Rev. Amy Morgan
August 30, 2015
Proverbs 31:10-31, James 3:13-4:3
He had the good life. Everything you could want. Money, fame, power. Even family and friends. But he wanted more. He wanted what he couldn’t have. He stole, cheated, broke hearts, broke up his family, ruined his career.
Who am I talking about? Take your pick. This isn’t an unfamiliar story. We’ve heard it dozens of times. From preachers to politicians, entrepreneurs to actors. This story gets played out on the public stage over and over again.
We have put these people on pedestals and in positions of power supposedly because they have the wisdom to lead, or the wisdom to govern, or the wisdom to guide. And we are disappointed to discover that, as James says, “bitter envy and selfish ambition” has led them to “be boastful and false to the truth” leading to “disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
We watch these events unfold like a bad car wreck. It’s a horrific sight, the downfall of this great person, but we can’t look away. We stare and think, “How could they?” They should have known better. They had the good life, and they threw it all away.
But perhaps it calls us to reflect upon what we consider to be the good life.
For most of us, the good life would be defined as having enough – enough money, enough love, enough security, enough comfort. But how much is enough? If we define the good life around what we possess, there is always the danger of wanting more, a danger James takes very seriously. This letter claims that if we want what we do not have, we will commit murder. This is not an outside possibility or a slippery slope. This is simple cause and effect.
Now, while most of us here would have to admit that, from time to time, we want something and don’t have it, we aren’t going around murdering people. That absurd!
Well, I hate to tell you friends, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. No, we don’t kill our neighbor and move into their house. We don’t kill our business partner and take over operations. Despite the sensationalism surrounding the occasional occurrence of such things, this is not the norm in our society.
But people die to make our coffee and our chocolate. People die producing our clothes and cell phones and cheap plastic everything. Do we murder them in cold blood? Of course not. But do they die so that we can have what we want at the price we want to pay? Absolutely. There’s really no getting around it.
We can argue about trade agreements and corporate tax structures. We can deliberate the necessities of a global economy. We can remain blissfully ignorant to the working conditions of those around the world who fill our insatiable need for more stuff. But it doesn’t change the fact that James is right. After 2,000 years of civilized development, we are no better and no different. We still possess and love this earthly wisdom that leads us to want more and better stuff, to want what we don’t have. And there is still a straightforward link of cause and effect between covetousness and murder. We can point the finger at corporations or governments, but in the end, the blame falls squarely on each of us who are willing to pay for things that are made in unjust and unsafe working conditions.
These are not terribly popular ideas. And by association, James is not a very popular book of the bible. How many of you have read or studied the book of James before this sermon series?
Not many of you. There’s a reason for that. James is bossy. That’s all there is to it. Of the 108 verses in this short book, exactly half of them are imperatives. None of us would sit and listen to someone who spent half our time together telling us what to do. James doesn’t seem to understand that people don’t particularly like being told what to do.
Oddly, we seem to have no problem with being the ones telling other people what to do. Or at least talking about what we think other people should do. Because, let’s face it, we have great ideas. We are smart people. We’re brilliant, just ask us.
This might be another manifestation of what James describes as “earthly wisdom,” this “unspiritual, devilish” wisdom. Because this is a wisdom that plays a zero-sum game: in order for me to be right, you must be wrong. And because of our “envy and selfish ambition,” we are driven to be right, to be better, smarter, more successful than others. If we know it all, everyone else knows nothing, so our place on top of the dog pile is secure.
By contrast, wisdom from above is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Most of these traits won’t show up in any books or blogs or lists on how to get ahead in the world. We are a know-it-all society. In the information age, it’s all about what you know, who you know, how quickly you can know it.
Unfortunately, most of these characteristics of heavenly wisdom won’t show up in any list describing what people think about the Christian church today, either. Our purity, or a better translation might be “holiness,” has been corrupted by a desire for material success. Our peace has been disrupted by numerous disputes about doctrine and polity. Gentleness has been overshadowed by pride. People on all sides of any debate have been unyielding, leading to schisms. Instead of showing mercy, we give criticism. Our good fruit is dwindling more and more each year. And one of the top descriptors used by younger generations to describe the church today is “hypocritical.”
If it makes us feel any better, these were things that the Christians James was addressing clearly struggled with as well. We are not alone in our failure to possess the wisdom from above.
But we are also not without hope. James tells us that “You do not have, because you do not ask.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
The good life is still within reach, and God desires to provide us with wisdom from above. So how do we ask? And how do we ask rightly?
First, we must understand that, for James, wisdom is a verb, not a noun. Wisdom is a way of living, not an intellectual accomplishment. We can know the doctrine of the Trinity, but does that move us to live more deeply and richly in relationship with God and neighbor? We can know the doctrine of the electing grace of God, but does comfort and gratitude then move us to embrace serving God and others in the world?
In defining wisdom as a way of life rather than a base of knowledge, James stands firmly in the Jewish tradition from which Christianity originated. Judaism has a rich wisdom tradition, ranging from Proverbs like the one we heard this morning to the preacher of Ecclesiastes, from the Wisdom of Solomon to the Psalms of David. One thing that is common amongst all this wisdom literature, including the book of James, is that they tell people what to do, not what to think.
And Jesus, the good Jew that he was, follows suit. His words meant action. He taught in parables to help people see the real-life application of theology before they even understood what he was talking about. He told people to love God and neighbor, to care for the poor, the outcast, and the prisoner, to give of their whole selves to God and live in a way that was, and is, radically counter-cultural.
So we must first ask for the right thing, and that is, of course, not a thing at all. Instead of asking to have things – be it enough wealth and security or enough knowledge and power - we must instead ask God to orient our hearts and our lives to do the right things.
Then, we must have the courage to actually ask for this. This is really the more difficult part. There is a very good reason why Paul says that proclaiming the good news of a crucified Christ will be seen as foolishness. Pay more for what you buy every day because it encourages companies to pay a fair wage and provide a better life for people you will never meet. Foolishness. Worry more about how rich and joyful and true your worship of God is than about how many people are in the pews and how much money is in the church coffers. Foolishness. Really listen to someone who disagrees with your point of view, and tell them where you think they’re right rather than where you think they’ve gone wrong. Foolishness. Admit it when you’re wrong and acknowledge your fallibility. Foolishness.
This foolishness is the wisdom out of which the good life flows. Not an achievement of goods or an achievement of intellect. Instead, a harvest of righteousness sown in peace for those who make peace. A life of goodness born from doing good things, day in and day out. A life of small acts of kindness, everyday choices, consideration for others that all add up to the good life.
The good life awaits us, friends. May we have the wisdom and courage to ask for it. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 23, 2015
Judges 11:29-36, James 3:1-12
She was my favorite grandmother. She was the one who would invite my brothers and me over to spend the night and allow us to stay up late. She was the one who would let us climb the large tree in her front yard. She was the one who would take us to the neighborhood pool each summer and let us swim to our hearts content while she sweltered in the Houston summer. She was the one who would fix us BLTs and give us cold Cokes on a warm summer day. She was the one on whose floor I lay while we all watched Neil Armstrong step out of the lunar lander and become the first man on the moon. She was also a good Southern Baptist. For almost fifty years she taught kindergarten Sunday school at her beloved South Main Baptist Church. And yet, even with all of that…well one day when I was about 16 and had started working on Sundays so I could put gas in my 56’ Chevy, she asked why I did that and did not go to church. Before my brain could engage, these words came out of my mouth. “God isn’t real so why should I got to church.” The hurt look on her face said more than words could have ever conveyed. And to this day I regret having done that.
Maybe it is just me, but over the years I have said things, things have come out of my mouth, that I not only wondered where they came from but I regretted saying. But to be sure it is just me, let’s take a poll. How many of you have ever said something that you regretted, that you wish you could take back…that hurt someone? OK, so I am not alone. The question is why do we do it? Why is it that we are capable of using our tongues to utter such hurtful things? After all we know the old saying, “If you can’t say something nice about someone….” (…don’t say anything at all) No not that one, the one from the play Steel Magnolias, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, come sit next to me.” Which for me is the explanation; that there is something inherently satisfying about saying things that tear down or hurt others. Sure we know that we are not supposed to do it, but if we are honest…at least in the moment we utter those things…there is power in them. For a moment we have the upper hand. Otherwise, why would we do it?
The issue though with allowing our tongues to be unfettered by our brains and moral compasses, is that it brings about hurt and harm. One of the great Old Testament stories about this is the one we read from Judges this morning. Jephthah is a judge, and by the way, judges were charismatic leaders raised up by God and the people, to help save the people of Israel from their enemies. Anyway, Jephthah had been asked by the elders of Israel to defend them from the Ammonites who had attacked them. He agreed and led a force which fought its way through a number of smaller enemies in order to take on the Ammonites. Prior to the main battle however, Jephthah allowed his mouth to speak without engaging his brain. He swore an oath that if God gave him victory he would sacrifice whomever was first out of the gate of his city upon his victorious return. Never mind that this oath violated everything God stood for, but he made it. When Jephthah finally returned home, the first person out of the gate was his only child, his daughter whom he loved. His words spoken without thinking ended in great harm.
This is the point that James is trying to make. We can only imagine what sort of church James is working with if his description of the tongue are any indication of the internal life of the community. Listen again. A tongue makes great boasts. The tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body and sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly passion. With the tongue we praise God and with it we curse human beings who have been made in the image of God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. I wish I could say that things have changed after James’ words but they haven’t. Churches, businesses, organizations are still torn apart by hurtful words spoken in the heat of the moment, or spoken deliberately to wound. We still curse others while we are headed down I-95. There is still admiration and support for particular politicians who “speak their minds” completely unfiltered by whom they would harm with their speech. It is almost as if people wish they could say those things and not regret them like their political favorites.
If we allow James to speak to us this morning we know that this is not how we are supposed to be. We are to be different. Yet, the question is, how do we become different? How do we work at not allowing our tongues to set the world on fire? The answer is hinted at in James. We are to work on our core. When we usually speak about working on our core, we mean on our abs, trying to get that six-pack look…rather than the one large pack like I’ve got. But here I mean working on the core of our being, on our heart of hearts that guides what we say and do. It means working on the core of our spiritual orientation. James hints at this when he says that we cannot tame our tongues and that salt spring cannot produce fresh water. In other words, what comes out of our mouths is an indication of what is at the core of our beings; what is in our hearts. Are our hearts full of fear, anger, anxiety and hate? Then our mouths will produce one set of words. Are our hearts filled with the joy, peace, patience and love of God? Then our mouths will produce something else. In essence then by working on our core being, through worship, prayer and acts of kindness, we can become the spring of fresh water and our tongues will produce what they should.
The challenge for us then is not to try in vain to control our tongues, but it is instead to work on our core beings. It is to work on our hearts so that they are oriented toward God in Christ in such a way that what comes out of our mouths is the fresh clean life giving water of God. In order to help us do just that I am offering you this morning a simple prayer…a prayer that I would have you use as a mantra each day; morning, noon and night. It is this, Lord on this day help my mouth to bless and not curse. That is all. No long complicated prayer. Just a request each day for God to take control of our tongues and use them to bless. It is an exercise for our spiritual core that will assist us in changing how we use the voices that God has given us.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 16, 2015
Exodus 23:1-9, James 2:1-13
Really James?! Really, you actually expected people to follow your advice and treat the poor like they treat the wealthy? Really? This is not the way the Roman world works. The Roman world is divided into two categories, those who have and those who have not. And the Roman world only works when those two groups follow the socially acceptable protocol. That protocol is that the wealthy act as beneficiaries of the not wealthy…ok, the poor. The wealthy, whose numbers were, by the way, even smaller than our own one percenters, had the obligation to share their wealth with the community. They built roads, endowed temples, provided for the festivals and when times were tough, extra bread for the masses. This is where the phrase “bread and circuses” came from. In exchange for their largess, the masses would bow, scrape and otherwise give the wealthy their appropriate admiration. It was a system that had worked well for hundreds of years. So why in the world James, would you expect it to change in the church? After all, chances are the church only exists, again, because of the largess of the wealthy. Surely you really didn’t expect anyone to listen, did you?
Really James?! Really, you actually expected people to follow your advice in the 21st century? Really? This is not the way things work in the American world. After all, churches have bills to pay, staff to support, buildings to maintain and mission to do. The way the church has operated to make this happen is….well, like Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. It is a church with about ten-thousand members and a five-thousand seat auditorium. The rules are clear. If you want to meet the pastor…not have dinner with him…but meet him, you have to join the $10,000 club. Only those who give more than that amount have any access at all to the pastor. Cornerstone works like another mega-church in San Antonio where my former internist went. It was new and fast growing . When the pastor found out that my internist tithed off of his income, making him one of the largest givers, he was always being asked for his advice, taken to lunch and otherwise held up as the paragon of faith…something by the way which actually bugged him. But, James this is the world. So did you really expect people to listen?
The short answer is, yes. Yes James did expect people to listen and he did so because he was a good Jewish Christian. And just a reminder here, all of the first members of the church were Jews who believed in Jesus as messiah. They did not see themselves as a founder of a new religion.
James expected people to listen because he was a good Jew and as a good Jew he knew his Torah. And part of that Torah was the passage we read out of Exodus this morning. What we need to note out of that section is that every human being was to be given equal respect, dignity and justice. People were not supposed to favor any one person or any other person over another regardless of standing. As the passage states, people are not supposed to be favored because they have money, they are wealthy, nor are they to be favored because they are poor, because the judge feels compassion for them. This is the heart of the Torah that all persons stand equal before God and are therefore to be treated equally in the community. There is a great piece of Jewish Midrash, or legal interpretations where Rabbi Ishmael says, “If before a judge two men appear, one rich and another poor, the judge should say to the rich man, either come back dressed like this man, or dress him like yourself.” This is the way James expected the church to operate, as if every person had equal goods and equal standing. He expected it because it was what the Torah called for.
James also expected it because he was a good Christian. He did so because this was the model that Jesus laid out for his followers. Jesus understood the way the Roman world worked. There were patrons and there were those who were to bow and scrape. Jesus however never allowed those expectations to define his manner of life. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He fed the poor as well as had dinner with the wealthy. He showed no prejudice toward one or the other. When people say that God has shown prejudice and that God and Jesus have a special place in their heart for the poor, what is meant is not that God and Jesus loved the poor more than the wealthy, it means that God and Jesus cared for the poor because they were the invisible ones, they were the ones who were forgotten, abused and oppressed. God and Jesus worked to even out the scales. Their desire was that the captives go free and the poor be lifted up and the powerful be brought down…so that they stood in the same place. This was the world which Jesus gave his life for, one in which every human being is shown the same respect, and especially shown the same respect inside the Jesus community.
If we are willing to admit it, this is not always an easy thing to do. But it is possible. And I know that it is possible because of you; because of you the members of First Presbyterian Church. Each week I see you welcoming people almost to the point I can’t get you to be quiet for the music before the service. Each week I hear from visitors who remark as to how friendly you are. And this is especially necessary for us because we have cast ourselves as Everybody’s Church. And we have done so not because we think everyone will want to, or ought to, go here but because everyone who walks into our doors is welcomed with open arms regardless of any worldly condition. I ask as well because part of our vision statement is that we are an inclusive church, again meaning inclusive of all who come here. Let me read you our inclusion statement again. It reads…As Everybody’s Church, we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the participation of all people of any ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance. In other words we have committed ourselves to being a James’-like church.
The challenge before us then is to continue working on being the kind of church James describes. It is not to rest on our laurels and assume that we have arrived…because the instant we do that we have lost our way. My challenge to you this morning then is to ask yourselves, “How am I helping Everybody’s Church, be just that, a welcoming church where we offer everyone who enters here the respect that they deserve as children of God?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 9, 2015
James 1:17-27, Deuteronomy 14:28-29
It was the next to last job I had before going to seminary. I was working for an engineering firm that was designing a new refinery for Chevron. My job was to design, draw and detail the piping arrangement for the tank farm. The tank farm was the area where large tank like containers were arranged so that oil tankers could off-load their cargo and it could be stored prior to refining. The pay was excellent and I enjoyed the people I worked with. Then one day, the unexpected happened. I was called into the office of my boss’s boss, was handed an envelope and told that I was to clean out all of my drafting supplies because I was being let go. I say this was a shock because my boss had entrusted me with tasks beyond my pay-grade because he trusted me. As I was leaving with my pink slip and severance, my boss’s boss, said, “Oh you’re being let go because Chevron is shutting down the entire project. They decided that it was not worth the investment.” As an economics major I got it. The return in their investment was not adequate to continue the project.
Return on investment, or ROI, is part and parcel of the business world. I would guess that many of you at one time or another were part of the process of deciding which projects did or did not have an adequate ROI in order to proceed. But the interesting thing about ROI is that it is not limited to the business world. In fact we are engaged in determining the return on our investment on an almost daily basis. We make a decision to go out to dinner or go eat at home. In so doing we assess the return on the money we will spend at restaurant. Will the meal be worth it? We are going to decide if we will redo our kitchen. The old one works fine, but we believe that the return on our investment in terms of more counter space and better appliances means our ROI is on target. We know that the dream cruise is coming and we know a friend of a friend who has a completely restored 55 Chevy coupe for sale, yes this is my dream, and so we have to decide if the return of driving down Woodward at 10 miles per hour will be worth it. So return on investment is something that we all do, all the time, and interestingly enough, so too does God.
Our passage out of James this morning is all about God’s desire for a return on the investment that God has made in the world. How so? Let’s look at the text. James begins by reminding us that God invests in us. We are told that all good gifts come from God. The impression we are to take from these words has to do with the good gifts of life; the earth, the sky, the stars, the rain, food upon our tables and the like. God’s people are to remember that all that they have, they have because God has invested in us. Without God’s help as creator and sustainer of the world, we would have nothing. The second way in which God invests in the world is through implanting the word. I realize that this is an odd sounding term. Yet for James and his audience the reference would be clear. The implanted word is the implanted presence of Jesus Christ in their, and in our, lives. For you see James understands that what causes one to follow Jesus is not simply that we like his teachings, but that God has literally implanted, through the Spirit, the very presence of Jesus Christ in us. And because God has done so, we become capable of being new people; new people who can give God a return on this investment.
We begin to get a sense of the kind of return that God desires in verse 18 when James writes, “In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” First fruits within the Jewish tradition were the best that anyone had to offer. Thus James is telling us that we are to be the best creatures that God has created. We are to be the exemplars. And what that means for James is not that we are in church every Sunday but that we exhibit a particular kind of life and become a particular kind of people. Being this kind of people means being slow to speak, slow to anger, ridding ourselves of habits that harm others, and strive to allow the implanted word, the presence of Jesus Christ to lead us. What it also means is that we will strive for true religion. OK, I want to pause here for an explanation. For most of us, religion means a set of beliefs or doctrines that are associated with God or the gods. Being a religious person means believing certain things. In the first century, this was not the case. Religion was a set of practices. To be religious meant to practice certain cultic rituals. It meant going to a particular temple and giving an offering. It meant participating in a particular festival. Therefore when James talks about true religion he is referring to a particular set of practices…namely, caring for the most vulnerable, widows and orphans, and not allowing society to dictate what we do. These were the returns God expected to come out of God’s investment in the world.
I realize that at this moment there are some among you who are a bit uncomfortable with this analogy of God desiring a return on God’s investment. I say this because every time in my ministry that I preach from James with his emphasis on doing, some people are concerned. They are concerned because they have come out of more legalistic Christian traditions in which one’s salvation was always at risk based upon one’s actions. So questions such as the following arise. “How much return on God’s investment does God want?’ What happens if I do not return an adequate investment? Will God send me packing?” “Is God’s love contingent on the return that I give to God?” “What happens to the grace that I so desperately desire from God?” “Is this salvation by works and not by grace?” In other words there is an inner struggle about am I being good enough, doing enough, loving enough or serving enough to be acceptable to God? What I want to let you know this morning is that this passage has nothing to do with salvation, but with transformation.
As I have often said, what God desires is that all human beings become particular kinds of people (those who love God and neighbor) creating particular kinds of communities (where all persons are loved and accepted and the grace of Jesus Christ is shown), in order to help create a new world (in which all persons share in the peace and bounty that God desires for them). This is the direction in which James is headed and he understands that without doing, without putting into practice what Jesus and the prophets taught, it is impossible for people, communities and the world to be changed. This is why he uses the analogy of the face and the mirror. The connection is that if all we do is hear what Jesus teaches we will forget it. If we come to church and hear but do not do we will not be changed by what we have heard. If on the other hand we do what Jesus and the prophets taught, then we will become new people, capable of making new communities and perhaps, with God’s help, a new creation. Doing then is not about salvation, about being good enough or working hard enough to be loved and saved by God. It is about us becoming who God wants us to be. This is the return on investment that God is looking for.
She grew up in a working class family. After completing high school, college and law school she came to Detroit to work for the Tigers negotiating contracts with their players. Unlike many of us who live in the burbs and work in the inner city she chose to live in Detroit…in fact to live next door to a women’s shelter. Over time she befriended many of the women who stayed there. One day as she was running she noticed that there were buildings where the graffiti was sloughing off the bricks. She picked some up and wondered if she could make jewelry out of it. She knew something about jewelry because she had paid her way through college by making it. As she discovered it would make great jewelry she also wondered how this discovery could help others. Teaming with a new found friend they raised capital and created Rebel Nell jewelry. Then Amy Peterson, hired some of the women from the shelter to work for her with this as their mission, “employ disadvantaged women in Detroit, to educate them on financial management, life wellness and business, and to empower them to successfully transition to an independent life.” After two years the company was turning a profit and God was seeing a return on God’s investment in remaking people.
I realize that few of us can found a Rebel Nell, but all of us can in one way or another offer God a return on the investment that God has made in us. The question I would pose to you is this, “What return am I making on all that God has invested in me?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 2, 2015
Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20
There are certain pages I sometimes wish I could tear out of the Bible. The Leviticus holy code with its extensive list of offenses deserving capital punishment. The story of Jesus calling a Canaanite woman a dog. The part of first Corinthians where Paul commands women to keep silent in churches. But of all the problematic texts in scripture, this one might actually top the list.
Christians over the centuries have spilled blood, fought wars, and done violence in the world by “putting on the whole armor of God and standing against the wiles of the devil.” In the 3rd century, as the church gained political power in the Roman Empire and needed to unify its leadership, the devil took the form of heretics and dissenters. Muslims, Jews, and even Byzantine Christians personified the devil during the Crusades. The devil of the Reformation was anyone who disagreed with the civil leadership’s theological allegiances.
Today, it seems the devil is everywhere. The liberal media. Muslim extremists. Christian extremists. The greedy 1%. The welfare freeloaders. Helicopter parents. Free range parents. It seems like every aspect of our lives creates a divide, establishes an enemy, puts a face on the devil. We are a society plagued by judgement and hatred and fear. Our armor is thick and our swords are sharp.
But we are not putting on the whole armor of God for this battle. Instead of the belt of truth, we wear the belt of opinion. The breastplate of self-righteousness guards our hearts. Our shoes make us ready to proclaim judgement and provoke conflict rather than the gospel of peace. Our shield is information rather than faith, whether the information we have is accurate or not. The helmet of salvation is replaced by the helmet of a sense of security, no matter how false it may actually be. Our sword is words, perhaps, but not the word of God.
Just wars, holy wars, and ideological wars are easier, it would seem, than spiritual warfare. We’d rather fight monsters, give evil a name and a face, than fight the evil that lies within every human heart. Wouldn’t it be easier if greed had talons and our vices had teeth? If a sword or a gun or a nuclear bomb could destroy our malice, our indifference, our bigotry, our vanity?
But the spiritual warfare described in our reading today is like fighting smoke. It permeates everything, we breathe it in, it stings our eyes and burns our throats. We are practically choking on evil and yet, we’d still prefer to arm ourselves and lock our doors to physical threats, real and perceived, than struggle against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”
When I was a teenager, I read a series of novels by Christian fantasy writer Frank Peretti. The novels depicted contemporary society motivated by angels and demons locked in a cosmic battle for worldly power. I remember scenes of a New Age religion leader with a demon perched on his head, its talon stirring his mind like a cup of hot cocoa. Sin marked a person with a black hole on the chest that grew larger and larger until it killed them. Demonic dragons swallowed people up in one gulp.
This was my understanding of spiritual warfare – cosmic creatures and spiritual forces in an epic battle with humans serving as unwitting pawns. While my beliefs have changed on this matter over the years, this vision of how evil works in the world is not so far removed from how Christians of the first century understood things. Greco-Roman philosophy imagined a kind of ontological continuum stretching from the underworld to the heavens. In between heaven and earth, semi-divine beings struggled to move up toward the immortal and immaterial. New Christian converts, influenced by this philosophy, believed these beings to be locked in a spiritual battle for dominion over the earth.
But in the Christian understanding of spiritual warfare, humans are anything but unwitting pawns. The whole letter to the Ephesians describes the kind of transformed life we are to have in Christ, a life “rooted and grounded in love.” This grounding in love allowed the church to be raised up into the heavenly places of that ontological continuum, growing spiritually into a dwelling place for Christ.
Now, it would be foolish to ascribe to a Greco-Roman view of the cosmos in the 21st century, but the spiritual warfare described in this letter is nonetheless very real, and the consequences for each of us and for the church are no less vital. There is no doubt that the darkness is still very present. To deny evil and its power in the world would be ludicrous.
What is more challenging is to accept that the evil is both within us and around us. The battle front is within our hearts and in the heart of every human being. As the apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Families, societies, governments, institutions – even the institution of the church - all are subject to the “spiritual forces of evil.” We don’t need to look to a mythical underworld or imagine the exploits of spiritual beings to see that we participate in systems of oppression and are complicit in the suffering of others.
This foe cannot be defeated with special ops or advanced tactical weapons. Guns and bombs and tanks and aircraft often serve to strengthen the rulers, authorities, and powers of evil. Fighting flesh and blood distracts us from fighting the true enemy.
However, God has armed us, both defensively and offensively, for the true battle we are called to fight.
A belt of truth that will help us withstand the lies we are told and the lies we tell ourselves. Lies about what we deserve, lies about who we are, lies about groups of people, lies about what we are capable of.
The breastplate of righteousness to protect our hearts from being divided. In the bible, a righteous person is described as someone with an undivided heart, someone with a singular devotion to God and God’s purposes. This breastplate protects us from “chasing after wind,” as it says in Ecclesiastes, giving fragments of our heart to every selfish desire.
We are advised to put on our feet whatever will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. I love that this one is so open-ended. It speaks to the complexity of peace. One might need justice to be ready to proclaim peace, and someone else might need humility. Peace requires preparation, and that preparation can look different for different people and situations.
I love this next image: a shield of faith “with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” There are times we must use our faith as a shield. There are times when the darkness and sin and evil in this world does feel like flaming arrows flying at us. We can dodge depression and addiction, meaninglessness and loneliness, apathy and greed for a while, but at some point, they hit us like a flaming arrow through the heart. Faith, meaning a deep and perhaps inexplicable trust, in God, can act as a shield. The arrows won’t stop flying at us. We will still feel their impact. But we can be shielded from them enough to keep fighting.
The helmet of salvation assures us that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. God’s saving work protects the most vulnerable and most important part of us. Every hair on our head is under God’s salvation.
”And the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
I’ve asked people around here, and apparently not many of you did “sword drills” as children – maybe it is a Southern thing. But a sword drill is when the Sunday school teacher calls out a chapter and verse, and the children race to see who can look it up the fastest in their Bible.
The Bible most certainly has been used chapter and verse as a sword, used to cut down those who believe differently, interpret differently. Used to conquer and destroy. But this is not how it was meant to be used.
When the letter to the Ephesians was written, there was no Christian bible. The cannon of texts, including this one, had not yet been established, and no one was going around quoting chapter and verse, because there were no chapters or verses.
The word of God here could be referring to God’s words in the Old Testament, the Law and the prophets. But since one of the main themes of this letter is the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, we can assume that a large percentage of this church was not Jewish and therefore not deeply familiar with those text. Scholars believe that there was a connection between this church and the community of believers responsible for writing the gospel of John, so it’s also plausible that this is a reference to the first chapter of John, which describes Christ as the word of God made flesh and dwelling among us.
However you interpret the word of God, it is clear that the Holy Spirit is the force of power behind the sword. The Spirit goes by many names in scripture, including Advocate, Comforter, and Counselor. The Spirit is not often associated with condemnation, judgement, or punishment. This is a sword used to advocate for the defenseless, comfort the oppressed, and counsel the lost.
The “armor” of God won’t necessarily protect us physically from pain and harm, and it won’t necessarily fend off our physical enemies. No battle is safe. Following Christ isn’t safe, as first century Christians knew full well. They were despised, oppressed, punished, and even martyred for their faith.
But they fought the darkness. The darkness within – their own envy and selfishness, their fear and anger – and the darkness in the world – hopelessness and injustice, corruption and oppression. In this fight, they did not win power or land or money or any of the spoils of war.
But they did win. They built the church. They learned how to love one another as Christ loved them. They created a spiritual legacy that has lasted over two thousand years and has spread literally all over the world.
I don’t tear pages out of the Bible. Not because I think it would be a sacrilege, though maybe it would. Struggling with scripture, especially those parts of it that make us angry, or hurt, or doubtful, struggling with those texts deepens our faith, strengthens our Christian identity, and restores our hope that God is good, and loving, and just, and merciful and powerful, and ultimately worthy of our worship. Struggling with this text should convince us that we want to be on God’s side in our spiritual battles instead of claiming that God is on our side in worldly conflicts.
So let us be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Let us put on the whole armor of God and stand firm. Relying on God’s power, let us stand against the darkness of our own lives, and strive against the powers and authorities that would destroy others. Because the truth is, the war has been won. In Jesus Christ, God has defeated evil and its power in the world. Daily battles continue to be fought, but the outcome is certain. Praise be to God. Amen.