Sermon for Palm UMC, Dinuba, CA on August 26, 2018 on Ephesians 4:25; 5:1-2; 6:10-20
If you got out your Bible to read, you’ll notice I kind of skipped around a bit in putting these verses together- let me explain.. I as a preacher usually follow what’s called the Revised common lectionary, which appoints an old testament, psalm, gospel and epistle lesson for each Sunday, and I usually follow that pretty strictly, and I usually preach from the Gospels. But this month has had strict followers of that pattern preaching 5 Sundays in a row on the same chapter of John 6. I have tried to do that before, it is hard to talk about bread for 5 weeks straight. And I thought it might be a pretty dry way to start out an appointment. So instead, I have kind of done a lectionary soup, some John, and some Ephesians, and for this week I went back and gathered a couple of the verses from Ephesians that would have been for some other Sundays this month that I thought were really good and good for us. But I skipped over a lot of the don’ts, to concentrate on the do’s here. I think Christianity has enough of a reputation of enforcing all the things that you aren’t supposed to do- and sometimes we forget that we are supposed to DO some things, too, not just avoid sin. In that famous paraphrase of Wesley- do no harm but do all the good that you can, any time that you can, in any way that you can.
But even so I have to say that I had to struggle with myself just a little in choosing this passage. Because I really hate war, I really hate violence. Woven into our larger history as a church are too many times when the church has aligned with political powers, blessed armies and even weapons meant for destroying other members of God’s good creation. We need to be mindful of that, and careful. And so I don’t really love, on the surface, the idea of imitating soldiers and fighting, weapons and so forth, even if they are of the spirit.
Yet it has become increasingly clear to me in recent times, that evil is alive and well in our world. The sins of greed and malice are causing people to suffer, in our country and all over the world, evil is manifest in so many different ways. So much of what is going on in the world can bring you down. so yes, we need to be reminded that God equips us, as believers in Jesus Christ, to resist evil, to join in with God to increase what’s good and stand against all that harms.
And these are indeed almost entirely defensive gear- for protecting, resisting, standing- not injuring. Even the sword, is a sword that cannot injure a person but only the evil power that might be within. We aren’t struggling against flesh and blood but spiritual forces, Paul says here- it isn’t about hurting any person, but living out God’s way does not mean passivity and acceptance of evil, either. Nor can we simply turn away from suffering and try to pretend it doesn’t have anything to do with us. We are all one, remember?
And what else is important to remember is- these are plural yous. Our modern English doesn’t distinguish a single you from a plural you- but these verbs in Greek are for groups, for the whole body, for doing it together, not as lone wolves or solitary fighters. All y’all, put on the full armor of God- the armor that is God’s not ours- so you can stand- stand together. Professor Ronald Olson of Luther seminary notes, “Ancient Roman armies simply marched headlong into enemy forces. But the well-protected soldiers stayed in such close formation, shoulder to shoulder, shields overlapping, that the blows of their opponents had little effect. When their enemy was worn out, the Roman legions were still standing.” Even if I don’t agree with the purposes of the roman army, we can see how their method is a good thing to copy when thinking about our Christian community fighting shoulder to shoulder, protecting one another and wearing out the enemy.
So the first piece of armor, defensive gear rather, listed, is the Belt of truth. I included today 4:25 also, which says,
“ Put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “ there’s that one ness again, But, put off falsehood and speak truthfully. It is a sad day in our country- a popular figure who is politically relevant said recently: Truth isn’t truth. I almost didn’t bring this up beloved, because I caught myself wondering if it would be potentially politically off- putting to insist in my sermon, that truth is truth. Then I realized what I was pondering and almost slapped myself. If the church can’t say, truth is truth, then who can? What are we doing if we have to say, well maybe truth is truth and maybe it isn’t? then nothing is anything and how can you know which way is up let alone who is God and what is good?
We can have different viewpoints about subjective matters and invite people who come from different walks of life to help us know how they see it, yes!- but truth is still truth. And we are to speak that way. Speak the truth In love, I think that was 2 weeks ago too, mentioned- speak the truth in love, say hard things gently when appropriate, caring for the person not just the message; but for goodness sake don’t speak falsehood or deceitfully, even if leaders of your country are- remember where our first allegiance lies, to Christ alone.
Putting on the belt of truth- is to not be bound by anyone’s falsehood. And there’s a lot of lies out there, beloved. Political and otherwise. We wrap truth around us as part of God’s protective gear.
Next, The breastplate of righteousness- now righteousness is one of these churchy words that we almost forget what it means because it isn’t part of our everyday language- but really just means, doing good. Doing good with your resources, being generous, lending a helping hand, caring for people, and not hurting anyone. Have that as your protection over your heart. Your doing good is God’s protecting you. John Wesley points out in his notes that the breastplate is over the heart which is the seat of conscience- right doing, right living, keeps your conscience from being compromised.
Your shoes are a readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace. Whatever makes your ready, in any given moment, to reveal the good news of Jesus Christ. I will mention one of the other verses I included today- 5:1-2 that our Feet are to be walking in the way of love – just as Christ gave himself up for us. Just like that- that is no easy walk, that is really hard- but the way of love, walking that way, giving of ourselves- is how we are revealing the gospel of peace to those around us, yes even the assailing powers. And gotta throw in the love- as dearly loved children- again all this isn’t something we do on our own. It is all gift from God and possible because of that great love of God for all of us. Walking in that way, wearing those readiness shoes- is possible because God has shown us how.
The shield of faith- trusting God so much that even flaming arrows of evil don’t phase us. Again, with all of us holding the shields together, it is that much easier. The helmet of salvation- that God has already rescued us, and no one can take that salvation away. Even if, for example in those ancient times, one would be killed for their faith, they knew that God would raise them up at the end. That helmet is strong and impenetrable and allows for boldness, which even Paul himself by the end is asking that they help him, in prayer, to have.
And then that sole offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. The message of a God who lovingly created everything that is, time and again brought people near after they strayed or disobeyed, who came in the flesh to show the extent of the deep strong love, who will make everything right in the end. No evil can stand against the message of such complete love, brought to life by the Holy Spirit. For this is no stagnant, dusty message, but a living word.
What evils in our society can we name, that we can slay with this message of God’s love?
Luke Powery, an African –America preacher, offers some exposition of these verses, and brings up that even this fighting, is a non-violent fighting. It is a fighting with words that does not injure, but does help. It is fighting for change, and he brings up the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, who claimed their dignity and humanity in the face of mistreatment. That is an example of slaying evil with the message of a God who loves everyone and wants that imprint of God to be respected in everyone. So every evil that I can think of can be defeated by that message. Homelessness? God loves everybody, everybody should have a place. Predatory lending practices? No one should be taken advantage of, because she is precious to God. Exploitation of workers? Same. Racism, sexism, it is all destroyed when we hold it up to the story of a God of love. Destroying God’s creation for profit? Nope, God loves all of it. War? One of God’s beloved children could get hurt.
Ok so I know it’s more complicated than that- but too often we just shrug our shoulders as the church and say, yeah it’s complicated, so we’ll just let that evil be. We’ll just let it go on. NO. NO. No. is what Paul is saying here. You stand together, you fight. Fight without hurting any person. Just hurt the evil powers.
It seems that Paul runs out of pieces of armor for metaphor but goes on to talk about the importance of prayer. I’ll help him, I think prayer is the spiritual workout, the intense training, and the muscle built up so we can use all of these other tools.
And then he reveals the reality of his situation. He is in chains, imprisoned because he has boldly proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ- yet he is asking his brothers and sisters in Ephesus to pray that he continue to be bold. He was not sitting behind a comfortable desk somewhere like I was to write this message. He was showing the example of how to resist evil- and even he was imitating the example of Christ. So we have the legacy passed down over generations. Our time and place is very different. We are no longer imprisoned for our faith, we are no long in the minority as Christians, but the struggle against evil and all that hurts God’s children goes on. Let us stand, together, with all that God has already given us, to resist the evil powers, and insist that God’s way should be our way, as we pray every Sunday, that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. May it be so.