August 26, 2018

Proper 16

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6: 10-20; John 6:56-69

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            So I am going to do something today which I have never done before – I am going to talk about the letter to the Ephesians, which we hear today.  Why have I never preached this chapter of Ephesians before?  There is a story there, and I will share it briefly.  When I was an impressionable teenager I was instructed by an evangelical adult Christian, who was also one of my teachers at school, to read a really bad Christian fiction book entitled “This Present Darkness” – which takes its name from the Ephesians reading today.  The book told the story of a fictional small town in Idaho or somewhere where angelic and demonic forces were locked into this spiritual battle over the souls of the people living there.   

            If you were to read the book today, you would probably laugh at the poorly written dialogue, the predictable plot, and clichéd characters.  But for a twelve year old reading that book, even though I knew it was fiction, I was told that “you know there really are demons in the world, and they will find you, and they will possess you unless you follow Jesus perfectly.  Don’t mess up.”   Yeah – that was part of my childhood.  Fortunately a really good therapist helped me through all that.  Thank God for therapy, right?   

So perhaps context can be helpful for us here.  How can we understand what the author of Ephesians is really trying to say?  Here are a few facts about Ephesians – everything you ever wanted to know about this letter in a one minute crash course history.  First, Ephesians was probably not written by the apostle Paul.  Second, it was probably written toward the end of the first century – approximately sixty years after the crucifixion.  Third, we are unclear who Ephesians was addressed to.  Finally, we do know that Ephesians was addressed to people who were living within the Roman Empire. 

The Roman Empire was big on military as many of us know.  The strength of its military  helped to ensure the Pax Romana, or the peace of Rome, which was the glue that held the Empire together.  Because of the obvious military presence all over the Roman Empire, things like breastplates, shields, helmets, and swords were as common a sight to the average Roman citizen as iphones are to us today. 

One more piece of context is important for our understanding of this passage.  Rome was not a Christian Empire at this time.  Ephesians was written a short time after Nero was emperor.  If you have studied Roman history, then you might remember that Nero was an ineffectual and brutal leader who was notorious for persecuting and killing Christians.  He famously burned Christians at the stake in the evenings to create light.  Nero’s reputation amongst Christians was so evil that in the book of Revelation, chapter 13, v. 18, refers to Nero.  The verse reads: “let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person.  It’s number is six hundred sixty-six.  That number, the number of the Beast, in Hebrew, is the numeric value of the name Nero Caesar.  In this hostile environment, it is understandable to me why the author of Ephesians would advocate wearing the armor of God.  The Number of the Beast is also a great Iron Maiden album.

But there is more – one more thing that is super easy to miss in a quick reading of Ephesians 6:10-20, and it is this.  When you see the word “you” in these verses, it’s actually the plural form of you – “you all”, or in Texas – ‘y’all’  That is important because as a community, we stand against evil together.  We don’t do it alone.  You don’t stand against the wiles of the devil – we stand against the wiles of the devil.  It may seem superstitious to imagine a wily devil. However, it is helpful to remember that evil often comes in deceptively attractive forms rather than in the obviously repulsive.

The latter of course happens, for example in genocidal violence. But more often evil seems to lurk beneath the camouflage of cultural common sense.  Evil seems to find great comfort in compromise in the name of being reasonable, and unacknowledged personal benefit from unjust systems. Despite the ways such language gets abused, for example in really bad Christian fiction books, Ephesians call to “spiritual warfare” can remind us that we are called into a struggle deeper than private temptations, and that it is easy to fail to recognize the true enemy.

Only God can and will finally defeat all the forces of evil. We have been enlisted into this mission, and we can respond boldly only because God has already won the war and set us free. Therefore, there is no need for fear in the face of whatever challenges you are facing right now. We have been given all that we need to stand strong against the losing efforts of anything that opposes God’s peace.  We stand together.  AMEN.