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“Jesus Wins”

August 24, 2015

“‘Jesus Wins’” Ephesians 6:10-20 © 8.23.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a war on, being fought on multiple fronts. We read and hear about this conflict every day, maybe without knowing it. Anytime there’s a story about social or political unrest, religious or racial hatred or violence or even natural disasters, that’s a report from a war zone. Whenever there’s a piece about the invocation of privilege, abuse of power or partiality of prejudice, in the family or in the larger society, in our own nation or across the globe, the writer of the article is an embedded war correspondent. The combatants are people from every part of the globe, every economic stratum, religion, political party, race, ethnicity, and gender.

The battle has been raging for centuries. It’s a conflict in our dimension between cosmic forces of good and evil, not of this realm. Both manifest themselves in their proxies, which are earthly entities and systems of thought, and people in various roles and positions of influence, from families to churches to international corporations and governments throughout the world. The apostle terms the minions of the demonic in this world “rulers and authorities” and those who stand behind them he calls “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” and “cosmocrats,” the powers of this present darkness.

We can understand what Paul means without buying first century apocalyptic cosmology, which saw creation as populated by all sorts of demons and monsters. We need not think of the devil as a pitchfork-wielding, forked-tailed, horned, red, malevolent beast to believe the demonic is real. We can define it as whatever and whoever works however and whenever against the plan and purpose of God for wholeness, peace, and compassion.

There’s a war on against these forces, and you and I and all the people of God, indeed, all folk of good will, are fighters. What, you didn’t realize you had enlisted? That happened at your baptism. Our orders come from God himself, who goes ahead, and behind, and with us into battle. We are deployed to “attack the powers of sin,” as the hymn writer put it, “where tyrants’ hold is tightened, where strong devour the weak, where innocents are frightened, the righteous fear to speak.” The values we espouse are the best of the warrior, namely, alertness, honor, courage, self-sacrifice, discipline, obedience, endurance, and consummate skill in the use of all the resources available to him or her.

The last I mentioned is what Paul calls “the whole armor of God,” the “panoply of God,” which God himself wears in Isaiah as the Lord strives to bring justice. The late theologian Walter Wink, in his classic study of the Powers, calls the pieces of armor “spiritual weapons” and “nonviolent armament” (Engaging the Powers: 84). This protection is given to the whole Church, and stands us in good stead whether we’re on the offensive or holding the line against some assault from the cosmic rulers. We can’t fail to take it up and put it on. Every piece is necessary in the fight, no matter how heavy, inconvenient or costly. It works as a system to defend and equip us and our sisters and brothers. As one commentator has observed, “The ‘whole armor of God’ is needed for the war against the principalities and powers, and against the forces of sin, our own separation from the Holy One, our own desires for what does not feed and nourish God’s creation. The…enemy threatens from within and outside ourselves. To be readied for war with that enemy is to be set for the daily battle against all that opposes God’s desire that ‘the mystery of the gospel’ give joy on Earth” (see note 1). To win the day in such a conflict, we must use all the resources we have.

So what is our armor, our equipment supplied by the Divine Quartermaster?

We’ve all seen pictures of medieval knights or movies about King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. We may imagine Paul is speaking of their long swords and lances, shining head-to-toe metal suits. But that’s not what’s talked about here. The writer had in mind the armor of a Roman soldier of his day. Look at the back of your bulletin for a depiction of two different styles.

The first piece of our armor is a belt of truth. This is modeled on the Roman “cingulum,” to which were attached at the waist all the Roman soldier’s equipment, except his sword, which we’ll talk about later. With this belt, the soldier could be ready for most anything that could come along. It also kept his tunic gathered up so it didn’t get in the way. So he could pay attention to what he was doing instead of his clothes. He could be sure of himself and do his job. Like the soldier, Christians individually and together wearing belts of truth are free of encumbrances, flexible, ready for action and movement to do the mission to which the Commander calls us.

But how is a belt like truth or how is a belt made of truth? There are of course many ways to think about something being true. Like facts proven by science, such as the force of gravity or the speed of light or that Pluto has five moons. Then there’s honesty, telling the truth and not lying. With that one, we’re getting close to what the Bible means. But what I think the apostle is talking about is what kind of persons you and I are. Are we loyal and good and true to what we promise and can we be trusted? On such good character depends everything else.

Say you or I have a tool belt on while working on a project. From it, we can take a screwdriver or a hammer or a pair of pliers, a pencil or a ruler, whatever we need for what we have to do. From good character come the choices we make, the words we say, the places we go, the people we associate with, the things we believe. That’s how it’s like the soldier’s belt. We go back to what’s inside—who we are—to face what life brings and do it as followers of Jesus.

Next is the breastplate of the soldier. This in Latin was called a “lorica hamata.” Of course, it protected all the vital organs on the upper body, like the Kevlar vests police and soldiers wear today.

In the day Ephesians was written, the inner organs, the “innards,” were the place compassion came from, care for others. There was a funny-sounding word they had that meant “guts” as well as “caring.” It was “splankna.” So what is being said here is to make sure nobody and nothing takes away our splankna, our ability to care for others, because that’s as important to living as a follower of Jesus as our heart, lungs, liver, and stomach are for keeping alive. The breastplate keeps us from being cynical, from thinking there’s nothing we can do to change society or even our little corner of the world, that caring and advocacy and lending our voices to the left out and ignored don’t matter. We are reminded to protect that part of ourselves as if there were armor on it, keep it safe, because loving and caring for others is the right way to live, though it’s hard to sustain. And in God’s time, our splankna will be satisfied.

If the breastplate protects our innermost being, so also does the shield of faith. For the Roman soldier, the shield was a big piece of wood covered with leather called a scutum. Before a battle, it was soaked in water, so when fiery arrows were shot at it, they would fizzle and go out. The shield protected two-thirds of the soldier’s body and one third of his comrade’s when they were in tight formation standing against a foe, rather like what we have seen riot police doing in our time.

Our shield of faith—which is knowing that God cares for us and will keep us with him—helps when the breastplate of righteousness is not quite enough. Faith helps us keep on going and being the people Jesus wants us to be. And if we falter, our neighbor’s faith is there to lift us up and help us as we join in community, just like those soldiers protected each other in battle.

Next comes the shoes of the gospel of peace. On the Roman soldier, these could be sandals or boots. The latter were known as “caligae.” Shoes and boots are for walking or running, so this one is about going somewhere. We often talk about being a Christian as walking on a journey, and I think this is what the writer has in mind, too. But there’s more. When I was about 25, there was a song called “Boogie Shoes.” You may have heard it. Well, what we wear are good news shoes. When we are wearing them, we might dance because we’re so happy. But more than that we might be going to someone who is in need and helping them. Or stepping between two arguing people to mediate and settle a dispute. Or visiting a neighbor who needs to hear an encouraging word and be invited to be part of a caring community. Or going to a rally or a meeting to stand for a cause.

Then there’s the helmet of salvation. The Roman soldier’s helmet was called a “galea.” It could be fancy or plain. Of course, a helmet goes on our heads, which is where our brains are, the center of thought and feeling.

A helmet of salvation means that God wants us to make sure our thoughts and our feelings honor him. And to honor God with thoughts and feelings also means to honor our neighbors, the people around us, and in the whole world. What do we think and feel about someone who is different from us? Who speaks a different language or looks different or has a different religion? What are we trying to learn about what God wants? Once again, it’s all about compassion, love, caring.

And “salvation” means many things, but in the Bible the word at least means “being a complete person, having one goal in life.” Our thoughts and feelings sometimes don’t get along very well. We might think or know one thing and feel another. Head and heart clash; we’ve all been there. And there might be all kinds of things you or I want to do with the day or have to do, but you can’t figure out what’s most important or I don’t know what to do first. That’s when we need to stop and think of how what we’re doing would show people we follow Jesus. The whole purpose of Jesus’ life was to honor God by helping and teaching others. When we wear the helmet of salvation, we try with God’s help to think like Jesus thought.

Next, there’s the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, the teaching of God. The sword a Roman soldier wore on the belt around his chest was called a “gladius,” from which comes the word “gladiator.” It was a short sword, like a really big knife. It wasn’t those big, heavy swords we see warriors fighting with in movies sometimes. The Roman foot soldier got in close and looked his enemy in the eye. And he didn’t gain skill with a sword just by having one or being able to pick it out of a line-up of several weapons. He had to practice.

The Bible is our sword of the Spirit. What I learn from its being compared to a Roman short sword are two things. One, we need to practice using it. We can’t just pick up a Bible and readily and really understand it. There are ways to read it and hear it, respected methods of and resources for interpretation known as “hermeneutics,” which help us to hear what the text is really saying. We need to know who wrote what and when and to whom and why and put aside our preconceived notions, resisting the urge we all have to cherry-pick our favorite verses. And we need to read and hear the scriptures often, whether in corporate worship or in private devotions. That’s practicing with the Bible sword, what we called “sword drills” in Sunday school when I was a kid.

The other thing is that the Roman soldier got in close to the one he was fighting with. He looked him in the eye. When you or I talk with somebody about what the Bible says, we need to look the other person in the eye. What I mean is, try to understand him or her. Listen with respect. We may not get along or have the same ideas. But we fight fair. And even though it’s called a “sword,” we shouldn’t use the Bible to hurt people.

The final piece of armor is prayer. This is the only item on Paul’s list that doesn’t have a specific equivalent on the armament of the soldier. But I tend to think of prayer as the preparation, the discipline, the mental attitude necessary for the fight. It’s the training in patience, in silence, in obedience, in submission as well as the strengthening, the confidence-building, the thorough acquaintance with the rules of engagement decreed by the King. Prayer is the battle song, the “warrior psalm” we raise as we put on our armor and go into the fray (cf. the hymns “Who Is on the Lord’s Side?” and “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”).

All these pieces of armor, this equipment, are from God. He gives it to you and me to help us follow Jesus, who has tested them in battle against the worst the principalities and powers could do and found them effective.

The battle is long. There have been, there are, and there will be casualties from burn-out, sorrow, set-backs, ecclesiastical PTSD (see note 2), even persecution and martyrdom. But for Paul and every New Testament writer the war is not in doubt, even if battles are lost. Victory belongs to Christ and his Church. As a wise though untutored man once said about the outcome of history: “Jesus wins.”

XXXX

Note 1: Melinda Quivik, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1380

Note 2: I didn’t make up this malady; it’s real, but actually called “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.” See Reba Riley, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rebariley/2014/09/itscalledposttraumaticsyndromeandyesitsreal/ and an interview with Ms. Riley at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/post-traumatic-church-syndrome_55d3fe11e4b07addcb4499d5?ir=Religion%253Fncid%253Dnewsltushpmg00000003&kvcommref=mostpopular

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