This sermon was preached on September 1, 2013 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My two texts were Luke 4:5-8 and Ephesians 6:10-20. You can hear the sermon below.
One of my favorite movies is Saved!, which came out in 2004 and stars Macaulay Culkin, Mandy Moore and Jena Malone. Some of you may have seen it; it highlights the story of a group of friends who attend the very conservative, American Eagle Christian High School, and one of them, Mary, who gets pregnant. It’s a comedy, and clearly a parody of a subculture of Christianity. But it has a few pretty poignant scenes, one of which occurs about halfway into the movie.
Mary is still attending the school, but no one really knows what to do with her. Pastor Skip, the principal of American Eagle, eventually meets with a few of Mary’s friends, and says, “I’m concerned about Mary…something’s going on. She’s part of your posse, and I think that you can help her. I’m going to need you to be warriors out there on the front lines for Jesus…”
To which one of her friends responds by asking: “You mean, like…shoot her?”
“No, no,” says Pastor Skip. “I was thinking of something a little less gangsta. I need someone who’s spiritually armed to help guide her back to her faith, to the love and care that only Jesus can supply. You down with that? She’s pretty vulnerable right now, so I’ll need you to be extra gentle…”
This is all the prompting her friends need. The next scene shows Mary walking home from school. A minivan filled with her friends comes screeching around a corner. They get out, grab Mary, push her into the van, and begin to attempt an exorcism. Mary escapes but has a confrontation with her friend, Hilary, who says “Mary! Turn away from Satan! Jesus, he loves you!” Mary walks away while saying, “You don’t know the first thing about love!”
All of a sudden, Hilary takes the Bible that was in her hand, and screams “I AM FILLED WITH CHRIST’S LOVE” while she HURLS the Bible right at Mary.
Mary picks up the Bible, hands it back to Hilary and says, “This, this is not a weapon…”
As I was reading this passage for today, hearing about the word of God being the sword of the Spirit…I immediately thought about this scene from Saved! and this group of friends who really are using the Bible as a weapon.
While hopefully you all haven’t been hit with a Bible before, I’m guessing there are some here this morning who have experienced moments in their lives when they’ve had run-ins with people who were using their Bibles or their beliefs as weapons…and maybe you’ve felt attacked in some way…
I’m guessing there are others in this room who felt some discomfort as I read this text from Ephesians…a text that tells us to put on the armor of God, as if we are readying ourselves for battle, that we’re fighting forces of cosmic darkness and spiritual powers of evil, that talks about the devil and how he’s trying to trick us…
Presbyterians aren’t really among the first to be caught discussing spiritual warfare tactics.
Sometimes with texts that are so familiar to us, texts that we’ve been hearing since we were kids…it’s helpful to listen to them read from a different translation, to get a fresh perspective. Eugene Peterson’s The Message can often be a good resource for that very reason, and so I want to read this passage to you again, this time from The Message. It begins…
“And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and God wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way.
This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.
“Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.”
This letter to the Ephesians has covered a lot, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks. It begins with this cosmic story about God’s plan for humanity, and how Christ has been part of it since the beginning. The letter goes on to talk about how we’ve really been brought to life through Jesus the Christ.
Ephesians chapter 2 begins with “At one time you were like a dead person…” and continues a few verses later with “However, God is rich in mercy and brought us to life with Christ…”
We have been reconciled to God, and therefore, we are encouraged to live as people worthy of the call we’ve received from God. And we live out that call in unity, even though we’ve been blessed with such a variety of gifts.
And then, in closing, we get this section about spiritual warfare and the armor of God.
To be honest, I’ve been wrestling with this passage for the past couple days. I’m struck by the language that is so violent: going into battle, warfare and weapons. I’m uncomfortable with this language being used to describe how we as followers in the way of Christ should be acting in the world today, especially with the rampant and devastating gun violence that we hear about, almost daily, from the streets of Chicago’s south side, to elementary schools across the country, to movie theaters and university campuses.
Now I’m sure that as a congregation, we have all sorts of different, theologically-informed opinions about violence and war in our world, and how Christians should respond. And I actually think that’s a good thing for us to have those different thoughts and opinions within our community.
But I think it’s fair to agree that God desires peace and shalom and wholeness for our world today, and not the violence and war and destruction that is becoming so commonplace.
So I’ve been wrestling with the best way to approach this passage, as I think the very words in the text could possibly be stumbling blocks for some…as they have been to me.
When dealing with problematic texts, it’s helpful to know some of the background, some of the context behind this letter that was written.
Those receiving this letter would certainly be familiar with armor, weapons, and violence. They were living under Roman rule after all; living within a Roman civilization that was built under a strong militarism. Power was attained through might and strength and violence.
They were also living during a time when Christians were still in the minority. And although this letter itself doesn’t seem to address a specific persecution of Christians happening, we can imagine they probably had to deal with daily harassment and discrimination. Seeing Roman soldiers, and perhaps even having altercations with them, may have been quite common occurrences for these early Christians.
And so hearing about the different pieces of armor and about weapons and warfare wouldn’t have been far removed from their daily life at all.
The problem was that as Christianity developed, became legalized in 325 and became more and more powerful…there were some who decided that all of the imagery of the “armor of God” and “spiritual warfare” didn’t have to be just a metaphor, but that perhaps this was more than just a spiritual battle, and thus Christians became perpetrators of horrific violence and persecution toward others around the world.
But the early Christians did not hear this passage from Ephesians as a call to bear arms against the Roman empire. They saw, like we all do, that this world is far from perfect. They saw that there are often forces in this world that contribute to it being a broken and messed up place, and that part of our Christian responsibility is to work against those forces. To resist those forces.
But if you remember from the initial reading from the Common English Bible, we aren’t told to go out and fight, we aren’t told to suit up for battle and then rush to the front lines and be warriors for Jesus…we are told, three times in this passage, TO STAND.
- Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand.
- Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground.
- So stand with the belt of truth around your waist.
Perhaps it’s a bit of semantics, but there does seem to be a difference to me between rushing into battle…and making a stand.
I think the imagery of warfare, weapons and battles maybe worked for the Ephesians hearing this letter, but centuries later, I think that our ancestors in the faith have committed too many acts of violence and war in the name of Jesus, to be able to still think that this language works for our day and age.
But that doesn’t mean this text is irrelevant to our lives today…
You don’t have to watch much of the evening news or be on Facebook or Twitter too long before you start hearing about all the ways in which we know that we are living in a world that is struggling:
As we hear about the violence raging in Egypt and Syria and the possibility of our impending involvement,
as we hear about children and youth being shot as they walk around their neighborhoods just south of us,
as we hear about young girls sold into a life of child prostitution in far away places like Thailand, and in places closer to us like Arlington Heights, Naperville and Elk Grove Village,
as we hear about single mothers who have to work 3-4 part time jobs just to provide basic necessities for their children,
as we hear about racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination being alive and well across our country…
As we hear about all of this, it’s no wonder we’re told to “be prepared because you’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. So take all the help you can get…truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life.”
More than words.
Presbyterians are good with words. Presbyterian ministers are trained to write theologically-rich prayers for worship and taught to craft well thought-out sermons. We read words written in our worship bulletins each week, listen to words sung by our choir, and hang on every single word that the preachers speak from the pulpit…right?
But we are told that these words….truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation…these are more than words. These words are life. They are strength. They will protect us, and will give us what we need to be able to take a stand.
Jesus knew that, when the devil offered him all of the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus would worship him. Jesus answered, “It’s written…you will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
These words are more than words.
As we prepare to stand our ground in this world, as we prepare to engage in resistance, we need to learn to apply these words. For they are more than words. These are not just concepts that we sit around and think about on Sunday mornings and then forget until the following week. We need these throughout our life.
We need truth as we encounter the many lies the world tries to offer us.
We need righteousness as we seek to live out our lives worthy of the call we’ve received from God.
We need peace in our own lives and peace to carry out into a world that yearns for rest and wholeness.
We need faith for the times when the outlook is so bleak, and we need to know there is hope.
We need salvation from the forces in our world that try to lead us astray, that cause us to become self-centered and not think of others, and from those things that turn us away from seeking peace and love.
These words are more than words; they are what God has given us to help us as we take our stands, as we resist those things in the world that cause destruction and violence and are clearly not part of God’s plan.
Child prostitution, human trafficking and sexual exploitation are clear examples of those forces in our world that we are called to stand against, to resist and that are clearly not part of God’s plan. A close friend of mine is the president of The Sold Project, an organization that works to prevent children from being exploited and caught up in a life of child prostitution in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
As The Sold Project engages in resistance that includes education, mentoring and helping children escape a life of poverty that often leads to exploitation, they are clearly finding ways to apply truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation in their lives…they need those words throughout their lives, and every day, in the work that they do.
Of course, the prophetic work of people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and Mother Theresa are good examples of the ways in which we can engage in resistance today, ways that show that we can take a stand, and change the world without the need for the military power of the Roman empire.
But the prophetic work of people like 9 year old Vivienne Harr is also an example of how we can resist evil and make a stand. Because she did just that, she actually made a stand. A lemonade stand. In response to seeing a photo of two young boys, who were slaves, with large slabs of stone strapped to their backs, she knew she wanted to do something to end child slavery.
So she began selling lemonade. She decided to sell lemonade at her “Make a Stand” lemonade stand for 365 days, rain or shine. At first, she said, people just paid $2 because, that’s how much you’re supposed to pay for lemonade. But then she let people pay whatever they wanted to, and she was getting over $100 for a glass of lemonade.
On day #173 of her “Make a Stand” lemonade stand campaign, she wrote a check for $101,320 to Not for Sale, an organization based in San Francisco whose mission is to create a world where no one is for sale.
You’ve probably heard of other stories in which people find ways to make a stand…to resist…to work against the forces of cosmic darkness that cause destruction in our world today.
For me, it’s hearing these stories and hearing about the ways in which nonviolent resistance can create change and good in the world, that gives me hope, and I think translates better for our faith in the world today, than focusing on the more violent, warfare language that we heard in today’s reading.
Our passage from Ephesians closes with a reminder of what is most important as we engage with our world that is suffering: “Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers…prayer is essential…pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters.”
Emil Fackenheim was a noted rabbi and Jewish philosopher who once said: “we ought to act as if everything important is in our hands, and we ought to pray as if everything is in G-d’s hands.”
“We ought to act as if everything important is in our hands, and we ought to pray as if everything is in G-d’s hands.”
I believe that’s a pretty good summary of this passage today from Ephesians. Clearly we are called to stand our ground. We are called to act as if everything important is in our hands…to engage in the hard work of ministry, to bring God’s vision of peace to this world, and to, with God’s help, resist those things in our world that are not in line with God’s vision.
But we are also called to pray hard and long, to pray as if everything is in God’s hands. To believe that God is present, and is active in this world, and IS in all things, working for good.
Pastor Skip asked Mary’s friends to be warriors out there on the front lines for Jesus…I wouldn’t say that we need to be warriors, but I do think that we are called to step up our game a bit, to looks for the ways that we can make a stand in this world and to know that God has given us truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation to help us in our journeys.
For these are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life.