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Strengthening the Inner Person

 

Ephesians 3:14-21

 

I have long thought that the least accurate way of finding out what a person believes is to ask him what he believes.         As soon as we ask someone what he believes, he’s suspicious – and rightly so. He wonders immediately why we are asking the question, where we are coming from, where we are going, what we plan to do with his reply.

We find out what a person really believes when we overhear her, when she doesn’t think that anyone’s listening, when she isn’t concerned to impress people.         We find out most accurately what someone believes, I’m certain, if we overhear her praying. This is the acid test: what we really believe about God (as opposed to what we say we believe), what we believe about the Gospel, about life – it’s all indicated about what we pray for; and not only what we pray for, but also how we pray for it.

Throughout Scripture we are privileged to overhear people praying: Moses, David, Isaiah, Jesus, Stephen, Peter, Paul. In the passage from the Ephesian letter that forms the text of today’s sermon, we can overhear Paul praying: not only what he prays for, but how he prays for it.

In Ephesians 3 Paul reminds his readers that concerning them (they are, after all, dear to him) he “bows the knee”. Contrary to what we modern types may think, to “bow the knee” doesn’t mean to get down on one’s knees to pray, perhaps like a child saying “Now I lay me down to sleep”. To “bow the knees”, rather, is a Hebrew expression meaning “to collapse”: to stumble, fall down, crumple. In modern English we say that someone’s knees buckled.  Jewish people don’t kneel to pray: they stand.  (If you go to a synagogue today you will find Jewish worshipers standing to pray.) In Luke 18 Jesus utters the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.   The parable begins this way: “Two men went to the temple to pray…one standing here, the other standing there….”  Jews stand to pray.

Then why does Paul (a Jew) “bow the knee”? We should recall our Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion wherein he would bear in himself the Father’s just judgement on the sin of the whole world.         We are told that Jesus “knelt” to pray.  He didn’t calmly kneel down beside that flat-topped rock we see in so many church pictures. The Greek text uses a verb tense that indicates our Lord’s knees buckled; he collapsed, got to his feet again and took a few steps, staggered once more and collapsed as his knees “bowed” and buckled beneath him repeatedly – all the while with perspiration running down his face, Luke tells us, as though blood were pouring out of a forehead gash.  “Bow the knee” is an expression Jewish people used of that pray-er who was preoccupied, intense, passionately concerned, in the grip of something crucially important and therefore unmindful of all else.

Paul is this concerned about the congregation in Ephesus . He’s pleading for them.  He isn’t tossing off a pretty prayer before he hops into bed and falls asleep. He’s urgent, instant, constant, about something.

 

What is it? What’s he so very passionate about? He wants the Christians in Ephesus to be strengthened in their “inner being”, their “inner man” (woman). He wants them to be fortified against the attacks, the difficulties, the disappointments and dangers that life hurls at them. He wants them to be fortified against the propaganda of a world that sneers at truth and sets clever falsehood in its place.  He doesn’t tell them to strengthen themselves.         Regardless of how strong they might be in themselves (or might not be), he insists they need an infusion of strength from outside themselves, specifically from the Lord whose people they claim to be.  He prays ardently that Jesus Christ, the true man, new man, will reside in them and preside in them so very thoroughly that his presence within them will be their strength, and they will know it.

 

[1] The apostle is so very concerned about the strengthening of the inner person, in the first place, because he knows that life has to be faced, ultimately, by the individual and her Lord. On the one hand, no one wants to minimize the comfort we receive from those who gather around us and support us when upheavals come upon us.  Few things are worse than being abandoned just when we need others as we have never needed them before.  On the other hand, however much our friends may sustain us (and they do), all of us are aware that there is a dimension to us, an innermost crevace, to which no one else has access.  There remains an innermost recess in all of us that not even the best friend or the most loving spouse can penetrate.

It’s for this reason, I’m convinced, that so many people feel awkward at funeral parlours.  They know that their concern at the time of the bereaved person’s loss, and their support in the months afterward, however genuine and generous, finally gets so far and no farther.  They know that their care and concern, genuinely helpful, can’t ultimately access the innermost recesses of the person most recently afflicted.

If they can’t access that person’s innermost heart, then who can? One alone can; namely, the one who said, “Abide in me and I shall keep on abiding in you.” He alone can “abide” in us. The evening the widow goes to bed by herself, for the first time in decades, her family is startled at their inability to reach someone who seems so very close to them yet is ultimately out of reach.  The most effective thing any of us will be able to do at that time is pray, even pray with bowed knee, that Jesus Christ will strengthen her “inner being” as he dwells even deeper in her – to use Paul’s language.

All of life is like this, not merely bereavement situations. Parents whose children are about to leave adolescence for adulthood are aware that soon these young adults will strike out on their own.Parents will be powerless. Weren’t they powerless (or largely powerless) when their offspring were adolescents? Yes.  But the move out of the adolescent world into the adult world amplifies the realization that while our love for someone never stops short of that person, our access to that person does.  Then we can only pray for the strengthening of the inner being, the inner man or woman.

All of us need such strengthening.  Life is ceaseless stress. We are released from our employment. We fall ill. We are rebuffed.  We disappoint ourselves. Every day brings a surprise, something that we haven’t been able to anticipate and therefore that we haven’t been able to prepare ourselves for. It comes upon us without warning and moves on quickly.  We are left with the after-effects, as unable to understand it all as we are unable to shed the after-effects.         There are many things we can do next, but most aren’t helpful.  We should always remember that we are spiritually most vulnerable when we are emotionally most wounded.  It’s little wonder that the apostle prays ardently for the strengthening of the inner being of those dear to him in Ephesus .

 

[2] Yet the apostle has more in mind. He contrasts the inner man, the true man, the new man, with the old man, the old woman. The new man is who we are in view of Christ’s coming to us and taking us into his own life.  The Gospel-promises insist that all who keep company with Jesus Christ are given a new nature, a new name, a new future.         The new man or woman is the creature God intended from the start, unmarred by sin and corruption and self contradiction.  The new man or woman is the creature in whom God’s image shines forth, the image no longer marred or obscured or defaced. This is who we are as men and women “in Christ”.

But this isn’t all that we are, for the old man, the old woman, the creature defaced by sin and difficult to live with; this is still with us. To be sure, the old being doesn’t determine our ultimate identity: Christ does this. Still, the old being clings; it lingers.  And it is loathsome.

In the Roman Empire of antiquity, Roman authorities displayed limitless imagination and cruelty in punishing law-breakers. One of the most hideous punishments was that of strapping a corpse to the back of a law-breaker. The criminal had to carry it around for a day or two or three as a judge decided. The corpse was heavy. It was awkward.         It inhibited movement. It always interfered with what the person was supposed to be doing.  Worst of all, it was revolting: it stank, it leaked.  It was hugely repulsive to the person who had to carry it, repulsive as well to those who witnessed it.

In the 7th chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome , Paul glories in the new life that arises in God’s people as they live in the company of Jesus Christ.  Then with shocking abruptness he deplores the life of the old man, the old woman, the creature of sin that all believers have repudiated – he deplores this as he cries, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?”  On the one had he knows and glories in and is ceaselessly grateful for the gift of new life at Christ’s hand.  On the other hand he’s only too aware that the old man slain at the cross and therefore dead; this corpse is strapped to his back, and it isn’t pretty.

Luther, with his customary earthiness, says that you and I are new creatures in Christ to be sure, but the old man/woman won’t die quietly. The corpse still twitches, says Luther.

We know what he means.  While we are indeed new beings in Christ, the old being appears stuck to us. It’s heavy; it’s awkward; it interferes with the Kingdom-work we’re commissioned to do. And it is repugnant.  How repugnant? If I used the language right now that Luther used, you’d throw me out.  If ever we think Luther exaggerates, however, we need only ask those who work with us or live with us.  To be sure, they may love us; just as surely they are burdened with us precisely where we are most loathsome.

Temptation never ceases to pound on our door. Sometimes we open the door a crack “just to get a better look at it”, only to find that we can’t get the door shut again. Eventually we are startled, then staggered, and finally sick at heart to realize that we could hate someone so intensely that seeing him undergo adversity would make our day. Until we did it we never thought we could wait, patiently, for three months, to level someone in a public meeting – and the more people there were to witness it, the merrier we felt.

Have you ever noticed that we don’t envy what strangers have; we don’t envy what the super-rich have?  We envy what our very best friends or family members have.  We begin making tangential comments, snide remarks, passive-aggressive remarks whose poison tips we both relish and deny at the same time. Before long another relationship has gone down, and we still manage to blame the party we have slain.
You must have noticed how much better most of us can cope with emergencies, major upheavals of all sorts than we can cope with minor irritations and frustrations wherein we appear childish, petulant, spiteful, rude.  While there are relatively few major upheavals in life, however, there are countless minor vexations, cumulative vexations, and therefore the people whose lives cross ours most frequently find the body of death on our backs distressing to them and repugnant as well.

Yet we mustn’t stop here, for in Romans 7, as soon as Paul cries out “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he exclaims “Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ”.  There is deliverance.  Not instantaneous, not without a measure of pain on our part as lingering depravity is burned out of us, not without the occasional lapse whenever we become complacent; still, he who is our inner man and who is ever strengthening us; he is at work within us to free us from that burden we know to be oppressive and loathsome.

When Paul prays for the strengthening of the inner man he’s praying the Lord will magnify, expand, his redemptive work in us so that we whom he has declared new may become new in fact. In his letter to the Christians in Philippi , Paul reminds the people there that the one who has begun a good work in them will unfailingly go on to complete it.

In a word, the apostle is praying that the Ephesian Christians will find themselves increasingly conformed to Jesus Christ as the body of death drops away from them.

 

[3] The apostle has one more thing in mind: he contrasts the inner man, the new man, not only with the old man; he also contrasts the inner man with the outer man.  The inner person is who we are, who we are in ourselves because first of who we are in Christ. The outer person is what we are deemed to be by the 101 grids or diagnostic tools or measuring rods by which we are measured.  We are all measured by our monetary net worth, by our level of formal education, by our political affiliations, by our social sophistication (so-called), by our physical beauty (or ugliness), by the labels that adorn the clothes we wear, by the smoothness with which we can handle ourselves at cocktail parties and assorted social events, by the whiteness of our teeth and the non-whiteness of our hair, even by and our sense of humour. (People with a cutting, sarcastic sense of humour, I have found, are deemed to more clever, more “with it”, in greater demand, than those with a gentle, non-victimising, sense of humour.) We may be deemed to be “cool”. (“Cool” has a specific meaning in our informal understanding.)  We may also be deemed to be “hot”.  And because of the informal meanings of “cool” and “hot”, we can be cool and hot at the same time.

It’s as if so many points, one to five, are awarded in each category, the accumulation of points determining our place on the social scale.  By means of the social scale we are regarded as “losers” or perchance “winners” or, more likely, something in between.  Our place on the grid determines whether we are to be flattered or forgotten. Yet Christians know that our place on the social scale is a matter of utter arbitrariness. If the grid by which we are assessed is changed, our place on the scale changes.  Furthermore, the social grid deployed today wasn’t used yesterday, and another grid will replace it next decade.

Then who are we?  Who was the apostle Paul? He tells us that when he went to Corinth he was laughed at because of his speech impediment and his scrawny physique. He replied to the Corinthians, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” (1st Cor. 15:10)  And what was that? To the Christians in Colosse he wrote, “Our real life is hid with Christ in God.” In other words, who we are is determined by Christ’s possession of us.  This is known only to God; it is known to us insofar as God reflects it back to us. But make no mistake: it’s real.  It’s real beyond the unreality of the “outer person”.

Paul prays for the strengthening of the inner person because he knows that if we become preoccupied with the outer person, we shall deny our fellowship with Christ; we’ll forfeit our integrity; we’ll conform ourselves to social expectation and sell ourselves.

Are we afraid of looking like losers?  Tell me: did our Lord look like a winner when he was executed with criminals at the city garbage dump?  In the company of Jesus Christ there are neither winners nor losers, neither weak nor strong, neither successes nor failures, neither the flatterable nor the forgettable. There are simply children of God whom Jesus their elder brother cherishes. His grip on them makes them who they are, determines a truth about them that no social arbitrariness can undo. In view of the fact that it can’t be undone before God, we shouldn’t act as if we can undo it before ourselves or before the world.  As our inner person is strengthened, the truth and reality of who we are in Christ sinks deeper into us and increasingly characterizes our thinking, our doing, our aspirations.

 

“Bow the knees.” It doesn’t mean to kneel down. It means that some pray-er is pleading for fellow-Christians with an intensity, an urgency, a persistence that we find startling.

Specifically, Paul is pleading for the strengthening of the inner being of the Christians in Ephesus . He’s aware of the downward pull of the old man/woman; he knows the preoccupation with the outer man/woman.

But he knows too, as he concludes his prayer, of “the power at work within us that is able to do far more abundantly than we ask or think”. Then by God’s grace may you and I ever want for ourselves what the apostle wants for us, and may we want it with an intensity, an urgency and a persistence no less than his.

 

                                                                                                     Victor Shepherd                                                                                                    

September 2005