16th Sunday after Trinity + Ephesians 3:13-21 + September 11, 2016
Collect for Trinity XVI
Lord, we pray Thee that Thy grace may always go before and follow after us and make us continually given to all good works; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Sermon on the Epistle Lesson
Grace and Peace be unto you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1) St. Paul writes to the congregation in Ephesus to comfort them in their affliction. At the moment their particular affliction is the status of Paul himself. As Paul writes this letter to the Ephesians he sits imprisoned in Rome. This is why he writes, “Therefore I ask that you do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.” Having your preacher sit in an imperial prison is not necessarily a good thing. Having THE Teacher of the Gentiles in custody would only bring shame upon the Ephesians who had gladly heard Paul and accepted his teaching. The world had judged Paul as a criminal and a seditionist. The world will always do its best to silence true preachers. This is what happened to the Prophets of old. Jeremiah thrown into a cistern. Isaiah sawn in two. John the Baptist imprisoned and beheaded. Christ crucified. Stephen stoned to death. The world was simply operated according to its standard M.O., putting Paul in chains and eventually, under the abrasive hand of Emperor Nero, martyring him. The world assumed Paul was a disgraced leader and that is certainly what the Ephesians would have felt as their heard news of Paul’s imprisonment in the capital of the empire. That is how tongues would have wagged about Paul, seeking to destroy his credibility since they had not been able to destroy his gospel. Paul, always teaching and pastoring his flocks, even while imprisoned, consoles them, “do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.” With this Paul reminds them to look at all life’s situations, even the direst, through the eyes of faith in the promises of Christ rather than through the eyes of the sinful flesh.
2) This is important for Christians in every age to learn, for one of the fruits of the gospel is the hatred of the world and suffering because of it. At the end of his first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas “returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith, saying, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Paul, like the Lord Jesus Christ, never promised a life of ease to his Christians. He did not sugarcoat the truth by telling people that the Christian truth would make life easier. He lived a life of hardship because of the gospel and he taught the flocks under his care to expect the same treatment from the world, since the world, secular society, and human cultures cannot tolerate Christ. “Do not lose heart,” he says. “Do not be discouraged because I sit in an imperial prison. Do not fall away on account of my trials, for they are given to you as proof of the truth of the gospel, so that you may firmly believe and not doubt. This trial of Paul’s is for the strengthening of the Ephesian’s faith, for that is the purpose of trials and hardships in the life of the Christian. This is because faith is not a substance that you can possess, so that once you possess it you can lock it away for safe keeping. Faith is confidence, a heartfelt trust, a boldness of heart that no matter what the world does, no matter how Satan rages, and no matter how much the sinful flesh torments you, faith is that which still clings to Christ’s Word. Paul does not want their faith to wave and grow cold because of his situation, or from any future situation.
3) This is the reason for his prayer in today’s Epistle lesson, which is really a marvelous prayer to think that St. Paul wanted this for Christians. He prays that God the Father “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 by 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.” Paul is very wordy here as he always is, but the point of his prayer, that for which He asks, is quite simple: that God the Father strengthen the Ephesians with might through the Spirit in the inner man. He prays that God would strengthen their inner man through the Holy Spirit so that their inner man is mighty against the assaults of the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh. He prays for such strengthening because his gospel has shown the Ephesians that their own strength is nothing when it comes to fighting sin, enduring temptation, and overcome the thoughts and patterns of this world. St. Paul knows the Ephesians are weak according the inner man, so he prays that the Holy Spirit might strengthen that inner man, which will in turn lead them to comprehend the ineffable depth of the love that Christ has for them.
4) When Paul writes about the inner man, he is speaking of the new man which Christ raises to life in us through the Gospel. He says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” This happens in Holy Baptism, for he writes in Romans 6:4 that “we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. In Baptism Christ washed you of your sin inherited from Adam. In Holy Baptism the name of the Triune God was placed upon your forehead and your heard through water and the Word, and you because the new creation. Holy Baptism is a resurrection not of the body but of the spirit, whereby you are regenerated, born again, or born from above, so all who have been baptized in the name of the Triune God have faith in their hearts and are the new man. Luther attributes this to Holy Baptism in the Small Catechism, “What does such baptizing with water signify? It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” You are united with Christ in His death by Holy Baptism. You participate in the crucifixion and resurrection so that your old sinful self, the Old Adam, the Old Man, are put off, buried, and gone, so that the new man, the inner man, the man that lives by faith in Christ might rise daily to live before God in Christ’s righteousness and purity.
5) Paul prays that that which was accomplished for the Ephesians in Holy Baptism might be strengthened so that it not falter in temptation nor shrink as it considers sufferings and hardships. The outer man, the Old Adam, the sinful flesh, still clings to us in this life and does all it can to suppress the inner man as well. It is not only the spiritual temptations of the Satan and the hardships the world brings about that try to weaken the Christian’s resolve. Paul prays that the inner man be strengthened with might according to the Holy Spirit so that the inner man, the man of faith in Christ, might struggle against and overcome the old Adam with his sinful desires. Paul tells the Corinthians something similar in 2 Corinthians 4:8-11, “We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed -- always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” Though the Old Adam, our sinful nature, daily press us, perplex us, persecute us, and strike us, the Christian daily fights against him and puts him to death through repentance and faith. That is how the death of Jesus is manifest in our own bodies, through the putting to death of our sinful desires.
6) Paul goes on to say, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Though the outer life, the life of the sinful flesh, hard press us and try to lead us into sin in thought, word, and deed, our inward man is being daily strengthened and renewed by the Word. Paul prays that the Holy Spirit would strengthen the Ephesians in the inner man, and he teaches elsewhere the Holy Spirit only works through the Word, for “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). The Holy Spirit cannot strengthen the inner man of those who neglect the Word, despise the Word, or refuse to hear the Word after their baptisms, for the Word is His instrument for increasing the inner man, strengthening his confidence in Christ’s promises, and emboldening him to confidently live a life of faith towards God and fervent love toward neighbor. The Holy Spirit cannot, and will not strengthen anyone’s faith and inner man apart from the Word of God, through preaching and His visible Word of the sacraments. This is why the Ephesians were to treasure the Word of God and the preaching of Paul whom God had sent, regardless of his worldly circumstances and outward persecutions and hardships.
7) What Paul prays for the Ephesians is the desire of the Triune God for all Christians. Your Lord wants to strengthen your inner man, the new life given to you in Holy Baptism, through the preaching of His Word and through receiving His sacraments according to His institution. He does not want you to lose heart at what you see with your eyes, nor does He want you to be deceived when the church suffers hardship or when you undergo personal trial, so that you imagine you have lost His favor. He wants to strengthen your inner man, your faith, through His Word, so that you may be begin to comprehend the width and length and depth and height of the love of Christ, so that your faith may be strengthened for the trials that lie ahead in the week to come. You cannot endure temptation by your own strength, for you have none. You cannot endure the world’s persecutions by your own resolve, for the only resolve you have is that which is given by God. But praise be Christ, for He desires to strengthen you, to embolden you, and to fortify you in all His promises. To that end He gives you the Holy Spirit to strengthen your inner man, so you might suppress the Old Adam with its lusts and desires, and let the new man of faith come forth. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds by faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.