Proper 16B

August 17, 2015

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 6:56-59

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    1 Kings 8:1-43

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 84

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Ephesians 6:10-20

    Author: Stan Mast

    This is now our eighth week in Paul’s magnificent letter to the Ephesians. We have moved from the heights to the depths, from Paul’s soaring revelation of the mystery of the Gospel to his down and dirty commands for everyday living, from the church’s witness to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” to the church’s battle with those same “rulers and authorities.” Most of our secular contemporaries and even some fellow church members might say that we moved from the sublime to the ridiculous with this talk about “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But Paul thought he could not end his letter without this final word. His outline of Christian morality is difficult to live by, not just because the directions are intrinsically difficult, but also because we encounter fierce opposition from these “spiritual forces of evil” at every turn.

    Paul’s message here is counter-cultural in nearly every way. Right out of the gate, his core command to “be strong” smacks of the muscular Christianity that is now very much out of fashion. Such a command will strike some of our listeners as a regrettable return to the overly masculine, patriarchal Christianity that dominated the church for centuries. But Paul doesn’t tie this call to “be strong” to gender at all. Indeed, we are called to be strong quite beyond anything in ourselves; rather, we are to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” So, while there is definitely a place for sermons about gender equality or about the value of weakness (cf. Paul’s own words to that effect in II Corinthians 12), this text calls us to the strength necessary to stand against the attacks of “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

    Those last words point to the second way this text is counter cultural. Even though young people might enjoy being frightened by horror stories featuring demons and vampires and zombies, no serious sophisticated person actually believes that we are dealing with spiritual forces of evil in our everyday lives. And most self-respecting preachers in my tradition would rather preach about doctrinal disputes or social justice issues or evangelism efforts or personal piety, anything other than spiritual warfare. Indeed, some scholars are convinced that Paul is not talking about personal spiritual beings here at all. “Rulers and authorities and the powers of this dark world” are the impersonal forces that ruin human life, the structural powers that bend individuals in the direction of wickedness, things like racism, sexism, the military industrial complex, and the economic systems that impoverish many while making a few rich. If we define these powers in that impersonal way, we can avoid the embarrassment of having to talk about demons with horns and tails.

    While it is undoubtedly true that there are impersonal forces that damage human life, Paul seems to be talking about something else here. Or at least he is saying that behind those impersonal powers there are very real spiritual beings that wage war against the human race, and especially against those who are trying to follow Christ. Paul explicitly mentions “the devil” in verse 11. And his contrast in verse 12 points in the same direction. We are not struggling against flesh and blood, against human beings, but against non-human beings. His point is that we tend to focus on those enemies we can see, while the real enemies are those we cannot see. The enemy is not the Empire or its leader, not the political and military and economic oppression that make life so difficult there in Ephesus. The real enemy is the devil and his legions of demons with their myriad functions and titles, “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” While it is true that we can make too much of spiritual warfare and see demons behind every bush, and while we can make too little of structural evil and neglect the social justice initiatives that change the world for the good, Paul wants us to open our eyes to the power of our spiritual opposition.

    If we don’t see the struggle clearly, we will go down to defeat, because we will think that we can live the Christian life in our own strength. This is the third way in which Paul’s words are counter cultural. We live in a world that emphasizes self-help, digging down deep and finding the resources within, even the divine within. Paul knew that we are no match for the “rulers and authorities” that follow the devil, “who goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” In this respect, the horror movies that show evil winning are right.

    Thus, Paul insists that the only way we can stand in this battle with personal evil is to be strong in the Lord. The verb there is a present imperative passive, which suggests not that we must be strong ourselves, but that we must be strengthened by someone else. That someone else is “the Lord,” by which Paul means Christ Jesus. We will be strengthened “in the Lord,” that is, in union with Christ. He has mighty power to give us; indeed, it is the strength of his might, the strength of his own personal might as the Almighty. In other words, Jesus has all the power we will ever need in our battle with evil. There is really no contest; Jesus has already defeated the enemy on the cross and led them in triumphal procession (Colossians 2:15). Now he sits far above all of them ruling all things for the church (Ephesians 1:20-23). But we won’t have access to all that power for our struggle unless we are “in the Lord,” in daily union and communion with Jesus.

    But even the Lord’s infinite power will not be enough for us if we don’t “put on the whole armor of God.” A better way to put it is that God in his power and grace has given us the weapons we need to prevail in this spiritual struggle. But if we don’t “put on” or “take up” or “receive” that armor, we will be defeated again and again. Again, note how counter cultural this is. It is not our pedigree or our education or our bankroll or our health or any of our own resources that will enable us to prevail in the most important battle of our lives. We can only win if we believe Paul’s message and use the spiritual weapons God has already provided. This is a very important message for an accomplished and resourceful church. God has the resources and he has given them to us, but we are responsible to use them.

    It’s easy to imagine Paul looking at a Roman soldier as he wrote this letter from prison, “an ambassador in chains.” (verse 20) As he looked from head to toe, he saw the various parts of the regulation armor of the Roman army, and he used that visual analogy to call us to arms. He saw the wide belt around the soldier’s waist on which hung his sword and by which he gathered up his clothes for battle (“gird up your loins”). The comparable spiritual belt, the thing that holds everything together and on which everything hangs, is truth. In verse 11, Paul talks about the “devil’s schemes,” using the word methodeias, which means methods or strategies. According to Jesus in John 8:44, the devil is the father of lies. He attacks not with brute force, but with clever lies, with slithering, whispering half truths (as in Genesis 3). Thus the most important weapon to combat his lies is the truth of God incarnate in and taught by Christ.

    In addition, we must put on the “breastplate of righteousness.” To guard his trunk, his vital organs, the soldier wore a breastplate of solid metal. To guard our hearts, we must cover ourselves with the breastplate of righteousness, which might be a reference to the imputed righteousness of Christ or to the personal righteousness of the Christian, or to the latter based upon the former. By relying on the declared righteousness of justification and by practicing the personal righteousness of sanctification, we put on the Kevlar vest that will guard our hearts. By giving in to unrighteousness, we allow the devil to hurt us deeply.

    The next article of armor is, like the first two, defensive in nature. To protect their feet, Roman soldiers wore special thick, hobnailed sandals that both protected and anchored their feet in battle. With a good solid foundation, they were ready to fight. Similarly, we must be grounded if we are to battle successfully. Ironically what prepares us for the fight is “the gospel of peace.” Our combat boots are the Good News of Christ’s victory over sin and death and the devil. We’re ready to fight when we know that Good News. It’s hard to fight when you know it’s a lost cause.

    The previous weapons could be attached to the body, but the following must be taken in hand, thus Paul’s change of verb. “Take up the shield of faith….” Roman soldiers carried two kinds of shields, one fairly small and the other fairly large. Paul refers to the 2 and ½ foot by 4 foot shield that virtually covered the front of the soldier. It was made of nearly inch thick wood, was wrapped in leather, and was edged with metal. It could be soaked in water before battle, so that it would extinguish the flaming arrows shot by the enemy. The spiritual forces of evil will always be lobbing arrows at us. The defense against them is faith, both The Faith and, more likely, our own personal faith in The Faith. When lies come hissing through the air, our best defense is faith in the truth of God.

    Finally, we must receive (dexasthe) two more weapons. God has already given them to us, and now we must receive them, take them in hand. More accurately, we must cover our heads, take shelter under the salvation that is already ours in Christ. The Romans helmet was heavy and hot, so the soldier would wait until the last minute before putting it on. But put it on he did, or his head was vulnerable to attack. Once his helmet was on, he reached for his sword, the only offensive weapon in this panoply. The only way we can take the battle to the enemy is with the Word of God in hand. That’s how Jesus defeated an attacking devil in the wilderness. Three times, he parried the devil’s thrust with the Word of God, “it is written.”

    Paul ends his battle plan with a plea for prayer, for themselves and for each other and for him. We can’t stay in Christ and we won’t use the armor, unless we pray and pray and pray “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” We can’t pray like that on our own. We must pray “in the Spirit.” Some charismatic friends think this refers to the ecstatic kind of prayer that uses other languages, but it is probably a reference to the idea that the Spirit prays with our spirit, even when we cannot find the words (Romans 8). When all is said and done, we can’t succeed in our efforts to defeat the devil unless we pray fervently in the Spirit.

    I have one last countercultural note. For Paul, victory means simply standing—not strutting, not chest pounding, not bellowing, but simply standing. If you forget that you are battling the “spiritual forces of evil,” or if you try to fight them in your own strength, or if you don’t use all the armor of God, or if you don’t pray at all times, you will fall into temptation and evil and sin. But you can take your stand. When the evil day comes, when you find yourself under attack, you will be able to stand your ground. And after you have done everything as Paul has directed, you will be left standing, bloody but unbowed before the roaring lion who wanted to devour you. You won’t necessarily see glorious victory in your lifetime, but you can at least hold your ground.

    Or to put it more accurately, we can hold Christ’s ground. He has already won the victory. After his resurrection and just before he ascended back to his throne far above all rule and authority, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….” What the devil promised Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus has accomplished on the cross. He is indeed the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Our duty is to hold on to his territory by battling the evil one in our own lives and by bringing the Good News to other lives and thus making his Kingdom visible. Chafer captures the multiple ways of picturing the Christian life: “as pilgrims we walk, as witnesses we go, as contenders we run, as fighters we stand.” Our culture might not appreciate that last image, but it is essential to Christian living today. Stand firm. That’s the essential command here.

    Illustration Ideas

    One way to picture our situation is to recall The Battle of the Bulge in World War II. The forces of Adolf Hitler had been decisively defeated on D-Day and were being beaten back to Germany. Their final defeat seemed imminent, but then Hitler launched a counter-offensive. He fiercely attacked the Allied lines and managed to push through in a big way. The battle lines resembled a big bulge, thus, the Battle of the Bulge. For a while it looked as though Hitler might succeed, but the Allies finally stiffened their defense. The line held. They stood firm, and the evil of the Third Reich was defeated. We are engaged in the Devil’s Battle of the Bulge. He can’t win, though it often looks as though he is. In the face of fierce opposition and apparent defeat, we must stand firm.

    As we preach about spiritual warfare, we will have to deal with the kind of thing C.S. Lewis talked about in The Screwtape Letters. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist and a magician with the same delight. This is certainly true about Satan. Some people totally dismiss him as an impersonal force or somebody in a red suit with a pitchfork. On the other end of the spectrum, many people attribute too much power and importance to Lucifer. They feel he is God’s equal.” Paul steers the true course down the middle.