Proper 16B, August 23, 2015

August 24, 2015

The Uniform of Faith
Ephesians: 6:10-20

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For 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. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 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. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

This passage of scripture challenges me to examine my view of reality, but it also makes perfect sense to me. I love this image of suiting up properly for the work of God, and it makes me think about what it is that I’m up against.

The truth is that I have a much clearer image of God than I do of the devil. I have a lot to say about who God is, but in all honesty I don’t pretend to know that much about God. I know that God is far bigger than my mind can comprehend, but I am in love with my image of God. I may be wrong about how I see God, but I understand God to be perfectly benevolent. I believe that God loves and understands each of us so perfectly that there’s nothing any of us can do to prevent God from loving us. I’m not saying I believe God loves everything we do, but I believe God loves us unconditionally, and I think my image of God is consistent with the way in which Jesus portrayed God. Jesus didn’t just love the people who deserved to be loved. He loved his friends and his enemies. He loved properly religious people, and he loved outrageously sinful people.

I like to think that my image of God is well informed by what Jesus did and taught, but I also know that my concept of God is largely informed by the way I was raised and the good fortune that has come my way in life. I was born to loving parents, and in to a community that made me feel welcome in the world. I’m not saying that my life has been one easy step after the other, but I’ve never felt assaulted by evil. This could change tomorrow, but I think it’s accurate to say that I’ve experienced more hospitality in my life than hostility, and I think this has had an impact on my theology.

I think these factors have come together to provide me with a more fully developed understanding of God than I have of the presence of evil, and for that reason it’s a challenge for me to think about what it means to be properly equipped to protect myself from the wiles of the devil. This is not to say that I have no idea how bad this world can be or how well I can cooperate with the presence of evil. I don’t consider myself to be a Pollyanna – I know that bad things happen and that people do horrific things.

While I trust that the love of God is larger than any other agenda in the universe, I also believe that evil is insidiously present in every nook and cranny of this world. I can think of evil as being a little bit like the mosquitos around here which are lurking everywhere. I don’t necessarily feel as assaulted by evil as I do by the mosquitos, but I know I am in need of deliverance from both! Jesus taught us to pray for deliverance from temptation and evil, and I don’t doubt that I need it. I know myself to be a weak and self-serving schemer who is a few short steps away from seeking any form of ungodly good and service available. I think it was Mark Twain who said he could resist anything but temptation, and I think he was speaking for most of us when he said that.

As I say, I believe God loves us all unconditionally, but I know we all create our own challenges to the love of God. I also believe there are things we can do to diminish those challenges and to grow in our relationship with God. I fully embrace this wisdom of Paul who wrote this letter to encourage the people of Ephesus and the rest of us to protect ourselves from the particular ways in which we are vulnerable to the manifestation of evil.

While I don’t unquestionably accept everything that Paul is credited with writing as being the absolute truth or perfectly sound teaching, I do trust these words that we are looking at this morning. These aren’t just lofty and poetic phrases emanating from a man who was sitting at a desk in a serene location. That’s what I do, and while I don’t think I’m leading anyone astray with the things I say, I don’t think I write with the same authority that Paul had as he sat in a grimy cell – imprisoned for sharing his belief that God was made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul had encountered Christ in such a powerful way the threat of imprisonment was overshadowed by his passion to share what he had experienced and what he believed.

Paul was suffering for what he believed – which adds a lot of credibility to what he was saying. And what I understand him to be saying is that we need to be on guard against the enemies of the spirit more than we need to protect ourselves from threats to our physical wellbeing. Paul was in a physically vulnerable situation, but it wasn’t for his flesh that he was concerned. Paul didn’t let the physically harsh circumstance he was in distract him from the thing that was truly threatening to him – which was of a spiritual nature. Paul had the wisdom to see beyond the immediate threats to his body and remain focused on the powers and principalities that were behind those threats.

His battle was not with the individuals who had put him in prison. Paul recognized that his struggle was with the spiritual forces of evil that were behind the people who abused him and placed him in prison. He knew that he needed to guard himself so that he could maintain love in his heart while he was in a very hateful situation.

When I think of what this means for me, what strikes me is the vast difference between the circumstances that Paul was in and what the Ephesians were facing, and the situation in which I find myself living. What I’m thinking is that I need to be as vigilant in my resistance to the evil powers that are behind the surface of the world in which I live as Paul was to those powers that were lurking behind the surface of his world. I don’t believe that we live in a world that is less threatened by the spiritual forces of evil. I think it’s probably just harder for us to see the ways in which we cooperate with those powers that are at work in this world that do harm to our souls.

I don’t want to overstate the case of how active the evil powers are at work in our neighborhood. I’m honestly very grateful to live in a place where I don’t feel threatened on a daily basis by people who are motivated to set of bombs or to carry out other forms of mass violence. I wouldn’t trade the problematic world in which I live for the one that Paul lived in or the world in which so many others are living in today. I think it would be hard for me not to be hateful if I had family members injured, tortured, or killed by a rival religious sect or tribe. I don’t know how well my soul would be doing if I lived in a place without adequate food, water, medicine or shelter. I’m might not have such a benevolent image of God if I lived in a place that was wracked by war, famine, or industrial waste. I’m not proud to say this, but it’s probably true.

I just don’t know how to reconcile these things, but Paul provides some testimony that is important for me to hear. I hear him saying that we should always do what we can to protect our souls. We need to don the equipment of faith that will enable us to resist the evil powers that are always lurking behind the façade of life.

As a person who hardly ever goes outside without putting on my trusty Tilley hat that is designed to protect my vulnerable head from those invisible forces that can do harm to my skin, I find Paul’s words to be compelling. I’ve never been a soldier, so I don’t have full appreciation for the way it feels to put on equipment that’s designed to protect you in battle, but I like to be properly protected. There aren’t many days of the year when I don’t wear boots of some kind, and I don’t wear shorts very often. Part of that is motivated by vanity, but I also just feel more protected when I’m wearing long pants. And I’m pretty quick to put on a back brace when I’m going to be doing a lot of heavy lifting.

I’m pretty mindful of protecting my flesh, and Paul has pointed out that I need to be even more mindful of protecting my soul. I think this probably means slightly different things to all of us, but what is true for us all is that we need to pay attention to how we spend our time, to what that we give our attention, and to where we invest our resources. What is it that we are feeding within ourselves? And what are we encouraging to happen in our community and beyond? I think Paul would say that such things are reflections of how well we are resisting or cooperating with the evil powers that are behind the surface of this world.

We live in a very mysterious world. I don’t get it in so many ways. Evil is out there, but so is God. I trust that God’s love will prevail in this world, and I pray that we will all do all that we can to cooperate with the love of God in whatever way we can for as long as we can. I think John Wesley said something to this effect about 250 years ago. He is credited with saying: Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times that you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can. And I think this remains to be good instruction for us. This world is torn in many ways by insidiously evil agendas, and if we don’t intentionally seek to do the good we can do we may well find ourselves supporting the enemies of God and contributing to the deterioration of our souls.

Of course the best form of protection comes to us in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who convicts us of our sin when we are going in the wrong direction, and who enables us to see what we can do to resist evil and to stand with God.

Thanks be to God for the opportunity we all have to live our lives in relationship with God and in opposition to the evil powers of this world. We all abide in God’s world, and we are all invited to be God’s people.
Thanks be to God.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: