to Grips with Flesh and Blood
A sermon on Ephesians 6:10-20 & John 6:56-69 by Nathan Nettleton, 27 August 2006
In Christ we are one with all flesh and blood, and so our struggle is not against any other people, but against the spirits and powers and forces which would divide people and make them enemies.
It is very common in this day and age to hear talk of those who are against us. It has become a particularly strong theme with the heightened fear of terrorist attacks and the so-called "war on terrorism". Often we are told that this group or that group is opposed to us as westerners, but a lot of it is explained in religious terms and so we are also told that they are opposed to Christians, that they hate our faith, and want to destroy us because of it. Sometimes we hear such talk of others within the Christian Church. We hear different groups of Christians speaking of each other as the enemy, as the ones who are against us who are determined to destroy us.
Now this talk may often be the truth. I have no doubt that there are groups in the world who have become convinced that Christians are to be hated as the enemy, and I know from experience that there are Christians who hate other Christians and regard some of us as mortal enemies of the gospel who must be opposed at all costs. It may not be true as often as we are told it, but it is true that there are those who, for one reason or another, have set themselves against us.
However, even when it is true, that doesn't tell us how we should regard those who have set themselves against us. Are we to regard them as our enemies? Are we to set ourselves against them? If people attack us, and vilify us, and seek to undermine or sabotage the things we aim to do, surely the only response we can make is to attack back, isn't it? After all it is said that attack is the best form of defence, isn't it? Surely if we are to achieve what we believe God has called us to achieve, then we must go head to head with these opponents and soundly defeat them. Or would that perhaps be risking becoming just like them? Is there another way?
There is an interesting little connection between two of tonight's readings. I don't think I ever noticed it before, but having noticed it and meditated on it a bit this week, it seems to me that it has something important to say to these questions. The connection is that the phrase "flesh and blood" appears in both the reading from John's gospel and the reading from the letter to the Ephesians. It is used differently in each place, because the subject matter is different, but let's see what they might say when they reflect on each other.
The reading from the gospel is the last in our series on John, chapter six. As you will be aware by now, the phrase flesh and blood in this chapter is all about Jesus offering us his flesh and blood as food and drink. I have already said enough in the last few weeks about making sure we don't too quickly spiritualise it to a metaphor about communion at the Lord's Table, but recognise that it first refers to Jesus offering himself as the ultimate victim of the world's cannibalistic violence. That continues to be true in this extract, but that's not my focus this week. In tonight's opening line, Jesus speaks of living in us, and us in him. "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." He is talking about a very close identification between us and him. And this is what the incarnation -- the appearance of God in human flesh in Christ -- is all about. God breaks down the barrier and overcomes the distance between God and humanity. No longer is there a them-and-us thing between us and God. God is naturalised as a human, and now we are on the same side. We are one. "Those who share in my flesh and blood abide in me, and I in them." And this extraordinary act of solidarity on God's part has major implications for the way we view one another. In the incarnation, God does not become one with westerners, or with Christians, or with any exclusive group. God becomes one with flesh and blood. With all humanity. And so if we start treating any group as enemies, as undesirable "others", then we are breaching a solidarity that Christ has established in his incarnation in flesh and blood.
But that doesn't necessarily help us work out what do when others start treating us as enemies, does it? If the solidarity is not being recognised from the other side, how are we supposed to express it?
The passage we heard from the letter to the Ephesians is one of the more war-like in the Christian canon. It uses strong military imagery to describe the "armour" we must put on to defend ourselves in a great struggle. So at first glance, it may look as though we are being given licence here to engage in head to head conflict with those who have set themselves against us. But wait.
Here's that phrase "flesh and blood" again, and what does it say this time? "Our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood."
"Our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, 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."
It doesn't say that there are no enemies of flesh and blood. It says that our struggle is not against them. In other words, even if there are people who set themselves against us and seek to destroy us, it is not really them that we are up against. It is something else. Something bigger. Something which may be using them, and working through them, but which we are not to identify as being them. Up to a point you can continue to use the military imagery here. It is like a soldier in a war saying that he has no argument with the individual soldiers on the other side, but only with the ideology and nation which they represent and from whom they are taking their orders. "Our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the spiritual forces of evil."
But it is when we recall our gospel reading again that we see that the metaphor breaks down beyond that. Because a soldier in a war is still expected to kill the opposing soldiers, even if he can make a distinction between who they are and what they are being controlled by. But Jesus is emphasising the importance of our solidarity, and modelling for us what it means to willingly be the victim rather than perpetuate the violence, and the Apostle is calling us to struggle against the spiritual forces of evil, and not to identify anyone of flesh and blood as representing those forces.
Now this is not easy to do, and it is no wonder that the Apostle links it with the need to pray at all times and be strong in the strength of God's power. The easy way is always to identify someone who seems to represent what we are up against and to make them our target. But Christ has taken on their flesh and blood too, and our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood. So what does this look like in practice?
Well, in practice it means that no matter how violently opposed to us Osama Bin Laden and his band of fanatics are, our struggle is not with him. Osama Bin Laden is a fellow human being created in the image of God, and we are to honour him as such and pray for him as such. We are certainly to stand firm in our uncompromising opposition to the spirit of hatred and divisiveness and violence, but as can be seen only too clearly in much of the western world's response to him, if we don't maintain that distinction, the rulers and authorities and cosmic powers of hatred and divisiveness and violence quickly conquer us too, and we too become captive servants of those very spiritual forces. We become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
Again, in practice it means that no matter how brutal and inhumane John Howard's policies on asylum seekers become, our struggle is not against John Howard. John Howard is a fellow human being created in the image of God, and we are to honour him as such and pray for him as such. We are certainly to stand firm in our uncompromising opposition to the spirit of divisiveness and selfishness, but as can be seen only too clearly in the world of party politics, if we don't maintain that distinction, the rulers and authorities and cosmic powers of divisiveness and selfishness quickly conquer us too, and we too become captive servants of those very spiritual forces. We become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
And thirdly, in practice it means that no matter how much we are denounced and demonised by fundamentalist Christians like Fred Nile or Pat Robinson, our struggle is not against Fred Nile or Pat Robinson. Fred and Pat are fellow human beings created in the image of God, and we are to honour them as such and pray for them as such. We are certainly to stand firm in our uncompromising opposition to the spirit of arrogance and scapegoating, but as can be seen only too clearly in much of the church, if we don't maintain that distinction, the rulers and authorities and cosmic powers of arrogance and scapegoating quickly conquer us too, and we too become captive servants of those very spiritual forces. We become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
So let us stand firm in the tough freedom that Christ has won for us when he became the solution, willingly absorbing in his own body our violence and evil rather than succumbing to the temptation to turn against flesh and blood and become part of the problem. As our congregational covenant puts it, let us offer welcome and hospitality to everyone, regardless of who they are or what they have been involved in, and let us resist discussions which disparage others. For "our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, 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." And even at this moment, we are engaged in a fierce struggle with those real enemies, for when we overcome our differences and gather as one to celebrate the gospel of the reconciliation of all people in Christ, we are indeed arming ourselves in the armour of truth and righteousness and peace and faith and salvation. When we share together the bread of heaven, we are steadfastly resisting the divisive poison of hell. And when we stand to affirm our faith, it is not in a creed that sets us against others, but which turns us towards them with a prayer for love and life for all.