This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Ephesians 6:10-20.
I wonder, do you have a favourite mug? Something with a pithy quote, maybe, or a cute picture, which you go to when the day is just not going your way and you want to smile or find inspiration along with caffeine?
I definitely have one (see image below). It’s black, with a picture of a woman in armour, and it says:
‘The devil whispered in my ear “You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”
Today I whispered in the devil’s ear, “I am a child of God, a woman of faith, a warrior of Christ. I am the storm.” ‘
Some days, I need reminding where my strength comes from.
I reckon some days, the Ephesians needed reminding where their strength came from, too.
This morning’s reading from Ephesians is the letter’s grand climax; over previous weeks Paul has set out his vision of God’s absolute reign, and unpacked for his hearers the implications of that in their lives. And here he gets to the last bit of his argument: finally! Finally, be strong.
And put on the whole armour of God; the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.
But all too often what I have seen is Christians who take up the belt of certainty; the breastplate of self-righteousness; the shoes of triumphalism; the shield of ignorance; the helmet of exclusion; and the sword of judgement. And with those firmly in place, have taken their stand against anyone who challenged them.
I wonder if you’ve known anyone like that? If I’m totally honest, I can remember a younger and harder version of myself which might have found some of those things familiar and comfortable.
But why do we do it? What is it that makes us reach for certainty over truth, and so on?
I suspect there are at least two contributing factors.
One is that it is easy to read a passage like this as if it is about our emotional state. To read the exhortation “to stand” as if it is about being free of anxiety, doubt, or trouble. And therefore to reach for whatever will give us immediate relief from our anxieties, doubts or troubles… without stopping to ask whether the easy answers, in emotional terms, are always the right ones.
But I think that, for Paul, as he wrote this in his own context, the idea that this would be read as a kind of psychological exhortation would have been quite foreign. When he talks about our struggle being against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, he isn’t talking about our internal anxieties and doubts but about very concrete, external realities; about any of the political and social or bigger-than-individual forces which were in any way oppressive, abusive or destructive.
The other contributing factor, though, is that often we don’t have enough depth in our own Christianity. You can’t, for example, put on the belt of truth unless you’ve thoroughly apprehended that truth first. Unless you’ve really grasped that the truth you’re supposed to take up is the gospel, and you have therefore steeped yourself in the gospel so that it shapes your whole approach to life, then when you hear the exhortation to take up the “belt of truth” you might well end up reaching instead for whatever you feel certain about.
It takes a certain humility, a willingness to admit that the resources for the Christian life are not all internal but come to us as gift, and that we need our relationship with God, we need Scripture, we need the church, the people around us to help equip us for the struggles of the Christian life. We need to admit that Truth is bigger than just what we feel but has an objective, external reality which we need to work to apprehend.
Earlier in Ephesians the author says bluntly that “truth is in Jesus,” and points out that righteousness and salvation are part of the new self, the new creation, which is the work that God does in us; not something we can create for ourselves. He also says that Christ “is our peace.” Earlier, in Romans, Paul had argued that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace,” and I think this passage is expanding on that line of thinking; “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh…” but rather we need to be aware of what the Spirit is doing, in bringing the life and peace of the reign of God. It’s partly an exhortation to keep our focus on the right things, and not get distracted by stuff that, ultimately, really doesn’t matter.
We might note also what Paul said earlier in Ephesians: “Through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”
This is the faith we’re meant to take up as a shield; our access to God in boldness and confidence, knowing that confronting the powers of evil at work in the world is part of the eternal purpose of the wisdom of God. We only need to stand; it’s God who ultimately carries the day.
I think perhaps to make sense of the “sword of the Spirit” we need to look a little beyond Paul and note what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews said: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The word of God and the Spirit of God are, in Trinitarian terms, working together in a way which we can’t separate; the sword of the Spirit is, it seems to me, the wisdom to discern good from evil and light from darkness.
My point fundamentally is this; unless we are so deeply rooted in our faith that we have a good, deep, robust sense of the truth, the peace, the faith, the salvation and the Spirit of God, a true connection with the living God which animates and nurtures us, then when push comes to shove we are likely to make the mistake of accepting poor substitutes. It makes perfect sense, then, that the author finishes this portion of the letter with instruction to pray at all times and to persevere in supplication for all the saints; because it is on that living connection that everything else depends.
Where does my strength, my resilience, my courage come from? Not from my own internal resources. But from my identity in Christ.
If we’re to be people who have the strength, the resilience and the courage to be vibrant and effective as a community of faith, the same has to be true of us. To not only withstand the storm, but thrive within it… we have to draw our strength from God himself, constantly renewing ourselves in prayer. Then we’ll be able to look any challenging circumstances in the eye, confident that they don’t define or control us.