The 17th Sunday after Trinity—23 September 2018

5212053Our text is today’s Epistle (Ephesians 4:1–6): 1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (ESV)

More than once, St. Paul was imprisoned for the faith. But he never complained about his imprisonment and he did not consider himself a prisoner of the state, even though it was government officials who put him in prison. Rather, Paul considered himself a prisoner for the Lord, and that gave meaning to his suffering. In his epistle to Pastor Timothy, Paul writes: Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, … as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (2 Timothy 2:8-10). Do you see? Paul endured his suffering for the sake of Christ and His Church.

The same is true for you and me. We humbly endure our sufferings so that God may be praised and so that our brothers and sisters in Christ may be encouraged by our example of patience and faith. But of course, we do not always deal with our afflictions with such humble endurance and patient faith. Rather, our primary concern is that God would bring our troubles to a quick end. And when He allows our troubles to continue, then we often grow discouraged and we question whether God loves us and hears our prayers.

This morning, though, St. Paul would say to all of us: “it’s not about you!”.  Life is not about you having a trouble-free life.  Your life in Christ is about God drawing you close to Him and strengthening your faith, even when you are suffering. Life, then, is not about you, but about you living in relationship to the living God of heaven and earth.

I imagine that at times, we all have considered ourselves to be prisoners of circumstances from which we feel there is no escape. But as Paul considered himself a prisoner for the Lord rather than of the state, so you and I should consider ourselves not as slaves to our circumstances but rather servants of the Lord.  Being the Lord’s servants is what gives meaning to our suffering, so that, like Paul, we endure our suffering for the sake of Christ and His Church.

Now, we tend to think of our life in Christ as individuals, as if it is all about Jesus and you, just the two of you. And of course, it is true that in Holy Baptism you have a personal relationship with Christ. But the Bible puts a greater emphasis of how we exist corporately, how we relate to God and to each other as the Church of Christ. And really, it is in belonging to the Church that gives meaning to our suffering. Yes, we are the assembly of God’s children, the Lord’s servants. And that gives meaning to our lives, in spite of our suffering.

In today’s Epistle, St. Paul is addressing us not as individuals but as members of the Body of Christ, the Church.  I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. The focus is not on you, on your struggles, sorrows, and sufferings. Rather, the focus is on us all as children of God and the Lord’s servants. Which means that ultimately you and I should not focus on how and when our personal troubles will end. Instead, by God’s grace, we all are to strive to live up to our calling in Christ.

Just as the aim of Paul’s life was not to get out of prison, so our life’s aim is not to have a trouble-free existence. Rather, our calling is to live with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. And the reason why we are to be humble, gentle, patient, and loving is so that the unity of the Spirit may be maintained in the bond of peace. Do you see how this works? When your brothers and sisters see you enduring your suffering with humility, gentleness, patience, and love, then they are encouraged to remain as faithful members of the one, holy, apostolic Church, living in peace with God and one another. By God’s grace, your faithfulness encourages others to remain faithful, just as St. Paul remaining true to the Lord while suffering in prison was an example that most certainly inspired all the churches in the Roman empire.

When you suffer, you should never think that it is all about you. Rather, consider your suffering as an opportunity to glorify God and to encourage your brothers and sisters in the faith. Of course, it is not that your faithful example creates unity in the Church, for we are truly one only because the Holy Spirit has make the Church one in Christ. But…the way you deal with suffering can affect the Church’s unity.

We do not create unity but we can spoil the Holy Spirit’s good work by our pride, anger, impatience, and lack of love. Oh, it is possible for us, by our sinful actions, to disrupt and even lose the Holy Spirit’s unity and peace. But our calling in Christ is to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.

These characteristics—humility, gentleness, patience, and love—are all fulfilled perfectly in Christ Jesus our Saviour, who is the Head of His Body, the Church. Remember how our Lord said: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:29). And then He showed His gentleness by coming…humble, and mounted on a donkey on Palm Sunday on His way to Good Friday (Matthew 21:5).  Yes, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2: 8).

Our aim is to grow up in Jesus. As the Head of the Church, Jesus, the Son of God, is perfect in every way. But of course, we are not. Now, in Holy Baptism, we are truly connected to Jesus. That is why the Church is called the Body of Christ. But in this case, the Body lags behind the Head in development. That is why, later in today’s Epistle, Paul writes that we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (4:15-16).

Your life is always about more than just you. Rather, your life is about you in relation to Christ and His Church. Your ultimate concern should not be to escape trouble but to grow up in every way into Jesus, Who is the Head of the Church. But, of course, if you focus too much on your growth as a Christian, you are bound to become discouraged. For your growth is never a straight line always going up on the chart of self-improvement. Rather, your growth in Christ is a jagged line of ups and downs. And so, it can never be that your perceived growth in humility, gentleness, patience, and love gives you lasting peace. For you fail miserable, and so do I. And that is why we pray daily for our Father in heaven to forgive us our trespasses and also why we come each Lord’s Day to be absolved and renewed in the faith.

But thanks be to God, there is more to our life in Christ than our imperfect, incomplete faithfulness in being humble, gentle, patience, and loving. There is a greater reality that sustains us, a reality that is perfect in every way, firm and unchanging.  Here is how St. Paul describes this perfect reality: There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

This side of heaven, your life in Christ is a jagged line of ups and downs—of God-given acts of faithfulness and of self-generated sins. You are both holy and impure, a saint and a sinner. And so you must always look outside yourself for the comfort and assurance of salvation. You must look to the reality that is perfect and that does not change. Yes, as you suffer and struggle with the weakness of the flesh, you must look to the one Holy Spirit, who breathes life into the one, holy, apostolic Church and who gives you the one hope of salvation, which is found in Christ alone. You must look to the one Lord Jesus Christ, who bore your sins, guilt, and shame and who died in your place on the cross to defeat sin, death, and the devil and to give you eternal life. You must cling to the one faith, which confesses the Holy Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and also Jesus as God-in-the-flesh come to save sinners through the shedding of His holy, precious Blood. By repenting of your sins, you must return daily to your Baptism, where God connects His Word to water to make you His own dear children forever. And you must trust in God the Father, who loves us all and who has from everlasting blessed us in Christ.

This is the reality that is perfect, firm, and unchanging. And this is the reality that sustains you as you struggle and suffer.  There is one body and one Spirit—…one hope…— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Do you see? It is not about you. It—your life in Christ—is all about you in relation to the Church, the Spirit, the hope, the Lord, the faith, baptism, and the one God and Father of all.

You live in two realities. You live in the reality of you striving but often failing to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. And you live in the reality of the Holy Triune God and of His perfect working of salvation through His Word and Sacraments in His Church. Hold on tight, then, to the perfect reality. Yes, hold on tight, knowing that it is God who is holding on even tighter to you.  Our heavenly Father, who is over all and through all and in all, looks after and sustains His whole creation. And with His amazing grace, God works through His Church to accomplish His saving purpose. In fact, so close is the relationship between God and His believers that the holy Scriptures even say that God dwells in His believers. As our Lord Jesus promised His disciples at the Last Supper: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him  (John 14:23).

There you have it: in Holy Baptism, the Holy Triune God has made His home with you—with you, singular, as an individual believer, and with you, plural, as members of the Body of Christ. Yes, God has made His home with you, and that is what gives your life meaning even in the face of suffering.

And because God dwells in you, it is never appropriate for you to exalt yourself in the presence of the King. Do not take the high spot at the table. Take the lower spot. Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Walk in a manner that bears witness to the Spirit-given unity of the Church and that encourages your brothers and sisters to remain faithful to Christ. Walk and live and suffer, knowing that Christ Jesus Himself took the lowest place, humbling Himself even to the point of death for us, and that He is now exalted to the highest place at the right hand of the Father so that we may be exalted together with Him in the resurrection to life everlasting.  Yes, walk and live and suffer, knowing that in every moment and in all things you are being sustained by the perfect reality of the Holy Triune God, who gives you His firm and certain gift of salvation. Thanks be to God!  Amen.