August 23, 2015
“This teaching is difficult! Who can accept it?” the people around Jesus are asking today. Many listeners walk away after Jesus concludes his sermon about being the Living Bread from Heaven, which is indeed a difficult teaching. It’s about accepting the idea that Jesus will mediate through his own body and blood the grace upon grace that has been promised to all creation since the beginning. It sounds ridiculous, and Jesus warns them that the reality and offense of God’s method for dispensing grace will only grow weirder and harder to accept, as Jesus speaks about being lifted up on a cross. Who can understand how God on a cross could be a sign of God’s strength and power and love? After all Jesus’ pronouncements and promises, he asks his followers to make a decision: “Do you also wish to go away?”
The alternative seems to be that, whether or not they fully understand it, his disciples are being asked to accept that Jesus is the one through whom God’s character has been and is and will be most fully revealed. And they are being asked quite frankly, “Can you live with that?” The question comes down to us, too, followers of Jesus in this place and time. Can we trust that Jesus knows what he’s talking about, even if we don’t? This is difficult!
Peter’s response is a wonderfully truthful—and sort of desperate— reaction to all that he has heard: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” What else can we do?
Jesus makes it clear that even following him is not entirely a matter of our own choosing. If you attended catechism classes in a Lutheran church, you might know these words: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead, the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.”
So if it is true that, whether or not we understand it, God is hard at work on our behalf—creating and nurturing our faith, forgiving our sins, feeding us with Jesus’ very body and blood, and embracing us every step along the way—what are we supposed to do? What is the point of free will if we don’t have any decisions to make?
Sadly, the fact that God is busily at work creating and blessing abundant life does not mean that God is the only power at work in the universe. You know as well as I do that there are many powerful forces at work in our world that OPPOSE life, that contradict God, that strive to destroy and diminish the world that God has made.
Some of these powers are gigantic and obvious, like the lethal power of violence, which takes away human dignity and life in a range of ways from racism to terrorism, from Bangkok to Baghdad to Baltimore. Or the power of greed, which can suck us dry, getting us so caught up in what we think we NEED to have before we can enjoy life that we miss it. Sometimes the forces of evil promote not wicked actions but pure lethargy or fear that causes us to stand back and leave things undone that truly require action on behalf of our neighbors and God’s precious creation. Evil looks like a refusal to acknowledge that other people are made in the image of God, just as we are. All those things are what the writer of the letter to the Ephesians calls, “the wiles of the devil.”
The devil is not a little red guy with horns. We modern types would never fall for that, so instead The Great Deceiver sneaks up on us in ways we may not always recognize as threatening. Sometimes it’s as minute as a voice that that only we can hear, whispering: “God doesn’t really love you. You aren’t smart enough, or kind enough, or religious enough. You don’t matter.” Satan’s technique is to find sneaky ways to separate us from God, from one another, and from our own true selves. That’s why the conclusion of this letter to the Ephesians advises how to combat evil, whether it comes from outside or inside.
First of all, the Church is encouraged to put on the full armor of God and stand together to face whatever comes. The image is one of a phalanx of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, facing the threat. I’m not much of a soldier, but I like that we are in this struggle together. And it’s no accident that the author describes the items we are supposed to put on as being much like what a Roman soldier would wear for battle. It emphasizes how the power of our outfit is not at all like that of a person going to war against another human army.
To begin with, we have to put on the belt of truth. In a practical sense, belts keep our pants up, though sometimes they are merely a fashion statement. For a Roman soldier, a belt would keep him from tripping over his toga when he needed to move without restriction. The church needs “the belt of truth” to keep what is necessary in place so that we are able to move freely, confidently, and without constraints.
The second part of our armor is the breastplate of righteousness. A breastplate covers the vulnerable organs of the body—the heart, the lungs, etc. Righteousness—that is, living in right relationship with God and God’s world by God’s own grace—is what protects our hearts and lifeblood from anything that would tear us apart.
What’s next? Shoes! You must know how I’ve longed to preach a sermon about shoes! But what kind of shoes does a church need? I am tempted to say red ones, but the letter to the Ephesians has an even better answer: “Put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace.” How’s that for fashion advice? Again the point is being made that God’s army is not preparing for war. On the contrary, we are putting on shoes that prepare us to proclaim the Gospel of peace—the Good News that in Christ, all is being reconciled to God.
It is the opposite message to the one Satan whispers. It’s not a message that we are not good nor good for anything. It’s a message that God delights in us, and is at work in and among and through us. Put on whatever shoes help you stand firmly in that truth, because Satan is going to try to take you down.
And that’s why we need shields. In Roman times, shields were made of leather, and were soaked in water before a battle, so they could deflect flaming arrows. They were also designed to link soldier to soldier, so that there would be an unbroken line of protection. We as the Church hold up our shields of faith, side by side. Sometimes, when my faith is weak, I’ll need your shield to cover me. And when your faith is weak, I’ll use my shield to cover you. That’s how we combat the forces that do not know that the Gospel is about peace.
Of course we need the headgear of salvation. Perhaps you can remind yourself about it with a simple gesture on your forehead (sign of the cross). You have been baptized. You wear your helmet of salvation every day, all the time, even though you can’t see it. You have been named and claimed by God, forever. It is your ultimate defense against all dark forces, internal or external.
Interestingly, we’re given only one piece of armor that could be used offensively: the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Sadly, we all know far too many people who use the Word of God to wound and maim others. I don’t think that is what the Ephesians are being asked to do here, and certainly WE don’t need any more of it in our context! The Bible is abused so much it is tempting to say it should never be used on the offensive.
The key distinction is that the Word of God is meant to cut us in the way that a surgeon’s knife cuts—to eliminate what hampers or poisons us and to bring about healing. We call that use of scripture the Law. When God’s word is used in that way, it calls us to repentance and renewal. The other edge of the double-edged sword of Scripture is, of course, the Gospel—the Good News that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In the armor we put on, even our swords are meant to bring about healing and peace.
So, now that we’re dressed for battle, according to the letter to the Ephesians, we pray. We pray in the Spirit at all times. Maybe that seems anti-climactic to you, after putting on all that armor and preparing for a battle. But the truth is, prayer is more powerful than anyone can imagine. Perhaps this is another “hard teaching” from God—that sometimes we are doing our most vital work when we are busily holding up one another’s joys and sorrows to God’s tender care, or when we are listening to God speak to us in a still, small voice. Our culture values busy-ness so much that we think we must be doing something dramatic in order for it to be ministry.
But that takes us back to the Gospel reading from John. Jesus tells us that eating the bread of his flesh and drinking the wine of his blood will bring about eternal life. And I find that a hard teaching, because I do not get it. Nonetheless, we do it here at God’s table every week. Not because we understand it, but because Jesus guarantees it will be effective. So it is with prayer.
I don’t know how prayer works. Or how the Church clad in armor works. But in the end, I line up behind Peter, willing to throw my flesh and my blood and all the armor of God up against the forces of evil, because where else can I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. And we have come to believe and to know that he is the Holy One of God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider