"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

For we do not war against flesh and blood…

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SJE Tools for the Apprentices of Christ sermon series Ephesians 6:10-18 (this is the extended version, the delivered sermon will be 3 pages of text shorter)

Pray. Good morning – we have a slightly reduced community today, and I’m all on my own up here, as our men are on retreat . As we gather as the Body of Christ, we do so in union with them, as we’re unified in the mystical breaking of the bread. We lift them up in prayer, that this weekend will be a holy and transforming one for each of them (and for those of us who have stayed back). 

When I was looking at the text from Ephesians we are dealing with today, it was before our synod of last weekend. This past week as I put these words together, it struck me repeatedly what an excellent text this armour of God discourse provides for us today. This text is excellent because it both focuses us on the reality of a life of faith, following the risen Lord in a dark world, and on how we are to properly respond to warfare. I find for myself, that since synod I have been turning more and more into prayer, that I may stand fast against the assaults of the evil one, and that’s what we’ll talk about today. Our theme today is workplace protection, not talking workers compensation issues, but rather what we might call personal protective equipment – PPE – for we Christians living in our workplace, that is the world.

Why is it we need protection from the world? The reason is that this part of the creation, while redeemed and won through Christ’s ultimate defeat of evil on the cross, is still under the rule of the prince of this world, that is the devil. If we read earlier in Ephesians, we hear Paul’s caution about the way of this world:

2 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Children of wrath, sons of disobedience, dead in sin and trespass, those who follow the way of this world, those who follow the prince of power of the air – this is what we once were, before we gained the new life, the new personhood, real humanity in Christ Jesus. Now these are harsh words, and we all have friends or work associates who are either not followers of Christ, or lukewarm followers of Christ, and Paul is not telling us to start to calling them children of wrath (although that might be a cool name for a reality TV show). Rather Paul is highlighting for us the difference that is working in us after falling under God’s mercy, once we passed out of being children of wrath, that is, those who lived like the rest of mankind, following only the desires of the body and the mind.

We get a bit caught up in this language because we Canadians are so gosh-darn polite and don’t like labels or statements that might be hurtful to others. Yet here Paul is being clear – there are two realities at work in the world. Both are under the complete Lordship of Christ, and yet the way of the world leads only to the death of sin. This is one of the reasons why the way of Christ is offensive to the world.

This call comes through clearly in the Scriptures, that tell us we are to be set apart from the world, even while we are immersed in the world. In James 1:27 we hear this about true religion, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” True religion before God requires that we keep ourselves unstained, unpolluted or untarnished by the world. This is where our need for PPE – workplace protection – comes in. Just as a worker on a construction site needs steel toes and a steel shank to protect against nails or dropping heavy objects on his feet, we followers of Christ need some way of protecting ourselves against the pollution of the world.

First, maybe a word on the approach in this passage, which is one that is charged with military imagery. We are talking here about armour, shields swords helmets and warfare…and not the nice kind (that’s a joke) but rather close quarters combat, where we are literally grappling with an opponent. Paul uses these soldiering images because, quite simply, we are engaged in warfare constantly and continuously by virtue of our faith. That warfare is not like we see on the news, with the surgical strikes, drone attacks and the like of this broken world, but rather it is a spiritual war which engages all of us, everywhere and always. Why are we engaged in this whether we ask for it or not? Just take a listen to the baptismal vows either taken by us or by our god parents and parents on our behalf:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? 

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

If you hold a post-modern view of such things, Satan may be a quaint and curious part of forgotten lore (E. Poe) used only for frightening the uninformed. If you’re of a Scriptural worldview, Satan is a personal and intelligent being, a roaring lion prowling around seeking someone to devour. Those vows are pretty in-his-face (1 Peter 5:8), make this conflict is inevitable and a part of our calling as followers of Christ. That passage in 1st Peter goes on to say, “Resist [Satan], firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” As you’ve heard preached repeatedly in our part of the Body of Christ, the way of the disciple is one of suffering, and that includes what Paul is talking about here. Our call as Christians places us on the front line of the conflict.

Paul presents us with a clear call to recognize the reality of our existence, that that there is a larger reality which exists behind the veneer of the physical world, that in fact infuses all of reality but which is hidden from us, usually. This reality is what we affirm in the creed when we declare that God is the maker of all things visible and invisible/seen and unseen. The reality places us as essential elements in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Now, do not be mistaken that this battle was already won by Christ on the cross. Part of our job, in the in-between time before Jesus returns, is to do battle against the ruler of this world who violently seeks to destroy that which God has given us.

This calling is clear in the baptismal prayers and vows set out in our Book of Common Prayer, which outline the task of the believer explicitly:

O MERCIFUL God, grant that all sinful desires may die in this Child, and that all things belonging to the Spirit may live and grow in him. GRANT that he may have power and strength to have victory, and to triumph against the devil, the world, and the flesh.

This is what Paul is speaking about in this passage, when he emphasizes who is the enemy in this battle which involves all of us. That calling of the believer is again emphasized in this prayer after baptism:

WE receive this Child into the Congregation of Christ’s flock, and do sign her with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter she shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue [as] Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto her life’s end. Amen.

This is a bold prayer and as we go through Paul’s words you’ll see how the baptism prayer quite clearly mirrors what Paul is setting out as our calling as soldiers of Christ, to “manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue [as] Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto her life’s end.” Our call as Christians is to continue Christ’s battle against evil in the world, but not because He failed to do a good enough job on the cross, but because the world is still under the rule of the prince of this world, who seeks to bring nothing but destruction on the Church.

10: Lets walk through the text and look at some of the important things being said, and how they’re being said. This is Paul’s conclusion to the entire letter, and he sums up his main ideas by beginning with a command to be strong in the Lord. How are we strong in the Lord? By putting on the whole armour of God. The armour we are to put on has two characteristics: it is complete, that is, the whole armour of God; second, it is God’s armour. That is, Paul is telling us to literally put on God as our armour, to adopt as our covering the Lord God, and his righteousness. This is another call to cast off the old person, and to adopt the new person, reborn of the Spirit, but it always tells us that the key to resisting evil is not our own strength and skill, but only the righteousness of our Lord.

I will acknowledge that this can be a troubling image if you strongly hold to Christ’s teaching against violence. I’ll gently prompt you to think about this text a bit differently, and about your faith a bit differently. Prayer, the necessary practice of every believer, is of itself a form of warfare as it boldly proclaims God’s kingdom and rule over all, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done’. Each time we recite the Lord’s Prayer or any prayer, we are engaged in a direct attack on evil. Paul’s imagery may be a challenge for us, but it accurately reflects what we each are doing on a daily basis.

11: Now the reason for this armour of God is not necessarily so we can assault the hilltops of this broken generation, and Paul uses a word four times in the next 3 verses – to stand in opposition to something or someone. The reason we put on the armour is so we can stand against the schemes of the devil. He’ll return to that reason in verse 13 and 14, so that if we set out the why of Paul we have this: Be able to stand against the schemes of the devil…
Be able to withstand in the evil day…
Having done all to stand firm…
Stand therefore…

The principle reason we wear that whole armour of God is so that we can withstand the attacks that will come by virtue of our belief, and after having endured the attack, to remain standing. In this, we each act as a messenger of the Gospel, which will never be defeated but remains standing even after severe attack. Our remaining standing witnesses to the world that we serve the victor.

12: Paul now goes on to define for us the battlefield. This text always reminds me of the standard military briefing format. Paul has defined for us the situation and the mission of the believer, he has told us about the friendly forces, and now he defines for us the enemy forces we will be engaging. He first identifies the type of conflict, which is a wrestling match, that is what we would call today CQB, close quarters battle. This is a hands-on job but, Paul makes clear that this battle is not against flesh and blood.

This is an important caution, particularly when we may have the reactive urge to directly engage sinful structures or people in personal attack. You may be called to do that, if your ministry is one of prophetic declaration on behalf of the Lord, but God does not usually ask us to engage in wrestling matches with flesh and blood. Rather, Paul tells us exactly what it is that we are fighting: against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. In more traditional translations, that rulers and authorities is rendered as powers and principalities. These foes are not ones that can be won by physical strength or endurance, or being able to bench 250, but rather can only be defeated through the mystical power of Christ.

This verse has been interpreted, in Enlightenment eyes, as talking about unjust power structures of this world. There is no doubt that Satan uses our human institutions, including the church, as a means to bring Christians into bondage. However, Paul is calling us to recognize that the face behind those unjust power structures is the great deceiver, the enemy of God, and to keep ourselves focused on the true enemy. This is why we can talk about, the corporate church bodies for example, as a part of the powers and principalities of this world, as they too often have become tools of oppression for those who follow Christ. Behind the physical and temporal structures that bring oppression, is a very real spiritual conflict that colours all that we encounter in the physical world. So behind our synod meeting, immensely polite and destructive, there is this intense spiritual combat taking place. Real wounds are being dealt, that cause grievous spiritual harm, and that cannot be cured with bandage or salve, but only by the power of God. Paul is not talking about bad managers here, but rather supernatural beings whose essence is wickedness, and whose primary goal is to bring suffering, chaos and disintegration on the followers of Christ.

13: God has not left us unprotected. While the battle has already been won by Christ on the cross, there is a fierce rearguard or mopping-up action taking place. We hear Paul say twice that we are to be ready, to stand on guard, to keep alert, so that we may carry out our mission to stand fast, and to take the fight to the enemy. The reason for the armour is reinforced, this time so that we may be able to withstand the evil day. Be not fooled that we are living in an evil day, and this is the reason why suffering comes so easily to those who believe. Until Christ returns, we live the brokenness of this world, and suffer and die.

14: Paul now turns standing into a command: stand therefore and, Fasten the belt of truth – the fastening of a belt prepares us for battle, keeping us tight, neat and ready to move. This belt is the truth of Christ, who said, “I am the way, the truth and the light.” Christ’s truth dispels the darkness of deception and cloaking that is brought over the believers by Satan’s lies. The belt of truth compasses us about with Christ’s truth, which is every living word of the Gospel. We carry that truth with us when we go to battle. Put on the breastplate of righteousness – this provides our bodies with protection against direct blows, and God’s righteousness anoints us with the reality of Christ, and this dispels the lies of the evil one…lies whispered in our ears that we’re really not following Christ, or that it is easier to just go along with the world. Holiness is another word for righteousness, and this defends our hearts against the lies of the evil one.

15: Shoes for a soldier are critical, as they protect the feet. In times of high alert, a soldier may even sleep with boots on, in case of a late-night emergency. Here the shoes are the readiness given by the Gospel of peace. This is a very interesting insertion of a Gospel imperative for peace in the midst of very military imagery, and it is done for a specific purpose. While we may be girding ourselves for battle against these powers and principalities, we do not war the way the nation’s war. Rather, where we walk in Christ’s name we bring the peace that only the Gospel can bring. This may require that we boldly denounce evil when we encounter it, but we don’t conclude with a victory dance the way the world celebrates. Christians make war differently than the world.

16: The shield of faith protects us against the fiery arrows of the evil one, for it is our faith that keeps our eyes on the cross of Christ. That single minded faith protects us against all assaults – direct and personal, heretical teaching, persecution, temptation to ungodly behaviours. A shield often would be marked with a heraldic emblem that would indicate the loyalty of the bearer, and the shield of faith marks us as God’s own – we know to whom we belong.

17: The final piece of armour is the helmet of salvation, which covers our most vulnerable area, the mind, with the blessed assurance of our salvation. A spiritual attack on the believer comes first in the physical – a temptation into physical sin. If we resist the physical temptation, the subsequent attacks come in the mind, and can be subtle, deceptive and things of great beauty. Our mind, encompassed with our salvation and combined with God’s righteousness and the truth of Christ, is able to see through those lies and to stand firm.

The last metal item is a sword. The Greek describes a short sword or a long dagger, used for close quarters fighting, which further reflects Paul’s description of this wrestling match. Now a sword can be used defensively, but it is primarily an offensive weapon. Our sword is the very Word of God. With this sword we are able to cut connections to the lies that drag us down. The sharpness divides up things which do not belong together, and probes to the core of human issues, cutting away the masks of falsehood.

You are engaged in this warfare whenever you proclaim the Gospel, but that does not necessarily mean speaking. The very presence of a believer changes things on a spiritual level in a fundamental way. The mark left on us by our baptism and our belief, makes us the Christ-light in the midst of darkness, and the presence of a believer anywhere transforms that place even if no one knows you’re a Christian. This happens because of the spiritual reality, but also because by the very substance of who you are as a believer you influence all those around you. So in our schools, our workplaces, our families, our social groups, the presence of a follower of Christ is an evangelist merely by presence.

18: Paul ends the armour dialogue by identifying the true weapon of the believer, which is prayer, constant and persevering, in all forms and in supplication for all the saints. The whole armour of God allows us to stand fast against the assaults of the evil one, which permits us to wield the Word of God, and to pray without ceasing for all parts of the Body of Christ near and far. Paul emphasizes how we are to do this:
Pray at all times in the Spirit
With all prayer and supplication
Keep alert with all perseverance
Making supplication for all the saints.

Now, a concluding word on prayer. We live in a busy world, and finding time to pray is always a challenge, necessary, but a challenge. It is important that you set aside even a few minutes per day for time with the Lord, and to fit that in where ever you can in the day. A cup of coffee or tea and a quiet moment – I often take a few minutes at my desk before I leave for lunch to just dwell in the Spirit and to pray for the saints. Walking down a street is a good opportunity to pray, and while sitting in traffic, or while sitting in a deer blind. Even a stroll up to your community mailbox to pick up bills can be an occasion for intercession and worship. Make all aspects of your day an offering of prayer before God, and you will take a large step to Paul’s charge of praying without ceasing.

Prayer is also a sure defence against becoming a part of the world, for each word of prayer reconnects us with the Master, the victor of this earthly battle, our Lord Jesus. It is difficult to stay connected to the world in any real way when you are turning in prayer to Almighty God…for that very act, almost independent of what words you speak, separates you from the way of the world which declares there is no God.

What I wanted to share with you in particular is an ancient little prayer usually called the Jesus Prayer – how many have heard about it? This prayer comes out of the monastic tradition, and I think it one of the most powerful prayer strategies that I’ve encountered. I know in my life it has made a huge difference in the daily struggle to take thoughts captive and to replace the thoughts of this world with only the thoughts of Christ. If you are struggling with the anti-fruits of the Spirit, such as anger or despair, part of the Christian call is to take those thoughts captive in Christ, and the Jesus prayer is the main way I do that.

It’s a really simple prayer, that contains within it a statement of belief – a complete creed. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. That’s it. In those 12 words you affirm the faith, ask for intercession in your life, and remind yourself of why you need God. Once you’ve memorized the words, you can use it anywhere – just to start out I printed some business cards with the prayer and left them at the back. Take as many as you want and leave them where you’ll see them. It is a great prayer, even to say repeatedly when you’re driving or waiting for your family physician.

Taking things captive with the Jesus prayer just requires that you break into the thought, by praying the Jesus prayer. Each time the thought returns, pray the Jesus prayer again. You will find that your mind will be gradually transformed as you repeat the prayer.

Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, and one of the easiest ways to start on that is with the Jesus prayer. I commend it to you.

So, what message are we left with from Ephesians?

First, as believers we are to claim and live in Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness. They have no authority left over the believer, even while they may be able to bring suffering. We can be supremely confident in knowing of the defeat of all that stands against Christ, even while we war against powers and principalities.

Second, we are to be aware of the nature and dimension of the spiritual conflict which surrounds us. There is a spiritual war in progress, and ignorance is not bliss – it means you won’t understand the reason you suffer, and won’t know what to do about it. We are facing very real, personal intelligences who serve the ruler of this world, and who seek our destruction.

Third, even in the midst of persecution and attack, God has given us the tools we need to stand fast and to resist. We are to keep alert and to watch while praying constantly. We are to especially watch out for attacks where the powers and principalities come disguised as servants of righteousness, as wolves in sheep’s clothing, and to be on guard against heresy in the Body of Christ and to resist it whenever we encounter it.

The most important tool given to us by God is the Sword of the Spirit, that is, the living Word of God. With God’s word we can assess what is true, for nothing contrary to Scripture can be called true to Christ. By it we are saved. It is also the measure against which we test teaching to determine what is of God, and what is not. You’ve heard Don say, and I’ll say, that the obligation of a Christian is to test the spirits…and that includes testing what you hear preached in this church. If you believe we’ve departed from the one faith, please come and tell us, for I need rebuke when I go astray.

Finally, remember that the promise of God is life, and life abundant, joy and freedom. Anything which seeks to bring bondage to God’s people is not of God.

In all things, stand fast, and be ready. Put on the armour of God and pray without ceasing in supplication and intercession for all the saints, that in the day of trial you may be able to stand. For all of us, I pray that God will put upon us the belt of truth, that with it we may clearly see through the lies of this world; the breastplate of righteousness, so that we may be compassed about by God’s holiness; for readiness, the shoes of the gospel of peace that we may be bearers of God’s peace where ever we travel; let us take up the shield of faith in order to recognize and resist all the attacks of the evil one; on our head place the helmet of salvation, that our minds might be protected and secure in you, in our hand place the sword of the Spirit, which is the living Word of God.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us, sinners all. Amen.

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Written by sameo416

October 20, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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