I’m preaching at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Grahamstown tomorrow. The Dean, Andrew Hunter, graciously invited me to preach in their ongoing sermon series on what it means to be the church in the world today. The focus has been on the readings from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Must say, I’m feeling a bit odd preaching about what it means to be the church today in this context when I’ve been in South Africa for less than a month. In any event, here’s a draft. We’ll see if the Holy Spirit has any edits when I get in the pulpit.
Good morning! First, let me say thank you to the Dean, Andrew, for the kind invitation to preach this morning, and thank you to the Cathedral community for your warm welcome of Amy and myself. We are delighted to be here.
However, I must confess that the invitation to preach in a sermon series on what it means to be the church in our world today leaves me feeling a bit odd. I’ve been in South Africa for less than a month. There is so much about the church in this province and the country that is new to me. And I worry that whatever I say will sound odd, strange and maybe even somewhat crazy. I still haven’t figured out which side of the road to drive on, so how am I to say anything about what it means to be the church, in this time and in this place.
Then, again, I think, perhaps there is a certain freedom in being odd. When I say something that sounds strange or just plain foolish, maybe you will be kind enough to attribute this to me being so new here. Or perhaps you will simply chalk it up to my being an American, and the strange customs and manners of my home country, which I might add, are getting stranger and stranger given the current occupant of the White House. In any event, I rather think there is freedom in being odd. I can pretty much speak the truth as I see it. So right now, you may be saying to yourself, “Did he just insult the president of the United States? Well, isn’t that odd.” I suppose it may be, but in that oddness I also find a strange freedom to speak the truth.
Which brings me to what I think St. Paul is saying about the church in our passage from Ephesians. In the midst of a chaotic and violent world, a world of malevolent authorities and powers, we are called to be odd and in our very oddness lies our freedom. Flannery O’Conner, a great American writer, once reportedly said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” She is playing with the scripture verse that says, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” To be sure, there is freedom in knowing the truth of the Gospel. But to really know that truth, to really live the Gospel, will also make you odd.
Our passage from Ephesians comes from the end of the letter where Paul exhorts the church to stand firm in the Christian faith and life, and in the battle against the spiritual forces of wickedness. As Paul says, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Now this is an odd passage in many ways. Just prior to it, Paul was talking in pretty down-to-earth language about how to lead a moral life. And this, I think, is quite helpful because it’s about things we have some control over. “Avoid obscene, silly and vulgar talk.” Okay, I can do that. Then, in today’s passage, Paul shifts, rather abruptly, to talk about the “wiles of the devil,” the “spiritual forces of wickedness,” and our need to stay strong in a cosmic battle. And here I want to say, “Now just hold on a minute. How did I get plunked down in the middle of this fight?” I’m not too sure I want any part of it. First of all, I didn’t start it. I’d much rather go home after church, have some lunch, and watch a soccer match on television. Secondly, I’m not even too sure what I think about the devil and the spiritual forces of wickedness, but I am quite sure that I don’t want to tangle with them. I thought as Christians we were supposed to be lovers not fighters. I prefer to think of my baptism as the time when God adopted me as his beloved child, not the time when God drafted me into his spiritual fight club. And yet, in this rather odd passage, this is precisely what seems to be happening. We are to get kitted out in the whole armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to proclaim peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, getting ready for battle.
Now, you may have noticed another odd thing about this passage. Yes, we are to put on the whole armor of God, which is a military image, but the pieces of the armor stand for decidedly unmilitary things. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. We are armed for battle with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, spirit. This, I think, is a rather odd way to get ready for a fight. Quite frankly, if I had to get ready for battle, I’d rather have things like a belt of terrible thunder, a breastplate of fiery fury, and a sword of unconquerable might, and a few really, big strong guys to back me up. But that is not the way it is for followers of Christ. We are told to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. We are told to put on truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and spirit and to stand firm against the wiles of the devil and the spiritual forces of wickedness.
This may feel like we are being sent out like sheep in the midst of wolves, but we are also assured that this will be enough. Because another odd thing about the fight against the spiritual forces of evil is that the victory is already won. St. Paul is quite clear in the early part of Ephesians that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has already defeated the powers of sin, death and the devil. As the old hymn puts it, “The strife is o’er, the battle done; Now is the Victor’s triumph won.” But for Paul, this means that we are living in a strange in-between time, between the victory of Christ on the cross and the final glorification of Christ when every knee shall bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Until that final glorification, we live with an overlapping of the old age and the new age, and the principalities and powers of the old age, even though they have been defeated, can still wreak havoc and cause harm.
I’ve heard this situation described using the analogy of the invasion of Normandy by the allied forces during the Second World War. After that victory, the war was essentially won. And yet, it took another year of hard fighting and many deaths along the way before final victory was proclaimed in Europe. Or we might think of an analogy from sports. I know from personal experience that one of the most dangerous times in a soccer match is when your team is up by so many goals that the other team can’t possibly come back. But you need to play the game out until the final whistle and since the opposing side can’t win they often resort to cheap shots. I have a scar on my left leg from one of those games when an opposing player decided to kick me out of frustration over their defeat. Now, I wouldn’t push these analogies too far, but you get the point. We are to stand firm against the wiles of the devil and the spiritual forces of wickedness in a battle that has already been won. We know all too well that they can still do damage. But their days are numbered.
And knowing this makes us free. The principalities and powers that Paul mentions are encountered in all the bullies of the world. These are the malign powers that rule in a world of domination and manipulation, where violence plants the seeds of counter-violence, which provokes further responses of retaliation and revenge. And the way they hold onto their power is by trying to convince us that this is the way things have always been and the way things always will be. These are the bullies that tell us that might makes right, that the only way we can unite ourselves is by scapegoating others, and that the people who die with the most toys win. Jesus unmasked and defeated these powers through his cross and resurrection. Jesus shows us that God’s compassion is greater than the murderous passions of our world, that God’s glory can and does shine even in the darkest night of human savagery, that God’s forgiving love is greater than our paralyzing awareness of sin, that God’s way of life is greater than our way of death. And knowing these truths, and in trying to live the gospel, will make us odd.
No matter what the bullies of the world try to tell us, whether they occupy the highest positions of power in the nations, or in the boardrooms of corporations or are just the local hooligans in our schools and neighborhoods, we will choose compassion, we will choose hope, we will choose forgiveness, we will choose life. We will put on the full armor of God, and live in truth and righteousness and peace and faith and salvation and the spirit. And in our world today this will make us odd.
It will also make us free. We can stand firm in the Lord and in the strength of his power because we know that the principalities and powers of the old age have already been defeated. When the bullies of this world confront us we will speak the truth and tell them that their days are numbered, we will practice a higher righteousness that will not return evil for evil, and will proclaim to them the Gospel of peace, making known to them God’s offer of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Try as they may, these bullies will not be able to defeat us because, as St. Paul says in Romans, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Knowing this truth will make us odd. It will also set us free.