Trinity 16

"An Encouraging Letter"

Ephesians 3.13-21; St. Luke 7.11-17

Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor

+ In the Name of Jesus +

Paul writes from prison to the Ephesians,

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. (Eph. 3.13-19; ESV)

Paul speaks and acts in ways that are strange to us. To our eyes and ears, a prisoner is the weak, the dying, the forgotten one, and the one at fault, guilty, not worthy of being in society. “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key…” we like to say about criminals – may he rot and die there, like the state of Indiana ensured happened to the so-called “angel of death” serial murderer who died in prison this past week. He never walked around free again, and rightly so. He was guilty.

Paul also will not leave prison alive. But Paul’s message is from His faith in Jesus Christ. Do not lose heart, Ephesians, or Christians today, at my tribulations, my sufferings, he says. These sufferings are “for you” – just as Jesus suffered and died “for you” – the disciple will not be held in any higher esteem than His Lord! My suffering is your glory, says Paul. 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.

The outward condition in which we Christians find ourselves does not determine our true condition in life. That includes finding one’s self in prison. That includes day-by-day dying to this life in body and mind, as we age. That includes suffering losses and death and heartbreak and abuses at the hands of others, even unjustly. That includes being the widow at Zerephath or the widow at Nain, weeping and mourning and even upset with God perhaps, for we know God gives and takes away, and we do not understand why sometimes our outward condition has to be so low, so down, so despairing sometimes.

Paul’s letter from prison today tells us to take heart and lift up our heads to this truth: 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 now see the glory God has for us. It is hidden underneath suffering and loss in this life.

Paul not only encourages us Christians in our tribulations, even as he suffers. He also bows his knees and prays for us. He prays the prayer all pastors of Christ ought to be praying for the Christians they serve in Jesus’ name. He prays for their spiritual strength, their faith, and their love – that they be pointed to and trust in the unfailing and incomprehensible love of God for them in the Lord Jesus Christ. That all Christians see and know their fullness rests in Christ, and not in how things look on the outside to the mortal eye, and not how their feelings at any one particular time may be up or down.

How does he pray? He falls on his knees. He humbles himself and calls to the only God there is, the only one who hears, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ Father has become our Father. We are His children through our adoption into His great family of faith through baptism. Think of the whole family of saints in earth and heaven, all of us have received that same name of Christ in our baptism. We have access through Jesus Christ to the Father, who receives our prayers.

Hear this word about prayer from the epistle of James:

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5.13–18; ESV)

The prayers of a righteous person availeth much – they have great power. Just look at Elijah’s example. At his prayer, not only did God withhold and then bring the rain at his prayer, the earth later on bore the fruit of the resurrected son of the widow at Zerephath at his prayer as well.

God is “like an eternal, unfailing fountain. The more it pours forth and overflows, the more it continues to give. God desires nothing more seriously from us than that we ask Him for much and great things.” (Large Catechism, III 56) Paul says it this way: God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think…”

Sometimes our prayers, sometimes, “all that we ask or think” may be those “groanings too deep for words” – when only the Holy Spirit can give voice to and intercede for us before the Father (Paul in Romans 8). This is probably the case with the grieving widow at Nain. Her only-begotten son is dead on the funeral bier, and she has no hope. Not only is the boy dead, she and all her life seems to be turned upside-down, good-as-dead too. None of her words are recorded. She had nothing to say. She just weeps and wails and leads the way to the grave, as the women of a village traditionally did in those days.

Perhaps, if her prayer had been given voice, it would be our Introit today. Turn back to the Introit in your bulletin today, from Psalm 86. There we see these words: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all the day… Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy… In the day of my trouble I call upon you, for you answer me…”

Today, in the prison of our tribulations and sufferings, in the cross-shaped and heavy burdens that we know and experience in this sin-sick and corrupted world, in the unfair and unforeseen and just plain unexplainable and impossible to understand things that happen to us all on a daily basis, when it hurts so much we cannot even express to God out loud what we need, when our life is turned upside-down, good-as-dead like the widow of Nain, with little hope for a bright tomorrow and only a dark grave ahead, today God speaks comfort through His prophets and apostles. They assure us and call us to know that there is something you have been given that overcomes it all, vanquishes even death itself, for you have someone who hears your prayers for help and comfort, and answers them, acts upon them.

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. (Eph. 3.17b-19; ESV)

You have God’s love in Jesus Christ. God’s love is revealed in the crucifixion of God’s Son. This is the “love of Christ which passes knowledge.” 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, in Him, 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, the cross and its shame does, just like Paul in prison, like a dead widow’s son at Nain appears as grim failure too. Jesus’ 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 the cross is the triumph of God’s love. Love conquered sin. Our Lord, the righteous Man, prayed for our forgiveness from His cross, and His prayer continues to avail much to this day, it has the greatest power. For God defeated the devil there. Life stripped death of its power there. 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. The proof that this is all true for you, in the face of all things in this life, is the empty tomb of the risen and glorified Lord Jesus Christ.

This love, that we baptized children are rooted and grounded in, 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 the glory of heaven hidden under bread and wine to eat and to drink that we might be continually grounded in and filled with his love. There is no love except where Christ enters in.

In that love, we pray for others, trusting that love to raise our dead, heal our wounds, and drive away all fear, trusting the power and might of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, Savior and Brother and Friend:

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. (Eph. 3.20-21; ESV)

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +