August 23, 2016

Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

“A Spiritual Battle?”

The other day I was reading a reflection about our recent national church meeting, the General Assembly, and the writer mentioned that there were a couple of women praying throughout the meeting for the deliberations. Normally, I would have been happy and grateful to know that we were being held up in prayer as we met and made important decisions for the denomination. But the author referred to these praying women as “prayer warriors.” Maybe you have heard that term, or even used it yourself, but it made me a little bit uncomfortable.

Given the context of the discussion of some difficult and controversial subjects, I wondered who these women were “warring” against with their prayers. Maybe against me, with my liberal views, or against the evil spiritual forces that were causing me to have such views! I was somewhat suspect of these “prayer warriors,” even though they were probably just praying for wisdom, and unity, and love in our deliberations.

This Sunday’s text from Ephesians sets off some of the same feelings in me, because Paul seems to be inviting the Ephesians to get ready for a battle. As a person with more pacifist leanings, it doesn’t sit well when he starts talking about Christians putting on armour… a breastplate, and boots, a shield, a helmet, and even a sword. It reminds me of how uncomfortable I am singing hymns with militaristic language like, “Onward Christian soldiers… marching as to war…” But as I began to read various reflections on this morning’s text, I discovered some new perspectives.

A historian, Kathleen E. McVey, notes that all three of the church’s basic positions about war are based on different readings this passage: pacifism, just war, and holy war are all justified with a different interpretation of Paul’s advice.

Another author, Haruko Ward, provides a theological perspective and historical context for the passage that makes a lot of sense to me. Ward suggests that Paul’s advice about spiritual warfare actually reflects early Christian pacifism, in which they do not take up arms against the “enemies of blood and flesh.”

In its original context, the community of Christians, called “Ephesians,” may have lived somewhere in Asia Minor during the first two centuries CE. They were religious minorities in the Roman Empire. Christianity was illegal until the year 313.

Although this letter does not mention a particular persecution, these Christians faced daily harassment and discrimination from their neighbours, and possible suppression by the authorities. To live a Christian life in the predominantly pagan world posed challenges to the Ephesians. And one of the major challenges concerned power because Roman civilization was built on militarism. Yet Christians were called, by Christian leaders like Paul, not to bare arms against any human agents, because their battle was a spiritual one. Their true enemies were not human beings, but sin, evil, and death, forces that constantly waged war in their inner spirits and at the cosmic level. In this spiritual warfare, God in Christ through the Spirit supplies to Christians power and strength, and Christians are “to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”

Theologically, if this message is understood, we Christians would be exemplary peacemakers. Paul is taking the image of a soldier ready for war, and he is transforming it into a model for the Christian community, strengthened by God, and determined to make peace. He invites Christians to put on the armour of God… a belt of truth around our waists, a breastplate of righteousness (doing what is right and good), shoes that make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and finally a sword of the Spirit… not a physical sword, but he is very clear that he is talking about the Word of God.

Not only is the battle a spiritual one rather than a physical one, but we must be careful to think about who are the enemies with which we battle. We cannot be tempted to demonize other people with whom we may disagree (whether other Christians, people of other faiths, or people of no faith). We don’t want to unwittingly turn other people into the enemies that we must battle. (Not even our least favourite politicians! Not even those who persecute, or discriminate, or do other terrible things!) Our enemies are sin, hatred, injustice, and the like. And we fight against them as they are manifested first of all in ourselves, in our own communities, and in our society.

Paul reminds us that we must stand firm in our faith, and stand up for justice and righteousness, even when it is very difficult to do so. But what does it mean to “stand firm” as Paul suggests we must? Certainly, it means that we cannot just “go with the flow” of whatever values, priorities, or fads are popular in the society at large at a given moment. We must resist being conformed to the ways of the world, and instead choose to make conscious decisions about how we live, and work, and play day-by-day.

Archie Smith Jr. points out that there is a difference between standing firm and being stubborn. And Paul is not asking us to be stubborn… wedded to an opinion, rooted in prejudice, or closed-minded. But he is asking us to stand in something that is not transient, something that is transcendent and renewing. This means being willing to be humble, and to risk being unpopular, even to suffer ridicule, if not worse, as a faithful person in the community of faith.

It reminds me of Jesus’ disciples in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus was teaching them something new and quite radical about his identity and his continuing connection with them even after his death. And Jesus tells them, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks by blood remains in me and I in them.” Christians today understand that he was speaking about what would eventually be called the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and Christ’s very real, but also spiritual presence in the hearts and lives of his followers. But first century Jewish Christians would have had great difficulty with this new teaching.

Indeed, Christians throughout history continued to struggle with it… debating and arguing, and so often disagreeing over how exactly he meant it… Literally? Physically? Figuratively? Spiritually? Somehow Christ is truly and really present to us and in us in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Well, Jesus’ first disciples were apparently confused as well. Certainly, the Jewish Christians who first read John’s Gospel towards the end of the first century struggled with the concept. Indeed, the passage tells us that many of Jesus’ disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him because of this issue.

But Jesus turns to his inner circle of followers, to the Twelve, as they are sometimes called, and he asks, “Do you also want to leave?” And Simon Peter answers, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”

Notice that Peter didn’t claim to completely understand the new teaching. Nor did he declare that he believed it with all his heart and would defend the doctrine with his life. Instead, he declared his faith in Christ based on his belief that Jesus was truly God’s very presence in the world… based on his experience that Jesus’ words were true, and right, and life-giving. And I think that’s what Paul meant by “standing firm.”

I was interested to discover that today’s text from Ephesians was originally used in a baptismal context in the early Church. Putting on the armour of God was paralleled with the idea of putting on Christ in baptism. As those early Christians were baptized, they clothed themselves with a new, white garment… a sign of a new beginning, a fresh start, and of Christ’s real and continuing presence in their lives to guide, and help, and strengthen them to face any challenge, hardship, or even persecution.

I admit that I still want to be a bit cautious about the battle imagery in this text, my concern being that it could so easily be misinterpreted (as it has been over the years) and lead us somehow into righteous violence. We must remember that the battle is never against flesh and blood others, even those that we may be tempted to label as “evil others.” Often the battle is against our own misguided inclinations to do what is easiest or best for us alone. Sometimes it is against violence, hatred, or indifference. Always, it is not our battle alone, but the battle belongs to the Lord who is our strength and our shield through all of life. Thanks be to God for equipping us to stand firm in faith, in hope, and in love today and forever. Amen.