August 16, 2021
The Proper 16B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 6:56-69 from the Lectionary Gospel; I Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 34:15-23 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 6:10-20 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 127 (Lord’s Day 52)
Author: Chelsey Harmon
We are now at the end of our long jaunt through John 6. Rather climactically, the final question of why we find it difficult to simply believe culminates with Jesus asking a very non-hypothetical question of his own, forcing us to consider ourselves in the process.
Can we accept God’s work and ways?
There are a number of pieces to today’s volley of questions, but they all hinge on what people can accept as reality. (See the Illustration Idea below for more on “reality” as a central image for this passage.) Interestingly enough, today’s verses are the first time we get a fuller picture of who’s been listening in on Jesus’ conversation alongside the crowd from the feast (verses 1-21). Besides the twelve chosen disciples, other disciples, people who have been following Jesus for a period of time, are also there. They too are being confronted with a picture of reality and an identity of Jesus that seems to be “news to them.” In fact, the crowd seems to have completely fallen out of the conversation by the time we’re in the synagogue in Capernaum.
This larger gathering of disciples hear Jesus’ words, and like the crowds did on the way to the synagogue, instead of asking Jesus, they ask each other about what they are willing to accept: “Can we accept what he says?” Or as The Message translates it, their question isn’t really a question, it’s an answer to an unspoken question; they say to each other: “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.”
So let’s remind ourselves what’s so difficult to accept:
…that there is a nourishment we need from God that only comes through accepting belief;
…that Jesus is the eternal bread of life that provides and sustains;
…that the Father draws in and teaches all who are able to accept these truths;
…that we need to literally integrate the very body and blood of Christ into ourselves;
…that if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty again;
…that the Spirit of God is life and our human flesh and ability will get us nowhere—we must receive from God.
Can we accept that we need life (especially since it implies we don’t have it!)? Can we accept that someone else has done “the work” for us and there’s nothing we can do? Can we accept that what we have accomplished for ourselves doesn’t amount to much? Can we accept that the very ideas and rituals that we have built our lives upon need to be uprooted and transformed? Can we accept that what we thought was true is actually a fiction? And can we accept God’s reality in Jesus’ Spirit-filled words of life?
Jesus himself knows that they could not—that we cannot. That’s why he reminds them why he told them about the way that the Father works, drawing and teaching people, enabling them to accept the true-but-seemingly-hidden reality. No one comes and sticks around unless God is behind it.
It seems that many of them were not ready to accept the invitation from the Father because they chose in that moment to leave Jesus at the synagogue, no longer wanting to be attached to the reality that Jesus was describing.
I wonder what emotion was in Jesus’ voice when he asked the twelve if they also wanted to leave—if they too were simply unable to accept what their leader was giving them to follow. Even more than the others who have encountered Christ, these twelve are people Jesus called to follow him—to sign on the dotted line and do as he does, teach as he teaches, proclaim the reality he proclaims, to “risk themselves with him.” (v. 64 in The Message) And I wonder what he felt when he heard Peter’s proclamation of acceptance and trust on behalf of the group.
The lectionary leaves out verses 70-71 in which Jesus reminds the twelve that though he chose them to come to him, one of them is the devil who will betray him. Ending the reading with verse 69 allows us to end on the high note of faith and trust, but I actually take some hope from reading these two following verses. For me, it underscores that the imperfect nature of our faith and that holy living does not need to make us doubt whether we ever truly believed and accepted God’s reality as the reality. For one, we can’t fully know God’s reality; it’s too amazing and immense and of-God for us to even begin to comprehend. (I’m not making any statement on the Judas’ salvation here, but reflecting more widely on the entire pericope.) Secondly, until Christ lifts us up on the last day (v 40), we will continue to try to accomplish and live by our own flesh-power. Only Jesus, as Peter says, is the “Holy One of God.” Third, it shows how much God is willing to endure, not only for us, but by us and with us.
So, though our actions flow from what we believe to be true, they will betray our beliefs because believing in ourselves (a form of idolatry) is part of our fallen nature—it is its own kind of reality that needs God’s reality to replace it. Replacing it, of course, is exactly what Jesus is offering to do in John 6 as the bread of life. Perhaps the comfort is that the dinner invitation to feast on Christ is never rescinded, and the Father grants our return even when we walk away.
Peter and the rest of the gang do not yet fully know the meaning of the “eternal life” that fills Jesus’ words. They get many “tastes” while following their rabbi, and spiritual nourishment when they become apostles who tell others about the bread of heaven (as recorded in the book of Acts). They were not perfect followers, and their story proves that it’s more about what God is doing through and for us than what we are doing at all.
In verse 69 Peter says, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The perfect tense is used for “believe” and “know,” indicating that they are actions taken once but continue to have impact. It underscores what Jesus has been saying all along: take and believe what God is giving and you will be nourished for eternal life. Believing begins in a moment (sometimes imperceptibly) but continues to play out and grow from the kernel over a lifetime. Accepting a piece of information and coming to really know it means living it as reality. “So no,” Peter is essentially saying to Jesus, “We’re not leaving. We know there’s nowhere else to go. We believe in you as the giver of life and we’ll follow you.” Notice that the perfect tense doesn’t mean we live perfectly… but that we can respond to the work of God and set our intention, allowing it to permeate and integrate into every facet of our lives.
In the play A Yard of Sun (1970) by Christopher Fry, it’s July 1946 in Siena, Italy. A little group of people, family and close friends connected to the Palazzo del Traguardo, are hoping for renewal and for peace to be real—even as they carry the baggage of all that came before and that they are still who they are even though the war is over. Set on the backdrop of a famous horse race between neighbourhoods, sons come home and prisoners-of-war return, but each character struggles to be truly free.
This is particularly true for the ostracized son, Edmondo, who ran away from the community, intent on becoming a self-made man in Portugal. He is home now, successful and rich, the new owner of the Palazzo his dad is the caretaker for. But he is afraid by how he cannot integrate the two realities: his self-identified truth and the reality he encounters at “home.” His wife explains it to another brother, Roberto, after Edmondo announces, less than 48 hours after arriving, that he is leaving (emphasis added and lines omitted from original):
ROBERTO. Afraid? Edmondo?
ANA-CLARA. Terrified of losing
The self-confidence that worked his wonders.
Afraid of seeing himself in the old mirror…
Of losing the person he has worked so hard
To make a reality.
Whoever suffers—do you call that a reality?
ANA-CLARA. Maybe not. I’m not sure of ours, either…
…There may always be another reality
To make fiction of the truth we think we’ve arrived at.
I first heard a version of this quote (misattributed to T.S. Eliot) in a recorded sermon by Bryant Kirkland at Princeton Seminary from 1982. Kirkland used it to draw attention to the hope story that God offers and our role as Christians to keep revealing God’s truth in a world that offers all sorts of other “truths” as reality.
After reading the play for myself, though, I see it connected in another way to our text. Edmondo cannot accept to live in a place where all that he has done with his own power and knowledge (in the language of our text, by his “flesh”) is challenged, forced to be set aside, and a different reality be appropriated. He is terrified to have to let go because he is confronted with a reality that makes what he has made himself to be an utter fiction. He chooses to walk away (again) rather than change his understanding of the truth even when he is confronted by its reality.
Some of the disciples did the same: they literally leave Jesus at this point in the story. Others, like Peter, chose to accept and believe. They chose to let their fictions continue to be dismantled as they followed Jesus, and to integrate and be integrated into the reality of Christ in whom all things hold together. (Col 1.15-20)
Looking at the rest of the gospel narratives, it seems that this work is essential to the way that God proclaims the Kingdom; it is central to our repentance, it is the gospel’s good news.
It is necessary for us to continue to explore the ways that God’s reality confronts our “arrived at,” hard-won, built-our-lives-upon truths and reveals them as fictions. The reality that Christ speaks into existence is of the Spirit and is life. By comparison, the realities we build by our own power (the flesh) are useless for any other purpose than to be our graves.
I Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
Author: Scott Hoezee
The last few verses of this lection strike me as much as anything. So much of the Old Testament is all-Israel all-the-time. There is warfare and defeat of other nations, dark warnings about inter-marriage with Canaanites, the threat of foreign religious practices wheedling their way into the faith of Israel. It’s easy at times to forget that when God kicked off the whole project that led to the nation of Israel, it came via the promise to Abram that through him and his descendants “all nations” would be blessed. Everyone would be in the picture eventually, even if for a long while just one nation would be in the center of the frame.
But years ago when I did a comprehensive study of the Bible for a study committee report on immigration for my denomination, I discovered that all through the Old Testament are more than a few texts that remind Israel to be open toward and embracing of “the stranger who is within your gates.” And the reason Israel was to be kind to foreigners was very consistently pointed out: the Israelites were to remember that once upon a time they were the strangers within Egypt’s gates and if it ultimately was true that the Egyptians massively mistreated the Israelites, that was only all-the-more reason to make sure the Israelites never did the same to others. Israel needed to hope, in fact, that more people rather than fewer would come their way (not that they really understood this: see, for instance, Jonah!).
In 1 Kings 8, as Solomon brings his very long prayer of dedication in for a landing, he makes sure to include a plea for God to hear the prayers of even foreigners if they, indeed, prayed to Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is a startling thing for Solomon to claim in some ways. After all, to most outside perspectives, all the other claims in this prayer are offensive in their religious particularity, keying as they do on the idea that there is indeed only one true God and you can access him by praying in only one direction; viz., the Temple in Jerusalem. Pluralistic this isn’t!
Of course, these days, even for Christians, this idea of praying toward a specific place seems odd. We see Muslims making pilgrimages to Mecca and also bowing down in prayer several times a day but only and always in the direction of Mecca, and it seems foreign to us. We can’t imagine feeling the need to pray in a certain geographical direction. Most of us don’t need a compass before we bow our heads in prayer. Even our fascination with “the Holy Land” and the memorable trips some of us have taken to Israel are not on a par with some kind of pilgrimage to a specific location that alone fulfills our faith.
Yet when you read I Kings 8, it becomes clear that Jerusalem and the Temple Solomon built there had just that effect on the ancient Israelites. Over and over again in this chapter, Solomon talks about the Israelites’ praying toward Jerusalem and its Temple. No matter how far away from the city they might be at any given moment, when they prayed, they, like Muslims today, beamed their petitions in a very definite direction. Jerusalem was the central, sacred site because that’s where God “lived” on the earth.
But even so, Solomon makes sure to include all people in his prayer and so sent a signal to all who heard him that day that although Israel may have been the singular dwelling place for the Most High God at that time, Israel could never quite claim ownership of that God any more than they had private access to him.
As people of Pentecost, this is in one sense easier for us to swallow today. But even so, it is striking how insular Christians can get. Maybe it’s because I have been born and raised in the United States, but as a pastor I can testify—as can many of you pastors reading this—that many church-going folks in this country have a pretty hard time wrapping their minds around the global picture of the church. “God and Country” can go together all-too-easily in ways that short-circuit an appreciation for the wide welter of peoples who call on the Name of the Lord today, some of whom come at that Lord from angles and experiences that may be vastly different from the average American but that are no less ardent and faithful. Solomon would have us remember that their prayers are heard, too.
“Will God really dwell on the earth?” Solomon asked long ago. The gospel gives us the ultimate answer to that question by showing Jesus of Nazareth dwelling among us, full of grace and truth—he was, as John also reminds us, the living, walking, talking, breathing Tabernacle/Temple of God among us. But if Solomon was right that the open eyes of God would always be upon his Temple in Jerusalem, then we can know for sure that those same open eyes are upon the people of God today, too—on all God’s people in all places. As the old hymn puts it, in Christ there is no east or west, no north or south. No one is denied access to the one true God in Christ. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter where you came from, when you pray to God, that God listens. He listens for his name alone really is great.
The Tokyo Olympic games just finished but back in 2012 the Olympics were in London and the Closing Ceremonies featured a massive celebration of British contributions to pop culture. But of all the songs that were sung, one was lingered over more than most and featured lots of choreography and even a clever way to have a large group of dancers bring together a number of huge “puzzle” pieces to reconstruct a 3-D likeness of the original singer’s face. It was, of course, John Lennon whose face the dancers formed and it was, of course, his best-known song “Imagine” that was being sung at the time. (Never mind the irony of a song that imagined “no country” being sung in the middle of a massive celebration of a particular country . . .) You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgPRI6-8Efw
John Lennon had a noble goal: figuring out what could be done to bring about greater peace and harmony in our violent, factious world. In “Imagine” Lennon invited people to imagine how much better life might be if only we could get rid of the things that most often lead people to fight. So he asked us to imagine no country and so nothing to live or die for in terms of patriotic causes. He suggested we imagine having no possessions that we usually fight to keep. But he also suggested we imagine how much better this world would be if we got rid of religion. If there were no doctrines to squabble over, no God in whose name we would launch crusades or jihads or inquisitions, then perhaps global tranquility would follow.
Lennon had the right goal but the wrong way to get there. Because the fact is that as created in God’s image, humanity is irreducibly and irresistibly religious. In fact, someone recently noted the irony that if you were to go to New York City on an average Sunday, you probably would not find vast throngs of young people attending church. Many of our nation’s youth don’t walk through church doorways most weeks to sing hymns, light candles, say prayers, or assume the posture of being reverent and worshipful. But on most days in New York you could go to Central Park West near 72nd Street to a place called “Strawberry Fields.” And there you would find a number of young to middle-aged people lighting candles, laying down bouquets of flowers, sometimes also singing and taking on the kind of hushed tones of reverence most of us experience mainly when in church. What is this quasi-religious place where people seem rather worshipful? It’s a shrine to John Lennon where throngs of worshipers gather to commemorate, to remember, to believe Lennon’s vision.
The very man who wanted to rid the world of religion has become himself an object of a kind of worship (or at least worship-like devotion). Religion, like so much else in life, is susceptible to abuse and is too often turned in bad directions. Religion warrants careful handling and proper channeling, but what seems all-but certain is that we cannot “imagine” it away. To be human is to worship someone or something.
As in Central Park, our very human religious impulse often gets tied to a specific place. All through history shrines have been built at various sacred locations. For instance, in the Book of Genesis, Jacob had a dream of a ladder going up to heaven. When he awoke, he built a monument and called that special place “Bethel,” which is Hebrew for “the house of God.” If you discover God in a certain place, you mark it!
For the ancient Israelites, that place of God’s earthly dwelling was for a long time anchored to the Temple in Jerusalem and, more specifically, to that most holy place where the Ark of the Covenant rested. For believers in Christ Jesus the Lord, “Bethel” is now most anywhere we go, so long as we are true to and transparent to the Savior whom we serve and to whom we are supposed to witness in everything we do.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Welcome to Week 3 of Psalm 34. As noted before, the Lectionary for some reason devotes three consecutive Sundays to this relatively short psalm. What’s more, in the original Hebrew this is an acrostic poem, meaning it is meant to be memorized and seen as a unity. But despite via the Lectionary we have considered the first eight verses, the middle set of six verses, and now this final set of nine verses. A good bit of this last section of the psalm is very similar to the first section and so if you did not preach on this psalm two weeks ago, you could go back on the CEP website to read the sermon commentary article for Sunday, August 8, 2021. Because here I will take a different focus.
Most of this poem is about how God will deliver the righteous from every affliction. As noted two weeks ago, the promises seem a little overly optimistic and sunny considering that we know from experience that this does not always happen or at the very least it does not always happen very quickly. With the long look, we can believe that when the cosmic day is done, God will have delivered his people from every affliction and trial but in the meanwhile that is not always so easy to see.
Along the way, however, Psalm 34 like many similar psalms not only predicts the rescue of the righteous from every bit of suffering but that the wicked of the earth will go down in flames. That much of Psalm 34 is not unique. But there is a curious line in verse 22 that one does not see so often. The NIV translates it as “Evil will slay the wicked.” Other translations are pretty close to this indicating that evil will bring death. One looser translation says “The evil will self-destruct.”
This is an interesting way to put it. Usually—and you can read this also in Psalm 34—we read that God will slay the wicked or God will blot out their names from the earth (see verse 16). But here in verse 22 it is not God who is the primary actor but a kind of personification of the very evil that wicked people commit. Evil is the active subject of the sentence.
Is this just an anthropomorphism? Is this just a word play, a fanciful personification of a non-personal thing? If we wanted to make up an opposite line we could say something like, “Happiness will bring good people joy.” But happiness is not an entity unto itself. It’s not an agent. So is “evil” in verse 22 supposed to be synecdoche for the Evil One, for a devil or demon or Satan himself? That kind of seems unlikely. Even Jesus once said that a house divided against itself cannot stand and so Satan does not oppose Satan.
So perhaps instead we are to think of this as a version of the natural consequences of a certain manner of living. It may be along the lines of “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Or the old adage that when you set out on a path of revenge, you had best first dig two graves: one for the person you are going after and one for yourself.
For now, we mostly rue the fact that all too often evildoers get away with it (and there are plenty of other psalms in the Hebrew Psalter that lament this very thing). But in the long run evil generates its own momentum, and it is most definitely a bad momentum.
Although the final scene of the last episode of the TV series The Sopranos remains a bit of a mystery, most viewers concluded that the meaning of the last and sudden appearance of a completely black, blank, and silent screen indicated that the show’s anti-hero, Tony Soprano, had gotten shot through the head and died. Over the years of the series viewers were simultaneously drawn to Tony and repulsed by him. But in the end Tony was a violent man whose violence led to his own demise. Evil will slay the wicked. The wicked self-destruct. So if Tony did indeed die a violent death at the end of the show—and in front of his whole family at that—well, then there is a sense in which one could say “What do you expect? You cannot spend your life murdering people and forever seeking vengeance and not expect it to come back to bite you eventually.” What Tony did unto others, others finally did unto him. What you sow, you reap.
Psalm 34:22 may indicate that as much as we may ponder the idea that God punishes the wicked and give it to them but good, perhaps it is more the case that God just lets the natural consequences of a certain way of being run their course. You choose evil and evil will find you out. You chose to engage in a form of living death and in the end perhaps eternal death will be the only sensible way to give certain people what they apparently wanted all along.
As C.S. Lewis once speculated, perhaps at the last day all those people who refused ever to say to God “Your will be done,” will hear God saying, “Very well then: your will be done. You wanted to have nothing to do with me all along and so we will now just make that permanent.”
Of course, let’s not preach on this with anything akin to lip-smacking Schadenfreude. It has to be our hope that the evil will repent or that maybe even Jesus can find a way in the end to save these people. Maybe Jesus took all their evil upon himself to make that possible. But short of that divine intervention and sacrifice, in the end verse 22 would have it right: evil people self-destruct. Only Someone outside of themselves can get them out of that inevitability.
In the Coen brothers 2010 remake of the movie True Grit, a young girl named Mattie sets out on a path of revenge to kill the man who killed her father. Nothing would stop her or slake her thirst for justice until she found and killed that man. Forgiveness was not an option.
In one of the final scenes of the film, Mattie fulfills her wish but immediately topples into a kind of grave—a snake pit with the skeletal remains of previous snakebite victims. In the end Mattie does not die but she will lose her arm eventually due to the poison that crept into her system after a snake bites her in the hand.
Earlier in this sermon commentary I suggested that Psalm 34:22 suggests that evil will beget evil, that revenge always yields two corpses, and this last scene of the vengeful young woman toppling into a veritable grave may be a good example of that idea.
Author: Doug Bratt
The past approximately 17 months have taken a heavy toll on many of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers. The pandemic and efforts to mitigate its affects have caused great physical, mental and even spiritual suffering. They’ve left us exhausted. What’s more, just when we seemed to have turned a corner, COVID-19 seems to be coming roaring back, cleverly dressed in new variants.
Most people I know are doing the best they can to live within what is perhaps this “new normal.” We’re finding ways to help children work with different modes of schooling. At least some of us are adjusting to doing some of our daily work from home. We’re trying to love our neighbors by getting vaccinated and wearing masks.
However, the challenges of living within this new normal have not always provoked godly responses. Various forms of media have highlighted some of the venom with which people have attacked each other. Differences of opinion about how to respond to the pandemic as well as address our nations’ various problems have become occasions for some declarations of virtual war.
What’s more, the Church has provided some of the combatants for this warfare. Brothers and sisters in Christ have launched verbal and sometimes even physical attacks on each other. Christ’s Body has, in a real sense, turned against itself, waging war with its various “members.”
To paraphrase Ephesians 6, some Christians have put on not the full armor of God, but the full arsenal of oral assault. Some who call ourselves Jesus’ friends have loaded our verbal Sig Sauers with full round of harsh criticism. We’ve loaded our verbal bombers’ payloads with crude and crass verbiage. Some Christians have felt free to parachute into others’ lives with hateful emails, tweets and Facebook posts. To paraphrase an old cliché, Christians have met the enemy … and think it is us.
No matter when and where Ephesians 6:10-20 proclaimers find ourselves this week, we’re under attack. So Paul summons us to properly arm ourselves for that battle lest we go down to at least temporary defeat in the lengthiest, bloodiest and most important war ever fought.
Of course, Ephesians 6’s military imagery makes some Christians nervous. We after all, continue to witness the affects of war on those who wage, lose and even win it. We’ve also witnessed the abuses of Paul’s imagery that have been misguided wars like the Crusades.
On the other hand, I suspect I’m not alone among 60+ year-old Christians as having thought of “martial” songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” as among my favorite childhood songs. Since our psalters’ editors often loaded our hymnbooks with majestic but sometimes-ponderous melodies, we loved the upbeat tone of that tune.
I sometimes wonder if some of Jesus’ friends haven’t outgrown our love for some of Christianity’s more misguided militaristic themes. Some Christians essentially declare war on other religions as well as other Christians. On top of that, it sometimes feels as if some Christians see spiritual enemies behind nearly every bush that’s a slow driver in front of us, backache or hot and humid day.
Both Christians’ suspicions and love of military imagery are reasons for those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 to carefully identify just who has declared war on Jesus’ followers. “Take your stand,” writes Paul there, “against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm . . . Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (italics added).
In other words, while at no time in human history have God’s people been immune from attack, the apostle insists our attackers don’t look or sound like any soldiers we’ve ever seen or heard about. Those who have declared war on God’s adopted children aren’t, in fact, human. They’re the evil one and his allies.
That’s in some ways even worse news than if God’s people’s enemies were human. People, after all, can sometimes be controlled, defeated or, if necessary, eliminated. The kind of spiritual warriors Paul describes are far more elusive and tenacious. While they’re finite, they’re virtually unbeatable. In fact, only One can defeat Christians’ enemies. That’s the living God in Jesus Christ.
God’s adopted children are sometimes tempted to think of the evil one’s soldiers as people whose political allegiances, economic theories or lifestyles differ from our own. Paul might at least suggest that far more dangerous enemies are Satan’s allies that are systems, structures and habits that are racist, misogynist, hedonist and materialist, to name just a few.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 6 need to be honest about just what’s at stake in this war. While Satan and his henchmen at least strongly suspect they’ve already lost the war to God in Jesus Christ, they’re determined to inflict as many casualties as they can.
In that way, the spiritual warfare Paul describes in the epistle the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday isn’t unlike World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Most of Adolf Hitler’s advisers suspected the war was essentially lost. But Hitler ordered them to launch an attack in the Ardennes in November 1944 in an effort to kill enough Allied soldiers that the Allies would sue for a negotiated peace.
Quite bluntly, Satan and his thugs want nothing more than to drag Ephesians 6’s proclaimers as well as hearers into the eternal destruction those evil ones may at least strongly suspect awaits them. While Paul elsewhere insists nothing can separate God’s chosen people from God’s love, the evil one and his thugs are doing all they can to sever that bond.
So how does Paul summon God’s adopted sons and daughters “arm” ourselves for this pitched battle? By putting on what the apostle calls “the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, [we] may be able to stand [our] ground, and after [we] have done everything, to stand” (13).
Yet while Paul summons God’s people to arm ourselves, in other places he notes that God also arms God’s people. Those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 will want to carefully balance as well as invite our hearers to balance those realities. On the one hand, God both owns and provides our armor. However, the apostle also summons us to “put on the full armor of God” (13) and “take up” various pieces of it. Perhaps Paul’s point is to remind us that we arm ourselves against the devil’s attacks primarily with the armor God furnishes us.
Yet Paul doesn’t call God’s people to arm ourselves so that we can defeat the principalities and powers aligned against us. What’s more, and perhaps even more importantly, we don’t have to win the spiritual war because Christ Jesus has already defeated the evil one. God’s people just have to stand our ground in the war it wages on us.
In order to stand our ground, however, Paul calls us to “arm” ourselves with the kind of armor with which his readers were familiar. Roman soldiers wore things like helmets, breastplates, shields and swords as part of their effort to keep their Empire and its citizens, including Paul and Ephesus’ Christians, under the Caesar’s bloody boot.
Yet Paul doesn’t invite his readers to arm ourselves so that we can terrorize others. God’s adopted sons and daughters arm ourselves in order to defend ourselves against the evil one. In fact, all but one of the armaments the apostle calls Christians to put on are defensive in nature. Even the sword to which he refers in verse 17 was used to ward off attackers as well as launch attacks.
The defensive nature of the armor with which Paul invites his readers to clothe ourselves may offer opportunities for our Epistolary Lesson’s modern proclaimers to think about Ephesians 6’s armaments in new ways. We sometimes think of the “truth” (14), for example, as something with which we can batter those we think of as our enemies. Paul seems to invite us to instead think of “truth” as that by which we defend ourselves against the devil’s attacks.
Paul’s call to put on defensive armaments may also help Ephesians 6:10-20’s proclaimers better apply the passages that surround it. For example, Chapter 6:1-9, but especially verses 5-9, are among the most difficult to understand and especially obey.
We won’t solve some of the hardest questions about Paul’s view of slave-master relationships in this Starter’s few words. Yet we might note that the only way Jesus’ friends can be mutually submissive is with the help of the Holy Spirit who “arms” us for such service. In all of our relationships, including employee-employer ones, we can serve each other wholeheartedly only in the strength “of the Lord and in his mighty power” (10).
At the end of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, Paul at least implies that he was sometimes tempted to stop sharing the gospel, especially in the face of incredible opposition. He, however, longs to “fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel … [and] declare it fearlessly” (20). Yet the apostle realizes he can’t do so unless he’s armed for defense against the evil one and his henchmen’s attacks.
That armament, he insists four times in just three verses, primarily consists of prayer. So Ephesians 6’s proclaimers might consider devoting a substantial part of this week’s worship service or lesson to prayer. Prayer that, among other things, God will help Christians understand just who our true enemy is.
In his Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis talked about the “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, comments my colleague Stan Mast, “steers the true course down the middle.” So, we might add, do Ephesians 6:10-20’s wise proclaimers.