Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Lent 3 Sunday 19 March 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Joshua 1.1-10; Ephesians 6.10-20
“Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord you God is with you wherever you go.”
Words addressed to Joshua by God on the death of Moses. God commissions him to lead the people across the Jordan into the promised land.
When I was at primary school, the story of the conquest of Jericho in Joshua seemed to be one that was often read to us. What we did not notice at the time was the divinely mandated ethnic cleansing which accompanied it. It was not until years later that I recall becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the Book of Joshua, when it was being read through day after day in the daily office, at the time when we were witnessing the horrors of war in the Balkans.
Such genocidal communal brutality in the name of ethnic or religious purity and the dangers of faith being co-opted for political ends, have made many wary of militaristic images of Christianity; and rightly so, We winced, and with good reason, when President Bush spoke in the aftermath of 9/11 of a crusade against Islamic terrorism.
That the ideology of Al Queda and the Islamic State combines Muslim ideas of jihad – holy war – with secular terrorist ones, shared by both extreme right and left, of using extreme violence establish their version of utopia; which usually turns out to be more like hell on earth, should warn us against such ideas and language.
Our reading from Ephesians is the climax of the Letter. It too is an exhortation to: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” It speaks of the armour of God and of spiritual conflict – but Paul or the disciple who wrote it thinks not of warfare against human beings, “flesh and blood,” but against spiritual powers. The exhortation to “be strong” in the Lord and “put on” the armour of God show the inadequacy of any human resource for spiritual battle. So formidable a foe demands spiritual weaponry.
Ephesians works with an understanding of the universe which is not ours and imagery from Jewish apocalyptic language which we find strange. But this should not blind us to the central truth that the conflict between good and evil in every age, ours included, involves forces that surpass our human understanding and limitations. Pre-scientific it may be but it expresses the truth that the power of evil is greater than the sum of the parts of individual wickedness. Theologians who have confronted the totalitarian ideologies of our age have found it speaks to those situations more effectively than more supposedly enlightened and modern notions of Christianity.
The Book of Joshua, like all the writings inspired by Deuteronomy and its theology, recognized that the dangers which faced the people, as they emerged from their desert isolation, were not just military. There were, too, the more subtle temptations of the pagan religions of the people of Canaan. Israel’s experience would demonstrate their power to seduce the people away from their loyalty to the one God whom they were to serve and worship. That may explain the command to obliterate Israel’s enemies.
The Ephesian Christians were members of a religious minority which enjoyed no legal protection; at the mercy of both official and unofficial harassment if not out and out persecution. They lived, too, in the midst of a powerful pagan culture – Ephesus was the centre of the cult of Artemis – and also of the growing cult of the emperor. This culture exerted a constant pressure on them which needed a firm stance if it was to be resisted. It required a discipline and training akin to that of the soldier. We too live in the midst of such a culture; although its gods now wear more subtle disguises.
Paul has declared Christ’s victory over the spiritual powers, but Paul is a realist. The Ephesians – and we – are in a position of “already but not yet.” We have triumphed in Christ but we are not yet beyond the battle. They and we can wrestle with the powers confident in Christ’s triumph.
The individual pieces of armour which they are to don symbolize not ordinary human virtues but qualities of God: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the word of God. Because we do not have within us the capacity to equip ourselves for a battle of such magnitude, we must embody within ourselves those theological realities and attributes that God uses to achieve the divine purpose within the world.
“Fasten the belt of truth around your waist” Truth is a most basic virtue, but in a world of spin, alternative facts, purposeful deception and deceit, it becomes ever more precious and crucial. In John’s Gospel, the dark powers are led metaphorically by the “father of lies” (Jn 8.44), so truth spoken in the name of the One who is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14. 6) is crucial defensive equipment. The temptation is to take up the methods of the enemy, to let noble ends justify ignoble means, to fight fire with fire. As the fire of evil is to be fought not with fire but with the waters of baptism, so the lies of the Evil One are to be resisted with God’s truth with which we are to encircle ourselves.
“Put on the breastplate of righteousness” The breastplate protects the vital organs, particularly the heart of the believer. To pursue righteousness is to imitate Christ in word and deed. We do this regardless of whether or not such actions and speech conforms to the practices of a world. Doing the right, as led by reflection on the life of Christ and in submission to the leading of the Spirit, may well place the Church and us in conflict with the world. But it is the pure of heart who are blessed with seeing God, and their heart is protected by righteous not compromised living.
“As shoes for your feet out on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” or “Let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace.” Both translations are possible: one is more active than the other. Shoes not only protect the feet and allow a firm footing so that the wearer can “stand”, they also enable us to move forward to engage the enemy. The Gospel of peace enables us to resist the enemy but that does not mean that we are to retreat into a defensive, preservationist posture. The Church defeats its human enemies by faithfulness to its ministry of reconciliation. Our faith is strengthened as we seek actively to share it, rather than by keeping it for ourselves.
“With all these take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” The Roman legionary’s shield was large and rectangular, especially useful in protecting soldiers from arrows, flaming or not. Held side by side by many soldiers, the shields provided a protective wall. So it is with our shield of faith: there is strength in numbers. We do not need to face to the forces of evil out of human strength alone, neither should we attempt to do so without the help of others. The community, too, is stronger than the mere sum of its members. We need one another’s encouragement and we need to encourage each other in our efforts to live in trust and obedience to that which has been revealed in Christ, that is, to live in faith.
“Take the helmet of salvation,” This protects the head, the part of the person which can reflect and learn. We are able to grow in ability to understand and to live out God’s purpose for us by the renewal of our minds. In the midst of conflict and assault, the temptation to retreat into old patterns is particularly strong, and it takes considerable mindfulness to discern god’s work in such times. But mindlessness may lead us to imitate the ways of the world, or to forget the path to salvation opened by Christ. Either can be fatal in the struggle to defend the church in fearful times.
Finally, after all that defensive equipment, an offensive weapon is given – “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” But the Roman sword was two-edged, and so is the Christian’s, for it is the word of God which judges both the believing community and its opponents. The word of God is for the community’s correction as well as that of the world.
Like Joshua with the book of the Law, the word of God must not depart from our mouth; we should meditate on it day and night, so that we may act in accordance with all that is written in it.
In both our common worship and our private prayer, we move from reading and meditation on scripture to intercession.
“Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints”
So the exhortation ends with requests for prayer. This, too, is part of the “whole armour of God.” It is a means by which we enter into communion with the God in whose strength the battle against the cosmic powers must be waged.
It is part of our duty as Christians to pray for one another. The imprisoned apostle asks prayer for himself. We also should pray for our own bishops and priests that they may “make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” If we don’t pray for them, and we don’t pray for each other, then we should not be surprised if that boldness is not much in evidence.