A sermon preached at All Saints Cathedral, Edmonton, 28 August 1988.
For the past few weeks, our Epistles have been taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Today, we reach both the climax and the ending of the letter—the wonderful and well known passage telling us to “put on the whole armour of God”.
Out of many wonderful letters that St. Paul wrote, this one to Ephesus is perhaps the most outstanding. In it, St. Paul is at his most ambitious. He lays out for us nothing less than his concept of the whole eternal purpose that lies behind God’s creation of the Universe, and the impact of this purpose on ourselves.
The latter has, therefore, a very definite structure. It starts with the eternal purpose of God, and works outwards, firstly to the spiritual powers of the heavenly places, then into the path of redemption and so into the daily life of the church and of the believer—a descent that takes us from the most sublime contemplation of things into which angels do not dare to look, down to such a practical advice that “Let him who stole, steal no more.” At the end of it all, comes this glorious passage describing the warfare in which we are engaged, and the armour we should be wearing to win it.
In its most general way, this eternal purpose is outlined in chapter 1 and verse 10 as follows:
“That the Universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought to a unity in Christ.”
As the instrumentality to achieve this unity, by which even spiritual powers opposed to God will eventually be brought into subjection, we find the Church—this frail and very human, yet divine, institution to which we belong. In chapter 3, verse 10, we read of God’s purpose being hidden through ages:
“In order that now, through the Church, the wisdom of God in all its varied forms might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the realms of heaven.”
It is an incredible vision. It means that this church—this gathering of us sinful mortals Sunday by Sunday for the praise and honour of almighty God, with all our faults, jealousies and imperfections that we know only too well—has been catapulted into the front line of a cosmic conflict as a demonstration to the antagonistic powers of heaven of the superior power of love to all their apparent strength. Truly, if we believe this, the foolishness of God must surpass the wisdom of men! But if we accept Paul’s argument, then, quite simply, it will be the manner in which the Church resists the temptations and strengths of the powers of this world that will demonstrate the invincibility of God’s law of love, and bring the whole Universe into harmony under the leadership of Christ. God’s whole reputation—the success of His enterprise in creating this world—hangs on the faithfulness, morale, and will to win of this army in which we enlisted as soldiers at our Baptism, that is, his Church.
In this war in which we are engaged, who is our enemy? Who are these spiritual powers, endeavouring to control the world that God intended should be united under Christ?
One of these powers is the Economic power: the power of money, of the business world, of physical things needed to satisfy physical needs. The power that asked Jesus in the wilderness to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread. The power that persuaded Judas to sell his Master for thirty pieces of silver. The power that through the fear of poverty drives so many to avarice, exploitation of man and environment, cruelty, inhumanity, slavery. The power of Mammon, which has money for armaments, but not for food, and which even now, decrees suffering, poverty and starvation to large parts of the world, through mysterious and ill-explained economic ‘laws’.
Another power is the Political power: the power of soldiers, police and the State, coercing men into doing deeds that harm their fellow men, through the fear of punishments, or the fear that our fellow men, unless repressed, will break out and do us injury. The power that promised Jesus in the wilderness the rule of all the kingdoms of the world, if only he would bow down and worship it. The power that seduced Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, and a host of other, lesser, would-be world conquerors to their doom. The power that even today imprisons so many of mankind under dictatorships and totalitarian governments of many different hues.
A third power is that of Tradition. The power of apparently immutable laws that were once of great value, and now have become hindrances to progress. The power of an enforced belief—the scientifically proved ‘god’ who has demonstrated Himself by a miracle of throwing Himself safely down from the Temple—the concept of God that the Chief Priests were so sure of, that they crucify the Son of God for blasphemy when He failed to fit into their mould. The power that cannot allow God Himself to enjoy free will, but insists that He walk within their narrow little bounds, for the sake of the consistency of their theological laws.
These are powers that, day after day in dozens of different ways, influence and control our lives. They are necessary for the orderly functioning of the world—but as servants under God, not taking God’s place and claiming to be worshiped themselves. Each is capable in some way or another, of placing a false God in the place of the true Creator of the world. They claim that honours and reverence are due to riches, to wisdom, to political power. Yet all of them, as Paul points out in his letter to the Colossians, “have been made a public example of”, because they are the powers that, individually and together, were responsible for the crucifixion of the Son of God. What reverence can we give to money, if money sold Jesus for the price of a slave? What reverence can we give to military power, if a timid Pilate sacrificed his conscience and Jesus’s life, because he feared his soldiers could not control a riot? What reverence can we give to our traditions, our laws, and our culture, if by those laws, the Son of God must die?
Christ has led the way, and in his train, year by year and century by century, the saints and martyrs of the church have fallen into line, and themselves defied poverty, defied popes, defied emperors, sacrificing their lives if need be, rather than give way to “spiritual wickedness in high places.” We too, are called to participate in this battle, and we must do so recognizing that this is not play acting. It is war to the death, in which the pain and the casualties are real. We are not going to escape without our bruises, heartaches and scars. It has been the blood of the martyrs that has been the seed of the church. It is our lives, our wealth and our comfort that have to be laid down, if we truly follow Christ’s path to “overcome evil with good.”
To fight this war, we are given six weapons, besides the weapon of prayer. Five of them are defensive, and only one, the Word of God, is offensive.
The first weapon of our defence is Truth. The powers of this world depend on lies to stir up our fears and secure our compliance. The world is full of Emperors parading without their clothes on—but it is a bold child who will, as in the Hans Anderson story, point the fact out. And we are to be properly clothed with the truth ourselves.
Secondly, the breastplate of Righteousness—one translation says ‘integrity’. What kind of witness does the Church give to the world if its own conduct does not pass examination? I am reminded of the old lady who made it a point of wearing clean underclothing at all times—just in case she fell under a bus and was taken to hospital, so she would not be ashamed. Something of that spirit of being ready to be examined, to be audited, any time no matter what time, is another weapon of our defense.
We have also to wear the helmet of Salvation—our assurance of being loved by God which saves us from going on ‘mind trips’ of doubt, which lead us to faithlessness and failure. How many dizzying blows to the head we can receive—often enough from modern, sceptical theology—if we will not rest in the assurance given us by the Gospel record of the incredible, eternal, sacrificial love of God to humankind, all of us, revealed to us by the cross of Jesus Christ?
Our feet are to be shod with the preparation of the Gospel of Peace. Some people interpret this as being guided in our journeyings by the needs of the Gospel. I rather think of a different picture—of hard, hand to hand combat in which the enemy has fallen to the ground, and I only need to put my boots to his face to put him out of action for ever. But I hold my action and extend mercy, not sacrifice. It reminds one of the mildness of the archangel Michael reported in the letter of Jude, who, when disputing with the devil over the body of Moses, used words no stronger than “the Lord rebuke you.”
Fifthly, Faith is our shield. The enemy is throwing fiery darts at us—Greek fire in those days, napalm in ours. Faith, actively wielded against the attack, keeps our bodies from being singed and burnt away in these attacks.
Our offensive weapon is a single one—the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. That Word of God is Christ, and it is in demonstrating the nature and power of Christ’s love in our lives and in our conduct to others that we go on the offensive: our generosity and kindness ultimately makes the other powers wither away, because in a world where all are impelled by Love, there is no need for them.
Beyond this, lies prayer—the communications system between an army and its General that makes His strategy prevail. Prayer is how we call up the reinforcements we need. Prayer is how we ourselves receive our orders in order to fight effectively in this war.
So we are equipped as individual soldiers, and with these weapons we need not fear to go into battle. But I would like to make one last point.
Soldiers do not fight alone. This passage is addressed not just to them, but to the Army as a whole—the whole organized church. It is not a pretty picture in church history how often this army has been close to capture by the forces of the enemy—forces of greed, of stagnation, of political ambition. How many leaders of the organized church, over history, thought they were leading their church to success by using their temporal power to further their organization? There have been times when it seems as if the whole church has been ambushed and spiritually routed as a result of such bad generalship. It is a problem as serious in the Church today as ever in the past: the Church must never be deflected from its path of witness to God’s love, by fear of poverty, by fear of persecution, or by fear of breaking with tradition.
The war is fierce, and the combat hand-to-hand. At stake is the proof in the spiritual world of the wisdom of God’s way of love. God is relying on His church to believe, to be faithful and to stand its ground. We have promised to do this, each one of us, in our baptism. What is at stake is monumental in its importance. God depends on us, the Church, to fight for Him, and to win.
Are you ready for the battle?