselves does not determine our true condition in life. The true life of the Christian is hidden from sight. Just as the power of Jesus that overcomes sin and death and Satan was hidden under his suffering, the true strength of the Christian is also hidden. You cannot see the glory God has for us. It is hidden underneath suffering and loss.
Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus. He prays the prayer of all pastors for the Christians they serve in Jesus’ name. He prays for their spiritual strength, their faith, and their love. How does he pray?
He falls on his knees. He writes:
I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.
The bodily posture isn’t the point. The point is what the posture signifies. Some folks can’t kneel so they don’t. Those who can kneel do so as a sign of humility. We pray from a position of humility. We pray to our Father.
Paul does not call God the Father “our Father.” He calls him “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Fatherhood of God is eternal. The Father has always been the Father of the Son and the Son has always been the Son of the Father. As we confess:
Begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God,
Light of Light,
Very God of very God,
Begotten, not made,
Being of one substance with the Father,
By whom all things were made.
We are children of this same Father, by adoption. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” His Father has become our Father. His Father by eternal begetting is our Father by adoption. We are his children. That’s what it means to be a Christian. We have access through Christ to the Father.
Paul prays. He doesn’t appeal to the power of prayer. The power of prayer is not in the prayer. It is in the One to whom we pray. The one praying is not in charge. God is. This is why Paul appeals to the riches of God’s glory and why we humble ourselves before God when we pray. Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus a threefold petition: that God would strengthen them, establish their faith, and ground them in love.
He prays that they “be strengthened with might through God’s Spirit in the inner man.” The inner man is the new nature the Christian receives, in contrast to the old man that we inherit from Adam. The word “inner man” refers to men and women, boys and girls, who are born again, born from above, born of water and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just zap you and make you a Christian once and for all as if he is an impersonal power like an electrical circuit. He lives in you and strengthens you to live a Christian life. The true you is not your flesh that seeks its own will and disregards the needs of others. The true you is the saint the Holy Spirit has created by bringing you to faith.
He prays “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Faith is more than intellectual assent. It includes that. God’s word touches our minds and calls for us to agree with what he says. Faith believes what God teaches. But this teaching is centered in Christ. True faith is faith in Christ. Christ lives in us through faith. God establishes this fellowship. Wherever we go and whatever we do, Christ is there because we are joined to him in a mystical union stronger than any human bond.
That you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height; to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Faith trusts in Christ. It trusts in God’s love in Christ. This love then penetrates our minds. We understand what is beyond understanding. We know what surpasses knowledge. The love of Christ is the source, the foundation, and the goal. God’s love is revealed in the crucifixion of God’s Son. He, who was begotten of the Father before all worlds, was incarnate, became our brother, assumed our humanity and our duty to live as God told us to live, and offered himself on the cross as the sacrifice to take away sin. There true love is revealed. It is the love that passes knowledge. It is the love that fills us with the fullness of God.
It appears to be failure. His friends ran away and hid. The women bowed their heads in sorrow. The crowd mocked him. The religious leaders scorned him. He suffered the pain of the damned. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It looked like shameful, disgraceful, and useless pain.
But it was the triumph of God’s love. Love conquered sin. God defeated the devil. Life stripped death of its power. The punishment we deserved and feared, that threatened us, is no more. Jesus has atoned for all sins of all sinners of all times. Love faces down hatred and defeats it.
This is the power at work within us. This is the power that comforts us when we are discouraged. This is the power that changes our lives.
True love is the love of Calvary. There is no love apart from the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of God in Christ. This is why Christ gave us the Sacrament of his body and blood. He gives us his body and blood to eat and to drink that we might be grounded in and filled with his love. There is no love except where Christ enters in.
And when he does, he does everything better than we could have imagined. Our text concludes,
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
The apostle speaks of “the power that works in us.” Jesus demonstrated that power here on earth. He met a funeral procession outside of the city of Nain. A woman’s only son was dead and she was a widow. Jesus raised her son from the dead. That’s the power of Jesus. He raises the dead. He raised himself from the dead. He has all power in heaven and on earth. We read of him in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:3)
He has almighty power. He keeps the universe from disintegrating. He upholds everything by his word. And he lives within us. He has both the will and the ability to do whatever we need done. He can do more than we can ask. He can do more than we can think. He is almighty God. But his might is always clothed in his compassion. He saw the grief of the widow and, as St. Luke reports, he had compassion on her. This is the Jesus who lives within us in a mystical union established in Holy Baptism and lasting into eternity.
Paul was in jail. He was suffering for preaching the gospel. He was being persecuted for being a Christian. It is a Christian’s glory to suffer for Christ’s sake. Remember that. There are things we won’t do or say because of our Christian convictions and when we don’t go along with the crowd we look and feel a bit peculiar. When the intellectual establishment talks as if it’s common knowledge that we evolved from animals over millions of years we say no. When the religious elite promote women preaching we say no. When the political powers that be say we must acknowledge same sex marriage we say no. When pious looking and pious sounding Christians urge us to set aside sound doctrine for the sake of joining in fellowship with them we say no. We say yes to the God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who blesses us, not by conforming us to this world, but by uniting us with the suffering and death of his dear Son.
The time is coming when Bible-believing, Christ-confessing Christians will be openly persecuted. People will think they’re serving God by publicly condemning what we believe, teach, and confess. We will be tempted to compromise God’s word for the sake of social, political, and religious acceptance. But we won’t. We won’t because we know the width, length, depth, and height of God’s love in Christ. We know the power of that love in our lives. We know the glory of God in Christ’s suffering and in our own. The approval of this dying world means nothing to us. It will pass and be forgotten. But to our God will be the glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.