13th Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Ephesians 6:10-20
… be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. (Ephesians 6:10-11)
For many of my ministry colleagues in the United Church of Canada (and, I suspect, in mainline denominations everywhere) this is not a favoured text. We have difficulties when it comes to using military metaphors as figures of the Christian life.
“Be strong in the Lord … put on the whole armour of God … take the shield of faith … the helmet of salvation … and the sword of the Spirit …”
We don’t like to mix martial images with the gospel of grace. And I understand why. Some of the darkest days of church history occurred when crusaders marched out with banners unfurled to wage holy war. Or when Catholics and Protestants in Ireland killed each other in the name of religion. Or when armed policemen tore First Nations children from their mothers’ arms and carted them away to church-run residential schools.
I get that.
And—as followers of One who urged us to “love our enemies”—Christians certainly ought not to be warmongers. After one of the most violent centuries ever, it’s no wonder that church leaders shrink from martial imagery.
I guess that’s why “Onward, Christian Soldiers” got bounced out of Voices United, even though it was in the “Red Book” hymnary that preceded it, and the good old “Blue Book” before that.
Like I said, I get it. It’s a legitimate question: what has battlefield language to do with the religion of the Prince of Peace?
The thing is … “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is really all about the church’s call to be in mission throughout the world. Just as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—rife with imagery from the Book of Revelation—was conceived as an anthem for the Abolitionist movement that fought against slavery in 19th-century America (and of course, it later became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s).
Alas. Ours is a day of subdued churches, toned-down preachers, and timid prophets. It’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, the church believed that there were things worth fighting for.
Is today’s Ephesians passage a worthy expression of Christian faith?
What do you think of when you hear the apostle Paul’s admonition to:
“Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”?
Is there anything worth fighting for today? Is there anything in your world so threatening to the way of Christ that you need some kind of sword and shield to protect you?
When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he described himself as “an ambassador in chains” because he was at the time a prisoner in leg irons. His message to the Ephesians was: “If you plan to follow Jesus, you better get ready for a fight.”
Yeah. A fight. To most people of my generation—growing up as we did in the heyday of the North American Church, in the prosperous and optimistic 1960s—this is kind of a foreign idea. We were, for the most part, raised in a church where the main agenda was to help Christians adapt to the world.
But it’s a different ball game, now. Today, the church’s agenda is—or at least, it ought to be—to help people survive as Christians. And in this regard, I want to point out that the most of the armament listed in Ephesians, chapter six is of a defensive nature: helmet, shield, breastplate … This is the armour needed for survival, rather than for attack.
We are in survival mode, are we not?
On Sunday morning … look around. In many (if not the majority) of our buildings, the seats are mostly empty. If we get 20 people out for a summer service, we think we’re doing well.
And those who do show up … Well, they are the few and the faithful.
It’s not an easy thing, is it?
Sunday morning. You drag yourself out of bed. Then maybe you drag the kids out of bed, and you get them dressed. You finally get everybody loaded into the car, and you head off to church. On the way, you see your neighbours …
Actually, you don’t see most of your neighbours, because they’re still in bed. And the few you do see are hitching up their boats and trailers, or packing their camping gear into their RVs.
Yeah. Even during this Alberta summer, when the B.C. interior is on fire and our mountain parks are shrouded in smoke … some folks are headed for the campgrounds … or to lake country. I guess they must have packed their gas masks, too!
I suppose they’ve just been cooped up too long, hiding from the coronavirus. So they just want to get out and go … somewhere!
But one thing you notice, for sure, is that most of your neighbours are not setting off for church.
We have become members of a minority faith. Religious faith in general—and Christian faith, in particular—has become countercultural. Leaf through a magazine. Go to a movie. Switch on the TV or surf the internet. Chat with your next-door neighbours as they head for their holiday destinations. Immediately, you realize that the world is marching to a very different drummer, buying a different set of goods.
Let the church dare to question government policy, or our economic system, or the lifestyles of the rich and famous … and the church quickly finds out who is running the show—and it’s not Jesus.
The apostle Paul did not have to be convinced that the world was a hostile, inhospitable place for discipleship. Remember, his words to the Ephesians were written “in chains.”
Paul’s world recognized the subversive nature of Christian faith—and it locked the Christians up. Our world recognizes the subversive nature of Christian faith … and it subverts us by ignoring us.
The world has declared war upon the gospel in the most subtle of ways—so subtle that often you don’t even know you’re losing the battle … until it’s much too late.
The gospel brings about a head-on collision with many of our culture’s most widely-held and deeply-believed values. Today, being a Christian is uncommon and uneasy. Just like it was in Paul’s day.
So, in his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul warns us that we had better not go out unarmed. It’s tough out there. The world lives by different slogans, different visions, speaks a different language than that of the church. So we must gather to “speak the truth in love” (4:15), in order to grow up in our faith. Weak, childish, immature faith is no match for the world. Being a Christian is too difficult a way to walk alone.
It’s tough out there. You better not go out there alone, without comrades in arms, without your sword and your shield.
So we must gather, on a regular basis, for worship. To speak about God in a world that lives as if there is no God. We must speak to one another as beloved sisters and brothers in a world which encourages us to live as strangers. We must pray to God to give us what we cannot have by our own efforts in a world which teaches us that we are self-sufficient and all-powerful.
In such a world, what we do on Sunday morning becomes a matter of life and death. I pray that I might speak the gospel boldly (Eph. 6:20).
I do not mean to say that we North American Christians are in any way suffering the persecution which our sisters and brothers elsewhere are forced to endure. None of us pays for our faith in blood.
And yet, even here, there is a price.
Materialism, narcissism, militarism, commercialism—a host of “isms”, of “principalities and powers”—tempt us, mock us, and sometimes subdue us. We’re not fighting the same battle as the Ephesians. No totalitarian Caesar is on our backs. There’s no bloody persecution for us.
And yet, we are locked in a kind of struggle. It’s tough to pay for one’s faith in blood. But it’s also tough to be ignored, ridiculed, dismissed by one’s culture—a culture which is not, on the whole, willfully unbelieving. It’s simply too self-absorbed, too jaded to make the effort to either believe or disbelieve.
The world is giving us fewer and fewer breaks. Now, we’re just trying to hold on, stand firm, keep our story straight, keep our values clear.
We shall have to be more intentional about who we are, more careful to give people the equipment they need to discern true from false, light from darkness, death from life.
The world will defeat or co-opt the weak ones, the ones who have no compelling vision, no armour.
So pray for us. And pray for those who lead, that they might be bold in proclaiming the gospel—and faithful in equipping the saints.
Gracious God, in whom justice and mercy sing in harmony, we thank you for your care for us. With unparalleled love, you have saved us from death and drawn us into the circle of your life. By opening our eyes to the wonders this life sets before us, you enable us to serve you—free from fear—and to love one another as you love us—without regard to riches or poverty, class or place in life. O God, how good you are! Trusting that your will for all of Creation is healing and wholeness and health, we lay before you the burdens of our hearts and minds.
We pray for the Church, that your Spirit will transform our relationships and our vision of life. Help us to show forth our faith in action, to regard all people with compassion, being quick to listen and slow to anger.
We pray for our nation; whenever trials may befall us, grant to our leaders both endurance and wisdom.
We pray for the world, that the lowly may be raised up, and that your mercy may fall upon every creature.
We pray for the sick, the injured, the vulnerable, and those undergoing all forms of adversity, that they might be strengthened. Especially we remember those suffering because of wildfires, natural disasters, and armed conflict.
As well, we pray:
- for all who have been victims of discrimination or prejudice.
- for all who work with the poor and the homeless.
- for all who are fearful and anxious.
- for all who work in dangerous situations, especially police officers, military personnel, health-care workers, and firefighters.
- for all who have experienced violence—at home or in society.
We pray for the grieving, the sick, and the dying; for the resentful, the guilty, and the self-righteous.
We pray for those near to us, and for those dear to us. We pray for those whose names we know, and for those whose names—and needs—are known only to you.
All these things we ask in the name of the One who touched and healed rich and poor, feeding the Bread of Life to sinners and saints alike; even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.