Sunday, August 23, 2009

Spiritual Warfare

Twelfth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 16) – Year B (RCL)
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
Sunday, August 23, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:10-11).

Today’s lesson from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is a well-known passage among Christians, but is, at the same time, a very confusing, and I think, an often misunderstood one. Particularly so for us contemporary Christians. In our modern world, the imagery of armor, breastplates, shields, and helmets do not have much meaning. We don’t see people dressed as such in our daily lives, unless you happen to be at the Renaissance Faire. For us, more apt imagery might be that of modern military personnel, with helmets and flak jackets; or riot police, with helmets, clubs, and shields; or football players, with helmets, faceguards, and shoulder pads. Regardless of the specifics, the imagery is the same – wearing of safety equipment to provide protection from whatever may assail the wearer. But even so, this is not equipment many of us wear. It is the equipment of trained professionals. But this is not the cause of the confusion.

What I think is the potential cause of confusion is the nature of the assault one is protecting him or herself against. Paul talks about the armor being protection against “the wiles of the devil,” about struggles against rulers, authorities, “cosmic powers of this present darkness,” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Some Christians, and particularly some allegedly Christian governments, have latched on to Paul’s words as a way of justifying going to war against those viewed as enemies of God, against those viewed as being forces of evil bent on destroying our Christian way of life.

But even more generally, many Christians have latched on to this discourse from Paul, and the entire Letter to the Ephesians, in an attempt to address the question of theodicy – why bad things happen, or more specifically, how, despite an omnipotent, omnipresent God, evil and suffering exist in our world. The explanation that is seen in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is that such evil and suffering exist precisely because of dark and evil forces bent on tempting humans and preventing the reign of God. And more specifically, the passage we have today is an attempt to explain what we as Christians can do about it all – how we can take on the forces of evil and do our part to insure God’s continued reign. The term that is used by many contemporary evangelical Christians, particularly some of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, is “spiritual warfare.” The concept is that we as Christians are engaged in a battle between good and evil, a war between God and the forces of darkness. And these forces of evil use all sorts of tricks, tempting us, possessing us with demons, in an attempt to prevent us from following Christ. Paul’s words to the Ephesians are seen as a military operations manual for use in this ongoing war.

Lest you get the wrong idea, I am not advocating such views. I am merely explaining how some interpret Paul’s words. Within the Episcopal Church, you do not generally hear talk of spiritual warfare, at least not in the classical sense. If anything, the term is used by the radically conservative break-away elements as a call, a battle cry, for taking the Episcopal Church back to their way of thinking. But in general, we Episcopalians do not place a great deal of emphasis on the traditional notion of spiritual warfare. Now, that is not to say that individuals may not hold such views. I know a number of Episcopalians, whom I love and greatly respect, who do hold such views. And if that is their understanding, I respect that and will not argue.

But I think Paul’s message is a bit misunderstood. There is much debate among biblical scholars as to the real meaning of this section of Ephesians. Several interpretations have been put forth. Most of this centers around Paul’s statement, “take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day.” What “evil day” is Paul referring to? Some scholars think that Paul is referring to the evils of the time to come before the end, as allegedly foretold in the book of Revelation. Some feel that Paul is referring to specific instances of temptation. Others feel that Paul is merely referring to everyday life in the present age. While all have valid arguments, I think the important thing is to look at the overall scope of the Letter to the Ephesians and to the social and historical context in which it was written. While seemingly apocalyptic in nature, similar statements elsewhere in Ephesians are generally mere descriptions of present reality. Paul relates such seemingly apocalyptic statements to what is going on in the life of the Church at Ephesus – to their current circumstances. And the early Christians in Ephesus, as well as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, had a lot to worry about. At that time in history, Christianity was still essentially an illegal religion, often operating underground. This was a time when Christians in the Roman Empire faced daily religious persecution, harassment, and discrimination, just for being Christian.

This being the case, I tend to be most persuaded by the view that Paul is not addressing “warfare” against nebulous cosmic forces of evil out there bent on destroying the church, as much as he is talking about those very real, everyday things, everyday life events, that challenge our faith. Why do I believe this? One simple fact. In the broadest of terms, the battle to which Paul refers, the war against “cosmic powers of darkness,” against “spiritual forces of evil,” is a war against two things: sin and death. These two, sin and death, are the results of work of the powers of darkness, the forces of evil. When we are tempted by and give into the forces of evil, whatever those may be, we sin. And the death that we talk about in such instances is the permanent end of our existence. A death in which life comes to an end and there is no more.

But you know what? We don’t have to worry about these, about sin and death. That war is over. Through Jesus Christ, the incarnate son of God, who lived among us, walked with us, ate with us, taught us, healed us; who was crucified for us, and resurrected for us, all of this, the ravages of sin and death, are inconsequential to us. We don’t have to worry about them. As we extol at our annual celebration of Easter, through his death and resurrection, Jesus has done two important things. First, he has broken the bonds of sin. By the very act of taking our place, by taking our sins, all our sins, upon himself and presenting them to God on our behalf, all our sins have been forgiven. Through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, our sins are no more. We have been forgiven once and for all. Sin no longer controls us. Sin no longer determines our fate.

And second, through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death. Death no longer has dominion over him. And we, by being incorporated into the Body of Christ, by following him, by abiding in him and he in us, we are likewise not limited by death. Death no longer has dominion over us. Death is not the end, the final word. Death is merely the beginning. Death is the transition to new life, to a new and eternal life made possible through Jesus Christ.

So the good news is the war is over. At least, as far as we are concerned. It may rage on at some cosmic level, between God and the forces of evil. But we have been removed from the war. We have been shipped home from the front. Jesus Christ has seen to it that we don’t have to face the horrors of this war – the tortuous results of sin, the permanent end of our lives. He has broken the bonds of sin, conquered death. For us.

Now that doesn’t mean that there is not still evil in the world. That sin does not happen. It does. We see it every day in the news. All around us we see chaos, dehumanization, corruption, oppression, crime, war, threats of war, genocide, poverty, disease, degradation of our environment, degradation of our society. We live in a broken world. These things are, unfortunately, a part of our reality. They may not touch us directly, but we still feel their effects. But what does touch all of us directly, that which is most pervasive, is fear. I think this is the twenty-first century equivalent of what Paul was talking about. This is what we are called to do battle against – the fears we cannot help but have because of all that is going on around us. There’s no denying their existence. There’s no sweeping them under the rug and pretending they don’t exist. We’re human. Our fears are part of who we are. But being people of faith, we have ways of even dealing with these fears.

That’s where Paul’s words of advice to us come in handy. In amongst the imagery of armor and breastplates and helmets, Paul provides us with the virtues that are needed to help us deal with even our own fears. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” To illustrate his point, Paul uses the image of putting on the armor of God to illustrate basic Christian virtues.

Armor is just another set of clothing. Changing into new clothing is sometimes used as a sign of conversion, of new life. In one of the rites for private confession, the penitent acknowledges, “Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness.” At our baptisms we were given new clothes, or armor, if you will to symbolize our new life. Unlike the ancient church where the newly baptized got a new white robe, today, the clothing is more metaphorical, just as Paul implies. As Paul notes, this new clothing consists of a number of Christian virtues – truth, righteousness, proclaiming the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God. This may sound like a lot to take on. But we already have. We’re already doing it. Through regular attendance at worship, and particularly partaking of the Eucharist. Through reading of scripture. Through regular prayer and other spiritual practices. Through proclaiming the gospel and living it out in our lives. Through acts of compassion and mercy, in reaching out to others. And even in fellowship and being part of this community of faith and support.

These provide us with the hope that we need, the assurance that the war is out of our hands and in the hands of the only One who is truly equipped to do battle against sin and death. All that is asked of us is that we be faithful. That’s what all of this is about. All of this, all of what we do here on Sunday, what we do in our private devotions and practices, the works of compassion that we do in the community during the week, are the armor of God. This is what will protect us from sin and death. This is what will protect us from the fears that plague each and every one of us. This is what allows us, as is Paul’s challenge to all who follow Christ, to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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