Sermon: Pentecost 14, 26 August 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 26th August 2018

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT

(1 Kings 8; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69)

Over the past six weeks, we have been thinking about Paul’s very significant letter to the church at Ephesus and the surrounding region. The theme that runs through the letter is God’s great plan: a plan on the grandest scale. This plan centres on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour of all. God’s purpose is, through Christ, to bring together people of all races and backgrounds and stories into a unique community, sharing together in God’s eternal blessings. The church is this community at the heart of God’s great plan, and we have a share in these blessings through God’s amazing grace, which we receive through faith in Christ.

But being part of God’s church places us under obligation. We are to express our unity by our mutual love and care, and by seeking to build each other up in our faith and faithfulness. We are to live new lives that reflect the goodness and love of Jesus our Lord. We are to relate to each other in love and in mutual submission and service in our church life, as well as our lives at home, at work, and in the community. And we need to remember that the church is not simply our parish or our denomination, but the community of Christians throughout the world.

As we come to the end of this series, you might like to read through this letter again, and perhaps even to check out some of the sermons on the letter on the parish website. There are also copies of some of the sermons at the back of the church.

Now living as a follower of Christ, and as a member of his church, has plenty of challenges. And in today’s reading which virtually closes the letter, Paul focuses on those challenges, where they come from, and how we need to handle them.

A couple of today’s hymns are of a style that is not popular in some parts of the church. “Stand up, stand up, for Jesus, as soldiers of the cross” uses militaristic language, as does “He who would valiant be”, and a number of other hymns which used to be very popular. Some people say that we ought to avoid this sort of language, and sing about peace rather than war. They say that these hymns are too easily misused to justify armed conflict, too easily misunderstood. I see the point, but feel that it is overstated. And I believe that these hymns have something helpful and important to say. Hence I think they are still worth singing, especially since their imagery comes from the scriptures.

For the picture of the soldier in battle is a helpful picture of what it means to live the Christian life. Of course it is not the only helpful image, but it certainly says something important. The letters of Paul and Peter insist that Christians are involved in a war: a spiritual war against an enemy who can’t be seen.

You know what I’m talking about. The devil: that creature clothed in red, with horns on his forehead, a hook on his tail, and a pitchfork in his hand. Well actually, if that’s the devil, I don’t believe in him either! However, Jesus and Peter and Paul believed in the reality and the power of the devil, and I am willing to believe them. They describe the devil, Satan, not as a fun figure: he is the enemy, a spiritual being of great but limited power, who has turned against his Creator, and seeks to overthrow God’s plans and undermine his purposes. That makes sense to me. However, many Christians believe that this language about the devil in the scriptures is pictorial rather than literal. That is not how I understand it, but I don’t get into debates about it. Either way, the important thing is to see that a consistent Christian life involves struggle, rather than just sauntering along behind Jesus. Whatever you believe about the devil, a faithful Christian life will involve discipline and struggle. There is a battle to be fought.

 

Today I am going to take Paul as he describes the Christian life, this spiritual battle to be faithful to Christ, to resist the devil and his unseen

forces. This week in politics should have reminded us that a politician’s enemies do not always sit on the other side of the chamber: they are not always where you might naturally expect to find themfor them! Neither are our spiritual enemies! Paul wants us always to be spiritually on the alert. Temptation can be obvious, but it will often be subtle. If you’ve never read “The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis, you will find it both entertaining and insightful on these issues.

Paul sees temptation as an assault from the devil. But we do well to see our problems as challenges to be faced, our temptations as tests to be passed, our difficulties as opportunities to be faithful. We mightn’t be conscious of the battle going on: but Paul has no doubt of its reality. Our opponent has great power and great cleverness. How can we possibly defeat him? Paul gives the answer: we can’t. Not by ourselves.

But there is a way to be victorious in the battle of Christian living. For help is available: nothing less than the help of Almighty God. To fight without his help is not bravery but foolishness. We can’t win the war on our own.

But Christ has already won the decisive battle: the real war is won, and Satan is mortally wounded. But here and now, before the final conclusion of the war, before he is finally brought down, he wants to do as much harm as he can, while he can. And he’s very happy for us to help him!

However, we have help available in our struggle against the devil. God provides spiritual armour to protect us and help us in the battle. And we will need it if we are going to stand firm in that battle.

The belt of truth reminds us of the truth of God’s message, the Gospel of Christ. On that message and on Christ himself we can rely. But it also reminds us to be people of truth: honest and trustworthy ourselves.

The breastplate of righteousness reminds us that through Christ we are not yet perfect, but we are here and now right with God. But it also challenges us to reflect more and more God’s righteousness in our lives.

The Gospel of peace reminds us that we indeed have peace with God: we are indeed his beloved people. But as Paul uses the image of shoes in connection with the Gospel of peace, we are reminded to be always ready to go forward and point others to the message of the Gospel that brings peace with God.

The shield of faith reminds us that we can indeed trust God who is faithful, and will keep his promises of forgiveness and salvation. But it also reminds us to express our faith by seeking to be faithful to Christ.

Faith points us away from our own inadequacies to one who is more than adequate. Imagine Mr Weakling walking along the beach when some smart Aleck kicks sand in his face and shapes up for a fight. Mr Weakling calls out to his friend, who just happens to be Mr Universe. Suddenly the smart Aleck apologizes and quickly backs off. Sometimes it’s not what you know, but whom you know. That shield of faith reminds us whom we know: Jesus, who has already won the crucial victory over evil and the evil one. He is our helper. When temptation comes we need to look to him.

Next, Paul writes of the helmet of salvation, that assurance that we have been saved, that our salvation is assured, and that God will be faithful to us even though we will let him down at times. We belong to him.

And then Paul writes of the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. In his time Paul will have been especially thinking of that divine message of the Gospel, which he found prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures. We can’t listen to the original preachers of the Gospel, but we have their message and the message of Jesus himself recorded for us in the scriptures, which we can rightly describe as the written word of God. We need to keep growing in our understanding of those scriptures, not only through our services and sermons, but through our own personal reading and reflection, as well as the other opportunities we have in our parish life.

But as well as all this equipment which we can use to stand firm and follow Christ, Paul points us to prayer. He doesn’t actually describe prayer as a weapon. But it is through prayer that we open up to God’s help and guidance and strength to enable us to live as his people, and to resist the temptations of the devil. Paul calls us to pray consistently, regularly, at all times. To pray with every prayer and supplication, not just as a token gesture or a last resort. To keep alert in prayer, so that our prayers are purposeful and meaningful, not just empty words. To persevere, and not just forget or give up: to keep on asking, keep on seeking, to keep on knocking.

And we are to pray not only for ourselves, but for all the saints, and for the witness of the church, as Paul sought prayer from his readers. We are a parish that sees prayer as central: in its significant place in our worship, through “In the Loop” as we pray for those in special need, and in our personal use of our monthly “Thoughts for Prayer”. Let us be people of prayer.

So the Christian life is a kind of war. We are more like soldiers in arms together, rather than sightseers on a bus. God has provided us with the weapons we need, but we need to make use of them.

So let us indeed march onward as Christian soldiers. Let us stand up for Jesus. Let us fight the good fight. The victory has been won, and Christ invites us to follow him forward to share in the victory celebrations. Amen.

Paul Weaver