Text: Ephesians 3:13-end
Shortly after I became Rector here at All Saints, the bishop strongly advised me to spend either Epiphanytide or Trinitytide preaching through the entire Epistle to the Ephesians. When he was a new rector, he found this to be a very valuable exercise, and he has often advised new rectors to do the same. You see, the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians contains some of the Bible’s strongest and clearest teachings about our relationship with God and our relationship with other Christians. As such, preaching through Ephesians can set a great tone for a new pastoral ministry, and a new relationship between a parish and its rector.
So, beginning with the 10th Sunday After Trinity in 2019, we did twelve full weeks on this Epistle, half a chapter each week. One of the ironies of this series was that I didn’t know that the last third of Trinitytide has portions of Ephesians assigned for the Epistle reading already; I ended up preaching on several passages a week before or a week after they were already scheduled to be read in the lectionary! This week, the 16th Sunday After Trinity, begins six weeks in which we will encounter five passages from the Epistle to the Ephesians. With the exception of a slight detour back to 1 Corinthians two weeks from now, our readings will be in the order you find them in Ephesians itself.
The Book of Ephesians gives us a great summary of the Gospel within the context of life in the Church. In particular, St. Paul focuses on what it means to be chosen by adoption into God’s family, united to and by Christ out of many different peoples. As the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” this is the heart of St. Paul’s ministry. Not only had Jesus come to be Israel’s promised Messiah and King, but he had also come to redeem the whole world. No longer would God’s Covenant with Humanity be limited to a single family; no longer would his Covenant be defined by lineage and geography. No, God had expanded the boundaries of Israel to include all the faithful of any nation. The Kingdom of God would be based on allegiance to and unity with the King of the Universe. The curse of Babel would be reversed, not by destroying the Nations through conquest and homogenization, but by adopting the nations into God’s fold. I’m reminded of St. John’s vision in chapter 7 of the Book of Revelation, when he writes:
After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hand. And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
In the first two-and-a-half chapters of Ephesians, St. Paul describes this mystery. He gives the Ephesians a glimpse behind the veil, showing them the kingship of our Lord Jesus, our blessed inheritance as his adopted brethren, and the reconciliation this brings between differing peoples. In the last three chapters of the Epistle, St. Paul gives practical instructions to the Ephesians, rooted in this glimpse. Now that the mystery of Christ’s Kingdom has been revealed, chapters four through six of the Epistle tell us what it looks like to live in light of that revelation. This includes general moral instruction, but it also includes amazing implications for business relationships, relationships between parents and children, and the most profound chapter on Christian marriage in the Scriptures.
In between those two sections we have today’s Epistle, which is something of a transition between the mystery and the practicality of the Gospel. And St. Paul makes this transition with a prayer. Ephesians 3:13 (page 212 in the Prayer Book; page 918 in the Pew Bibles):
I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of 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 in by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.
Before he gets into the prayer itself, St. Paul prefaces it by saying that he doesn’t want the Ephesians to be discouraged by his own sufferings for the sake of the Gospel. Now that the Ephesians have been given that glimpse into the mystery of the Kingdom, they know that Paul’s sufferings have a greater purpose. And indeed, those sufferings are ultimately for the Ephesians’ benefit. Paul’s tribulations are for their glory. The hope that comes from knowing the Gospel, the hope that comes from having a glimpse of how God is setting all things to rights, of how God is “making all the sad things come untrue” (as a popular Children’s bible says), gives us perspective. Indeed, the Apostles, Martyrs, and all the saints, have always considered it an honor to be able to follow our Lord on the path of suffering for the sake of the Gospel. It’s easy to lose heart and become discouraged in the face of suffering. But the others side of the suffering is the promised glory. As true as this is when we think of actual persecution of the Church, it’s also true when it comes to the discomfort that comes when we crucify the flesh, and submit our wants, desires, and earthly proclivities to God and his word. No matter what the present trial or temptation might be, keep your eyes on the promised glory, when we will see God face-to-face.
Next, we have Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians itself. Both the King James in our Prayer Book and the ESV in our pews follow the Greek text by having verses 14-19 as one long sentence. This sentence builds clause-by-clause into one glorious petition on behalf of the Ephesians, and (by extension), you and I today. Thomas Aquinas notes that this becomes something of a model prayer for us. It begins with Paul bowing his knees and kneeling before the God the Father. The Church Fathers and the Reformers all point out from Verse 14 that humility, signified here by Paul kneeling, is a key aspect of good prayer. We don’t come before God demanding our due. We don’t come before God with a high hand. Indeed, as St. James writes, “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6). This is why our Prayer Book beings Morning and Evening Prayer with confession and absolution, in which we call ourselves “miserable offenders” in whom is no health. This is why Holy Communion beings with a recitation of God’s Law, to which our response is “Lord have mercy upon us.” And in all those services, God does indeed assure us of his grace and goodness towards us in response to our humility.
As we continue in his prayer, Paul then calls God “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named”. Again, we see that the Fathers and Reformers all noted that this tells us something about the nature of all fatherhood, specifically, that it all comes from the Fatherhood of God himself. If we are all under the same Father, we are all in the same family. Indeed, such paternity is found both in heaven and in earth. For those who are fathers in an earthly sense, this is a call to imitate the Fatherhood of God. That is, we should show the same love and grace that God does, even when we exercise our authority. There are some in the world today who assume that all authority is wicked and inherently corrupt or abusive. But it is God who establishes different kinds of authority, authority which is rooted in his own authority. Abuse and corruption are perversions of what God has set up. As God’s family, we would do well to correct those abuses and to model a better, truly Christian way.
In fact, when we look at the progression of Paul’s prayer from verses 16 through 19, we see how God shows forth his Fatherhood. By his Spirit, he strengthens us in in the “inner man,” in our deepest selves. He cares for our welfare not only in body, but also in our souls and spirits. In our catechism, we recognize that the Sacrament of Communion is a gift for just such spiritual strengthening. God strengthens us “according to the riches of his Glory.” God is not stingy with us, but pours out his grace richly, abundantly. The result of this (verse 17), is Christ’s indwelling by the Holy Spirit. He changes us from the inside out, making us “rooted and grounded in love.” Our work for the Gospel, including the work that leads to holiness of life, comes from a place of love, because God has first loved us. We love because he has loved. And that love is not a superficial love that merely tolerates or affirms, but is a love that transforms hearts and minds, leading to true peace and holiness.
This love then allows us to see with supernatural eyes, so that we are “able to comprehend with all saints what is the breath, and length, and depth, and height” (verse 18). God’s glory, majesty, and love are immeasurable. Yet he gives us a glimpse of its greatness anyway. St. Jerome says that this allows us to “draw near as a neighbor” to both the heavenly realities and the earthly realities of God’s Kingdom, becoming partakers of something much, much bigger than ourselves. St. Gregory of Nyssa points out the cruciform nature of St. Paul’s imagery in this verse and notes that it is through and by the Cross of Christ that we have such supernatural comprehension and vision.
Verse 19 brings the prayer back to the fundamental knowledge of the love of Christ, a love that is beyond all knowledge, so that we might be filled with the fullness of God. Christ’s love is so big that it cannot be comprehended, just as God’s fullness is too great for human understanding. Yet we are still brought into that love and into that fullness. There’s something Trinitarian about this imagery: the Love of God is rooted in his fullness, the fullness that we see in the Trinity. The eternal love the Father has for the Son, a love that is the Person of the Holy Ghost, spills out onto and into creation through Christ’s redeeming Sacrifice. And since God the Son has forever taken on flesh and become one of us, we are brought into that eternal, immeasurable love by the Holy Ghost who indwells and empowers us. Indeed, all the good works that we are called to as followers of Christ start with knowing his love. As the 4th century theologian Marius Victorinus observed, “Doing comes from this knowing.”
Finally, we have the doxology of St. Paul’s prayer in verses 20-21:
Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.
God’s love and power is such that he does more than we can ask or even think. God is not stingy with his gifts. Even when things look bad, we can trust in his goodness and sovereignty. Often, we are like little kids who don’t know what’s best for us, and instinctively fight or complain against our Heavenly Father. But maturity breeds trust. I cannot tell you how often I have been in the depths of worry or fear and God has shown himself faithful, despite me not having learned my lesson the previous time. God is indeed faithful. He loves us and knows what’s best for us. Sometimes obeying his Word is difficult or counterintuitive. Oftentimes, it doesn’t make sense by worldly standards. Oftentimes, it goes against everything the flesh wants. Trust him anyway. Obey him anyway. By doing so, you glorify him, just as Jesus did.
Indeed, as Christians, as the Church, we should be seeking God’s glory first and foremost. In fact, he will and does get the glory whether we seek it or not. But the mystery of the Gospel is that he raises us up when we glorify him. He pours out his goodness, and indeed gives us of his glory. After all, he is our Father. We have been adopted as his beloved children, all for the sake of his only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.