Sermon for August 22nd, 2021
It is important to remember when you hear St. Paul speaking in his letter to the Ephesians, it is important to remember, that he is in prison. Paul got into trouble with some of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem for his preaching, he was arrested, and because he was a Roman citizen he requested and got a change of venue to Rome where he spent the last two years of his life imprisoned. So this man who fought with the Jewish authorities and was kept in chains by the Roman authorities, this man who we know suffered in his body, writes to the Christians in Ephesus and says:
“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.”
Wait a sec…Paul, who is being physically held captive by the Romans, says that the struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh? You mean to tell me that Paul thinks that the real enemy is NOT the Romans or the Jews? Yes, I think that is precisely what Paul is saying. Our struggle, as Christians, as people who have allied ourselves with the son of God, is really against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, as Paul says, or the spiritual forces of evil. That is the real enemy: the powers of darkness and the forces of evil. Our struggle as Christians is with them. We may have physical enemies in this world, we may suffer and be oppressed, but those struggles are secondary to the spiritual struggle. We are easily distracted sometimes by the enemies of blood and flesh, but the bigger and more important battle is the spiritual one. Essentially what Paul is saying is that we should not get so distracted by these little side battles that we lose focus on the real war that is actually going on. But it is easy for us to get distracted, even for people of faith.
You know, there have been a lot of arguments in the past, especially among some historical and critical scholars of the bible over whether it was really the Romans or the Jewish Temple authorities that are really responsible for having Jesus crucified. But don’t you see, no matter which side of that argument you come down on, you are missing the real conflict that is happening here! This isn’t about a struggle between Jews and Romans. This is about the fight between good and evil. This is about the struggle between God and the forces of darkness. This is a spiritual battle that involves flesh and blood, but is about so much more than one man’s life. You know, when Jesus was arrested he said to those who were putting him in chains: “this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” The powers of darkness were responsible for having Jesus crucified, and yes it was darkness working with and through human beings, but don’t go thinking that you can just blame Pontius Pilate or Caiphas for this and let it go, like they are the only ones who ever leant the powers of darkness a helping hand. The spiritual battle that is happening on the cross affects all of us; we are all a part of it.
The crucifixion is a historical event, but the cross represents a battle that transcends place and time as we know it. The cross is about the cosmic struggle between darkness and light, good and Evil, or God and Satan that is taking place in every age, in every country and society, and even within every person. The cross is about a struggle that is happening right now in all of our lives, and I will let you in on a little secret or insight…if you look at the cross…without the eyes of faith or the knowledge of God’s power, if you look at this symbol and don’t know what happened three days later, if you don’t know about Easter, then it is always going to look like the darkness is winning. Always.
But what if you do know how the story ends? What if you knew that this man was victorious in this fight? What if this is a reminder to you that in this cosmic battle between light and darkness that evil only ever appears to have the upper hand, but in the end is always defeated and thrown down and trampled underfoot by God? Could that change how you live? Could that give you some perspective on who the real enemy is in this world and which battles are more important? Would that change how you look at suffering?
Well it did for Paul. Paul could sit in prison and realize that his real struggle wasn’t with his captors. His real struggle was with darkness. The powers of darkness. That is how Paul, earlier in his ministry when he had found himself in jail was able to minister to and even convert his jailor. As much as he was being oppressed by this man, Paul knew that he wasn’t the real enemy. And here’s the other thing Paul knew, Paul knew that you don’t have to be sitting in a jail cell to be struggling with those forces of evil. Everyone is assaulted by them. It may come in different forms, but man or woman, young or old, rich or slave, we are all going to have to struggle with evil in some form. So what is the best way to fight it? What is the best way to defend ourselves against the real enemy in this world? Well, first off, make sure you are dressed for battle. Paul gives the Christians in Ephesus some very practical advice by way of a metaphor: put on the whole armor of God. Paul encourages these Christians to think about spiritual weapons like pieces of a soldier’s armor:
He says fasten the belt of truth around your waist. Lies only serve the devil. Those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus said I am the truth. Remember that the person in the gospel that questions the importance of truth is Pilate, the man who ordered Jesus to be executed. Truth is a spiritual weapon.
And the next is righteousness. Paul says “put on the breastplate of righteousness.” Now I hasten to add here that Paul is not talking about self-righteousness; he’s not talking about being puffed up and conceited and arrogant. Paul is talking about guarding your hearts, like a breastplate, with the motivation of goodness. Are you seeking righteousness? Not have you lived perfectly, but are you trying to do the right thing in all your actions? Are you seeking to live a moral life? Do you believe that right and wrong truly exist? That is righteousness.
The next thing Paul says is you need shoes that will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Telling other people about the peace that only comes from knowing God; telling the gospel story, telling people how this really ends, that is a powerful weapon.
But of course, Christians need to be prepared for the resistance that the darkness is going to throw back at them. The devil isn’t going quietly, so you need a shield of faith, a helmet of the knowledge of your salvation, and a sword that is the word of God. Knowing the word, reading the word, listening to God speak through the word that is your best defense against the powers of darkness in this world. Just be sure that you have a good grip on it and aren’t just dabbling in verses here and there, because you know, the devil can quote scripture too.
Finally, Paul adds, pray. Pray at all times. Yes, there is real physical work to be done, but it must always be accompanied before and behind with prayer. Prayer is a powerful reminder that no matter what our circumstances are, the real battle that we are fighting is a spiritual one, and therefore we need to make sure that we are properly equipped with spiritual weapons.
Now maybe you don’t like Paul’s militaristic metaphor and imagery, maybe it makes you a little uncomfortable, but when I look at the world around me, when I reflect on what is going on in the lives of the people I know, and when I think of what has happened in my own life, the only conclusion that I can come to is that spiritual warfare is real. Yeah, we all have some material and physical problems from time to time, maybe even all the time, but our real problems are the spiritual problems. Yes, the enemies of flesh and blood can hurt us, but that kind of pain and oppression is nothing compared to despair, or hopelessness, or anger, or hatred. So fight the spiritual battles first.
Every day there is a spiritual victory to be had. Every day there is joy to be had, and hope and grace and love to be shared. Every day there is a reason to give thanks to God. If you know how this story ends, then you have a reason to rejoice today, no matter what enemies of flesh and blood you may have. But remember that there is nothing the devil wants more than to so consume you and distract you with what he is doing, that you lose all sight of what God is doing. Satan wants you to be so obsessed with all the pain and suffering in this world that you feel guilty for even being happy. The devil wants you to be so overwhelmed by all the junk you see that you just want to give up and give in. That is the spiritual battle that we are fighting every day in our world and in ourselves. But as our final hymn today confidently proclaims: “Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise.” Nothing threatens the devil more than joyful, thankful Christians. We are not phony or blind to the suffering in the world, but we know that there is victory beyond it. We can be joyful, even when getting dressed for daily spiritual battles, because we already know how the war ends.
Onward, then, ye people,
join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices
in the triumph song;
Glory, laud, and honor,
unto Christ the King;
This thro’ countless ages
we with angels sing.