Opening prayer. Lord, our God, grant us enough wisdom to lead lives worthy of your calling, and enough humility to realize that your perfect way is higher than we can attain. Amen.
In the Revised Common Lectionary this is New Testament metaphor Sunday; it’s not stated, but it is abundantly illustrated. I counted at least ten of them in the passages from Ephesians and John’s Gospel.
The Ephesians 6:10-20 text rushes from one memorable metaphor to the next; they are:
14) Fasten the belt of truth about your waist
14) Put on the breastplate of righteousness
15) As shoes…put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace
16) Take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one
17) Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God.
Overall, the Ephesians are getting lots of advice. These verses are all based on the same assumption: we must protect ourselves against “the evil one,” a phrase from verse 16, who is out to get us; however, in resisting, we make the Christian life into a game of cat and mouse, or a form of lifelong insecurity and combat.
I am troubled by the “fear factor” in the Ephesians passage, because it presents an unbalanced picture of Christian living. I don’t want to dismiss a concern for the evil in the world; each day’s news brings plenty of evidence for it. But I caution against letting it dominate our lives as Christians. Martin Luther, the great reformer, had a highly exaggerated fear of the devil. His great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” deals with the devil for half of verse one, and for all of verse three. Here it is: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him.”
For ten months Luther, for his own safety, was confined in the Wartburg, a castle, which kept him out of reach of the Church of Rome, which he had challenged. While in the castle, he translated the New Testament into German in a mere eleven weeks. The confinement also spooked him. One night he found a dog in his bed. Convinced that it was the devil, he seized it and hurled the poor beast out of the window into the night. (John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Alfred A Knopf, 2013, page 126).
A highly exaggerated fear is something to be avoided. If a preacher were to hammer away from week to week at a fear-based Christianity, the congregation might shrink almost to nothing except for the very few who never risk thinking for themselves.
In contrast, verse 18 is in a positive mode: It reads in part “Pray always for all God’s people.” (Good News Bible) I like that, and I think we do it in our worship.
In preparation for this sermon, and to find an alternative to Ephesians’ in-your-face devil, I re-read “The Screwtape Letters,” a short book that the English literary scholar C S Lewis wrote during the Second World War. (You who are young have probably not heard of this book, but you may know C S Lewis as the author of the Narnia books.) “Screwtape Letters,” a clever book, is a series of short letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to a junior or apprentice devil, Wormwood, in which Christ and the Church are always referred to as the Enemy — with a capital E. The central assumption of the book is that the poor man whom young Wormwood is supposed to lead astray is assumed not to know what tricks the devil plays. Thus, in an age when our lives can be quite complicated, the book offers a perceptive, often realistic view of the hazards of trying to lead a Christian life.
In “Screwtape Letters” the author does nothing to alleviate the fears some people have of being bumped off the path of Christian living; he has that in common with our passage from Ephesians. However, he is clever and more subtle in suggesting the ways in which life’s little devils mislead us, and that makes his approach closer to our experiences in everyday life. It also opens the subject to satire and humor, and these add realism to the story. Here are some of the mischievous ideas that Lewis tosses out.
“The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims of ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell, and we must keep them doing so.” (p 97) Screwtape tells Wormwood, the junior devil, to employ distraction, humor, spiritual pride, flippancy, and other mild vices. One that is developed in a familiar way is church shopping. The person whom the junior devil is pursuing has been attending church, not a good habit for someone whom the junior devil tries to lure to Hell. Screwtape advises as follows: “Surely you know that if a man cannot be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.” (p 72) A bit later Lewis twists Shakespeare and gets in a dig at modern life in declaring that “To be means to be in competition.” (p 81) Later he writes, “Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him.” (p 132)
To live in fear of the Devil’s tricks is to play defense, fitted with a belt, breastplate, shield, helmet, and sword, always on guard. However, Christian living should not be driven by fear; let’s develop a good offense and, without being naive, aim to meet the challenge of Christian living on better terms. Let us make Christian living a love-based offense, a commitment to reach out to others with a loving Christian witness. Here is Galatians 5:22:
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.” Now we have two lists, one from today’s passage in Ephesians, and this one from Galatians. To my great surprise, the only quality that appears on both lists is peace. This is a Mennonite moment! In Ephesians it is the one positive instruction:
6:15) As shoes…put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace… It’s wonderful that suiting up in armor is interrupted long enough to embrace the message of peace in dealing with the world. As history shows, peace never goes out of style, and is always in short supply.
The Galatians list gives nine beautiful qualities, none of them fear-based. However, nine of anything is too many for a sermon, so let’s deal only with love, generosity, and faithfulness.
Love: Theologians can argue about the leading theme of the New Testament, but they should all give love some space. It not only is paramount to Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 “where the greatest of these is love” but it stands first in the Galatians list of nine. Love has a special quality: it undergirds and enriches all the other qualities on the list. Can you truly experience joy with no love, kindness without love, faithfulness without love, etc? It would be difficult, and in some cases artificial. One of our Mennonites in Raleigh provides a service to the homeless and calls it “Love wins.”
Generosity brings to mind gifts of money, and that’s important, especially for this congregation in the new budgetary year. But there’s far more to it. For example, think of the several people who provide Christian education of our children. From week to week they express a tremendous generosity of time and talent.
Faithfulness means that we keep our word and our commitments to each other, that we don’t say one thing today, and act otherwise at the next opportunity. It is the basis of the love and trust that we can have in each other, and essential to a healthy body of believers. Let us be faithful in word and action.
To the Galatians’ list of nine I add one more quality that has become very important in Christian living: a wide field of vision in order to appreciate diversity. Its opposite, expressed as “My way or the highway” is a dreadful approach to Christian belief and Christian living, and it is all too common. We need forbearance.
A likely result of having a wide field of vision is that we will begin to see different Christian views of life, and thus discover that we may not be absolutely right about everything. Eleanor Kreider, a retired Mennonite church leader, missionary, and writer, has said that Mennonites “are so keen on being right.” (Mennonite World Review, 6 July 2015, p 5). We all want to be right, but there can never be any justification for thinking that we have everything figured out. Dale Schrag, a Bethel College retiree and longtime friend, preached at the Mennonite Church assembly in Kansas City seven weeks ago. Dale said “There’s always a possibility that we might be wrong. That’s the human condition. Certitude represents a kind of heresy.” (The Mennonite, August 2015, p 21)
Our best effort at Christian living does not require us to be sure of everything, or even to have a lock on all the important things. It requires honest effort that permits us to grow in understanding throughout life, love for everyone around us, generosity toward others, and faithfulness from day to day. Our Lord has given us a pattern for Christian living, and it should be our gift to the world.