Tonight we begin a new series entitled the Spirit Filled Life. Over the course of the next few Sunday evenings we are going to be looking at how our Mission Statement works itself out in the life of a disciple of Jesus. For those who don't know, our Mission Statement has undergone something of a minor revision of late. So let me just bring you up to date: our mission statement is a continual, overlapping process encouraging us to do three things. To live Godly lives, to grow the church and to change our nation. Tonight is the first of two sermons under the idea of 'Living Godly lives', namely 'Trusting in Christ'. I hope that helps set the scene.
The story is told that one day the devil decided he was going to put all his tools up for sale. On the date of the sale, the tools were lined up on a table, each being marked with its sale price. They were a treacherous lot of implements: hatred, envy, pride and so on. Set apart from the rest was a harmless looking tool. It was quite worn and yet priced very high. "What is the name of this tool?" asked one customer pointing to it. "That is discouragement." Satan replied. "Why have you priced it so high?" the customer asked. "Because it is more useful to me than the others. I can pry open and get inside a man's heart with that, even when I cannot get near him with the other tools. It's badly worn because I use it on almost everyone, since so few people know it belongs to me." Unsurprisingly the devil's price for discouragement was so high that the tool never sold.
Well I hope you forgive that modern fable. Whilst literally untrue, the fact remains that discouragement is still a widely used tool by Satan – especially on God's people. I'm not sure how many of us currently feel discouraged, but surely each of us can testify to having experienced it in one way, shape or form at some time or other. As we start this new series tonight, it seems to me that Paul's incredible prayer, in the middle of his letter to the Ephesian church, is a great place to turn because it is a passage of gospel truths designed to encourage and strengthen us, no matter what situation we are in, to keep on trusting in Christ. So let's have a look at it together, and it may help you to refer to my outline on the back of the service sheet. My first point is that trusting in Christ requires:
1. Humble Dependence On God In Prayer (v.14)
If you've ever wondered what it means to trust Christ - if you've ever wondered what that looks like practically - then there is no better place to look, than at the state of your prayer life. There is a direct correlation between how much we pray and what we pray for (on the one hand) with how much we trust Jesus (on the other). And quite simply if our corporate prayer lives and our individual prayer lives are non-existent, then so is our trust in Jesus. My lack of prayer is actually statement of defiance to God that 'I think I can do this thing called life quite well on my own, thank you very much'! The times I don't pray, in effect I'm saying I don't need you God! Not so for Paul. He models something very different. So Paul says, v.14, "For this reason [we'll come back to the reason in a bit] I bow my knees before the Father". By being on his knees (actually an unusual posture for prayer in Paul's day) he was making a statement of humble dependence. In effect he is saying "God, I acknowledge you are in control and I'm not!"
So what was the reason for Paul to pray this way? What motivates him? Quite simply it is the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection which has paved a way for a new community of God's people made up of Jew and Gentile (or church goers and non-church goers in modern currency!). Just briefly look back to chapter 2, verse 8. This community is made up of people who… "... by grace… have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God", Paul is on his knees before his creator because the people he is writing to have decided to trust in Jesus.
It may well be that you are here tonight and you haven't accepted God's gift. Please know we'd love you to! You are always welcome in our services. As you heard earlier, we run sessions especially for people wanting to explore more about the Christian faith. But please understand this. Paul is praying for those who have decided to become Christians – and he makes it very clear that whilst becoming a Christian is no guarantee of an easy earthly life, there is some amazing help to equip us for the journey. So let's get back to it. How can praying help increase our trust? Well, according to Paul, we need to ask for four things. Firstly, Pauls prays for:
a. The strengthening of our inner beings through the Spirit (v.16-17a)
"that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being"
In other words: we need power to trust in Christ! But that power is not a physical strengthening but an inner strengthening and it takes place regardless of our physical condition. I see this most strikingly at the moment with a friend from my previous church who is in her 60s. Her outer shell is rapidly succumbing to the onslaught of cancer. She has weeks, maybe days to go. And yet those around her, caring for her, praying for her, testify that she is living in many ways with a strength not previously seen. There is a peace and a strength to her character, to her inner self that has only come from the riches his glory. You could say she almost has one foot in heaven.
But what's the point of this inner strengthening? Paul makes clear in v.17 that it is so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. The point is that Jesus comes and takes up permanent residence in our lives through his Spirit. And it's a residence that lasts into eternity – don't worry about your body, we get renewed ones of those – but what we do need to see is that Paul's focus here is not on the initial indwelling that happens at conversion, but on a continual, increasing presence. This strengthening is a process. Maybe an analogy will help. Back in 1967 my in-laws moved into their first and only home. If you were to look at their house now and compare it with the 2 bedroom bungalow from back then, it's virtually unrecognisable! Back then the house only had 4 rooms. The plastering was in urgent need of repair. There was paint involved that my father-in-law describes as bright yellow (I guess it was a 60s thing!).There was no central heating. And the garden was seriously overgrown. And as the years went by the plastering was redone, they plumbed in central heating, they rewired, the yellow paintwork was replaced. As hard-earned money has allowed they have expanded, they've gone out and up, providing room for their children, foster children and grandchildren. They now have nearly as many bathrooms as they had rooms to begin with! And the garden has been transformed from wild weeds, to a vegetable patch and a part-time football/cricket pitch. It's just wonderful – and everywhere you look you see the results of their labour and vision – it has been shaped to their needs and tastes!
When Jesus takes up residence in us, he does a similar thing. He finds the moral equivalent of garish paintwork, of dodgy plastering, and overgrown weeds and he sets about turning this dwelling into a place suitable for him. It's a lot of work - there is much cleaning, repairs and much needed expansion to do – but his aim is clear. He takes up residence in our hearts, strengthening us and preparing us for eternity! Maybe though, because of the state of your outer being (physical shell) you are feeling the effects of Satan's tool of discouragement particularly acutely tonight. It may be illness, it may be a disability, it may be a preoccupation with image, it may simply be the aging process itself – whatever it is – it has caused you to lose inner energy and motivation in your walk with Christ. Well friend, pray. Pray that God would strengthen you with his power in your inner being transforming you into a house that reflects his character and is perfectly suited to his needs and tastes! Pray for his glorious riches to empower your thoughts, words, your decisions and your actions. So praying for power helps to increase our trust – secondly we need to pray to remain v.17:
b. Rooted and grounded in love (v.17b)
"that you, being rooted and grounded in love…"
And here Paul uses two pictures that emphasise depth over superficiality. We are to be rooted in love – in other words like a plant with deep roots into the soil of Jesus' love, and we are to be grounded in love – in other words like a building built on the firm foundation of Jesus' love. In so doing, when Satan's tool of discouragement is used to make us lose touch with reality and we feel completely unloved and uncared for – then we know the true source of God's love. And that can happen can it not? Maybe you are here tonight and for whatever reason you have been let down - let down badly by a friend, a parent, a family member, a work colleague, a brother or sister in Christ. You have been so discouraged by whatever it is they have done that you can't see a way forward and you feel so unloved and uncared for. Well friend, trust. Trust that you have been rooted and grounded in love for a purpose. And that purpose is to grow and be built up and to take the unseen roots and foundation of Christ's love in your life and to make that visible as God uses you for his glory. This is what Jesus was talking about in our NT reading. John 13, v34-35:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
But there's a warning here too. There's a flipside. If you cut yourself off from your roots by refusing to forgive, or bearing a grudge, or persistently flying off in a rage, or continually gossiping behind someone's back – then you cannot bear fruit yourself, you cannot be refreshed yourself. If you dig up your foundations and begin to drift theologically by not reading your bible or meeting with other Christians at times like this – then the building will crumble and you will be destroyed. So can I ask – how are you strengthening your roots and protecting your foundations at the moment? What are you reading? What are you watching? Who are you listening to? So if we are going to be equipped for a lifetime of trusting in Christ we need to have both deep roots and firm foundations. But what does that look like in practice? I think Paul anticipates the question, by praying that we would
c. Grasp the limitless immensity of Christ's love (v.18-19a)
"may have strength 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, this is fantastic isn't it?! We could spend ages on this. But what it boils down to is this: trusting in Christ is more than just head-knowledge. Listen to what Don Carson has to say on this section:
"This cannot be a merely intellectual exercise. Paul is not asking that his readers might become more able to articulate the greatness of God's love in Christ Jesus or to grasp with the intellect alone how significant God's love is in the plan of redemption. He is asking God that they might have the power to grasp the dimensions of that love in their experience. Doubtless that includes intellectual reflection, but it cannot be reduced to that alone."
D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, p.191
Now in our Christian circles we are understandably suspicious of experience and emotions, for it's too subjective – what affects your emotions, may not affect mine. But here's the deal. When Jesus comes and dwells in us through faith, Paul describes him dwelling in our hearts. And the heart was known as the centre of one's personality – the thoughts, the will, the emotions and whatever else lies at the centre of our being! So if Christ has taken up residence he is at the centre in our hearts exercising rule and authority over all that we are and do. Intellect and experience. Mind and soul. Word, thought and deed. And as if to prove this Paul asks us to understand something that can't be fully understood with the mind; to know something that can't be fully known with the mind.
Of course this side of glory we'll never fully plumb the depths of God's love for us in Jesus…but a little bit of exaggeration and poetic language aside, we would do well, without taking it too literally, to meditate on how far those dimensions go. For it has been suggested that the love of Christ is broad enough to cover all mankind (that, after all, has been Paul's theme); is long enough to cover the length of our lives and into eternity; is deep enough to reach the worst of sinners and high enough to place him in heaven. Others see these dimensions portrayed on the cross itself. The breadth and length being the horizontal beam - stretching out Jesus arms as an invitation & welcome to all. The height and depth being the vertical beam - reaching down to earth and pointing up to heaven. Now these things may or may not have been in Paul's mind when he wrote these words. I wouldn't like to say. But when we are trusting in Christ, day by day, Paul wants us not just to know God's love, but to experience it in all its fullness. That's why Paul also prays at the end of verse 19 that we would:
d. Be filled with God's own fullness (v.19b)
"that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."
Which is Paul's way of saying "Be all that God wants you to be!" God wants you to be filled with his fullness, he wants you to understand who he is and to grow to be more like him and then mirror those attributes to an unbelieving world. Again this is a phrase that implies growth to maturity. But that maturity won't fully be received until we are made perfect in heaven. So although Paul is looking ahead to that heavenly perfection, don't be blinded to his contemporary challenge. We're not there yet. The prayer is that we may be filled!
Friends, God expects daily discipline from us as we grow to that maturity. Daily we need to be in his word reflecting on his fullness – that is, his nature and character. Daily we need to be in prayer grappling with all sorts of issues, desires and circumstances. Because when Satan wants to discourage us by making us lose our way; when he tells us that we are not full or complete because we're not married; or don't have any children; or we're over the hill of usefulness; or our children are out of control or unruly or whatever other lie it is that Satan choose to peddle to make us believe we are empty and incomplete…we need to believe and trust that in Jesus, we are being filled with all the fullness of God and that one day we will be whole and complete in a way that we cannot possibly imagine right now. One more brief point and then I'll conclude. As well as prayerful dependence we need to realise that trusting in Christ is not a solo effort.
2. Realise It's Not A Solo Effort (v.15 & 18)
Time does not permit great discussion on this point, suffice to say that woven throughout this passage is a great emphasis on community. He talks about family in v15 and in v18 his prayer is that we "may have strength to comprehend with all the saints". That is for a reason. And the reason is that God has ordained that this Christian life is not to be lived as a solo effort. When we come under the cosh of Satan's discouragement in all sorts of ways, we need each other's help practically, prayerfully and emotionally. This is why we push small groups in this church so much. And if you are not meeting regularly with other Christians to read and to pray, can I encourage you to do so? Join a Home Group. Arrange to meet up with another couple of men or women every so often to catch up and pray for each other. And if you are already in a small group – can I encourage you to make them as welcoming as possible to others joining in. Whether it's a friendship group, a home group or whatever. One of the ways that Satan uses his tool of discouragement on me in my current job, is when I hear about people leaving the church for negative reasons. And I know, for example, that there are some who have walked out of our proverbial back door, because their experience of trying to trust Christ at JPC was, rightly or wrongly, a solo effort. They couldn't break into friendship groups. They didn't feel supported or loved by the wider church family. I'm not issuing a rebuke, but this is an appeal and a prayer for sensitivity that going forward into our multisite future we would redouble our efforts to look around to welcome, to speak, to include those who are on their own. Trusting in Christ is not a solo effort!
Well I'm going to conclude with my third point. You see it would be easy to look at this entire list and say – that's impossible! In fact the more I look at Paul's prayer the more I'm staggered by his boldness and his audacity to pray this way. But Paul knows what he is doing, and ultimately trusting in Christ is all about trusting in the one with infinite ability. Praise God for that!
3. Trust The One With Infinite Ability (v.20-21)
"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, for ever and ever. Amen."