For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father.
For what reason, Paul?
This is one of the challenges with lifting up these discrete passages of scripture on Sunday mornings and declaring “The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.”
That’s all good and fine, but what’s the reason Paul feels compelled to his knees?
We can, of course, flip back in our Bibles to earlier parts of the letter to the Ephesians and we can read about God delighting in bringing those who were far and those who we near together through the blood of the Lamb, we can read about the riches of God’s mercy, we can even read about the proclamation of peace made possible in Christ, but here’s the real zinger: by grace you have been saved.
By grace you have been saved.
Paul calls this the mystery of Christ.
And what, exactly makes it so mysterious? That God, author of the cosmos, would come to dwell among us, to live, and die, and live again that we might do the same – that’s confounding stuff.
Notice, too, the language – by grace you have been saved – it’s done and decided, without us having to do much of anything save trusting that it is true.
That profound promise, that decisive declaration, is enough to get Paul down on his knees in humble adoration. He’s filled to the brim with joy and gratitude, his cup runneth over as it were, because God has done what we could not have even imagined.
That might be a little tough for us to come to grips with today, with 2,000 years of church history of knowing how the story ends. But during the time of Christ, no one expected the resurrection – not the crowds, not the religious elites, not even the disciples. And yet, Easter is the transformation of all things – death no longer has dominion over us.
By grace you have been saved.
Put simply – The work of God in Christ has made it such that there is no nation, clan, family, or even an individual who is beyond the love of God.
Or, in even simpler terms: even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
Now, I know that seems like an obvious thing for someone like me to say in a place like this, but it’s a rather inconvenient truth for us to swallow. For, it implies that we don’t deserve what we’ve received. And boy do we enjoy the language of fairness.
Well, for those of you unaccustomed, God is downright unfair.
God lifts up the lowly and bring down the mighty.
God has compassion for the poor and sends the rich away empty.
God takes brokenness and turns it in value.
God looks at sin and sees redemption.
And yet, God’s unfairness is riotously Good News!
Listen – despite how well we might strive to appear on Sunday morning, each of us bring a myriad of secret hurts, private shames, and lost hopes to worship. Our exteriors may display something different, but on the inside we’re all struggling under the weight of the world, and the weight of expectations (those we place ourselves and those placed on us).
And yet, this is what God has to say today: By grace you have been saved! Bring your pain and your shame, bring your fears and your frustrations. By grace you have been saved! It’s not up to you to ascend the mountaintop of morality. It’s not up to you to earn your way through the pearly gates. By grace you have been saved!
This is the whole of the Bible in a sentence. Whatever else we do, praying or singing, it’s all a response to this profound and mysterious word spoken to us by the Lord.
And in order to hear this Word, really hear it deep in every fiber of our being, we need what we call the church – the great company of those who are willing to listen together – to hear it and receive it.
It’s not something we can just believe on our own – we need it spoken to us over and over again because, of course, it sounds too good to be true.
And that’s exactly why we gather together, and pray together, and sing together, and laugh together, and weep together, it’s all so that we might hold fast to the only really Good News we can ever receive.
It’s therefore in the knowledge of the Good News that Paul is drawn to his knees in prayer – in prayer for us.
I pray that, according to the wonderful bounty of God’s glory, you may be strengthened with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being reminded of the love that meets you where you are.
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth, and to know the love of Jesus that surpasses knowledge.
And so to him, who is able to accomplish far more than we can ever ask for or imagine, to him be glory in the church forever and ever.
Paul prays, across the generations of the church, that we might come to know the immense and bewildering and mysterious nature of God’s love for us.
Remember: the God we see revealed in Jesus is what God is really like, deep down, which is also to say that the God we see in Christ is what God has always been like and will always be like.
What better way can we know what God’s love is like, then, by listen to a story that Jesus tells about himself?
Listen – There was a man who had two sons.
The family business had been good to the family – the little grocery store was passed from generation to generation and the father worked hard for the store and for his sons.
And one day the younger son walks in the back office and says, “Dad, I want my share of the property right now.”
In other words, “Drop dead.”
And, strangely enough, the father responds by dividing up his assets between his boys: to the elder hegiras the property and the responsibility of the family business – to the younger he cashes in on some investments in order to hand over his half in cash.
Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of the money in Atlantic City. The more he spent the more he lost and the more he lost the more he spent, on women, on booze, and more gambling.
His fall from grace happens so fast that he starts begging the casino owner for work.
“Sure,” the owner says, we’ve got an opening in janitorial services.
The younger son spends the days emptying trash can after trash can and even thinks about sneaking a few pieces of food from the bottom of the bags because he’s so hungry.
And eventually he comes to himself – he realizes that even the employees back at his father’s grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their head. So he packs up the little that he has, and he heads home.
The father is sitting by the front window in the grocery store, listening to his older son bark out orders to his former employees from the back room when, all of the sudden, he catches a glimpse of his younger son walking up the street. And he immediately runs out the door, tackles his boy to the ground, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.
“Dad,” the boy struggles to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
“Would you shut up!” The father yells, “We’re gonna close the store for the rest of the day and throw a party!”
He lifts his boy off the ground, pulls him into the store, and starts barking out orders of his own, “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “Hey Jim, do me a favor, find me the nicest rack of lam we’ve got and start roasting it out back” “Everyone, it’s time to celebrate, this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”
The beer caps start flying, the radio in the corner gets turned all the way up, and everyone starts rejoicing in the middle of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and the payroll, when he starts to hear commotion down the hall. He looks up in the door frame and catches a glimpse of Jim with foamy beer stuck to his mustache while humming a tune and carrying what looks like a nice leg of lamb and the older brother shouts, “What is going on?”
Jim hiccups and says, “It’s your baby bro, he’s home, and your Dad’s throwing him a party.”
The older brothers fists tightens into a knot and he slams the door in Jim’s face.
With every passing minute his frustration and anger increases. He evens throws the older ledger book across the office, and then he hears a little knock on the door.
His dad steps into the office and says, “What are you doing back here? You’re missing the celebration!”
The older son is incredulous: “I’m doing my job Dad, in case you’ve forgotten. Look, I’ve been working like a slave for you and I’ve never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me! But this prodigal son of your returns home, having wasted all of your money, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”
The father doe-eyed happiness disappears for a moment, he grabs his older son by the collar, and says, “You idiot. I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me. You’ve been working for yourself! I gave your brother cash and I gave you the family business and what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by doing what you think you’re supposed to do that you’ve lost sight of what matters.”
“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now! I’m on a roll. Listen – all the matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you? You’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the music! The only real reason you haven’t come to join us out front is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectation that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time, and you’re alive and miserable. Do yourself a favor, son of mine, forget about your so-called life, and come have some fun.”
The parable of the prodigal.
A story we might call unfair…
This story shows us the mystery of Christ – The father chooses to die for us, to give away his whole career and future in the parable, whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life to shower us with love. And like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteous snobbery.
The mystery of Christ, contrary to how we often present it in church, is that Jesus came to save sinners.
And notice: Jesus didn’t say he came to judge sinners, or even turn them into non-sinners, he said he came to save us.
The whole of the New Testament, from the parables to the epistles, makes it abundantly clear that Jesus’ salvation work only by grace through faith – not by frightening people into getting their acts together.
If the Gospel is about anything – it is about how God meets us where we are, not where we ought to be.
In the end, it’s a mystery. It also happens to be the only Good News around. Amen.