By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
August 23, 2009
Read: Ephesians 6:10-20 and John 6:56-69
Once again we hear Jesus speaking about eating his flesh and blood, which we understand in a spiritual sense. In today’s gospel, Jesus says that the words he has spoken are spirit and life. Spirit and life. Key words to living a life that is truly alive in Christ.
We also hear today in Ephesians, Paul giving us an example of what it might look like to prepare or pray or be in relationship with God in a way that helps us to live that Christian life. Paul says, “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
I’m the first to admit that I don’t particularly like war language, or thinking of the Spirit, the Word of God, as a sword. When I hear this language it makes me think of all the holy wars of the past as well as the holy wars that are still being waged by major religions today. Holy wars can be one of the biggest arguments against organized religion. Finding a passage that could be and probably has been used to justify them is not what I am looking for in the Bible. So, I have to ask, is that what this passage is doing? Is that what God intended us to understand? Because whether or not I like it, I have to deal with this stuff if I am a serious follower of Christ.
You may not be surprised to hear me conclude that I don’t think it is. In fact I think it is an anti-violence passage. It is the armor of God we are to wear instead of the armor of human institutions. This passage was not written to a military superpower. It was written largely to the persecuted of Paul’s time. It was written to those without much human power letting them know that they had an even greater power than did their foes. It was written during a time of great human violence. People could relate to this language.
Let’s also remember that this passage instructs us that our enemies are not those of flesh and blood. That is not whom we are to fight. Instead, we are to recognize a cosmic struggle of the heavenly powers and principalities. In this struggle, it is our moral choices, our willingness to speak truth and our telling of the way of peace that will matter. It is our realization that God has saved us from a pointless existence of violence and meanness and called us to the beauty of love that will give us the strength to endure and not become consumed by the evil around us.
But Paul’s real focus in this passage in Ephesians is not actually the identity or nature of the opposition, it is on how we should prepare ourselves so that we will be able to hold our ground in the struggle. And this is where the rubber really hits the road for us. We all know that the easiest way to live is to just conform with the norms and expectations of the society we live in. The more we try to model our lives on Jesus Christ, the more we are going to be seriously out of step and it is going to be tough. Just holding our ground is going to come at a cost, let alone making significant progress. In a world where deception, negativity, meanness, stepping on someone else to get ahead, I could go on…when those seem to be the norm, it can be tough and downright painful to stand firm in kindness, gentleness, truth, justice, righteousness, all of those attributes of a spiritual life.
So, the image Paul uses to describe how we should prepare ourselves is the image of a patrol of peacekeepers getting dressed and armed for dangerous duty. He says we are going to need all the arms God gives us, but the armor and weapons he describes are truth, justice and righteousness, a passion for peace, faith, salvation, and a knowledge of the Word of God.
Paul describes each of them in turn, but then he says that the most important part of our preparation is prayer. It is no use having all the armory if you’ve never been in training and have no idea how to use it. You’ll just panic at the first outbreak of trouble and turn and run. And you may not have noticed, but Paul didn’t describe any protection for your back. If you turn to run, you’ll be totally defenseless. Like Jesus himself, we are called to be Christ-like while remaining engaged with the world, not to run away and create a Utopia in isolation from the world. So pray. Pray long and pray hard, because when all hell breaks loose, nothing else will enable you to stand firm.
Kobutsu, from The Engaged Zen Foundation (Heron Dance Interview (Issue 13, February 1997) had this to say about “practice”, as in practicing a spiritual life, in an interview.
“Practice has been described by a Tibetan teacher as the wearing out of a old pair of shoes. Wearing the soles thin. Wearing through ego and delusion. You may approach Zen thinking that you are going to become enlightened, become a great teacher and have fantastic powers that people will respect. Doing the practice, you come to realize that you don’t give a damn whether people respect you or not. You really don’t want to be a great teacher. What you want is to be helpful. To be of assistance – a benevolent entity.”
I love that – a benevolent entity. It is what Paul is describing in putting on the whole armor of God. Finding the power and strength of God’s Spirit, through prayer, to keep us alive in our spiritual lives – in our journey toward God.
Benevolent people stand firm in their Christian identity. There is a difference between being stubborn and standing firm. Paul is not asking us to be stubborn, wedded to an opinion, rooted in prejudice, or close-minded. But he is asking us to stand in something that is not transient, something that is transcendent and renewing. This means being willing to be humble and to risk being unpopular. A stubborn person will not listen to ideas that differ from her own. A stubborn posture rejects alternatives out of hand and refuses, regardless of the situation, to change one’s position. Stubbornness is not self-or-other discerning – it is not benevolent. It is not informed and it does not grow. It is enshrined in a closed circle of certainty and becomes fearful, boisterous and one-dimensional. The stubborn heart and mind are impervious to reason and may constitute one way to hide insecurity.
Standing firm is different. Standing firm means that one is willing to debate, listen, and consider alternatives in order to reach a beneficial goal, while at the same time not sacrificing basic principles. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood firm on nonviolence. Margaret Sanger, the twentieth-century suffragette, stood firm on women’s rights. Nelson Mandela stood firm and resolute against apartheid. Robert Sobukwe stood firm as he faced the evils of imprisonment under apartheid. All stood firm against injustice.
Standing firm gives the struggle purpose and us meaning. So, in the midst of controversy we might ask, “is the price to be paid worth the struggle?” Sometimes, in the midst of struggle and fatigue, we may find our strength renewed. We may find ourselves assessing and reassessing our situations and coming to new resolve. Surely, during the twenty-seven years of his imprisonment, Nelson Mandela became discouraged. But he found strength to hope. He stood firm in his convictions. Such spiritual struggle requires discipline. Preparing ourselves inwardly and prayerfully for the outer struggle. The outer struggle, the struggle against the principalities and powers will test our inner resolve again and again . So, dear friends, let’s put on the whole armor of God and live a life that is alive in the spirit of Christ.
M23 U.S. Army Cartridge Belt – $100.00
Bullet proof vest – $399.00
Ballistic Entry Shield – $424.99
Combat Assault Helmet – $399.00
Seal Combat Knife – $161.95
The Whole Armor of God – Priceless.
The good news is that God never ceases to offer fresh opportunities to assess our situation, to grow and deepen our spiritual lives. Amen.
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Great sermon. I was not there to hear it delivered–I just discovered this church online–but I love especially the part about the armor of God being a nonviolent passage, and the harmfulness of holy wars in the past.