08/26/18 – Standing Firm

STANDING FIRM

August 26, 2018
14th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43  Eph. 6:10-20
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Having listened to or participated in music in the church, I am often reminded of a hymn or a choir anthem when I hear particular scripture texts. When I read our epistle text for today from the letter to the Ephesians, I always hear the hymn, “Onward Christians Soldiers.” I’ve never liked that hymn. The military imagery just doesn’t seem to fit Jesus. Furthermore, when I read this passage I think of the dark history of the Crusades — one of, if not the best, examples of the evil acts that are spawned from nationalistic goals masquerading as a religion. But, the hymn, “Onward Christians Soldiers” was written 600 years later and the author of the text had nothing of the sort in mind. The text was written by an Anglican curate in the late 19thcentury for children to sing while they carried a processional cross.

“Long as earth endureth, men of faith will hold.
Kingdoms, nations, empires, in destruction, rolled.
Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the church of Jesus constant will remain
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.”

The text extols the values of the church’s mission and the kingship of Christ over all worldly powers. However, in the 20thcentury this hymn began to be used in military processions and funerals, thereby linking national warfare with the Christian faith. In the latter years of the century, Mainline Protestant churches began dropping the hymn from their hymnals.

Reading the words from Ephesians, one can readily see that the author was not referring to the actual battle. A breastplate, shield, and helmet are each used for defense; they are not offensive weaponry. The only offensive weapon mention is a sword. This sword is not the soldier’s, but God’s. The sword is not a literal sword, but the spirit of God which is manifested in God’s Word. The original audience would have easily recognized these images as pieces of a Roman soldier’s outfit. At the time the letter was written, a Roman soldier was the literal and metaphorical description of power in the life of the early Christians. The author was following an established tradition of using military analogies. Greek philosophers spoke of the “armor of reason” and of using “words as swords” rather than physical violence to settle disputes. But even more dear to the epistle writers were the verses from the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah prophesied: “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” (Isa. 11:5)

So, let us look at each individual piece of a Christian soldier’s outfit the author uses to commend a Christian life.

A belt would have been worn both to hold items, serving like a modern-day wallet. Yet, this belt also was used to signify distinguished rank and honor. By conveying a very different purpose for these articles of a military outfit when worn by a faithful member of Christ’s church, the author was making a subversive political statement as well as commending Christian virtues. The empire’s ways are not God’s ways.

 

The author of the letter to the congregation at Ephesus was sending a message of encouragement in the struggle to live as faithful Christians in a society and under a government that played by very different rules. The articles of a soldier’s outfit are paired with pious, as well as abstract, theological terms: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Spirit. To be honest, these words that make us a bit uncomfortable and do not roll easily off our tongues. These are words we have heard in the last 5 chapters of Ephesians these past few weeks. Now, in the final chapter, the author sums them all up in a concise directive. The imagery and vocabulary the author uses, come from the Old Testament, especially the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah, the coming Messiah is not a mighty warrior-king, but a “suffering servant” king.

 

The enemy of a Christian is not other children of God, “the blood and flesh,” it is against “the rulers, the authorities, and the forces of evil” that corrupt us into making enemies of our brothers and sisters. Against these, one needs the “whole armor of God.” We cannot do it without God, the ultimate power of the universe.

 

A Christian is to “stand firm” so as not to be moved to join in the evil that exists all around. The “evil day” that one tries to withstand is death. “Withstand” in this case does not mean to resist – we will all die a physical death.” Here, “withstand” means to endure beyond death, facing it with the courage that God has all we leave behind on earth in hand. How we live our lives gives us the peace to let go because we have trusted God to give us the strength to stand against evil. We trust God will continue to prevail against evil, allowing us to go unafraid into God’s waiting arms. We have the confidence to imitate Christ day by day because we know the battle against evil – even death—has already been won in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus “stood firm” against the powers of the empire and the evil humanity wrought, even willingly submitted to death on a cross; yet, God freed him from his death chamber in the resurrection and then lifted him up to life eternal. God’s gift to humanity, God’s Word Incarnate, is the living gift that keeps on giving.

If “truth” is like a belt, it wraps around you. You cannot escape it, yet you are the one that has chosen to put it around yourself. It may be seen or felt as confining, but it is supporting and uplifting.

We are to put on “a breastplate of righteousness.” A breastplate covers the most vulnerable area of the body in an attack. Paul often uses “righteousness” to indicate ethical behavior, more specifically the kind of behavior that pleases God. Christ is our model for righteous living. Adhering to Christ’s commission to his disciples protects us from the onslaught of worldly temptations which lead to spiritual death.

We are instructed by these words to put on peace as we would a pair of shoes. Shoes protect us so that we can walk out into the world with our tender feet protected from the weather and the surfaces of our paths that would otherwise inflict injury. The Roman soldiers wore quite distinctive and ornate sandals, unlike the simple leather ones peasants wore. Yet, the unpretentious leather sandals sufficed to go anywhere the early Christian was sent to spread Christ’s gospel. They were sturdy and durable, while also flexible and comfortable. When we work for peace we must be prepared to walk long distances. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (Eph. 6:15)

The letter goes on to say: “With all of these, take the shield of faith.” (v.16) For a soldier, a shield does not stop the arrows from being shot at them, but its position can be moved to protect the life of the body. In the same way, faith does not keep bad things from happening to us, but it safeguards us when misfortune would otherwise destroy us.

And, with that shield, the ancient congregational letter advises us to “take the helmet of salvation.” (v.17) It is hard for us to wrap our heads around the theological concept of salvation. This is what the gospel promises us Christ came to give us. Salvation is forgiveness, healing, the peace of relationship with God and eternal life all rolled into one. Salvation is essential to the life we were created to live and must be protected. The knowledge of salvation is never to be used as a weapon but to be shared as the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Finally, the author of Ephesians advises carrying the “sword of the Spirit.” The sword is the only item of a soldier’s gear used in this passage that actively does something. Note that this sword is God’s Holy Spirit, not man-made. Its power is focused on one target – evil. Without a sword, the soldier is unable to do more than endure the blows of evil. With the sword, which is forged by God, the Christian soldier can go on the offensive against evil forces.

The Roman Empire, as all empires before or since, ruled by military might and economic superiority. God rules with truth and righteousness. The Empire threatens war, but God offers peace. The Empire puffs itself up with propaganda. God speaks the truth. The Empire brandishes the sword, God wields the Word as a weapon against evil.

All of these gifts Christ has revealed to us for our protection in the constant battle to retain our Christian integrity in a world that follows the easy and self-centered path. In these days of intolerance and divisiveness in our political and social realm, it is important to make the distinction between “standing firm” in Christ and stubbornly refusing to accept and adopt Christ’s ways of justice, mercy, and submission to God’s will over our own. For the Ephesian congregation “standing firm” with Christ meant enduring ridicule, loss of income or property, and all manner of political and social bullying the empires’ leaders and lackeys inflicted upon them. For the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his fellow civil rights activists, “Onward Christian Soldiers” was a hymn sung while imprisoned in jail like the Apostle Paul.

In the days of the first Civil Rights movement, King preached non-violent resistance to injustice. The fight for civil rights for all occurred not just in the speeches and the marches, it was and continues to be accomplished by everyday acts of resistance against evil in its many forms. The fight for justice and the defense of human dignity is waged in simple, every day acts of resistance to evil. Rosa Parks was a black working woman who refused to move to the back of the bus when ordered to leave the seat reserved for whites only. She was tired and just wanted to get home to rest from her labors, but she refused to move, withstanding insults, arrest, and the threat of bodily harm. This pervasive evil, racism, was resisted by school children who stood up to racist bullies. These young soldiers were black children daring to go to formerly all-white schools, and white children who befriended them.

The battle for equal rights and equal opportunities has yet to be won. The evils of bigotry and injustice against our brothers and sisters, our “blood and flesh,” continues and has even been refueled by racism, nationalism, and intolerance of those who are “different” from us in some way. The author of the letter to the Ephesian church urges the church to stand together against the forces of evil in its government and society. An army is stronger than a single soldier. The Church is called to be the army that goes into battle with evil, armed with the Holy Spirit and dressed in the defensive gear Christ used in his own confrontations with the evils of this world. As the body of Christ in the world, the church, with each of its individual members, is enlisted and commissioned for service in baptism.

 

Today, when our country submits to a lesser authority, we eagerly believe the lie of scarcity instead of thanksgiving for and stewardship of our abundance. We do not love our neighbors as ourselves unless they mirror us rather than the image of God. But, there are churches that are resisting. There are individuals who are resisting, putting on the armor of God. I recently read an article about a Canadian CEO who paid for 250 Syrian refugees to come to his country and gave them jobs in his factory. A young white man gave up his life to protect a Muslim girl being attacked by white supremacists. These acts of resistance against evil may be beyond what we can or are willing to do. But, we can always do something. The “unrighteous” choice is to join the side of evil.

The author of Ephesians encourages the congregation to “keep alert.” Choosing not to look at injustice and need shackles us to our own egos and holds us back from correcting injustice and healing lives broken by need. The author commends prayer as an offense against evil. King Solomon, in his prayer at the consecration of the temple in Jerusalem, prayed not just for Israel, but “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel.” He prayed that the hospitality shown to foreigners who came to Israel; and, the Jews’ example of God’s loving-kindness, would bring these foreigners to know and love God. When we pray as a congregation for all the world, we are “standing firm” with Christ to bring the kingdom of heaven to our world.

The armor of God is forged out of an amalgamation of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation. Let us put on the armor of God when we leave this sanctuary and fight the good fight.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org   |   309.673.8501