Ephesians 3 (Proper 12B)
Ephesus was a great city in that time, located in the country we know today as Turkey. Paul worked with great success among the Ephesians for three years. In the case of the Ephesians, the temptation was to see the suffering that Paul endured, and to take offense at it. At this time, Paul was imprisoned at Rome by order of the Emperor. Surely some people said that if Paul were a true apostle, then Christ would not allow these calamities to fall on him, to be delivered into the hands of wicked men and at peril for his life.
People often struggle with the idea of a loving God. They respond to war, to human tragedy, to illness, and to sorrow in this way. They act as though they believe that God should be responsible for these sorts of things, in reality neglecting the care of providing in this day God has given and downplaying the effects of our sin.
The love of Christ is far more complex and thorough-going than we tend think. Some things in life are deceptively easy. Those are the sorts of things you expect to be very difficult and when you take a shot at them, everything works and you find yourself doing whatever it is with amazing grace and ease. I like those things. They make you feel competent. Some things are deceptively difficult. Sometimes they seem easy to do, but after you are done, you discover that you really did not accomplish what you thought you did – or what you were supposed to accomplish. Other things look easy when you watch someone else do them, and when you take a shot at it, assuming it will be simple, you find yourself greatly taxed by the task and doing it poorly or not at all.
We tend to think of love in that way.
Yet, our love is usually quite simple and shallow. Our love is often easy. Our love is a love of pure emotion. Our love only focuses on pleasing each other, making each other happy. Many people have trouble doing the things that are difficult or painful to endure. So we have an entire generation of parents who say, “My child is not going to have to do this – or do without that,” simply because they had to do or endure it, and did not find it fun, or understand it well. They never stop to think of how their experiences – whether they thought them good or bad – schooled them, taught them, and made them the people that they are today. They just know that they did not like it and they resent it, and they will not allow their children to experience it. And that is that!
How many of you have had your shots? How did you feel when the doctor or nurse took a big needle and stuck it into your skin? First, there was a moment of fear, was there not? And then a moment of pain, but it did not last long. Why do parents let their children suffer that moment of pain? Quite simply, because the pain of the vaccination is not that bad, very temporary, while the suffering that results from disease, is much worse. Yet, the child might question, why did mom or dad permit this to happen?
The love of Christ is far wiser and deeper and more compelling. God permits us to do the difficult and even painful things that we need to do in order to achieve the good that He has planned for us. So in the verse just before today’s Epistle lesson Paul says, “Therefore I ask you not to lose heart at my tribulations on your behalf, for they are your glory.”
Paul knows that it is difficult to understand the love of Christ, because he is asking the church in Ephesus not to be upset or downhearted about his own tribulations, because, he says, they are for their glory. These tribulations are the persecutions and stonings and imprisonments that Paul is facing day by day as he spreads the word of the Gospel. The hostility Paul faces in the world because of the Gospel is frightening and discouraging for the Ephesians and Paul wants to encourage them and lift their discouragement over these things. He doesn’t want them frightened by the hostility of the world, nor discouraged by the troubles that will inevitably come. We also have the Word of God which tells us that our difficulties will work out on our behalf.
There are those things which are just plain beyond our comprehension. That is the nature of the Love of Christ for us. Some incomprehensible things are incomprehensible to certain individuals because they have no explanation, like Murphy’s Law. Now and then, there are those things which we cannot comprehend due to size. Try to imagine a dozen marbles. Not too hard, is it? Now imagine a hundred. Now try to imagine a billion. How much room do you think they would take up? Could we fit them in our worship area? If each marble is ½ inch in diameter, a billion marbles would form a line from Madison almost to Nairobi, Kenya.
The Love which God has for us, and the power that He brings to bear on our behalf each day is, likewise, incomprehensible. It is incomprehensible to us because we do not know enough, because it defies any explanation that we would understand, and because of its size. That’s Paul’s prayer for you today.
“For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Paul never met any of you, and yet this prayer is also for you. Such is the love of Christ. Paul is praying that you might have the Holy Spirit dwelling within you with His mighty power so that you might believe – and so that Christ would dwell in your hearts through faith. The purpose for this is simple, that you may comprehend the love of Christ.
“And that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” This isn’t simply a prayer that you will realize that Christ loves you, but that you will begin to understand in some measure the nature and enormity of the love of Christ.
Don’t feel bad if you have trouble capturing it all in your mind – Paul writes to us that it surpasses knowledge and understanding. You simply cannot think that big, or in such complexity and detail. The Gospel is a good place to start, if you want to understand the love of God.
The Gospel tells us that God the Father loved us enough to send His Son to live for us and die in our place, innocent of any guilt, and not deserving to die at all. I have read examples of people trying to draw an analogy which would make the staggering depth of the love of God for us clear, such as comparing us to ants, and one of us being willing to step down to the existence of an ant for their benefit. It is a nice story, but it fails as an accurate analogy because we have more in common with ants than God has with us, by nature. We are created things, with bodies. Besides, ants never did anything to really offend us. We may find them inconvenient or want them out of our houses, but they have never sinned against us. They never rebelled against us, and we’ve never really provided them a paradise out of love.
In order to understand the magnitude of the love of God – to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge – you first have to comprehend sin, its nature, its magnitude, and its consequences. Our text says nothing directly about the issue of sin, but you can’t comprehend the love of God without comprehending something about sin.
Sin is rebellion against God. Sin is rejection of God and of life He provides. It doesn’t always feel that way to us. The very fact that we don’t perceive sin that way tells us that sin is deception. Sin brings forth death. Simply stated, those descriptions of sin tell us why we should be concerned about sin. But we are blinded to the truth by our sinful flesh, often trying to excuse our sin. Denying our sinful state as we live in relative comfort and wealth of our daily existence, especially in this nation. Life doesn’t hurt for us the way it does for many. Life isn’t a struggle for us, generally, the way it has been a struggle for most people throughout history, simply a struggle to live the next day against hunger, disease, or withstanding the elements. We can afford to ignore reality and live life in destructive and foolish ways, and there is always someone or something around to pick up the pieces.
Try to imagine the love of Christ, who took on human nature and came to live among us offensive sinners. He did not walk about holding His nose, mincing through the crowd as though He feared touching that which is filthy, as we might if we were working with foul, smelly, and contagious people – especially if they were spitting on us and calling us names as we worked to help them. The love of Jesus was enormous. He came among sinners to save sinners, and endured the wickedness and the hypocrisy and the hostility of sinners toward Him.
Then, He took your sins, that foul stench, on Himself and them paid the penalty for it as though it was His own – so you could have life eternal, life with God, and joy and peace and freedom. That was His love. And yet the love of Christ is more, and larger. It is not that we can take those few words and clearly imagine how it was for Jesus or what that love must be like. We cannot! But that love is just part of it!
Another aspect of that love is how He blesses and protects and guides you each day. How many of you sinned yesterday? And yet, here you are alive today. He has promised to feed you – and in all the years of your life, He has kept that promise. He has promised to clothe you, and none of you have stumbled in here naked. He has promised to guide and protect you, and here, in the fellowship of His people, He does through Word and Sacrament. He provides everything you need, but it may not always be in a way you expect or come to you as you would prefer.
Wrapping your mind around that, “comprehending the love of Christ”, is not easy. In the face of such rejection and perversity which was so unappealing and offensive to God, He loved us so greatly that He took on human flesh and human nature and became man. Sin made us enemies of God, deliberate enemies, and yet, while we were still enemies, Christ came to redeem us. He lived and walked among men, enduring not just their sinfulness. He faced their evil schemes. He endured their attempts to trap Him and embarrass Him. He patiently endured their continual fears and doubts, despite His presence with them and providing for them. He endured open hostility as He taught and prepared His disciples for what would follow His great sacrifice. He endured betrayal, abandonment, beatings and mocking, torture and injustice, and then He died for those who were doing such horrible things to Him. He laid down His life – – for us. He bore it all patiently so that we might be set free from sin and death. That is the love of God.
“Therefore I ask you not to lose heart .” This moment, this problem, this illness, this situation is going to work out for blessing and good. That is the promise of God, who loves you. Even if it works out for death, in the end, it is a blessing, for death is but the door to eternal life. To see the blessing, however, you must take God at His Word and trust Him – but the blessings is there, and, when you comprehend the length and breadth and height and depth and know the love of Christ, you can have peace even in the midst of turmoil, and look forward to the blessing of God in any and every situation.
Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.
These words make a fine way to end a sermon, but you want to listen to them carefully, as well. We confess in these words that Christ is able to do “far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think.” Yet, sinful as you still are, you will also abound in love as the Spirit works in you. There will be acts of love – for neighbor and brother and stranger alike. You may not even notice the works of love that you or another Christian do. Sometimes you must accept with faith alone that such fruits exist. If you notice such fruits in others, give thanks to God. If you notice them in yourself, say, “I am only an unworthy servant,” and confess your sins all the more. For you have glory enough in Christ without seeking glory for your deeds. Let Him glorify you in His time.
This glory of Christ for you is a great and wondrous thing. It is higher and wider and deeper than any of us can ever measure. It passes all human knowledge and understanding. Remain steadfast in this Word, He will open your eyes more and more by His Spirit. He will show you the riches of His grace and strengthen you to persevere in times of trouble.
He can do far more than you can imagine, or ask of Him, even that which we don’t often ask or think, as we focus on our present life as He saves you from sin, death, and hell. To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.