17 Jun Church: Standing Firm in God
Church: Standing Firm in God
June 17, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Last words: we tend to put a lot of stock in someone’s final words. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul now takes his leave, says his goodbyes. His tone is crisp, matter-of-fact. Despite the prevailing headwinds the church faces—opposition, persecution, and the discouragement, defection and martyrdom that inevitably result, Paul is calm, free of anxiety or panic. He doesn’t raise his voice, engaging in adrenaline-infused rhetoric to rouse his troops for battle. He avoids the tactics of fear, because when fear is used to motivate the Christian community for a life of trust in God and love of neighbor, habits of maturity never have a chance to develop. Instead, Paul opts for one final, succinct reminder of where he has been leading us. His reminder consists of five points: affirming a stance of steadfastness, accurately naming the enemy, maintaining a practiced readiness in the basics of living the resurrection life, and praying, mostly praying. A personal reference to Tychicus is a finishing touch.
First of all, stand. Paul repeats the word four times: that you may be able to stand (11), that you may be able to withstand (13), having done everything, to stand firm (13) and stand therefore (14). Stand your ground. Stay on your feet. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Stand firm.
Stand firm in this place of blessing we now inhabit. After all, what can we possibly add to the blessings God has lavished on us? Do we realize how unique this is and how refreshing it is to simply be blessed? And by God, no less? In a world that confronts us with demands, criticism, mistrust, manipulation, rivalry, getting and spending, lies and seductions, is there anything like this—sheer, unqualified blessing? Stand still and take it all in.
Stand firm in the church that God has given us, this gift of a place and a community where we have ready access to the revelation in the Scriptures and Jesus and companions in praise and suffering. We have a long way to go to adequately assimilate this revelation. This is a living word—so keep listening. And continue to embrace the church with its profound gift of hospitality, where over and over again we are invited to the table to eat and drink our Lord’s life in the company of his friends. In a world where we are viewed only as customers or consumers, victims to be exploited or strangers to be avoided, the church’s hospitality is a gift that should not be taken for granted.
Stand firm in the Spirit. By God’s Spirit we enter God’s presence, our spirits communing with God’s Spirit. We are immersed in a world of gifts, of Spirit-given gifts. Our lives are made up of gifts, gifts given and received. Grace is another word for this comprehensive and continuous interchange of the Spirit which we then practice with one another—the practice of resurrection.
But as we know, habits of sin corrode our capacity for living a relational life. Old sin-habits are daily reinforced by a world that wants to keep God at the margins and other people either walled out or under our control. We need help to stand firm, to stay the course, to stay in this community of men and women who have joined together to practice a relational life, a Spirit gifted life, through worship and prayer and acts of compassion. Not infrequently, we are not very good at it, but it still provides a dependable place to stand for those seeking to grow up in Christ. Stand here. Stand together. Stand firm.
Throughout his letter, Paul has been giving the Christians at Ephesus—and us—a thorough exposition of the centrality and overwhelming presence of God in this world. Before he leaves us, he also acknowledges that as followers of Jesus we live in a hostile country. We find ourselves, like Moses, aliens “in a strange land.” But it is not always easy to locate or name the enemy. We are up against what Paul calls rulers, authorities, cosmic power and forces of evil. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians or Philistines that Israel could look across the battlefield and see, we now need deliverance from evil that doesn’t look like evil, evil that we are not likely to recognize as evil.
To be sure, there are a lot of things that people do that look wrong and that are wrong. But there is more that is wrong with the world than the sum total of people’s personal sins. There is evil that is impossible to pin on an individual or even a group of individuals. There is evil that rarely looks evil. Remember what Paul told the church at Corinth: don’t be deceived by evil that has every appearance of being good. And not merely good but dazzlingly good: “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light,” Paul says. (2 Cor. 11:14)
There is a clue to the way evil enters surreptitiously into our lives in the word “wiles,” the wiles of the devil. The word in Greek is methodias, the methods, the ways that evil occurs. You can’t see a method or a way; you only see what it accomplishes. If it efficiently brings about what you want, it is readily embraced. The evil is hidden within the way itself. If the end result is something we count as good, we are indifferent to the way. For example, if the way we get people to buy something succeeds and they buy it, we don’t notice that the way was a lie. If the way we get someone to do something benefits society, we don’t notice that the way is manipulative. The evil of the way is concealed in the benefits of the achieved goal.
Compare this with Jesus who tells us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) Jesus doesn’t trick us into anything, doesn’t scheme to get us to follow him. It is all one: way, truth, life. It is all of one organized, connected whole, all visible, personal, out in the open, revealed. The way, the truth, the life. Not so with evil, where everything is abstract, impersonal, disguised as good, concealed in a method or you cannot see.
That’s why institutions are such ready breeding grounds for evil. It’s not that they are evil in themselves, but their impersonal nature and dispersed authority structures provide a cover for evil. Add to that the basic good of money idolized into its own end; the basic good of language debased into the lies of advertising and propaganda; and the basic good of technology depersonalized such that people are reduced solely to their function and what you get, according to William Stringfellow, an attorney who works with the poor in East Harlem, is “a ruthless, self-proliferating, all-consuming institutional process which assaults, dispirits, defeats, and destroys human life.”
So, the world is dangerous. This life of practicing resurrection is seriously threatened. Growing up in Christ is under attack. What do we do? There are two obvious responses: we can sink into a quicksand of paranoia, live in fear, never sure of where the evil is coming from or how it will show itself; or we can join forces with demagogues, moralists, and defenders of purity, vilify, mount crusades, define ourselves by what we are against, and live lives of negativity.
But there is another way. To live neither on the defensive nor on the offensive but to take our stand as Christians, acting and believing out of who we are in Christ, neither in panic before the enemy nor in a crusade against it. That is the way Paul lays out in Ephesians. We are called to realize and cultivate our unique identity as saints, women and men living under the lordship of Christ in the household of God that is the church. We are witnesses to a unique and revealed way of life in the practice of resurrection—resurrection not as an abstract doctrine or a strategy or program, but as personally incarnate in Jesus and now in us.
Paul gives us a representative sampling of what this life consists of: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God. In contrast to the “wiles of the devil” none of these six items is a way to do anything. They do not add up to a plan or a program. And none of them can be done on our own, autonomously. They are gifts of God’s Spirit and can be maintained as gifts only in acts of giving. They can exist only by becoming incarnate in human beings with other human beings in acts of living. None of them is impersonal.
By linking each of these items with a piece of military armor, Paul reinforces the sense of danger and heightens our awareness of the cosmic ramifications to evil and death at the cross. The armor metaphor helps us realize that life in Christ is not made up of passive qualities. Rather, each one forms a field of participation in Christ’s work of redemption. The words are not job descriptions from which we improvise a strategy and then implement it the best we can. We are the weapons. Who we are takes precedence over what we do.
The armor of God is the embodiment, the internalization of the life of the Godhead—truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, word of God—Christ in us, the hope of glory. The armor is redefined in terms of who we are, the sheep of the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God. We are, then, non-domineering, non-combative. Violence, whether verbal or physical, has no place among us, because, following Christ, it is love that becomes the ultimate measure of our conduct.
A major hurdle to get across is that it often looks as if we are failing to gain ground, let alone post an outright victory. At the end of the day we look back and can’t see that the weapons of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the word of God have made a particular difference. If this keeps up for months or even years, it’s easy to lose patience and take up a weapon or two that does seem to make a difference. Propaganda, for instance, often gets results a lot quicker than truth or the word of God. Money makes things happen far more effectively than righteousness and salvation ever have. Technology is far more efficient in matters of communication and organization than patient love. Violence forces change right before our eyes while peace and praise and faith appear to be mere fantasy, words born of wishful thinking.
That is why it is so critical to re-enter God’s story, to listen again to the witness of men and women who have unflinchingly spent their lives immersed in the seemingly intractable complexities and difficulties of making visible the presence of the kingdom of God in this present darkness. This is why it is critical to stay bound together in community, to stand firm and help one another practice resurrection life.
The counsel to put on the whole armor of God and stand against the forces of evil is brought to a conclusion in a comprehensive admonition to pray. Surely we are not surprised. Ephesians is a revelation of church as God’s gift that provides the conditions for growing to maturity in Christ. This letter opens with prayer, it prays in the middle, and of course, it closes with prayer because prayer is the language that increasing infuses all of our language as we grow to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Prayer is the language most congruent with practicing resurrection.
Paul ends the letter with a personal word about Tychicus. One of the striking things about Paul’s letters is the number of personal names that appear in them, 80 in all. Which reminds us that there is more to church than sermons and sacraments, theology and liturgy, Bible studies and prayer meetings, committee minutes and mission endeavors. There are names, meals, small talk, births, deaths. There is us. We are the church, saints who embody Christ to the world all the while we are growing up to the measure of the full stature of Christ. For this church, for this collection of saints who are growing together, I give all thanks and praise and glory to Christ who is our head. Amen.