Christ Above All
Read Ephesians 1:18-23.
Just before World War II in the tiny town of Itasca, Texas, a school fire took the lives of 263 children. It was a terrible event. There wasn’t a family in this small town that wasn’t touched by this tragedy. During the war Itasca was without a school facility and kids went to school temporarily in a neighboring town. But when the war ended, the town, like many others, began to grow and they built a new school featuring what was called “the finest sprinkler system in the world.” Town pride ran high. They were proud of their new school with this cutting edge technology. Honor students were chosen to take citizens and visitors on guided tours of the new facility to show off the finest, most advanced sprinkler system that technology could supply and money could buy. Never again would the town of Itasca be visited by such a tragedy. Well, with the postwar boom the town kept growing, and just seven years later it was necessary to enlarge the school – and in adding the new wing they discovered that their state of the art sprinkler system had never been connected to the water supply. All of the parts were there and installed. It looked great. But it wasn’t connected. The water supply had been run to the building. The pipes to carry water to sprinkler heads had been installed, and the sprinkler heads were there to distribute the water if need arose. Sensors had been installed so that the system would go off in the right places if needed. But the system had never been connected to its supply of water, and thus its supply of power and effectiveness.[i]
Sadly, this could be a parable for many followers of Christ. There is indescribable power for living available to every follower of Christ, but so many of us never hook up. Because of that, many Christians’ lives in Christ are, as one pastor said, “impotent and shamefully useless.” Oh, we might be successful, making lots of money, with a beautiful family, a beautiful home, taking vacations every year, but in the Kingdom of God? Powerless. And useless. Why? Because we insist on living in our own strength. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is alive in me, and I keep trying to live in my own strength. When my brother was a toddler, is favorite saying was “My do it!” Whenever anyone offered to help him with something, he’d scowl, and grab whatever he was doing, and yell “My do it.” Didn’t matter what it was … tying his shoes, feeding himself, putting something away, whatever. It was always, “My do it!” Mom and dad were taller. And stronger. They could reach farther and tie faster and hit his mouth with the spoon, which he couldn’t. But he’d grab that spoon and yell “My do it!” He’s 41 now and some would say he’s still that way. Now, that isn’t all bad, not a totally bad characteristic to have as a child. Sometimes an independent spirit is a good thing. But we weren’t created to live independent of God. We are meant to have His Spirit flowing through us, filling us, empowering us to live as his children in a dark and hopeless world.
That doesn’t mean I can’t do good things, work hard to become a better person, apart from Christ. Lots of nonbelievers are really good people who do really good things. It’s like a cell phone battery. It works for a while, and then dies. It can go for a while but is drained. If I really work at it, I can do good things for a while. But eventually I will run out of power. The battery is drained and even in my best moments, my sinful self will show through. Every human being is a fallen, imperfect person incapable of completely abolishing sin and evil from their lives. And we all admit as much. “Well, nobody’s perfect.” “I’m only human.” What does that mean? That by definition, to be human is to be imperfect. I can do good things. I can help people. I can even sacrifice myself for the good of others apart from Christ. But as John Stott said, “[we are] mortal; [we] cannot avoid death. [We are] fallen; we cannot overcome evil. God in Christ has conquered both.” In Christ, I have been forgiven. And in Christ I have been set free from sin and death. In Romans 8, Paul says “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (8:1-2). Oh I still sin, but because Christ died my death for me, I am forgiven. And I’ll still die one day, but the sting has been removed from that death because death cannot separate me from God. Jesus experienced my separation for me. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something for me to do in the meantime. The same Paul who wrote these words encouraged the Philippian believers, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Work out in your life that which is already true about you. Plug in to the Holy Spirit. Cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. Engage in those practices that allow you to see and hear and sense God more deeply and clearly, and you will find that day by day, week by week, and year by year you look just a little bit more like Jesus. Never perfectly, but you’ll be growing. Why? Being a Christian is just about praying a prayer, believing the truth about Christ, and waiting to go to heaven when you die. But that’s what so many followers of Christ are doing today. We don’t realize that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God here and now, and are filled with the power of God to love God and love others here and now.
So Paul wants to make absolutely certain that we understand the power of God that is alive in us. Look at Vv. 20-21. Paul uses four different words for power here. The first, translated “power” is “dunamis,” from which we get our word dynamite. But dunamis doesn’t describe explosive power. It describes something containing the innate ability to accomplish something. It answers the question, “Can God do it?” Does God contain within himself the power to save, the power to redeem, and the power to accomplish his purpose in and through me and the answer is yes! The second word, translated “working,” is “energia.” Operative power. Energy. Dunamis tapped into and brought to bear in my life. God isn’t filled with power but sitting back watching me struggle. He is actively bringing his power to my life. The third, translated “strength,” is “kratos,” ultimate power. It is the power of God we see at work in creation, in calling out and saving his people Israel, in Christ. It is a power that cannot be stopped, because there is no power that is equal to it. It cannot be resisted. The fourth, translated “might,” is “ischus”, which means endowed power. Paul is piling up the words for power in V. 19 and in doing so he describes power in its highest form, the indescribable, uncontainable, irresistible, undefeatable power of God that was at work in Christ and is at work in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, in you. We know that on the cross of Christ we see the insurmountable love of God. And in the resurrection of Christ we see the indescribable power of God. For only the highest of powers can take a body that had been stressed beyond the tipping point, beaten beyond recognition, nailed onto a piece of wood, stuck with a spear, wrapped in cloth like a mummy and cause that body to walk forth from the grave in victory over death. But Paul doesn’t stop with the resurrection of Christ.
Look at Vv. 20-22. It was in the ascension of Christ of Christ that God seated Christ at his right hand, in the place of highest honor, above every kind of power and every name that ever was, is or ever will be, with all things subjected to his authority. In the Protestant tradition we don’t pay much attention to Christ’s ascension. We treat it as an afterthought. Yes, Christ ascended into heaven, but the real work was done on the cross and in the resurrection. But it is because he is our resurrected AND ASCENDED Lord that all things have been placed into subjection to him. In Romans Paul says, “Who is to condemn [you]? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” When you pray, when you talk to God, when you commune with God, when you “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16), as the writer of Hebrews tells us to do, it is Christ himself, seated at the right hand of God, who brings your petition before the Father. The celebration of Christ’s ascension is Thursday, May 10 in 018, by the way.
Former president of Asbury Seminary Maxie Dunnam wrote: “The early Christians were post-resurrection, post ascension Christians. They knew the gospel story: a Jesus who had once been a baby in a mother’s arms – but He was not that now; a Jesus who had been a carpenter, a teacher, a companion, a friend – but He was not that now; a healing lover who mercifully blessed all He could touch, all He could see and hear and speak to – but He was not limited by time and space now; a self-giving suffering servant who hung on a cross, pouring out his life-blood and blood-love on our behalf – but he was not hanging there now. God had raised Him from the dead, but not only so; this Jesus had ascended and the curtain had gone up on a new act of the drama.”[ii]
And the power, and might, and strength, and might of God that we see in Christ is at work in you! In me. In us. Look at V. 23. God has given Christ to the church, to his people, not just as our savior but as our Lord. That means two things here. First, Christ is our source of life. Christ is the head of the church. Now, we can think of head as a kind of boss if we want, but Paul’s analogy here is of a body, with Christ as the head. That means first of all that Christ is our source of life. In spite of what the Halloween horror stories say, there is no such thing as a headless horseman. And there is no such thing as a headless church that is still alive. In fact, on way of killing criminals and traitors for centuries was to cut off the head. When you cut off the head, the body dies. And without a connection to Christ, the body of Christ is dead. If everything we do isn’t because of Christ and animated by Christ, I don’t care how flashy it is, it won’t accomplish anything of eternal significance.
Second, Christ is our Lord. The body follows the commands of the head. The body moves in response to the head. When the head says move, the body moves. When the head says stop, the body stops. When the head says do this, the body does it. Why? For glory? No. For the praise of people? No. Because the head says do it. You see, Paul carries this analogy out further. “Body of Christ” is the highest analogy for the people of God in Scripture. And Paul says that Christ’s body is his fullness. We are the fullness of the one who fills all. That means first of all that Christ fills us with love and power and authority to overflowing. But it also means that we fill him. How do we do that? Well, it doesn’t mean that Christ is in any way lacking without us. It does mean that God has chosen us to be his body, his way of working in the world. God has chosen to work through us. We furnish human, bodily hands and feet to our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. So whatever Christ would do, we must do. Do you remember the WWJD craze from many years ago. Everyone wore WWJD bracelets. And WWJD stood for “What would Jesus do?” Right? Unfortunately, that really isn’t the right question to ask. The right question to ask is “What would Jesus do, if he were me?” Now, Jesus isn’t you, and you aren’t Jesus. There is a guy downtown who thinks he’s Jesus. We aren’t Jesus. But we ARE his hands and his feet. So the right question to ask is, “If Jesus were standing here, right now, facing this, what would he do?” Whatever Christ would do, we MUST do. For we are his followers, and we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the same power that raised Christ from the dead. We are his body, an extension of Christ on earth. And we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. The church is a colony of heaven here on earth, and we answer to our heavenly King, marching to his orders above all others.
There is a story that tells of Jesus going back to heaven after his time on earth. Even in heaven, he had on his hands and feet and side and back the marks of his beating and crucifixion. The angels were talking to him, and Gabriel said: “Master, you must have suffered terribly for men and women down there.” “I did,” said Jesus. “And,” said Gabriel, “do they all know about how you loved them and what you did for them?” “Oh, no,” said Jesus, “not yet. Right now only a few people in Palestine know.” “What have you done,” asked Gabriel, “to let everyone know about it?” Jesus said: “I have asked Peter and James and John and a few others to make it the business of their lives to tell others about me, and the others still others, and yet others, until the furthest person in the widest circle knows what I have done.” Gabriel looked doubtful, because he knew very well what poor stuff human beings were made of. “Yes,” he said, “but what if Peter and James and John grow tired? What if the people who come after them forget? What if, way down in the 21st Century, people just don’t tell others about you. Haven’t you made any other plans?” And Jesus answered: “I’m counting on them.” When I went on a Walk To Emmaus retreat 20 years ago, I was given a cross pendant, and on that cross were the words: Christ is counting on you.”
A couple of months ago I was getting ready to run wires out to our new horse barn so that our electrician could hook up the power out there. I saw a wire coming out of the house and going underground on the same side of the house as the barn and though, ok, that must be the old barn wiring. So I shut off the breaker to the old barn and went outside, unscrewed the access lid on the protective pvc conduit, put my wire cutters across the wire, and started to cut. As the sharp metal on the wire cutters passed through the outer sheath and broke through the inner wire covers, the two wires were for a split second connected and they responded with a loud pop and sparks flew everywhere. I sat there for a minute thinking, “Huh, that shouldn’t have happened.” I went out to the old barn and flipped the switch. No power there. Went downstairs to the circuit breaker panel and checked. Barn power breaker was off. And then I saw the problem. Another breaker was tripped (thankfully). That wire wasn’t the wire to the old barn. It was the wire to the septic pump, and the power in that wire was still very much on. Until I tried to cut it. There is an indescribable power available to every follower of Christ. It is the same power that God “worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” But so many of us never hook up, our lives are unchanged, and so are the lives of those around us. You’re saved by grace through your faith in Christ. But your life is ineffective. “A saint,” said the great teacher William Barclay, “is someone whose life makes it easier to believe in God.”[iii] Funny thing. St. Paul calls every follower of Christ a saint. Not because of what we have done, but because of what Christ has done. But not just that. Also because of what Christ is calling us into, and that is the adventure of living as followers of Jesus, not in our own strength, but filled with the Holy Spirit and connected to that power supply.
[i] This story was first told by Dr. Howard Hendricks on March 4, 1982 at the International Congress on Biblical Inerrancy in San Diego, California and is quoted in R. Kent Hughes, “Ephesians – The Mystery of the Body of Christ,” Wheaton: Crossway.
[ii] Maxie Dunnam, “The Preacher’s Commentary – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon,” Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[iii] William Barclay, Leadership, Vol. 8, no. 2.