A sermon prepared for and delivered at Leesburg Presbyterian Church. Primary scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20.
Growing up, I spent many a spring and summer afternoon at the ballpark, watching or playing baseball and softball. I was a utility infielder and sometimes pitched, but I liked playing first base the best. My brother was a catcher for most of his time in little league and high school. When I got ready to take the field, it was a simply a matter of grabbing my glove and maybe a hat. Every time he went behind the plate, Andy had to gear up. He needed a catcher’s mitt, shinguards, his chest protector, a helmet and a mask. Sure, I had balls hit and thrown at me in the infield, but that was nothing like the intensity or frequency with which the pitches and foul balls came at him every inning.
See, you need the right equipment if you’re going to put yourself in harm’s way. That’s why football and hockey players have helmets. Astronauts have space suits, and scientists wear safety goggles. Soldiers have their protective gear, too. Today’s soldier would be assigned a high tech camo uniform, a Kevlar helmet and vest, strong boots and all manner of weapons.
As you heard this morning’s reading, you probably pictured a Roman Centurion with his helmet, sandals, breastplate, shield and sword. Something right out of 300 or Spartacus. Impressive stuff.
Armor protects, but it also intimidates. The Roman Empire counted on this. As the empire expanded, the people within its rule were ever farther from the seat of power. The Roman army stood as a proxy for the power of the Emperor. And even if a particular city or outpost were peaceful, the people there would have heard stories of places and times where the army had flexed its muscles.
When people in the early churches saw men in armor, they would know it was similar to what the men sent to kill the innocents in Bethlehem had worn. And it was the same armor worn by the centurions who mocked Jesus on the cross and guarded the tomb to assure no one stole his body. The men who guarded Peter, Paul and other Christians imprisoned or martyred for their faith wore similar armor.
Now, I can generally put a passage in the right part of the right book, but I am just dyslexic enough that I don’t do well with chapter-verse references. I’ll confess that until I spent some time studying Ephesians, this passage really stumped me. It could easily have been tucked into Romans 8, where Paul writes about believers being more than conquerors through Christ. Or in the letter to the Philippians, given the military background of that particular area.
It just feels like a non sequiter in the closing paragraphs of this letter to the church at Ephesus. Taken as a whole, the letter to the Ephesians is a beautiful invitation and exhortation for the Body of Christ to see, understand and exercise the power that is extended to us through Christ at the head. We read that God revealed power far beyond anything we can ask or imagine in the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And as believers, we are each capable of living lives that reveal God to others, not by being rule-followers, but by living as Christ commanded- loving God and loving those around us through mutual submission and care.
This letter also reminds us that it is when we come together as a body – confessing one baptism, one Lord, one Christ, one God –that we are embracing the work God prepared for us: The mission of revealing Christ and reconciling the world under his Lordship.
So- if our mission is bringing people together through love and forbearance, what is with the battle imagery? It’s all about power. More precisely, it is about understanding the difference between the power of the Empire and the Power of the Risen Son of the Eternal God who spoke the world into being.
While Rome maintained its rule through intimidation and fear, the perfect love of Christ drives out fear. This is what is so revolutionary about Jesus’ message and ministry, the same ministry that we are called to continue today. He turned conventional understandings of power on its head. He reversed the order of honor and shame.
He lifted up as beloved and blessed those who had absolutely nothing. Beyond poor. The destitute – those who had gone without for so long they were almost bereft of hope. Jesus modeled caring for the physically disabled, the widowed and orphaned, those who had been cheated out of their belongings or taken into servitude and slavery.
Jesus held up as beloved and blessed those who were willing to advocate for people with no voice, risking everything to speak truth to power – just as he did. Jesus held up as beloved and blessed those who mourn, promising comfort. He honored those who work for peace and justice in the world.
The Kingdom of God that Jesus describes is not one where status and wealth are the marks of power. We are to follow the lead of Christ, Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6-8)
The power to change the world is not in the world’s armies. That power lies only in imitating Christ – who came not to be served, but to serve. Who came not to condemn, but to save; not to oppress, but to set free. Who came, not out of duty, but out of love – true love – the depths of which we can never know, this side of Heaven.
All of which means that the battle to bring the Kingdom of God into this world isn’t between people. The battle isn’t between countries or even religions.
It is the battle that we each must fight in our hearts every day – the battle that the apostle Paul described as being between the old man and the new. Doing those things we want not to do, not doing what we know we ought. Putting away selfishness and our desire for control, and embracing sacrifice, obedience and radical hospitality.
It is the battle for our hearts against the brokenness of this world. Against the lies told by the one who would steal our joy… trying to convince us that God is not for us. That we cannot make a difference in a world that has embraced violence, greed and vanity above peace, community and authenticity.
The pieces of armor Paul described are not about intimidating an enemy – Christ has already won the battle for us; the helmet of salvation has been supplied by the head of the church. Righteousness, truth, the gospel of peace and the Word of God – these are the tools that lead us to our true source of power- our connection with God through prayer.
The earnest prayers of faithful people are powerful as we lift up one another, this world, this church, the church universal, our desire for Christ’s return and for God’s reign. Our time in prayer has the power to open our hearts and minds to the will of God in our lives, for this body, in this time, in this place.
There are two beautiful prayers for the church in Ephesus. Prayers that they (and by extension we) would know the resurrection power of God and that we would understand the height, width, length and depth of Christ’s love for us. Not only so that we might be loved… and you are truly and deeply loved…. but so that we would love one another well. And love the world outside these walls well.
These are important words to embrace. They are particularly important when a congregation enters into a time of transition as you are. But know this: God’s invitation to the most exciting mission of all, to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, to love the world as Christ loves us, and to invite others to taste and see just how good the Lord is… that invitation is on the table – right now.
You don’t need to wait until you’ve got a pastor. Until you’re older. Until you’ve got more people. God’s power is there. Your work is waiting to be discovered. All you need to do is gear up. Let’s pray.