Spiritual Warfare

Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war’ sang the midwife as she pushed my mother into the room where she would give birth to me.

Marching as to war, however, is not an image we like to use any more – there have been too many Christians marching to war over the ages, and there are too many waging war today.  Warfare is an image we would rather avoid.

But Spiritual warfare – as an image – has a long history in Spiritual writing.  Early Christians fled the noise and safety of cities to live in wild desert monasteries so that they could wrestle with the devil and with their demons.  And the epistle today describes that struggle with the wiles of the devil, the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Not something we think about very often.

But the text in front of us is interesting:  for most people sin means greed, gluttony, sloth, anger, envy and pride, – and, above all, lust – but this text explicitly says that this is not a struggle against the enemies of blood and flesh – it is a struggle against the powers of the present darkness, and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.   The devil – for this writer – is not just the personification of our own personal sins which weigh us down, but is the personification of wild cosmic powers which seek to destroy us.

In the 1960s we learned of  ’The Death of God’ theology.   It never really caught on – for obvious reasons – although it did a lot to get rid of the unhelpful image of God as a grumpy old man in the sky.  However the ‘Death of the Devil’ theology – which was never really taught  – somehow just happened, and became the norm for many Christians.   And yet – as is often the case when we lose hold of our myths –the baby may have gone down the plughole with the devil in the bathwater.

For without a mythology to describe external powers of darkness and spiritual forces in heavenly places we are not left – as we would hope – with a more subtle, richer and more nuanced understanding of our human condition, but with something less.  Sin – if we believe in sin at all – is now our own fault and our own doing, or the fault of social or mental conditions.  With no devil to blame, then – of course – we only have ourselves, or God, to blame.

And yet – and here the great disconnect – we don’t really blame ourselves either.  Without the Devil prowling around us like a roaring lion, we simply end up blaming ‘other people’ – the bad guys: rulers and authorities – communists, or capitalists, or religious extremists, or islamic terrorists or anarchists.  Without the Devil to personify cosmic evil, we end up demonising individual human beings.  And yes, many rulers and authorities are bad – they do bad things.   Religious and political fanatics mislead the vulnerable and encourage them to do wicked and violent things.  The rich and powerful keep hold of land and oil and commodities and shape the market forces so that the poor remain poor and the rich get richer.  But bad people are not demonic people.  Human sins are not the same as spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places:   the – isms and motivations and lies which replace the God of love and freedom with other gods and other gospels, and which mislead basically good people, these are somehow bigger than our individual greed, and anger, gluttony and sloth.  So where do we go?  Who can we turn to?  What can we do?

The writer of Ephesians gives a brilliant answer to those questions, this chapter on the whole armour of God is some of the best teaching in the Bible.

It has, of course, been misused by many people who just want to protect their own position, but the text itself is broad and wide and strong and generous.  This is not a text about putting up the armour of defences so that we can keep ourselves pure and unstained by sin  – this is amour of a very different type: this is armour so that we can withstand on that evil day:  and withstand – in Greek anthi-stemi means to stand up against – to oppose evil we might say – a more active vocation.

So how do we do it?

You probably already have the picture in your head of the whole armour of God: a man – and it usually was a man – in a suit of armour, with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel of Peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit – and you were probably taught that truth is the Christian truth, righteousness is living a pure life, the Gospel of peace is believing the stories of Jesus, faith is believing the creeds, salvation is being saved when you die and the Sword of the Spirit is the Bible – the Word of God.

But no – let us reclaim this text for what the words actually say:

Truth:  just fasten truth around your waist like a belt – just truth, all truth, boundless truth:  for be well assured that without truth there will never be any reconciliation, no peace, no justice, no healing  not for us as individuals, not for us as a society and not for our world.  Truth in all its fullness, is the essential starting point for all of our lives and for all people. That is why the truth will be shouted from the rooftops when the Son of Man comes in glory – so that we can be healed. Without truth we perish – and yet telling the truth is like a belt which we have to put on each and every day, for the temptation to lie is strong.  We teach children to tell the truth, but when we grow up it is very easy to forget.  As Jesus said: the devil is a liar and the father of lies.  So Truth is our first human obligation and it is our first and great defence against evil.

Secondly Righteousness :  an unfortunate translation of the Greek work dikaiosune – which means justice : for Justice is our next obligation and defence.  In fact, Justice, like truth, is non-negotiable and we must wear it on our heart – which is where a breastplate goes.  We must seek justice and love it, for justice will restore the world.

Then there is Peace : put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of Peace:  Our third obligation and defence.   And the writer is wonderfully broad in what is written – put on whatever will make you ready – says the text: do whatever it is you have to do to make peace.  Walk in all the ways of peace, – don’t be fussy – make peace direct your every step – which is why the image is shoes for your feet.

And then there is faith: the shield of faith: with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  For if we are going to be able to persevere in this struggle, then we need faith with a capital F.  We must believe in the cause of truth, and of justice and of peace with all our heart and we must not be deflected.  We must have faith in humanity, even when all the evidence tempts us to lose faith and despair. And we must have faith in ourselves, and faith in one another, and faith in God :  In this world you will have trouble.  said Jesus  But take heart! I have overcome the world.

And then we can put on the helmet of salvation:  not – I believe – a simplistic justification by faith ‘are you saved’ theology, but true health in body, mind and spirit.  This helmet goes on our head – for we must be healthy and whole – we must be saved in the full and richest sense of that word, if we are to be thinking aright and able to withstand.

And finally we will take up the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.   How many preachers have twisted this sentence to inverse the phrases and read it the exact opposite way round as if it says: take up the Bible, – the Word of God – which is the Sword of the Spirit. No – the sentences says:  take up the Spirit – the Holy Spirit – which is the life-giving, life-transforming, all-powerful, all-restoring outpouring ever-working speech of God in and through everything. to rhema theou  –  not logos tou theou.

You see the only weapon in our hand is not a weapon in our hand at all.   We take up the sword of the Spirit – so that we may be taken up ourselves and wielded by the Holy Spirit.

So we – for our part and by the grace of God – must do truth, and justice, and peace, and faith and health – and the rest is up to God.   It is easy to say – and difficult to do.

And because it is both easy to say and difficult to do, this passage ends the only way it can end.  Pray in the Spirit at all times.  Pray – Pray in the Spirit – pray – my friends – at all times  – for truth, and justice, and peace, and faith and health.

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