Trinity 16 — O Lord, Cleanse and Defend Thy Church

Preached September 23, 2012

Ephesians 3:13–21
St. Luke 7:11–17

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Recently, I was reading a little book by Pope Benedict XVI, and in the book the Pope quoted a phrase that he said had been popular at one time, I presume popular in Europe, as “Jesus yes, Church no.” The idea was that people were saying that they wanted Jesus, but that they did not want the institutional Church, and the Pope was saying that you cannot have Jesus without the Church. The Church is Jesus’ creation, sent by Jesus to continue His life in the world until His coming again.

Last Sunday, we talked about how our Christian life is built within the Church, how the Church provides the structure for our lives and the shelter in which we live. But what of the Church itself, the institution? In the entire cycle of the Church year, there are only two Sunday Collects, today’s and Trinity 22, where we pray specifically for the needs of the whole Church as a body, more than just the individuals within it. We began the Collect this morning with the statement:

O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church

The Church is weakened by the sin of its members, and thus requires the cleansing hand of God in order to strengthen it. Jesus paid the price for all of our sins by His death on the Cross, but we tend to repeatedly wander away from that saving grace in Christ Jesus. As God has made the Church clean, we also pray that the Church may be defended from all error and division. We pray for a Church that has the strength to stand firm against the shifting winds of popular opinion, firmly grounded on Christ the solid Rock. This is the Church defended by the hand of God. This has never been more urgent than in the present day!

Most of you are familiar with the term “synoptic Gospels” referring to the first three Gospels and meaning “seeing with one eye” or telling the same story. And then there is the Gospel of John, the different Gospel. Why is John different? The synoptics present a chronological history, but John presents the case for the divinity of Jesus and thus for the truth of our salvation. John covers many of the same events that are presented in the synoptics, but the emphasis is completely different. The writer of the Gospel of John gives his objectives in John 20:31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

So what has the Gospel of John to do with today’s lessons which come from Ephesians and St. Luke? The connection is particularly to the book of Ephesians. St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is, of all of Paul’s writings, most like the Gospel of John. It is the most mystical, the most profound, and the most universal of  all Paul’s letters, so we need to approach Ephesians with somewhat the same mind set that we use when we read the Gospel of John. One of the several themes of the book of Ephesians is the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, directly tied to our considerations today.

With this background, let us turn our attention to the details of the Epistle lesson for the day. The lesson begins at the end of a long revery by St. Paul on the immensity of the Church, in which he has been describing his appointment as an Apostle, his tribulations and sufferings as he has fulfilled that office, particularly in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. He says, Ephesians 3:13 Wherefore I ask that ye may not faint at my tribulations for you, which are your glory. He is probably writing this from prison in Rome, and he does not want the members of the Church to be overcome with sorrow for him, because this work was all done for their salvation. He is a willing servant of Christ, and wants them to understand that this was all done for the love of Christ.

Thinking of the cause of Christ, the reason for which he has done all of this work in the first place, he then goes on in prayer to God the Father, Ephesians 3:14–15 For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, This is a prayer to God the Father, not just of Abraham, but Father of all the faithful in Christ, all who are named by His name, that is the Church. It includes the Church Militant here on earth, and the Church Triumphant, already gone on before us. We might note also that St. Paul prays on bended knees, not standing, as has become popular in our proud, modern culture.

And then the way that Paul asks for the substance of his prayer to be granted, Ephesians 3:16a  that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, Paul asks that his request be granted, not according to what the limited imagination of the human mind may think to ask, but rather out of the vast abundance of the glory of the Father, a far more rich resource than we might ever imagine. We cannot even properly ask for what we cannot grasp in our severely limited humanity. Finally, then the content of the request, Ephesians 3:16b that ye may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; He is not asking for them to be given physical strength so much as for strength in the inward man, that is the new man, made new in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is the strength that is important, that will enable them to endure until the end. He goes on to describe this indwelling Spirit, Ephesians 3:17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, This Spirit is in fact Christ alive in our hearts through faith. And notice that he here describes love as a root, not as the fruit or product; that is because Christ is at the root, in the heart. Thus faith is not the only root, but love itself is to be considered the root as well, and it is love that is expansive and fills space.

Thus he continues in Ephesians 3:18 (you) may be strong to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, Paul is describing something clearly beyond our ability to understand, and he indicates that in part by the use of four spatial dimensions – breadth, length, height, and depth. And yet he says, (you) may be strong to apprehend so he is saying that we can be enabled to understand, that we will understand the mystical body of Christ which is the Church, when we are truly one with all the saints, the Church. And then he goes on, almost as if to correct himself, Ephesians 3:19 and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God. He has just promised understanding, but then in the next breath, he admits that the love of Christ is beyond understanding. But he still promises that the Church will know this love of Christ, even if it cannot be fully understood, and that it will be filled with the fullness of God, but what is that? By the fullness of God, we are to understand all those gifts and graces which he has promised to bestow on man, and which he dispenses to the Church. To be filled with all the fullness of God, is to have the whole soul filled with meekness, gentleness, goodness, love, justice, holiness, mercy, and truth.

Then St. Paul pronounces a mystical prayer: Ephesians 3:20 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, 21 unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen. He again invokes God; God with power far beyond what our human hearts might ask, but rather Who acts in His unlimited abundance. This is God beyond all words, God that we cannot express or describe because He is bigger and more all encompassing than we can conceive. This power of God is known by the power that worketh in us, that is the experience of the Holy Ghost within their lives. To this amazing power, so transcendent, so unspeakable, he passes over into worship and praise, unto Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end.  Amen.

The thread that runs throughout this whole lesson is the love of God for His Church to which St. Paul is witness. As with God Himself, this love is bigger, fuller, and more encompassing that anything that man can imagine. When we cry out to God, we are want to ask for the things we think we need, but St. Paul is telling the Church to ask for the full mercy of God, for those things which only God can imagine because they are so far beyond human understanding. The love of God is a love far beyond our ability to understand. We think we understand love, the love of parents for children, the love of man and wife for each other, the love of friends for each other, but all of these are pale imitations of the love that God has for His people. We know this because He sent His Son to die for us; His Son, the Second Person of the Godhead, was given flesh and came to earth to suffer and die for us, an act so far beyond our ability to comprehend, and yet the best evidence we have of the vast love of God for man. This is the love of Christ for His Church. And remember, we cannot have Jesus without the Church.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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About Father D

I am a priest of the Continuing Anglican Church, the continuation of orthodox Anglicanism into the present 21st century. My theology is definitely that of a Reformed Catholic point of view, neither Roman nor Calvinist.
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