23 August 2015

Sermon – “Born in a Battlefield” (Ephesians 6:10-20)

I am grateful for the opportunity to come and take part in the baptism of our youngest grandchild, Avery, and to Paul Friesen for his invitation to preach once again at St Paul’s after our eleven-year sojourn in the United States. They were a wonderful, spiritually stimulating time for us in many ways, but it is also good to be back in Halifax, which became home for us during my eighteen years as rector here.
Had we been using the old Book of Common Prayer, we would be hearing these words following Avery’s baptism:
We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock, and do sign him with the sign of the cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.[1]
It is a source of sadness for me that we haven’t retained these words, or something like them, in our contemporary forms of worship. I wonder if they weren’t dropped because our liturgical revisers sensed an incongruity between a defenseless baby cuddled in its parent’s arms and the blood and gore of a battlefield. If so, I don’t entirely blame them. Yet, when you think about it, that is almost exactly what the apostle Paul does in this morning’s reading from the last chapter of his letter to the Ephesians.
In the latter verses of chapter 5 and the first half of chapter 6, Paul has addressed his words to Christian households, to the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. The whole emphasis throughout those verses is on Christ-like submission and service. The nineteenth-century German Lutheran pastor Karl Spitte put the picture of the Christian family into idyllic form in his hymn that includes the words,
O happy home, whose little ones are given
Early to thee, in humble faith and prayer,
To thee, their Friend, who from the heights of heaven
Guides them, and guards with more than mother’s care!
Yet suddenly, from that blissful scene Paul drops us into the middle of a battlefield, with the image, not of a peaceful family home but of a soldier fully armed for mortal combat.

The Action

Why the sudden shift? Handley Moule, one of the great scholar-bishops of Durham, wisely observed a century ago that it is a common experience that “the evil powers often win their worst advantages against us Christians on the quiet and common ground of life”.
Where we are least upon our guard they are most upon their watch… Just at home, alas, it is only too easy for the Christian to be inconsiderate in deed and word, to be quick or sullen in temper, to indulge self in small but dangerous ways, while yet a tolerable face of consistency is maintained in more public and exterior matters.[3]
Do you recognize yourself in the good bishop’s words? I can certainly see all too much of myself in them. Even such a one as the apostle Paul confessed to the struggle between good and evil that raged within the confines of his own soul:
I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. (Romans 7:21-23)
The great Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made much the same observation when he wrote,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.[4]
As difficult as it may be to accept, little Avery has been born into a battlefield. At this stage in his life he certainly is not aware of it. But we ask his parents and sponsors to affirm on his behalf:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

The Adversary

I don’t know if it was intentional, but those words in many ways reflect the words that we heard from Ephesians this morning. There Paul warns us about the devil’s schemes, about the rulers, authorities and powers of this dark world and about the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
It is important to notice that Paul doesn’t write about evil only in vague, general terms. He speaks quite specifically about the devil. In our post-Enlightenment world we may find the Bible’s references to the devil strange, antiquated, even slightly embarrassing. We may be tempted to set them aside as part of a pre-scientific worldview. If that is the case, then we need to beware.
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” wrote C.S. Lewis in the introduction to his spiritual classic, The Screwtape Letters. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”[5]
C.E.B. Cranfield, one of the leading New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, has written,
Here we are up against something that presents many difficulties to the modern mind, which is apt to dismiss the whole subject as outgrown superstition. It is important to approach it with as open a mind as possible. To suggest that there may be more truth here in the New Testament picture than has sometimes been allowed is not to wish to turn the clock back on scientific progress or to open the floodgates of obscurantism. The question whether the confident spread of the demons’ non-existence has not been their greatest triumph gets tragic urgency from such twentieth-century features as Nazism, McCarthyism, and Apartheid. And lest we should be prejudiced by the memory of such horrors as the burning of witches, it must be said that they were due, not to taking the New Testament too seriously, but to failing to take it seriously enough.[6]
Even a casual reading of the New Testament should leave us in no doubt that to follow Christ will inevitably lead us into conflict with the spiritual forces of darkness. Satan’s desire is to bring us down, to tangle us in a web of lies—and at times those lies can be very powerful and enticing. Yet all the while we must never lose sight of the assurance that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

The Armour

So how does this work itself out in practical terms? How are we to engage in the fight? Paul uses the image of a soldier—one familiar to everyone in the Roman Empire—to show how it all happens. And it may seem odd, but he begins with the belt. For the belt was possibly the most important component of all. With it the ancient warrior bound together his loose-fitting clothes and so was able to manoeuvre with nimbleness and mobility. When we buckle on the belt of truth, we are encircling ourselves with certain truths about God and about ourselves, truths that we read in Scripture and that we affirm week by week in the creeds. At the same time we are committing ourselves to be men and women of truth, people whose “yes” truly is “yes” and whose “no” is truly “no”, people who really are who we say we are.
The next piece of armour is the breastplate. The breastplate covers and protects nearly all the vital organs, especially the heart. And for the biblical writers the heart stood as the seat of the will. “In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord,” wrote the apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:15a). Though it is the breastplate of righteousness, it is not our righteousness, but Christ’s, that protects us, conferred upon us by the shedding of his blood on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:20,21).
Third come the sandals. Just it was important for a soldier to have proper protection for his feet so that he could cross any terrain no matter how rough without causing himself pain or injury, so too we are to have “our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace”. And so we are gospel people, good news people, leaving the imprint of God’s shalom wherever we go.
Then we are to arm ourselves with the shield—and the shield in question was a large piece of armour that covered nearly the whole body. That shield, says Paul, is faith. The word for faith in the New Testament is pistis, which can equally mean “faithfulness”. Thus I prefer to think of myself being armed not with my own faith, which is weak and faltering at the best of times, but with the faithfulness of God, which extends to the heavens and endures to all generations.
Fourthly there is the helmet of salvation. Clearly the helmet protects the brain—and how important it is to have minds that are formed and informed by the truths of God. Paul writes elsewhere of being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may be able to test and approve what God’s will is. He writes of taking every thought captive to Christ (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 10:5). How vital it is that we should be able to think Christianly, to develop our minds in such a way that we can respond effectively to the many intellectual challenges that the world places before us!
Finally, we are presented with the sword of the Spirit, which, Paul tells us, is the word of God. Commentators have long observed that up to this point all the armour has been defensive. The sword is the only offensive piece of weaponry. It was with the word of God that Jesus fought off the attacks of the accuser in the wilderness: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only…’ ” “It is written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” I well remember an adviser in my university days pointing out that a sword has two edges, but in most cases only one is blunt, and that is the edge facing away from us. We can be very adept at applying the Scriptures to other people, but if we have any right to do so, it will only be after we have learned to apply them to ourselves. And if the powers of darkness are to be defeated in our lives, that is the way it will happen.
All of what I have been trying to say in these few minutes is most profoundly and beautifully expressed in a hymn which we know as “St Patrick’s Breastplate”. And I’d like to use those words to pray for you and for me and for little Avery as he is enrolled as Christ’s faithful soldier and servant in the sacrament of baptism.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

[1]     The Book of Common Prayer, 1959, page 528
[2]     Hymn 340 in the Book of Common Praise (1938)
[3]     Ephesian Studies, page 322
[4]     Both quotes are from The Gulag Archipelago.
[5]     The Screwtape Letters, page 9
[6]     The Gospel According to St Mark, 75
[7]     Hymn 812 in the Book of Common Praise (1938)