Topic: Biblical Verse: Ephesians 3:14–3:21
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
“Life Together: Spirit Strong”
I can’t do it. You can’t do it. But what if?
It feels good to be prepared, to be ready. From what I’ve observed, it seems like we Americans, in particular, like to think that we can overcome any obstacle. Sometimes we do that by making sure we have enough stuff or the right stuff to tackle a challenge. Preparedness is good, but I know somebody who’s got a “go bag” backpack, outfitted with tools and survivalist supplies in the event of a big disaster that would send force him to leave behind everything else at home. People here in northern Virginia buy up all-wheel-drive SUVs and trucks so that they’ll be ready to go off-road should the need ever arise. Some of those folks also think that they’ll be able to drive in any snowy conditions when the winter storms come, but that’s not usually the case when a blizzard hits.
It’s true that we don’t always depend on the stuff we own. If you want to be able to do something, you can learn a skill, or a bunch of skills. Knowing how to do things can come in handy. That way, when a situation surfaces, you’ll be ready for it. Doesn’t matter if you may never have to deal with a bear attack in the city where you live – especially since you never go camping – but if a grizzly shows up in your man cave, you’ll know what to do! Growing up, I enjoyed reading “Rules of Thumb” books that collected random advice for a truly massive scope of needs. Should I ever have needed to decide between a using a drive-thru and ordering food at the insider counter or, say, land an airliner, I had some handy tips at the ready! I still kind of want to be ready for any situation – or, more accurately, to think that I’d be ready for any situation. I’d like to feel like I can do anything. It’s almost like a potency addiction. How much would you like to be able to do?
Last week in our “Life Together” series from Ephesians, we heard of the building of “living stones” which God is assembling in His Church in Christ. If you go back and read what Paul wrote there in Ephesians 2, it sounds pretty great: people from all different backgrounds brought together with Jesus as our cornerstone. But then when you start thinking about that, what’s it going to look like? How big is it going to be? Who’s a part of it? Truly, this building of living stones is going to be a whole lot bigger than you or I can even imagine. So how can we build it?
I can’t do it. You can’t do it. But what if we worked together?
Lots of organizations have brought people together from different backgrounds around a common purpose. Local communities do it. Corporations do it. Our country’s military and government do it. We don’t have to look too far to see what’s possible when people are working together. But can they overcome any obstacle? In the real world, neighbors have disagreements or get wrapped up in other commitments. Corporations see competitors who start offering other products and services and erode market share. Our military faces elusive and entrenched opposition. And the same is often true of our government’s internal politics! Is the Church any different?
In its aspects as a visible human institution, the Christian Church on earth, in all its forms, is a lot like those other organizations you see in the world. As we work together, we face obstacles and challenges from within and without. But if we look to face those challenges on our own, confident that we can overcome all obstacles without God’s working to make it so, we moved from potency addition to potency delusion. We’re imperfect people with imperfect families and imperfect friends. Even the other people in the pews around you right now aren’t perfect. And when you consider the enormous scope of God’s design for His Church and the mind-boggling number of imperfect people who are the living stones that make up that Church, how can we possibly hope to stand against all the forces that are seeking to burn it all down to the ground and bury it?
I can’t do it. You can’t do it. Even working together, we can’t do it. But God can. And He does.
It’s not me or you who brings the Church together and keeps it together. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Here in this section of his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul affirms that truth. He prays for the Church there, that the Spirit would make them to be strong as that building of living stones, built, as we heard, with Christ as their cornerstone. Take a look at Paul’s prayer. He’s asking that the Holy Spirit would work in those Christians so that Jesus would live in them, in the inner self, the new and regenerated being that God has made through His gift of faith. Paul prays that they would be rooted and deeply grounded in self-giving love that reflects Christ’s love, the love which empowers them and makes them strong – so strong that they may comprehend the knowledge-surpassing scope of God’s wisdom and love in Christ, lived out in the Church. Wow! That wisdom and love are so broad, so long, so deep, so high that they’re beyond human understanding – and yet they are exactly the wisdom and love through which the Church lives and works. Paul asks that the Holy Spirit do all this so that these people, this congregation, this Church be filled up with the fullness of God. As we consider what it means to have and live life together in Christ this summer, I ask that our Lord do the same for us and our community: make us to be strong through the Spirit.
Made to be strong through the Spirit, our life together in Christ isn’t based in our potency or our ability to overcome the obstacles before us. It is rooted and grounded in the forgiveness and new life with God that Jesus paid for on the cross because of our weakness, forgiveness and new life with God which the Spirit freely delivers to us in His Church. Made to be strong through the Spirit, you and I are now prepared to offer that which we could never fully or freely give on our own: forgiveness and welcome.
People don’t like to forgive. When you forgive, you’re letting go of something that you can hold over someone, something that gives you power over them, even if it’s only in your own mind. But holding that over someone can get really tiring, sapping the strength that you need for living. As Jesus’ disciples, we are to forgive anyone who comes to us asking for forgiveness, fully and completely – just as God has forgiven us in Christ. Forgiveness is central to a Christian’s life, but it’s not something we can do on our own, especially not to the complete extent that Jesus commands. That’s why praying “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” isn’t something you want to do lightly! But made to be strong through the Spirit, you and I can forgive each other fully and freely, because the Spirit is the One making our forgiveness a reality. That is Christ at work, dwelling in you.
In the same way, the Spirit empowers us to welcome others as He works through us. It’s not easy to welcome a stranger, especially if they are not like you. God has not brought us into life together to be a country club of similar people, but to be a lighthouse and life-saving post in the stormy world around us. Made to be strong through the Spirit, we have the power to connect with people from different backgrounds and places in life, serving as instruments of God’s grace.
Paul’s prayer for the Church reflects what we need for our life together. As Christians, we share an aspirational reality. We are weak and imperfect people who make mistakes; yet God forgives us and welcomes us as His people and makes us to be strong. The Holy Spirit is working in you to prepare you and make you ready to face the challenges of life – it’s happening today through His Word and Sacrament shared in the congregation of which you are a part. And here’s another amazing truth: God’s giving is not limited by our asking or our thinking. God continues to do amazing things in our life together as we forgive and welcome and share God’s gifts, doing more than we ever thought possible, more than we ever thought we could.
You can’t do it. I can’t do it. Even we can’t do it. But God can, and He does, in Christ.
So let us pray with Paul: 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)