St. Paul’s – Proper 16 – 8/22/21
I once sat down with four or five other people aged between 25 and 60 and we each drew a graph of our own faith journey, tracing the highs and lows of our closeness to God as if taking a printout from a heart monitor. When we shared the graphs with one another we discovered something very interesting. Some had had dramatic or difficult childhoods; some had had profound moments as teenagers. Some had grown deeply in later life. But what shone through loud and clear was that every single one of us had had a significant, perhaps decisive, faith experience between the ages of 17 and 24. You’d think it was I saw God on high and lifted up surrounded by cherubim and his words to me were, go and make zillions of dollars in oil speculation, but it was more ordinary than that. It was My campus minister left town to do another job and I ended up leading the whole group for a semester and I really grew into it and enjoyed it. Or, My sister got this mystery illness and it took over my family’s life and I was so amazed by her courage it changed everything for me. Or, I summoned up the will to go to a choir audition and for the first time in my life I discovered I could make something beautiful with other people.
In other words, what we were all in our different ways saying was, I found that this daunting and sometimes alienating heritage and tradition and culture of church wasn’t a distant heap of irrelevance or an oppressive burden. I somehow made it my own, and realized that it belonged to me as much as it did to anyone, and in fact it was a gift passed to me to enjoy and benefit from and dig deep into. I still get infuriated with it and feel let down by it and even feel unworthy of it, but it has become the source of my life… and I deeply, unalterably, love it. That was a moment of great awakening for me, because since then I’ve sensed that to be a Christian that can live with and enjoy and even love the church, it’s vital, almost indispensable, to have found a way to make it your own, to make friends with its saints and make its books your library and make its sacraments your staging posts and make its rhythms your daily song. And it’s been at the heart of my own ministry to say to people, Make these things your own, use them and enjoy them and love them, and to try to show them how.
This is what the final chapter of the letter to the Ephesians is doing. What we’re given is a list of some of the most pious and abstract vocabulary in the Christian dictionary. First there’s truth, then righteousness, then peace, then faith, then salvation and finally Spirit. Many, perhaps most of us have sat in a room with other Christians and heard people toss this jargon around, in a way that made them seem either absurdly pious or way too pretentious, and made us feel either small or out of it. So Ephesians, having spent five chapters explaining in theological language what these important words mean in the life of Israel and Jesus and the church, concludes by whispering, Hey, if you want a clue, this is how you make these cherished, but rather grand, words your own.
Truth – think of truth like a belt. It should be all the way around you, where your top half of idealism meets your bottom half of reality.
Righteousness – think of righteousness like a breastplate. You may want others to admire your biceps or your shapeliness or your coat hanger shoulders or your hairy chest. But what they’re really looking at is whether your life is as truthful as your words.
Peace – think of peace like your shoes. It’s the most important garment of all, and it’s useless making it out of soft tissue, it needs to be sturdy and hardwearing, but flexible and comfortable. When you imagine peace, it’s got to be like shoes that will walk a very long way.
Faith – think of faith like a shield. A shield doesn’t stop bad things happening, it doesn’t prevent you being attacked, it doesn’t usually change the external reality that much. But it keeps your heart pumping and your life going and your spirits thumping even when the slings and arrows of favor and fortune would otherwise destroy you.
Salvation – think of salvation like a helmet. Salvation is forgiveness, healing and eternal life all wrapped into one, and it’s too much to keep in your head, so you have a helmet to keep these most precious fruits of faith safe. A helmet is like a shield – they can’t be used as weapons against others, they’re just the gifts God gives us to let us know we’re safe with him forever.
Spirit – think of Spirit like a sword. What we’ve had here is a description of the outfit of a Roman soldier, because the Roman soldier was the literal and metaphorical description of power in the life of the early Christians. But only this last item actually does something – the others are all forms of clothing or protection. And that’s because the first five are about us, whereas only the last one, Spirit, is describing a dimension of God. Think of Spirit like a sword, sharp and terrifying and dynamic and exciting and a way of focusing power in one particular place.
What we’ve been given here is an invitation to make the language and beliefs and actions and hopes of the
Christian faith our own, just as if we were putting on a set of clothes and leaving on them our own crease marks and stains and slight tears and worn patches. Inhabit the faith, the letter says, put these beliefs to work, make them yours, try them out. They’re given to you so you can discover what it really means to be part of the church. And what it really means to be part of the church is to be part of a people using and enjoying these gifts and allowing themselves in the process to be transformed into a reflection, sometimes good, sometimes bad, seldom perfect, but nonetheless a reflection of the crucified and resurrected body of Christ.
In a sermon delivered in Detroit in March of 1961, Dr. King meditated on the power of love in the face of the evil systemic powers of racism in America – asking us all, the whole church gathered, to take a stand for love, equipping ourselves with the power of God’s own love.
Dr. King instructs that we will know when it’s God’s love that is at work against the Powers by the outcomes.
…The Powers serve to destroy. But Love serves to build up.
…The Powers seek destructive ends. Love seeks constructive ends.
…The Powers seek to annihilate. Love seeks to convert.
…The Powers seek to live in monologue. Love seeks to live in dialogue.
And for these reasons, Dr. King asserts that it is only through love that we are able to redeem and transform what he called the enemy neighbor.
And so, when Paul says, Put on the whole armor of God, he’s saying in different words what Jesus said when he said, love the enemy, because there is something about love that can transform, that can change, that can arouse the conscience of the enemy.
Surely Dr. King had indeed clothed himself in the whole armor of God when he said to those who were beating and killing members of the Freedom Movement in the early 1960s, We will meet your physical force with soul force.
In Dr. King’s words: We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with the good. And so, put us in jail, and we will go in with humble smiles on our faces, still loving you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit morally, culturally, and otherwise for integration, and we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours, and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you.
But be assured that we will wear you down (yes indeed) by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom, but not only will we win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process. And so, our victory will be a double victory.
This seems to me the only answer and the only way to make our nation a new nation, and our world a new world. Love is the absolute power.
And that is the meaning of love. As we watch Jesus the Christ and see him as he starts out, standing amid the intricate and fascinating military machinery of the Roman Empire, it seems that we can hear him saying (with Paul in Ephesians 6), I will not use these methods. Instead, I will use God’s methods.
And this was what he did.
Let us pray:
you have called us to come forth and follow you.
Help us to be more faithful disciples in all that we do or say.
Sometimes, being your disciples is not easy in this world.
You came to love and to save the world;
the world responded with crucifixion.
You send us into the world in your name,
and sometimes the world responds to us in the same way
that the world responding to you.
Therefore, we need your help.
May our time of worship be not only a time to praise you
but also a time when we receive equipment that enables us to stand up
to the challenges that we face as your disciples.
Strengthen us to be strong in face of temptations and threats
that might cause us to compromise our faith
in order to accommodate ourselves to the world.