Preached at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield
31st July 2016 (10.45am): Trinity 10
“Pray for me,” Paul says, “so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” (vv.19-20)
Saints, would you pray this for me this morning? Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, we thank you for the mystery of the gospel, the mystery of the Good News that you have reconciled and united all people and all things in your Son Jesus Christ. Give me power through your Holy Spirit to proclaim this gospel as boldly as I ought, not because I have confidence in my own words, but because I have confidence in Him whom I proclaim, your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Good. Now if it’s a bad sermon, it’s your fault for not praying!
We come, today, to the end of our current series of sermons working through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul has explained the greatness of God’s purpose from eternity to unite all things in Christ and to create a new, united community in Him (the Church). He has underlined what a high calling it is to be part of this new community and the importance of living a life “worthy” of it—the whole of their lives and every single relationship, from the home to the workplace, are to be influenced and shaped by their new identity in Christ.
Now, at the end of this great letter, Paul warns the Ephesians that if they are truly going to be a new community in Christ, it won’t be easy. In fact, it will bring them into a spiritual battle of cosmic proportions. It will require them to stand up and fight against foes of unimaginable strength and unspeakable evil. If you thought being a Christian was about going to church, keeping your head down and generally trying to be ‘nice’ to people, think again. Being a Christian is something that requires us to “put on the whole armour of God.”
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” (v.10)
Why would Paul say this unless the Christian life was something for which we needed strength? It may come as a surprise to some, but the overriding message that God wants to impress on us here is that there is a war going on and that by virtue of being Christians, by virtue of our baptism and incorporation into Christ, we are part of it. Indeed, we acknowledge this every time somebody is baptised. After the decision for Christ is made and the person is marked with the sign of the cross, the person leading the service addresses them and says: “Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.” At which the whole congregation joins together, saying: “Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ, against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.”
To be a Christian, to be a disciple of Christ, enjoins upon us the need to fight. The Good News, the Gospel, the εὐαγγελίον, is the announcement of victory in battle. It is the announcement of Christ’s victory over the powers of sin and death, the victory of God’s kingdom with judgment for God’s enemies and salvation for God’s people. To be baptised is to be made a member of God’s people by being brought into the company of the crucified Christ. And because it is to be brought into the company of the crucified Christ, it is to be brought into Christ’s conflict with the powers that crucified Him.
A new community in Christ that owes its sole allegiance to God is a threat to the Devil’s dark dominion. He will do everything he can to stop it. He will sow seeds of sin and sedition that sprout and spread until they destroy the new society God has made. And the Devil is wily. It starts subtly—with a bit of grumbling here, or with a bit of coarse joking there, or with the odd power play rearing its head in our relationships. Satan knows how to divide people. He’s been doing it since he turned Adam and Eve on God and on each other. If God is creating a new community in Christ, don’t expect the Devil to take it lying down.
Living a life worthy of God’s high calling upon us is no mean feat. We are in a battle. But it isn’t for us to defeat sin, the world and the devil; that’s what God does in Christ. Our job is to join with Christ in His resurrection-rage against their death-dealing dominion. Therefore, Paul says: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (vv. 10-11) There is a battle. We are part of it. But the strength we need comes from God, and not ourselves.
And it’s just as well because our enemies aren’t blood and flesh. Our battle isn’t against other human beings. No. Our battle is bigger than that. Our Enemy is more powerful than any human enemy. The enemies we see are real enough, but spiritual forces of darkness that we can’t see animate them. We are involved in a cosmic conflict. Evil is organised, it’s strategic, and it’s deeply embedded in every structure, every system and every institution. Therefore, to combat such a powerful, cunning and unscrupulous Enemy, we need all the strength that God, and God alone, can supply.
“Our struggle,” Paul says, “is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v.12). The word he uses for ‘struggle’ describes a wrestling match, hand-to-hand combat, a soldier’s close-quarter grappling. Our Enemy might be in the heavenly places, but the war waged against us is very close to home, it’s right here on our doorstep. Hiding in the trenches is not an option. There are no neutral parties in this war. Instead, there are only two options: to stand and fight with Christ, or to collude with the Enemy either actively joining his ranks, or passively let him get about his business.
The Enemy wants us to break ranks and run, preferably without even fronting up. God encourages us to take up His whole armour so that we might stand our ground, remain in the battle and fight (v. 13). We are to go out like heavily armed soldiers, like people who know that their Enemy is going to throw the kitchen sink at them. One preacher told his congregation that he didn’t want any Christian streakers running around his church. It wasn’t enough to wear “the helmet of salvation,” they must wear the whole armour of God. I’m sure I speak for Mike in saying that neither of us want to see any kind of streakers in this church.
Put on. Take up. These imperatives dominate vv. 13-17. Each is plural and each implies that activity is required on our part. The struggle is not an individualistic one. The struggle belongs to all the baptised. We are in it together. God supplies the strength. God supplies the armour. But it’s up to us to stand in His strength. It’s up to us to put on and take up His armour. The armour of God doesn’t just fall on us like rain. It has to be claimed. We have to make it our own. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t spend so much time polishing our armour that we never actually make it to the front line.
“The apparel oft proclaims the man,” says Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In other words, the way we dress says something about who we are. The call to “put on” and “take up the whole armour of God” is the military version of clothing ourselves with the new self that Paul talks about back in Ephesians 4:24. As there, so here Paul says that baptism confers on us a new status, which is marked by the wearing of a new set of clothes—the whole armour of God. To be dressed like a Christian, then, is not to wear a dog collar, or a cross around our neck, or even a t-shirt that says, “I love Jesus.” No. To be dressed like a Christian is to be dressed for the battle.
“Fasten the belt of truth around your waist”—any lack of integrity between your faith and your action will hinder your movement. “Put on the breastplate of righteousness”—let Christ’s righteousness protect your innermost parts until it becomes your very own. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace”—God’s kingdom advances as the Good News is spread and new converts are won. “Take the shield of faith”—let your unwavering trust in God extinguish all the Devil’s fiery arrows. “Take the helmet of salvation”—hold up your head with confidence, knowing that God’s final victory is assured. “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”—yield God’s word, the word that speaks of Jesus, as your only weapon, and remember that it’s only as the Spirit points people to Jesus that it’s effective.
We must be dressed for the battle. And therefore, we must pray: “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” (v. 18). Prayer is an expression of our dependence on God. And because we are completely dependent on God, our prayer must be comprehensive, which Paul indicates by the use of four uses of the word ‘all’: we are to pray at all times, in all ways, with all perseverance, for all the saints. It’s not enough to pray at some times, in some ways, with some perseverance, for some of the saints. Prayer must be all encompassing if God’s armour is to fully encompass us.
We are in a battle. We must be dressed for the battle. And the means by which we (the Church) take hold of God’s armour is prayer. When we enter the new community of Christ through baptism, we come as those who have been conquered, enslaved and trodden down by sin, the world and the devil. Sunday by Sunday, however, we’re sent out as pardoned, liberated and fully-armed soldiers of God, whose vocation it is to fight valiantly against sin, the world and the devil through an indomitable, unrelenting and indefatigable campaign of love at Christ’s command.
The words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” are not just nice words intended to send us out with a warm fuzzy feeling as we leave the church building. No. These words are our battle cry! These words remind us who we are, and what we’re here for. The Church’s task, strange as it may sound, is not to change the world. The Church’s task is to be the Church—to be that new community in Christ who, having been released from slavery to sin, have peace with God and are free to do what they were truly created to do: to love and serve the Lord. By doing that, God will show the world what the world is meant to be.
Peace, not violence; love, not hate; service, not power—these are the strategies of God’s holy war. Therefore we fight the spiritual forces of evil every time we forgive someone who’s hurt us, every time we pray for our enemies, every time we open our hands and give to the poor. When we walk out of church, we are to go in God’s strength, as God’s people, free to live in God’s world in God’s way. This is our battle. The question is: are we dressed for it? Let us pray that we might be, and then let us stand and fight like the soldiers of God we are. Amen.