(a sermon for August 26, 2018, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 6:10-20)
Let me begin this morning by making something of a confession: that for a long time, the warrior-slash-gladiator imagery that’s put forth in the passage of scripture we just read (armor and breastplates, shields, helmets, arrows and such) used to make me a bit… uncomfortable. Partly that’s because I was a child of the 60’s and 70’s where the ideals of peace and non-violence were not were not only espoused by a changing culture, but also an essential part of my own Christian nurture; moreover, as I came to learn about the growth of Christianity in seminary, I discovered that some of the darkest days of church history occurred when Christians marched out with banners unfurled to crusade and make “holy” war. And let’s be brutally honest about it: even in these times – even right now (!) – there are those who will use Paul’s imagery to somehow justify an act or attitude of prejudice, aggression or even downright hatred; and that, to say the very least, is concerning.
So it’s been hard for me as a pastor and preacher to speak of our being “soldiers of the cross” on the one hand, and worship the “Prince of Peace” on the other; and that’s why for a whole lot of years I wouldn’t even consider singing “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” as a part of worship. It just seemed so contradictory to what we are taught in faith.
That having been said, though, I also have to say that over the years my understanding of this passage, and several others like it, has broadened. For instance, a few years back, the United Methodists were having a somewhat protracted struggle over whether or not to include “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in their new hymnal. There was actually quite a division over the issue, so they did what all good church folk do: they took a survey (!) asking how people responded when they heard this particular hymn. And what they found is that rather than soldiers marching to war in God’s mighty army, the majority of those responding talked about the need for today’s church to be in mission throughout a harsh and violent world! Likewise, the number one response for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (a hymn that has also long sparked debate over its rather harsh imagery and somewhat sketchy theology) was that it reminded people of the Civil Rights movement and in fact continues to serve as an anthem for racial and social justice!
In the end, things like this have led me to at least reconsider my own ideas, and I guess the moral here is that sometimes we have to be open enough look at these things in the proper context and not just from our own narrow point of view; but even more than that, we need to remember in this age of increasingly watered-down, politically-correct and often marginalized Christianity that there indeed have been times when the church believed that there was something worth fighting for; or at least, a worthy conviction upon which to stand firm.
If we’re to truly understand what Paul says to the Ephesians and to us, the message is clear: in the midst of “this present darkness” in which we live, a world with all its powers and principalities working evil against us, there always has been something worth fighting for, and what’s more there still is: and it’s our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and “the mystery of the gospel.” So be strong, Paul says. “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” and “take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”
What we need to understand, you see, is that what this passage is all about is less about humanity’s “warring madness” (to quote the hymn) than it is about God’s power, about the larger, spiritual struggles of life, and about how as people of faith those struggles cannot help but touch each one of our lives sooner or later. In that context, this imagery of the “whole armor of God” is not only very rich, vivid and bold, but also quite appropriate for you and me even today.
I can say this because nature is the same now as it always has been, as is our human tendency to conform. Paul was aware, as are we, that all too often our first response to any given situation is just to… go along to get along; to stick with the status-quo, to go with the flow, and of course, the old standby that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do!” Whatever our go-to response, however, our faith in Jesus Christ and our allegiance to the mysteries of the gospel demands more of us than quiet, acquiescent conformity with the world; it requires a boldness that is fueled by the strength and power of God!
In other words, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not called to merely “blend in” to the scenery of daily life as to be inconspicuous; and most certainly we are not meant to simply follow along with the conventional morality and wisdom of an ever shifting culture! You and I have not be sent out into the world in order to be given over to whatever whim hits us at any moment, or to flit from fad to fashion in the fleeting hope of hitting something good along the way. Rather, we are meant to stand firm on our moral and ethical and social and spiritual convictions in Christ, even when that stance is unpopular and it makes us unpopular; because trust me on this, folks: there are times when that’s exactly what’s going to happen!
And lest you ever think otherwise, dear friends, pastors are not exempt from that kind of persecution! Not to complain or to sounding morose about it, but let me just share with you that at various times over the years as a minister I have been told that as regards faith I am unreasonable, unrealistic, illogical, judgmental, exclusive, out of touch and out of step; that I don’t live in the real world; that I’m a “purveyor of drivel” (my personal favorite!); and that I’m downright mistaken in just about every way… and this is from people from within the church! And, yes, there have been those I’ve known outside the body of Christ who have dismissed me out of hand as some kind of overly zealous religious do-gooder! But understand that any one of us who has chosen to remain faithful come what may could tell much the same story.
I recognize that what I’m saying here does not exactly serve as a great endorsement for church membership, never mind going into the ministry! Nonetheless, there’s no denying, as it says in our own UCC Statement of Faith, that there is a cost as well as a joy in discipleship; and often that cost is manifest in the moments when in our Christian walk it feels like it’s “us alone against the world,” with the odds being very much stacked in favor of the world! Make no mistake, no matter who we are, no matter how strong or faithful or optimistic we happen to be, for any of us that kind of rejection, that kind of warfare can take its toll.
That’s why Paul speaks of our need be strong in our Christian identity, to set our feet so that they are firmly rooted in our faith in God; nurtured in tradition and enveloped in faithful community so that we can grow deep in the rich soil of love and hope and joy. Remember, friends, our coming to church every Sunday is not merely for the sake of gaining some kind of inspiration for the week ahead, and it’s not even entirely about community; ultimately, it’s about being a part of something larger than ourselves; to be not transient but transcendent; to be renewed for the journey ahead and strengthened for the struggles that will ensue; and to go forth in a way that maintains our dignity and our integrity as men and women of God.
Because as Paul notes, and we already know, the way won’t be easy, nor will be withstanding what’s going to come… we need to ready ourselves for the struggles we’ll face “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” We need protection akin to the armor… we need the whole armor of God.
Now to put this all in context, it should be noted that in a time and place when the early church was feeling the persecution and oppression of the Roman authorities, Paul chose this very militaristic imagery of the Roman soldiers to make his point; so truth be told, as much as it might disturb our modern sensibilities it probably raised far more eyebrows amongst those new Christians even than it does with us now. But then as now, message is clear: that if the battle garb of the Roman guard is impossible to penetrate, than just consider how much stronger God’s armor will be. So if you and I go through the struggles of this life feeling as though the powers and principalities of the world will inevitably beat us down, then we truly need to rise up and walk in true faith in Jesus Christ; and for that, we need God’s armor.
For just as the warrior protects himself with accoutrements of steel, as followers of Jesus Christ, we will discover our strength:
We will find that when we gird ourselves with truth, like a belt around our waist;
when we put righteousness before our heart, like a breastplate over the chest;
when we walk with the gospel of peace, like shoes with strong and rugged soles;
when we put faith between us and any problem coming at us, like a shield deflects arrows flying toward us;
when we embrace our salvation, like a helmet to protect our head;
when we allow God’s Word to clear our minds and our hearts, like a sword to vanquish the enemies from within and without;
this is how we shall persevere.
That’s what it takes to get us through. That’s the armor that we need, as Paul exhorts us, to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”
You know, one of the things I continue to learn as I move forward on this journey of life is that most of the time my faith in God is as warm and welcoming to me as a warm quilt on a cold winter’s day (or to use an analogy more apropos to this particular summer, as refreshing as a dip in the cool water on a hot humid afternoon!). I am forever thankful for the miracle of grace and joy that is mine in Christ! But I also know that in following Jesus, there are bound to be struggles, and there have been; times in which it seems like an utter fight simply to live out of Christ’s call to compassion and inclusiveness; times in which it becomes difficult to hold on to my identity and integrity as a child of God. I’m guessing that you all could say the same; for we know that question that looms in such times as these: when the fight comes, and it will, will we have the strength and the power to persevere?
Well, beloved, to this I can only say that we are made strong in the midst of struggle in this life when our strategies, our practice, the moves we make and the truth we espouse represent the spiritual presence in our life; when it declares our faith boldly in word and in deed. In the times and places we feel weak an beaten down, we are in fact strong; and what makes us strong is the armor that God provides us: from breastplate to helmet to shoes, the gear of a spiritual warrior that not only helps us to survive in the face of all manner of attack, but then leads us in the triumph song of life, so that in all times and places we may walk boldly, declaring a gospel of peace with every step!
May we be strong and courageous on the journey, and as we go, may our…
…thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry