August 26, 2018

13th Sunday after Trinity

Passage: Ephesians 6:10-2; John 6:56-69

Have you seen those ads for painkillers, the ones that zap the pain, attack the pain, defeat the pain? These are ads targeted at men. Well I couldn’t find any on the internet, but I did find an image for Strongbow which illustrates the same thing – attacking the thirst. (Slide 1). Back with painkillers, the ones which talk about soothing the pain away, apparently they’re more successful at attracting women. Well personally I’d quite like a painkiller that attacked pain with a mallet if it worked, but the point is, I suppose, that there are different ways of selling the same thing.

And we have that in the Bible and in our Christian tradition as well. On our Quiet Day, a day which we will spend exploring the spirituality of Julian of Norwich (slide 2), who was, incidentally, a woman, we will be exploring the gentleness of God, God’s loving nurture, forgiveness, so it’s more of a case of soothing the pain of sin away by love, delight, by overwhelming it with something better, sweeter.

But in today’s reading, Paul gives us a much more martial image. Today we have before us a soldier, dressed in armour, standing fast, withstanding. (v14) (Slide 3) It’s worth noting that it is not a soldier on the march, advancing, or attacking but a soldier defending territory that has already been won. The suggestion here is that Christ has already won the victory, but the territory must be defended.[1]

This kind of military imagery has lots of resonances, in the ancient world, and in more recent Christian history. The passage draws on Isaiah and the Wisdom of Solomon. So Isaiah suggests, in a passage about the shoot that shall come out of the stump of Jesse, which refers to a King from the Davidic line and was subsequently interpreted as being about Jesus: “He will wear the belt of justice” (Isa 11.5). Or later Isaiah portrays God himself as a powerful and effective military leader: “He put on righteousness like a breastplate and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.” (59.17)[2]

In the ancient world, it was common to see the spiritual life as a battle against the forces of evil.[3] There are plenty of examples of it in apocalyptic literature, such as Revelation (12.7-8), and we also see it in our hymns. One of my favourites, Be Thou My Vision, suggests “Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight; Be thou my whole armour, be thou my true might”.[4]

So, military imagery as a representation of the spiritual life, has form. It’s one of the ways we can conceptualise the spiritual life, and it remains resonant today. The chaplain on HMS Queen Elizabeth, who just happens to be my husband, stands on the ski-ramp, (slide 4) leading the ship in and out of harbour, a powerful symbol of the inter-twining of the military and godly. Another hymn comes to mind: Fight the good fight with all thy might. Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right.

But what exactly are we to fight? What is our battle? (Slide 5)

In verse 12, Paul talks of rulers, authorities, cosmic powers. Paul actually coins a new term when he talks of cosmic powers, literally ‘cosmocrats’ (kosmokratoras), an astrological term which later Gnostic writers picked up and used.[5]

But perhaps more familiar to us are the words of the King James Version: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness in this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph.6.12)

The question still remains, who are we battling with? Where is the darkness and the power? Is it in this world? Or do “cosmic powers” indicate the spiritual dimension?

In 1st century Asia Minor, the fear of the demonic world was debilitating.[6] This was a fear I encountered in modern day Tanzania. Yet in today’s Western world, as Walter Wink suggests, “modern people are “supposed to gag on the idea of angels and demons” as the world has been “mercifully swept clean of these ‘superstitions’”.[7] Are we too rational for the kind of spiritual dimension that Paul may be indicating?

Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, is very good at reminding us that our Western, rationalist take is just a “take”, that we think we have grown up, out of the childish beliefs which hold that demons and spiritual powers exist, and instead we talk about inner demons, about psychological states. He suggests that even Christians have become more secularised than they realise. It is as if, now that we have so much knowledge about the power and inner workings of the mind, we, recalling Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve – eat of the tree of knowledge and you will be as gods – we think that we are like gods and that we understand everything.

So I would like to remind us that we do not know everything, and that the battle with spiritual powers may be more real than we like to think. And, being a good Northern Irish pragmatist, I also want to remind us that these evil powers are very real in this world, here and now, and must be confronted. They can be psychological, inner, tormenting voices, negative states of mind, temptations to cruelty to others, often borne of our own suffering. And they can be found in unjust governments, institutions, political structures. What about apartheid? Child abuse? They can lie in cultures, which legitimate paying lots of money to those who work in banking, and leave many ordinary families needing food banks just to survive: 200,000 3-day emergency food supplies were needed in the UK in July and August last year, over 74,000 of which went to children.[8] And the two industries which are growing the most in our current society are, apparently, people trafficking and the arms trade.

What can we do? We can fight. We can stand firm against such evils, knowing that they have already been defeated by Christ, who showed they would not prevail. We can “fasten the belt of truth around (our) waist and put on the breastplate of righteousness” (v14) We can take “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v17).

And we can pray. Tony Blair once described his priorities as Education, Education, Education. Perhaps as Christians we could suggest an alternative: Prayer, Prayer, Prayer. If we are fighting spiritual powers, this is our most effective weapon.

But prayer can take many forms: it can be on our knees prayer, and it can be getting involved prayer, and this is where it becomes our best weapon in the world too. What is it that makes you angry in the world? Is it world hunger? Get involved in our Feed the Hungry event, which you will be hearing about soon. Is it political prisoners? Get involved in Amnesty or Action by Christians Against Torture. Is it people trafficking? Get involved in Hampshire’s Modern Slavery Partnership. Or find your own path.

Where can you make a difference, where can you stand firm? Where can you fight, to defend the territory that Christ has liberated?