Be strong in the Lord
Ephesians 6. 10-20
In our second lesson St Paul tells us to:
…be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God…
…the breastplate of righteousness…the shield of faith…the sword of the Spirit…
What do you think when you hear those words? Is there anything worth fighting for today? Is there anything in your world that is so hostile to the way of Christ that you might need a sword and a shield to protect yourself?
I wonder if this text telling Christians to prepare for battle might mean more to younger Christians today than to older Christians.
I remember a church whose main agenda seemed to be to adapt to the world as it is. The church needed to be brought up to date. But for younger Christians the agenda is changing. The agenda isn’t how to adapt. The agenda is how to survive.
At the lunch after the Parish Eucharist I heard about how things used to be at this church; the number of people who used to attend and all the activities that used to take place, drama and music and clubs. Some of you were born into what seems like a different world now. It was a world where Christians were secure, confident and powerful. There was a time when parents didn’t really have to worry about whether their children would grow up to be Christians – it was the only game in town. Shops closed on Sundays. People went to church – this church. It was the accepted, normal thing to do. It was a world in which this text from the epistle to the Ephesians made much less sense because we didn’t need to worry about defending ourselves. We lived in a basically Christian country. That was our world.
It seems to me that the kind of sermons that were the legacy of that era assumed that Christians could be Christians without enemies. I remember some agreeable but pretty boring sermons that offered a few insights every week into the human condition, but never the proclamation of Christianity at war with the world. This kind of Liberal Christianity, of course, has enemies, but they are everyone’s enemies – sexism, racism, and homophobia. It doesn’t acknowledge that Christians have enemies of their own. That’s why it has serious problems in making sense of apocalyptic texts like our lesson from Ephesians; texts that suggest Christians have been made part of a cosmic struggle. But our lesson from Ephesians has a new significance for us today. It is about survival. The weapons it lists are mostly defensive – a breastplate, a shield, armour needed for survival rather than attack.
Do you believe that we Christians are living without enemies? Do you believe that we can stay Christians or that our children can become Christians without a struggle? If we are going to hold onto our faith, if we’re going to live out our faith we will have to do so with care and determination because the world has changed. It is no longer the accepted and normal thing to do to be a Christian.
In my last parish I lived alongside the Haredi Orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill. I got to know some of their rabbis. They are fascinating people. One day a rabbi told me, “You, know it’s tough to be a Jew in London.” I said, “Yes, I can imagine, with anti-Semitism and fear and the guards outside your synagogues and schools.” The rabbi said, “Yes, there is that, but also, we are always having to tell our children: ‘This kind of behaviour is fine for everyone else but it is not good for you. You are special. You are a Jew. You don’t use that kind of language. It’s not acceptable for you. You are different. You have a different name. You answer to a different story. You are a Jew.’”
And I said to him, “You know rabbi, that is exactly what someone in my own congregation said to me the other day. They told me that it’s getting more and more difficult every day to bring up our children as Christians. We are always having to tell our children: ‘You are special. You are different. You are Christians.’”
The Jewish community knew that if they were going to be and stay Jews they would have to be intentional about it.
Secularism is not the air we breathe and the water we drink. It captures us, it converts our young people, it subverts the church. The writer of the epistle to the Ephesians didn’t have to be persuaded that the world was a hostile place for a disciple of Jesus Christ. He wrote these words in chains. The world recognised the power of the Gospel and subverted it by putting him in chains. Perhaps the world recognises the power of the Gospel today and subverts it by ignoring and dismissing us. But that may already be changing. A bishop in America, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, made this famous prophecy:
“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”
So the writer of the epistle to the Ephesians says that you had better not go out unarmed. It’s tough out there. The world lives by different ideas, with a different vision and a different way of talking than that of the church. So we must gather to speak the truth in love as Ephesians says (4.15) that we might grow up in our faith. Weak, childish, immature faith is no match for the world. Being a Christian is too difficult a way to walk alone, without comrades in arms, without your sword and shield.
So we must gather regularly for worship, to speak about God in a world that lives as if there is no God. We must treat each other as beloved brothers and sisters in a world that encourages us to live as if we are strangers. We must pray to God that He will give us what we cannot get for ourselves in a world that teaches us we are autonomous and proud. In such a world what we do here on a Sunday morning is a matter of life and death. I ask you to pray for me that I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak as Ephesians says.
In the parish where I was vicar in Hackney we had a church hall, which we rented to a Nigerian, Yoruba, Pentecostal church to use on Sunday afternoons. I once asked their pastor, “Why is it that your worship lasts so long? Our worship is over in an hour. But your worship goes on all afternoon.”
He said, “A lot of our congregation are unemployed at the moment. They don’t have a lot of money. That means that during the week, everything they see, everything they hear tells them: ‘You are a failure. You are nobody. You are nothing, because you do not have a good job, a nice car, and you have no money.’
So I must gather them here, once a week, to get their heads straight. I get them together here, and through the prayers and the hymns and the preaching say: ‘That is a lie. You are somebody. You are royalty! God has bought you with a price and He loves you as His chosen people!’ It takes a long to time to get them straight because the world distorts their understanding so terribly.”
So I am glad that you are here this morning. I think it is important that you are here this morning to get your own heads straight, because it’s tough out there.
In Book IV of Milton’s Biblical epic Paradise Lost, the angels Ithuriel and Zephon are charged by Gabriel to watch over the innocent slumbers of Adam and Eve in Paradise. But the hordes of Satan were prowling around, and when the two angels came to the sleeping Eve they found Satan whispering at her ear. He is defeated with the power of the truth.
Him there they found
Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve,
Assaying by his devilish art to reach
The organs of her fancy, and with them to forge
Illusions as he list, phantasms and dreams.
Him thus intent Ithuriel with his spear
Touched lightly; for no falsehood can endure
Touch of celestial temper, but returns
Of force to its own likeness. Up he starts,
Discovered and surprised.
We Christians are embattled by subtle enemies. They win by denying that any war exists. I pray that we will have the valour to fight this enemy and reveal his lies, as Ephesians commands, with “no sword but the truth”.
So if you plan to follow Jesus get ready for a fight. For, “God has not promised us safety, but participation in an adventure called the Kingdom.”
The Rev'd Dr James Lawson, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/08/2021