A sermon preached on August 26, 2012 based upon Ephesians 6:10 – 20.
Because I’m a pastor, I received an email this past week with a heading of, “Do Christians see the storm on the Horizon?” When I opened the email, it said simply “Study shows hostility toward Christians in America is growing,” with a link to an article. When I clicked the article, it soon became clear that the term “Study” was pretty misleading. It wasn’t done by any sort of independent, objective researcher; rather it was done by some conservative Christians who clearly have an axe to grind.
The email was from Donald Wildmon, who is a United Methodist Minister from Mississippi, as am I. He started an organization called The American Family Association. In my mind, he has long since lost touch with the warm-hearted, welcoming love that is at the heart of what John Wesley started all those many years ago. He has it in for gays and other marginal groups in our society.
The email and the so-called “study” were essentially a call to arms. Non-Christians are getting hostile to us so it’s time to get hostile back before it’s too late! It’s us against them! It’s time to do battle to take back America!
Wildmon wants Christians to exercise our muscle in the political arena. A while back he endorsed Newt Gingrich who, in his opinion was the best candidate to lead America.
I wonder what Donald Wildmon would make of the story of Jesus when he’s out in the wilderness and the devil offers him all the political power of this world, saying that he – the devil – possesses this sort of power, and it’s his to give to whomever he pleases. What would he make of Jesus turning his offer down?
The passage we just heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one that folks like Donald Wildmon love to quote. A surface reading of Paul’s words might give the impression they fit nicely with Wildmon’s point of view. We’re at war! It’s time to put on the battle armor and take up a sword to fight back the enemy!
But when we dig a little deeper, we see that’s not what Paul is saying at all. If we back up to earlier in his letter Paul clearly states how he understands the Gospel.
In the worldview in which Paul grew up as a devout Jewish Pharisee, the human race was divided in two. On one side were Jews — God’s chosen people – and on the other were the Gentiles, which meant everybody else. A great barrier stood between them, and with it, an unavoidable hostility, for in the mind of Jews, the Gentiles were an unclean people with whom they could never be close.
So when Paul speaks of the great mystery of the Gospel – the good news he has discovered in his encounter with Jesus, the messiah — he speaks of the amazing thing that Jesus accomplished on the cross in relationship to this long-standing division and hostility. Here’s how he puts it in chapter two:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier,the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility. (2:14-16)
In other words, the hostility between Jews and Gentiles died with him on the cross. The endless war between Jews and Gentiles is over! It’s a great mystery to Paul before which he stands in awe. Jews and Gentiles are now one. Jesus himself is our peace!
So when Paul gets to the last chapter of his letter and speaks about the need to stand firm and of the importance of putting on the whole armor of God, you realize he’s not saying this as a battle cry to engage in a holy war against our enemies. Quite the contrary. The Gospel has made us peacemakers. We are called to announce to the world that the war is over. It’s time to celebrate!
We’re all one now. Stand firm in the peace God has made for us through Jesus. Don’t give into the temptation to return to the old hostility.
Nowadays the ancient division between Jews and Gentiles that meant so much for Paul the former Jewish Pharisee doesn’t mean much to us. But we still break the world up into us against them. The possibilities are endless. The cool kids vs. the nerds. Republicans vs. Democrats. The rich vs. the poor. Donald Wildmon and his friends want to divide the world up into Christians vs. Non-Christians. But if we get what Paul is telling us we can’t buy into this.
Jesus’ death on the cross ended such divisions. There’s just one new humanity now of which we are all a part. Our job as Christians isn’t to fan the old fires of hostility, but to announce to the world that the peace treaty has already been signed and sealed.
In the years following the end of World War II, Japanese soldiers would turn up hiding out on some island somewhere. They hadn’t gotten the message that the war was over, and so when they would encounter people who weren’t fellow Japanese soldiers, they assumed they were enemies and would fire their guns and rattle their sabers. It would take a while to get them to understand that they were fighting a war that had long been over.
It’s like that with the Gospel. We have been made one. The dividing walls have come tumbling down. But we keep on hiding out with our old hostilities.
Paul goes on to say, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the … the spiritual forces of evil.”
Which is to say, if we really get the Gospel, then no man or woman – no one made up of flesh and blood – can ever really be our enemy.
There is an enemy, but it’s not one with flesh and blood. You can call it the devil, or you can simply call it the evil that seems so entrenched in this world, expressed in so many systems of domination that oppress and dehumanize people. Those flesh and blood folks who would do us harm have all been caught up in the great deceptions of the devil, who strives to keep us in a perpetual state of hostility. But they’re not really the enemy.
Some people seem to get this instinctively. A photographer once took some extraordinary pictures of a confrontation that took place a few years back between a handful of Ku Klux Klan who were holding a rally on the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan and the crowd of three hundred people who showed up to protest them. (To see the pictures on line, go tohttp://www.flickr.com/photos/markbrunner/5824396563/ .) At one point a white man wearing confederate flags on his vest and T-shirt wanders off from the other Klansmen. The crowd of protestors converge on him. Keshia Thomas, a young black woman – only 18 years old was among the crowd. She asks the man, “What did I ever do to you?”
Someone in the crowd shoves the man, and he begins to retreat. The crowd, looking to express their rage, begins chasing him. Things quickly get out of control. The man is pushed to the ground, and the mob pounces, kicking and poking him with sticks. Appalled, Keshia throws herself over the fallen man, shielding him from the onslaught of blows descending from the angry crowd. One of the photographs taken at the rally shows the teenage girl actually cradling the man like a child — protecting a man whose racism was a threat to her self.
Afterwards, when asked why she had done what she did, she answered, “You don’t beat a man up because he doesn’t believe the same things you do. He’s still somebody’s child.” (Afterwards, a National Imperial Wizard of the KKK, Jeffrey Berry, 43 said to a reporter, speaking of Keshia, “We bless her. If you get ahold of her, tell her that Jeff Berry thanks her.”)
Paul was writing his letter from a prison cell in Rome. As the letter draws to a close, it’s touching the words he writes to his friends back in Ephesus. He’s told them to keep praying for all the saints. Now he adds: “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am which I am an ambassador in chains.”
If you think about it, who’s Paul going to get a chance to preach to there in the prison? He would have preached to other prisoners. But since Paul was a Roman citizen he would have been kept separate from the commoners who were not citizens. He was also considered by the authorities to be a dangerous rabble-rouser, so in all likelihood they kept him fairly isolated from other prisoners.
So the primary people he has to preach the Gospel are…. the Roman guards.
How is he going to overcome the deep hostilities that would have been knit into the context in which he finds himself… the hostility between captor and captive… the ancient hostility so commonly found between people of different races, different cultures, different religions?
It won’t be easy. So he asks in his letters for prayers — that he may be able to stand firm in the Gospel of peace when his captors mock him, or beat him, trying to provoke him into the old hostility.
As he’s wrapping up his letter, he looks up, and his eyes are drawn to the armor worn by his captors. He finds in the various pieces of the armor metaphors for what he needs to stand firm: The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, sandals that will make him nimble as he proclaims the gospel of peace. He’ll need the shield of faith to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one, and the helmet of salvation. His only offensive weapon he will need is the sword of the Spirit – the truth of the Gospel he proclaims with its potential to cut deep into human hearts.
And in his imagination, with the whole armor of God securely in place, Paul does stand firm in the peace that Christ has won.
Imagine how perplexed the captors must have been when, over time in such harsh and hostile circumstances, he maintained a demeanor of peace and calm. Their taunts and cruelties fail to provoke hostility in return. He is, as he writes elsewhere in his letter, “so rooted and established in love.”
Overtime their curiosity gets the better of them. They want to know what this man has that the other prisoners don’t, in fact, what, they themselves don’t have. Gradually the mocking disappears, and they allow themselves to be drawn into conversation by this peculiar man. He seems sincerely interested in them. He asks about their families — where they’ve come from. At one point he asks, “So how was it you came to be a Roman soldier?”
They share how, as was common in those days, they had enlisted in the hope of one day themselves becoming Roman citizens. For the guards, the great division that separated humanity was not that of Jews and Gentiles, but rather the one that divided the Roman Empire. There were citizens with certain rights and privileges – the insiders. And then there was everyone else.
Rome with all its tyrannical political and military power knew how to entice poor young men to serve their purposes in their armies of oppression. Hold up the carrot of citizenship, and they would enlist. It would take 25 long years of service to Caesar, however before they would be rewarded with the carrot of citizenship, finally moving from the outside to the inside.
Paul realizes his enemy wasn’t these flesh and blood soldiers standing before him. The real enemy is the evil power behind Rome that coerced people to succumb to their domination.
“You know,” Paul tells them, “I’m a Roman citizen.” This catches their attention. Somehow they’d missed this fact.
“Been one all my life. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. A while back I was given a different sort of citizenship that is far more wonderful than the citizenship I have through Rome. In fact, if I were forced to choose between the two, I’d drop my Roman citizenship in instant. This one comes with such glorious riches.”
“What are you talking about!?” they ask skeptically.
“The citizenship I’m talking about is in the household of God.” And with that he proceeds to tell them about the amazing thing Jesus has accomplished in his death on the cross. “You don’t have to wait for this citizenship. It’s yours, right now, for the asking.”
God is far more powerful that Caesar. And you are, amazing as it may seem, God’s beloved child, invited to come inside of God’s infinity circle of light. There are such riches of grace and love that have been opened up to you in Jesus. It’s all you truly need. It’s all you’ve ever needed.