When all hell breaks loose
A sermon based on Ephesians 6:10-20 by Nathan Nettleton, 27th August 2000
The forces seeking to destroy any chance of real Christian living are formidable, but so are the weapons God gives us.
The term spiritual warfare has had a lot of bad press. It is one of those terms that seems to be most often heard from loopy people who think there are demons lurking under every chair and are always offering to exorcise your lunch box in case some evil force has taken hold of your vegimite sandwich. Some are really dangerous, taking it upon themselves, without knowledge, wisdom or accountability, to put people through bizarre exorcism rituals, some of which have infamously resulted in tragic deaths. No wonder many of us cringe and duck for cover when we hear someone exhorting us to engage in spiritual warfare. But the term does relate to something that the Bible teaches, and it is right there in todays reading from Pauls letter to the Ephesians, so if we can put aside our fear of loopy fanatics we need to ask ourselves what it might be saying to us.
What is spiritual warfare and whats it got to do with us? Well fortunately, you dont have to hold first century worldview or see demons as little creatures with pointy tails and pitchforks in order to be able to make sense of what Paul has to say here. He is quite clear, though, that the forces that are opposing and undermining Gods mission are not simply antagonistic human beings. Paul says, that what were up against here is not simply human opposition, but rather corrupt spiritual forces and cosmic powers of evil. Forces that are responsible for the destructive chaos which is threatening to engulf the world.
Many of us are used to viewing the world with a very scientific mindset, a mindset that says that everything can be explained and the causes of everything can be identified, and consequently we are often afraid that if we buy into the idea of cosmic evil powers and corrupt spiritual forces that we are on the slippery slope to blaming demons for faulty carburettors. But I think that if we stand aside from that fear for a moment, well realise that we actually do believe what Paul is saying here. We understand it quite intuitively. Just ask yourself what it is that makes it difficult for you to become more radically Christlike in the way you live. What is it that makes it difficult to break free of the scramble to climb the social ladders and stockpile material securities? What is it that stops you from becoming more compassionate, simple, honest and merciful?
Its not just other people, is it? Its not just that other people try to talk you out of it or ridicule the path youre trying to take. It is not simply because other people dont trust God that we often find it hard to do so. There is more to it that that, and we might not be able to describe it very well or nail it down, but we know that it is not just the people we encounter. We know that there are also things that well up inside us that try to turn us from that path. And we know that there are things that seem to be woven into the very fabric of our society that seem to resist any serious attempts to break free and change, but there genuinely doesnt seem to be anyone who can be identified as being responsible. There might be lots of people caught up in it but there doesnt seem to be a Big Brother somewhere planning and controlling the world to make sure it stays greedy, materialistic, unequal, competitive and deeply divided. And most of the time there doesnt seem to be anyone personally trying to make sure we dont get too out of step with that. It might not be a someone, but there are still forces of some kind that make it enormously difficult to break free.
Whether or not you are comfortable using the concept of the devil and demonic powers to describe what we are up against, it is clear that if we want our faith to be something more than just a religious version of socially acceptable behaviour and niceties, then we are going to have to engage in a serious struggle with something that is quite powerful. Personally, Im not sure whether I believe that there is an actual individual creature called the devil who has some kind of control over such forces, but I do find it a helpful way of thinking about what Im up against. Somehow it is easier to get my mind around the conflict if I can give the opposition a name and a set of character traits.
But Pauls 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.
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 armour 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 these things, likening them to items of armour or weaponry. Righteousness and justice are like a bullet proof vest, protecting your heart. If you loose heart, youre a goner. You probably all know people who once aspired to follow Jesus with their whole hearts but were seduced into a little compromise here and a little compromise there until they were totally compromised and lost heart. They might even still go to church, but they no longer have any desire to reshape their lives in the image of Christ. It is a resolute commitment to the ways of righteousness and justice that will protect your heart. Faith is like a shield that protects you from whatever is thrown at you. Strong faith can take a lot of punishment and still hold firm.
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 armoury if youve never been in training and have no idea how to use it. Youll just panic at the first outbreak of trouble and turn and run. And you may not have noticed, but Paul didnt describe any protection for your back. If you turn to run, youll be totally defenceless. 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.
In our reading from Johns gospel tonight, we heard the story of a crunch point in the ministry of Jesus. A lot of people had been following him, attracted by his acts of healing and mercy and his teaching about the generous love of God. But the point has come where the hard edged implications of his teachings begin to sink in. People begin to realise that you cant just take what Jesus offers as the cream on the cake of your life. The whole cake needs to be remixed. Every aspect of your life needs to be re-evaluated and renewed by Christs Spirit. Many of those who have followed him up until this point are not willing to go on. They give up and turn their backs on Jesus. Its all too hard. Christ demands too much.
Most of the time, thats how well experience the cosmic forces of evil. They wont come out in the open and reveal their grand strategy for keeping the world locked into its patterns of injustice and division. Theyll just subtly target us, one at a time, seeking to drain us of passion and courage and persuade us that change is all too hard. Theyll just encourage us to be happy with the little benefits that the world as it is has given us and cloud our vision of an alternative world founded on love and justice and freedom and peace.
Thats one of the reasons why what we do together here each time we gather to worship is so important. The prayers that we pray and the rites that we perform are reinforcing in us the vision of the world as it could be, the world as it was created to become. Right here together we expose ourselves to the truth, we reaffirm the ways of righteousness, we make peace with one another, we celebrate the faith, we drink the cup of salvation, we open ourselves to the Word of God. And in doing these things together, we protect ourselves against the stupidity of thinking we could ever be the lone ranger hero who fights alone.
It is here, as we hear the life-giving Word of God and are nourished by Christ giving himself to us, as we declare and enact the vision of a world and a life wholly dedicated to Christ, that we are armed and prepared for the tough task ahead of us the task of taking that vision and putting it in place for the other 166 hours of our week. The forces opposing us in that quest are powerful, but ultimately, theyve got nothing on the power of the mysteries placed in our hands by Jesus Christ at this table.