Recap of Past Weeks
Thus far in this series, we have seen that the principalities and powers (at least their “forms,” “types,” “archetypes”—all mean the same for our purposes) were created in Christ and have the potential for great good. The powers include all “collectives,” that is, all rulers, governments, ideas and ideologies, religions, corporations, etc. Even before the creation, God knew that most of the time, human beings working together are both smarter and more capable than human beings working individually. Not everyone is a genius—though we thank God for those that are.
Because the principalities and powers were created in Christ, they have the potential for great good. However, they exist in a world riddled, defined, and controlled by sin, thus the powers also have the potential for great evil. The powers exist first as archetypes “in the heavenlies,” to use the language of Ephesians. Then, in this world, they are “created” by human beings as collectives. When Ephesians was written, the world rulers of the present darkness included Rome, and Caesar, and all the soldiers, tax collectors, and minor officials of the Empire. Roman power was a concrete, this worldly manifestation of the “spiritual hosts,” the “types,” in the heavenly places. When Rome persecuted and killed Christians, Rome put evil hands and feet at the disposal of the evil powers.
We can’t speak of the evil powers without talking about Satan. Thus, we have seen how C.S. Lewis said, “to believe in Satan is to believe that evil is greater than the sum total of its parts.” And how Emil Bruner said, “to believe in Satan is to believe that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil.”
According to Ephesians 2:2, Satan is the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons and daughters of disobedience. If Satan is omnipresent, it is because he has people everywhere—in sin we all belong to him. If Satan is powerful, it is because his minions have power. If Satan is wily, cunning, and intelligent it is because many of his followers are wise in the ways of the world. For instance, in Romans 1:30 St. Paul warns against those who are “inventors of evil.”
Put On the Whole Armor of God
In Ephesians 6:10 the apostle exhorts believers to “be strong in the LORD and in the strength of his might,” and encourages us to put on the whole armor of God that (we) may be able “to stand against the wiles of the devil” and “contend against the world rulers of the present darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
The apostle’s military references for a stunningly complete metaphor.
First, the apostle says that we should gird up our loins with truth. Many think that the loins were the thighs, the calves, the legs. This is not so. In the Bible, the loins are the area below the chest, which includes the liver, kidneys, gut, etc. In Exodus 28 we read that the Levitical priesthood covered their naked flesh with linen breeches “from the loins to the thighs.” In 2nd Kings chapter 1, Elijah wore a girdle of leather about his loins.
The apostle says that we protect our loins, our gut, with a girdle of truth. This is a powerful image. If we lie or accept a lie, we feel it in our gut. If we live with lies for any length of time, we harm our mental, emotional, and physical health. We can’t build a life on a lie.
Evil’s chief weapon is the lie, and our chief defense against the lie is the truth. I believe in two kinds of truth, natural truth—which we get at through science when we sit humbly at the feet of the facts, and special truth, which comes to us from God. Even natural truth points to God. As the Psalmist said, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” However, special truth tells us more about God than natural truth ever can. The special truth of the Bible teaches that God revealed himself in a series of mighty acts, like God’s deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea; through the Word God spoke by his prophets; and, ultimately, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the truth.” Jesus is the truth about God. He says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the father.” As the truth about God, Jesus is the standard by which we read the Bible, and the lens through which we view the world. We all know that some things in the Bible are pre-Christ, and some things in the Bible are sub-Christ, neither measure fully up to him. Jesus is also the truth about humanity. In Romans 8, St. Paul says, “We are predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s son.” The Holy Spirit convinces us of sin and of righteousness. He teaches us that some things are worthy of Christ and some things are not. We must discern the difference and act upon it. Our failure to “act” is our greatest weakness.
Second, the apostle tells us to put on “the breastplate of righteousness.” [Note 1] In scripture righteousness consist of one thing, and one thing only, “the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship.” [Note 2]
God is righteous because God keeps his promises, thus fulfilling the demands of the relationship which he shares with us. In the Old Covenant, God gave Israel the law through Moses. God promised that he would reward those who kept the law and punish those who did not. In the new covenant, God promises to forgive the sins of all who turn to Jesus Christ in faith, for he “died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and then rose again to give us a future and a hope.” According to Romans 3:26, in Christ, God proves himself righteous—for God punishes sin, and also “justifies” or “makes righteous” all who have faith in Jesus.” In 2nd Corinthians 1:20 Paul says, “All the promises of God find their ‘Yes,’ in him,” that is, in Jesus.
We are righteous if we fulfill the demands of our relationships. We have different relationships with different people. I have one kind of relationship with my wife, another with my children, another with my friends, and yet another with a stranger on the street. One way to fulfill the demands of our relationships is to make as few promises as we can and keep those we make. Another way to fulfill the demands of our relationships is to keep the Law laid down by God. We need not struggle with all the commandments and ordinances of the Hebrew Bible. In Matthew 22:34-40 Jesus said that all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in just two commandments: We are to love God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength. And we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In 1st John 4:20 the apostle adds weight to the second of these commandments he writes, “…he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” And in John 15:12 we are still more challenged when Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Third, the apostles tell us that we are to shoe our feet with “the equipment of the gospel of peace.” In the Hebrew Bible, a soldier’s equipment differs according to his job. A charioteer had one kind of equipment, an archer another, a spearman, or a swordsman, had still other kinds of equipment. All soldiers had at least one thing in common—they all needed good shoes. Until recent times, an army moved on its feet, and the better it moved the better it was as an army. Rome built good roads to move its army quickly to any part of the Empire. In the American Civil War, Stonewall Jackson’s infantry moved so well they were called Jackson’s Foot Cavalry. On a different note, Zinzendorf once asked a Moravian brother who volunteered for missionary service how soon he could leave. He said, “I need a pair of shoes. If I had a pair of shoes, I could leave today.”
In Ephesians 6, those who put on the whole armor of God shoe their feet with, “the equipment of the gospel of peace.” This phrase from Ephesians is intended to put readers in mind of two similar phrases. In Isaiah 52 the prophet writes, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of (those) who bring good tidings… of peace.” And in Romans 5, much earlier than Ephesians, we read, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Grace and peace go hand in hand. It is only in accepting God’s free grace that we know peace. It is only in sharing grace and peace that we multiply the same. The more we share the more we have. People who hear the good news rejoice, and we rejoice with them.
Fourth, the apostle tells us to take the shield of faith, with which to quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.
A dart is an offensive weapon. In 2nd Samuel 18, Joab took three darts in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom who had rebelled against his father, King David. According to Ephesians 6, darts could also be set on fire, making them more dangerous still.
In the 2,000-year history of our faith, Christians have suffered “dungeon, fire, and sword,” and plenty of darts! Over the centuries, many Christians have sealed their faith in death. Today, in the United States, we are more likely to suffer ridicule than death. I can handle some ridicule. After more than forty years in the ministry, I no longer mind when people compare preachers with unscrupulous men selling snake oil and used cars with the odometers rolled back. I don’t mind because some preachers are that unscrupulous and more. I just strive to see that I am not one of them.
I don’t mind preachers being criticized—we sometimes deserve it, but I do have a problem when unbelievers lump all Christians together with certain fundamentalists. Let me give you an example. I took Clinical Pastoral Education at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. As a part of the curriculum, we were shown a film of snake handlers from the Kentucky mountains. Since the snake-handlers of the Bluegrass State recognize no Bible except the King James, they accept the long ending of Mark’s gospel—which is omitted by more modern translations like the RSV and NRSV because it is based on inferior manuscripts, all dated quite late. In the long ending of Mark, the Risen Christ tells his disciples that they will “speak in new tongues, and pick-up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”
The preacher in the film did not drink poison, but he did speak in tongues and handle deadly snakes. Then, abusing 1st Peter 5:14, he grabbed several of the prettiest girls in his congregation and gave them a very passionate “kiss of love.” Our instructor said that this preacher later died of snakebites. I am surprised he was not killed by a jealous husband. Anyway, after watching that film, many of us agreed that it was easier for us to accept kinship with many kind and humanitarian unbelievers than to accept that to accept kindship with the snake handlers. It was particularly hard for me to think of their pastor as “a brother in the Lord.” I was even more ashamed when the late Pastor Fred Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested our military’s ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to openly recognize homosexual service members. The Westboro group picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, holding signs that read, and I quote, “God hates the USA,” “God hates fags,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” Immediately after that protest made the evening news, I told my father who still had a kind of “blanket” goodwill toward “fundamentalism” that if I ever lost my faith, it would not be because of any charges laid down by unbelievers, but because I am so devastated by the bigotry of so-called believers.
Thus far, my faith has been my shield against “flaming darts” like those I have described. In the case of snake-handlers and fundamentalists like those at Westboro Baptist, I simply remember how Jesus himself said:
“On that day, many will say to me, ‘Did we not preach and prophesy in your name?’ Then will I say to them, ‘Depart from me, you who work iniquity, for I never knew you.’”
Of course, I am keenly aware that, the whole time I am using these verses to defend myself against fundamentalists like those I have described, they are using those same verses to defend themselves against people like me.
I have never wanted to be critical of other Christians. “Who am I to judge the servant of another?”, says Paul. However, in today’s world, our life is an open book, and it is hard to avoid this conflict, especially when the fundamentalists are the first to disobey Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 6:1 to refrain from taking our grievances before the unrighteous, instead of laying them before the saints.
To this end, we must remember that religion is power, and all local churches exercise power over their members, for good or ill, some more strongly than others. Power in fundamentalists circles is real, and it is often based upon fear. After I delivered this sermon, a member of Fries approached me to tell me how a man was forced out of a Bible study they had participated in together because the group did not use the King James Version of the Bible. The man said, “My pastor will publicly denounce me and cast me out of the church if I continue to be a part of this group.” The Moravian Church is a power, too. I like to think we have exercised the power of love. One of the ways we have maintained our identity was through our motto: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things love.”
My friend, the late Ron Seeber, was our city attorney for more than thirty years. He was also a “Charismatic Catholic” and a lay Franciscan in the Catholic church. Long before 9/11 Ron said to me, “As a follower of Jesus, the only thing in this world I fear is religious fundamentalism.” I said, “You are speaking of Islamic fundamentalism?” He said, “I am speaking of all fundamentalisms, including Christian fundamentalism.”
Fifth, the apostle urges us to “take the helmet of salvation.” [Note 3] The helmet protects the head, which, is the most vulnerable part of the body. The helmet was the last piece of armor a Roman soldier would put on, but it was the last piece of armor abandoned by the armies of the 20th century. The helmet was universal in World War I and in World War II.
In urging us to put on the helmet of salvation, I think the apostle was calling upon us to settle our minds about the matter of our salvation, once, for all times. This is certainly an advantage. Martin Luther stood up to the power of the Pope in Rome and passed the torch of the Reformation from John Hus into his own time. Often Luther was tormented by his own sins and failures. In these dark times, he often found solace by simply repeating the words, “I am baptized!” He was confident that he belonged to Christ. He trusted the helmet of his salvation. Likewise, when the late Ruth Graham was asked if her husband Billy ever doubts had, she said, “Yes, doubts fly over him like the birds of the sky, but he never allows them to build a nest in his head.”
Untested faith is not very strong. I think it is a fine thing for a Christian to have doubts, but eventually, we must doubt our doubts. We cannot forever limp along between two opinions. If we try, we are unsettled and unsettling. When John Wesley told Peter Bohler that he doubted his faith and was going to quit preaching. Bohler said, “No, John Wesley, preach faith until you have it, then, because you have it you will preach faith.” The same is true for us. With this difference, we must live faith until we have it, then, because we have it, we will live faith. It is a shame that so many quit the faith without ever really trying it.
Note 1: In 1st Thessalonians 5, Paul says that we should put on “a breastplate of faith and love.” The apostle is not afraid to mix his metaphors.
Note 2: If you doubt that righteousness if the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, read the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38:1-26.
Note 3: In 1st Thessalonians, the helmet is not salvation but “the hope of salvation.”