Ephesians 6:10-20 St John 4:24-54
We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but
against principalities, against powers…
Therefore put on the whole armour of God.
This morning we are near the end of Trinity season. Our readings attend to ever higher matters in the moral life.
We have been warned early on in the season by Jesus (Trinity 4), not judge others unless we have seriously looked at our own lives, and repented and sought to grow in holiness. But in that same Gospel he says that after we have looked at ourselves and put our lives in order, we will be able to “take the speck out of our neighbour’s eye.” In other words, Jesus was not saying that we are not to judge the actions of others, but to do so, only after examining ourselves and recognized our common humanity, our feebleness, our total dependence on God’s mercy and so are able to view and counsel others with the merciful eyes of Jesus.
Isaiah was only able to be a prophet for God after his lips were touched with the burning coal from God’s altar, to be cleansed. (Isaiah 6)
And our readings have encouraged us over this season to keep one eye on our inner life while we turn the other eye to the holiness of God.
As Christians we have laid upon us the duty to love of our neighbour as ourselves, and that duty will inevitably lead us, will call us out, to challenge the society we live in and the individuals in it when we see them harming our neighbours.
We cannot stand by with our mouths shut when we see disastrous ideas being taken up by society (and the Church!) and promoted as true or as love when they are not.
Four years ago in Utrecht these readings fell on Remembrance Sunday, when the Anglican Church also remembers those who gave their lives in the great wars. It was fitting because we can, in retrospect see the devastating effects that ideas, when they take hold on societies can have.
In WW I it was certain ideologies in combination that are said to have led to the circumstances of war: a toxic mix of Militarism, Nationalism, Imperialism, Colonialism. In WW II it was Nazism – the exalting of one race over others, an ideology that at its core was undermining of Christianity, by striking at its roots in Judaism, rewriting the beatitudes, appealing to brute power and despising the weak.
The ideologies that in combination led to war between nations are the principalities and powers that St Paul talks about in today’s Epistle.
It is easy for us to see the horrors of Nazism. But there have been other movements immensely destructive of human life: Communism led to the deaths of well over 100 million in the Soviet Union, China, and the killing fields in Cambodia and has a stranglehold today on the people in North Korea. Or we can think of the tribalism promoted in Rwanda that led to the genocide of a million people. Or the ideology of ISIS, a death cult, with the aim of building some nightmare caliphate. Or the ideas of Hamas that call for the destruction of the Jewish people. Each of these began with a spiritual battle, it began with ideas, with principalities… powers… the rulers of the darkness of this world… spiritual wickedness in high places – ideas that darkened peoples’ minds and came to possess their hearts and led to vile actions. These ideas were enforced by terror, the promoters increasingly and viciously silenced opponents.
How do we respond? St Paul says we have all the necessary armour in this fight, and we must use it: take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore…
To fight a battle against ideologies requires clarity of thinking and not being afraid to speak out – St Paul says, pray that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Some in different Churches did speak out in the 1930s – Bonhoeffer in the German Lutheran Church, and in the Roman Catholic church Pope Pius XI released an encyclical in 1937 called “With burning concern”. It loudly condemned ideas that were taking hold.
The Church leaders knew it would result in the persecution of its members and it did. Hitler was infuriated: copies of the encyclical were confiscated, Catholic presses were shut down, the state began false immorality trials of priests and monks, false news stories, and more priests and religious were sent to concentration camps. Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed near the end of the war.
In our own day, and in our own society here in the Netherlands, although there is no outward war, there are many ideological battles – principalities and powers that have settled on our society and are seeking to settle themselves on us – ideas that have some truth in them but are mixed with lies – often the ideas are framed as being compassionate. Will we be complicit in our generation through silence, through fear of speaking out, or through a kind of sloth, a tolerance that wouldn’t be bothered engaging in the big questions, or a complicity that would rather simply “be nice”, not “make waves” by saying nothing. Would we sacrifice truth for unity? Would we cry peace, peace, when there is no peace?
Here are some of the issues in our own generation that are destructive of life:
Euthanasia – doctors actively taking lives that they were trained to protect… it is being used now in some countries as a “solution” to those suffering depression.
Abortion – a controversial topic – but I think we can all agree there should be some limits – in Canada there are no limits and every political leader there in a recent election promised not to change anything…
Homosexual lifestyle – we have a fear of even questioning this – we have to endure annual pride weeks celebrated with politicians in their midst, and corporations scramble to show themselves supportive of this and other alternative sexual lifestyles.
The rainbow, an ancient symbol of the promise of God not to destroy all flesh again with a flood because of its wickedness, is waved in our faces, even though it supports violence against the created order – the denying of sexual difference by trans-gender activists. The lie that our gender is unrelated to our biology is being taught in schools to children. Our libraries are filled with children’s books to promote such ideas. Doctors are butchering teenagers.
There are sustained attacks on the institution of marriage by God – our legal system is watering down what it means, and there is a lack of political support for the institution as central to social and societal wellbeing. Michel Foucault, an influential French philosopher, a very troubled soul, argued for doing this very thing.
Critical Race theory, supposedly meant to attack racism, seems to result in the opposite.
There have been sustained attacks on freedom of speech – the cancel culture has made people afraid to question ideas destructive to life. And yet free speech is the only way we can engage in discussion to discern the truth…
There is the growing threat of false news – the internet is being used to spread false ideas to destabilize countries and influence elections… there are programs now that can make people say whatever you want them to say – release the footage and the damage is done.
Artificial Intelligence is being unleashed – will we be able to discern what is true?
Some of these issues are so contentious that we don’t even know how to speak of them together. I welcome your ideas about how we might speak together about these and other contentious issues in our church.
There is very much a battle here and now for the hearts and minds of God’s people. As St Paul says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
The days are evil, as they were in the time of St Paul, as they were in the last century, and we as Christians need to arm ourselves. We are being tested – this is our furnace of affliction and we will be judged by God for how we respond today. A recent book “A Letter to the American Church” by Eric Metaxas, challenges us not to be silent in our time, but to speak out.
St Paul calls each of us to… take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore…
Paul uses the imagery of armour to speak about the importance of speaking the truth, of following a moral life, of sharing the Gospel of peace, of recalling continually our salvation in Christ, of using the Word of God to cut through the lies, and of prayer to strengthen us in the midst of the whirlwinds that are blowing over us. But he also calls us to speak boldly in the midst of it all.
In the midst of this battle, that inner person, made in the image and likeness of God, is being unveiled within us, and must be guarded and protected and strengthened. God so loves and cherishes the new creation in Christ that we are at our core! And if we are engaged in that battle daily, it is not surprising if we find ourselves sometimes exhausted, at the point of a kind of death, inwardly, spiritually. When we are feeling that way, our prayer to Jesus is exactly like that of the official who came to Jesus in today’s Gospel who pleaded – “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
This morning Jesus promises to come down in a most powerful way – in and through his Body and Blood given for us to restore us inwardly. Here we know strengthening of heart and mind in the midst of the battle, here we know of a certainty that God is with us: that there are many more that fight for us than that are against us; that regardless of the strength of the battle without, we can find a place of calm, entering into the rest within that God promises.
Let us prepare ourselves now to be strengthened with might in the inward person, to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore…
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2