The whole armour of God

Being Christian, offering ourselves at the altar each week, accepting Christ’s body and blood into our bodies is not an easy path.

This week I am going to take a break from the Gospel. We have had four weeks of the ‘Bread of Life’ and although I feel that this teaching in this this series of Gospel readings is fundamental and of great importance to us and the church today, it has masked, somewhat, the teachings of the book of Ephesians that we have heard being read alongside.

This book, Ephesians, is one of the most finely crafted books in the New Testament. There is however some question about its authorship. Paul is traditionally considered to be the author, but the vocabulary and style of Ephesians is different from all his other letters.

There is much debate between scholars but I won’t go through it all here. Luke Timothy Johnson concludes: If it is not written by Paul, it is the work of his very best disciple. So for the purpose of this sermon I will assume that Paul is the author.

The book of Ephesians has two primary emphases. First, first is the reality of evil and strife in the world, and the healing and harmony which comes through Jesus Christ. And second, Christ uses us the church as his chief instrument for establishing his healing and harmony. First: the reality of evil. Second, Christ uses us.

We certainly see the evidence for Paul’s concern for evil in our text today. He tells us, put on the whole armour of Christ, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the evil one. ((For)) our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Paul was writing to his churches and to us, to prepare us to face great powers of evil. He envisions spiritual warfare between Christians and very personal forces of evil. As we read early church history with Christians being crucified along the roads to Rome. And thrown to the lions in the Coliseum it isn’t difficult to imagine what Paul was preparing these new Christians to face. The forces of evil would be arrayed against them and would have very human faces. From the face of the Emperor, to the faces of the gladiators, to the faces in the crowd baying for blood.

But those days are over. Aren’t they? Is there even a message for us in this book? Do we face that same kind of quality of evil today? Earlier in our last century, people seriously considered if we weren’t on the verge of overcoming evil. Technology promised ‘a chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage’ reference. Education promised to transform us into rational happy people who would shed our primitive tendency to sin and put on new enlightened exterior. The slogan was, ‘day by day, better in every way’ reference But then came the [Great] Depression, two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War. And people began to realise that public education hadn’t solved the problem of evil in the world.

((and)) You certainly don’t have to look far these days for evidence of spiritual warfare. Drug dealers, gang members, gang fights and murder not only endanger our lives but compete for the souls of our children. South America, capital of the drugs industry, some of the most dangerous places in the world. Family disintegration, children having children, if you think the problem of evil has been solved then talk to a police officer, a social worker, or a priest in the inner city. There is no shortage of evil in our poor neighbourhoods. But our rich neighbourhoods are not much better. Look at Wall Street, corruption in the City of London, the collapse of banks, of people’s savings, the [damage to the] NHS, lack of police on our streets, xenophobia fuelled by Brexit.

Henri Nouwen a priest who served for a time in Lima in Peru, spoke of walking downtown in Lima and seeing bookstores stacked with magazines about violence, sex and gossip. Endless advertisements for unnecessary items imported from all over.

I had the dark feeling of being surrounded by powers much greater than myself and felt the seductive allure of sin all around me. I got a glimpse of the evil behind all the horrendous realities that plague our world – extreme hunger, nuclear weapons, torture, exploitation, rape, chill abuse and various forms of oppression – and how they all have their small and sometimes unnoticed beginnings in the human heart.

Reading the signs of Daily Life: Henri Nouwen

And I have the same reaction when I turn on the television, see the latest video games advertised, or watch the news. Our entertainment industry today is dominated by people who are waging spiritual warfare. Warfare against the family, against the church, against love of all people.

The Middle East is being slowly cleansed of Christians. Iraq once a beacon of Christianity is all but empty of our brothers and sisters. In Palestine, the land of Christ’s birth his death and resurrection, Christians are leaving in their droves, forced out by an unjust apartheid and occupying state.

Syrian Christians have been crucified once again by a force so evil it doesn’t even deserve a name: Daesh, the so called Islamic state. Tell me evil doesn’t exist any more. And over here in the west? Well Oxfam’s latest figures tell us that the richest 1% of the world’s population now enjoy 82% of the world’s wealth, and it is set to rise to 99% in the next year if these current trends continue. I just have to say that again. 1% of the world’s population has 82% of the world’s wealth. If you haven’t noticed the poverty gap increasing in our own country, then perhaps we should start looking.

The battle of evil is not just ‘out there’ somewhere. It takes place in our own hearts on a daily basis. We battle temptations to be less than Christ calls us to be. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) understands evil. He survived the Soviet gulag where evil was ever present. He says “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being and who is willing to destroy a part of his own heart”reference.

Now I know I have been criticised for being political. But this is not partisan. This is not dependent on who is in power or leadership this is about individuals. Paul is talking to each one of us. This letter to Ephesians, thought possibly to be a circular around all his churches, not just to this one is an instruction to continue to fight for all that is decent in the world. To look at where there is injustice and DO something about it. Feed the hungry, home the homeless, love the addict because if each one of us does this then evil cannot prevail. Edmund Burke’s famous saying: All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

Being Christian, offering ourselves at the altar each week, accepting Christ’s body and blood into our bodies is not an easy path. Yes we can get great comfort from the sacraments, and coming to services, sometimes even from listening to sermons. But comforting ourselves is not what this is about. We we have a mission.

And then Paul tells us to pray, pray at all times in the Spirit. He told the Ephesian Christians to pray on his behalf. He was better prepared than most to resist temptation but he understood that the forces of Evil would single him out for special treatment. He understood that he could stand strong only in the power of God -so he asked the Ephesian Christians to pray on his behalf. And when the are working for God, we should expect this kind of attack too. The devil hates it when someone takes up the armour of Christ. We must pray for each other as we work for Christ and we need that prayer support. Prayer is our logistical lifeline. God resupplies everything we need for spiritual battle through prayer.

In this passage from Ephesians, Paul tells us we need to be constantly ready for battle against spiritual powers. Evil exists all around us. It doesn’t go away because we close our eyes to it. Facing the evil forces of the world alone can be a frightening experience. But we are not alone. God is with us and gives us the means not only to defend ourselves but to take up the battle to the enemy. Furthermore, we can win. For if God is with us, who can be against us.

Thanks be to God for the victory he gives us through our Lord Jesus Christ.