Sunday, August 26, 2018

Year B Proper 16 2018 Battle Ready

Year B Proper 16, 26 August 2018 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Battle Ready” 

Collect: Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43 

Ephesians 6:10-20 
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. 

John 6:56-69 
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “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.” 

In college, I took a film studies class, and we watched the beautiful German film "Wings of Desire" by Wim Wenders.  There was a bad American remake called “CIty of Angels.” Watch the German. Much better. Set at the height of the Cold War just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Wings of Desire” was all about division and barriers. It was a beautiful and fantastical story of an angel who falls in love with a woman in Berlin, and must choose what he wants most.  Eternity or mortality. When he chooses to love that one he has become smitten with, he stops being an angel. 

When he fell, I was fascinated when Wim Wenders also had him lose his helmet and his breastplate instead of just his wings when he abandoned immortality.  The wings we had seen up until this point, but the helmet and breastplate were hidden. I am sure that the director was showing by having a physical helmet and a physical breastplate land on the fallen angel that he had lost his salvation (helmet of salvation) and his righteousness (breastplate of righteousness).  My professor, unfamiliar with the passage from St. Paul which we read, said he was losing his protection. I, in my very sophomoric way of arguing with a professor, pointed out this much more clear metaphor. If you know the Scripture it is obvious. My professor did not appreciate my comment. And admittedly I probably could have done it better. The “full armor of God” was something that was ingrained in my head from Sunday School and Vacation Bible School in my earliest days. 

It will always stay with me. Which proves the proverb, “Train up a child in the way that they should go, and when they are older they will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6 I don’t think I could lose it if I tried. 

Those who were hearing Jesus in today’s Gospel reading were of two minds. Some who only heard the costs, and others who had been steeped and were committed could not consider any other way. After so many weeks following this passage of Jesus as the Bread of Life, we come to its conclusion and the confrontational climax.  Four weeks is a long time to spin any metaphor, so forgive me if we divert from it for the most part today, but I will say a few words. For those that were following Jesus, this became a decision point. Cut bait or swim. This was a moment of life-changing importance. We see people at those various levels of commitment to Jesus, just like in his parable of the Sower, where the seed fell on various soils, or souls one might say, and received differing responses.  Those that were following their bellies, wanting to just be fed rose up. "This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?" they asked. When Jesus turned to his most committed followers, his disciples, the Twelve, he gets a much different response. "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." Where others ran away, those that understood the implications of what he said ran to him.   

What was so controversial and hard to take?  It is easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to shoot the message because of the messenger.  What Jesus is saying here is to our ears commonplace, and accepted (or at least tolerated) as we come to the altar table weekly.  But to Jews in the first century it could not have been more abhorrent. To the Greeks and Romans, the disgust factor over this would have been backwards and savage.  Rumors of cannibalism amongst fringe groups were not uncommon. But to a Jew, the thought of blood and its consumption was beyond the pale. Deuteronomy 12:23, "Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat."  As we mentioned last week, try getting a medium-rare burger in the Middle East, even today. Kosher or Halal dietary restrictions prevent that.   

And in response to these hard words, some turned away.  Thankfully, there were those who did not. We are here today because of them.  Some of the early recipients of not turning away were Paul and those who were listening to the words he wrote in our Ephesians 6 passage.  Those who remained received another powerful metaphor. Go to most any Christian bookstore, and if it has a children's section, you will find an action figure or costume set on the full armor of God metaphor used here in this passage.  

Looking closely at St. Paul’s metaphor, this armor we are to put on is for one reason: to make sure that we are to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  The word for wiles here is not an emotional term. In fact, the translation I prefer for methodeias is not wiles, but rather schemes.  It is not evil henchman laughing like in a super-hero movie [insert cackle here]; it is the calculating and methodical planning of a general moving his troops around the battle board.  These schemes are out to undermine at best and destroy at worst our mission and ministry to this hurting world.  

Jesus knew and Paul reminds us, we are behind enemy lines and attacking a power desperately clinging to their territory.  Now think about it.  We are not enemies of the people; we love the people.  We are enemies of the Power that holds down the people.  We are not like Peacekeepers sent in by the United Nations.  (And they seem so often to be ill-equipped or restricted from doing what is necessary, anyway.)  We are not here to keep the peace. We are sent to make peace; we are to be Peacemakers.  We are to be on the offense, but not offensive.  We are to bring good news, but our weapons and equipment are there for defense only.  So what did Paul say?  We need everything God has to offer for our protection while we are at God's work in this world.  

  • The belt of truth
  • The breastplate of righteousness
  • Shoes, whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace
  • The shield of faith
  • The helmet of salvation
  • The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

The Belt of Truth: What does a belt do?  It holds things up. It makes sure we are covered.  How often do we cover ourselves in a lie? Paul mentions first that we cover ourselves and have it all come together with truth.  Everything else is dependent upon that.  

Breastplate of Righteousness:  A breastplate covers our vitals, heart and lungs, stomach and guts.  In the ancient world everyone looked like Batman. Or rather, Batman chose the intimidation factor of being covered with a breastplate which showed his 6-pack abs and chiseled chest. But Paul's breastplate, what covers our vitals is Righteousness.  We don't use that word often, any more, and when we do it is often in the negative, Self-righteous. Righteousness: the quality of being morally right or justifiable.  What protects our very life is being right from how we live, and with whom are we right?  God. The devil clan sling and scheme away, but our breastplate is "God's okaying of us," as one of my seminary professors translated this word.  

So we have our belt, and our breastplate.  Next Paul turns to shoes. And here he has some flexibility for us, very unlike Paul most of the time.  For shoes, whatever enables us to share the gospel of peace. Remember, this extended metaphor, we are behind enemy lines, being attacked by a scheming commander, and we are encouraged to have whatever we need to bring peace and proclaim it.  We are out to win not only the battle but the hearts and minds of those in this occupied land. We must be swift and agile, and ready to move.  

But while we are moving behind these lines and bringing the good news of peace, arrows are heading our way, flaming arrows from the evil one himself.  In response to that, we are given the Shield of Faith. This shield, our faith, in Paul's understanding is not just for us. Our shields, in the battle formations of the Roman world, would have had a powerful strategy of using my shield to work with your shield to protect and cover us both.  In fact, on the command "As One," Roman soldiers would gather in a line, with shields fully covering the front, sides and above the whole group of soldiers so that nothing was showing. This Testudo, or Tortoise, was a way to be enshrouded by the shields. Think on this, as we venture into this hostile landscape, that when we bring our shields together we are all protected.  When we bring our faiths together, we are much stronger, healthier, and more protected.  One thing that is powerful for me here is when we are "As One," we hold tight to each other's faith as it strengthens our own.  The Creed we are about to say. Some of us will really be feeling it today. There are those of us who will not. But when we come together "As One" we say it together.  It is not "I Believe." It is "We Believe." When we are in formation, you protecting me and I protecting you, we feel it and we need it. Our strength combined is what we need, especially when we are about the work we have been given to do.  Ashland and Hanover County needs us to be the Church. As we link in with our Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Baptist, and Church of Christ brothers and sisters we can bring Christ's hope and light to this town. We need to be "As One."  

Even more, I was intrigued that the command for this was "As One!"  In Jesus' final prayer for the Church, it was that we all might be "As One."  What a powerful image. What a wonderful coincidence.  

The last two items we are instructed to take, not necessarily use, but to take: the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.  A helmet to protect our head, our intellect and our sensory center. Our sword to defend ourselves. I think that too often Christians have taken the sword to use offensively.  This armor is for use with the devil, remember, and our interactions with those we find trapped behind the enemy lines are not our enemies, but those who need the Gospel of peace.  We have our shoes to rush to them, and we take our sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God for use with the devil, like Jesus quoted Scripture at Satan in the Wilderness. The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, is not to be used on the civilian population.  

We are still behind enemy lines, and we are bedeviled all too often.  There are those for whom this idea is too hard, and just like with Jesus himself, they will walk away for this teaching is difficult.  But there are those for whom, this calling and this challenge are not only what they do, it is who they choose to become. Like Peter, we must say, "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." 

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Blessings, Rock