A Sermon on the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, October 25, 2015
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 6:10-20 – The Gospel, St. John 4:46-54
“We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers…” (From the epistle).
A. The visible battle and the invisible battle.
1. In the epistle, St. Paul tells us that the real contest in life is not the visible battle—the outward and obvious details and enemies; the real contest is the invisible, spiritual battle—the way our spiritual enemies use the visible battle to undermine our faith. St. Paul spent much of his life losing the visible battle. He faced frequent opposition, spent much time in jail, and was killed for his faith. His struggles taught him that victory in the spiritual battle did not depend upon victory in the battle against flesh and blood. He learned that outward struggles can produce inward holiness, and outward success can lead to spiritual harm.
2. Our flesh and blood battles consist of striving to succeed in work, be good parents, pursue relationships, and achieve various goals. The spiritual battle is the way the world, the flesh and the devil work through these visible battles to draw us away from faith. For example, a person may be striving to attain a higher positon at work. That is the visible battle. As advancement is pursued, there are temptations to be envious and jealous of co-workers and to covet what other people have. That is the invisible, spiritual battle. A parent may strive to help a child achieve good grades in school or success in sports or extracurricular activities. That is the visible battle. As these things are sought, there are temptations to compete with other parents and their children, to try to control and manipulate environments to ensure success at the expense of others, and to place the goals of academic and extracurricular achievement above faithfulness to Christ and character development.
3. If we are not aware of the invisible battle and fight only for the visible success, we may achieve great things but end up thoroughly defeated. This is what Jesus meant when he said,
What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:26-27).
In this passage Jesus points us to the final judgment. This is the proper focus of all striving in the Christian life. Our goal is to be able to stand blameless before Christ on that day. Our temporal goals must always be subject to that overarching goal. When the world offers us something in exchange for unfaithfulness, this is a test in the spiritual battle.
B. The art of wrestling and the goal of standing
1. The teaching of the epistle is rooting in the image of wrestling. In wrestling, the goal is to get one’s opponent off his feet and pin him to the ground. We wrestle against the principalities and powers in that they trying to knock us off our feet and render us ineffective in the kingdom. In this wrestling contest, it is our goal to remain standing.
2. We do not have to defeat the principalities and powers. Jesus did that on the cross. As Colossians says, “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them” (2:15). We share in his victory in baptism through faith. We who were dead in our sins have been raised to new life through faith. In Christ, we stand. The goal of the spiritual battle is to remain standing, to not allow the principalities and powers to knock us down and pin us.
C. Putting on the armor of God
1. The armor and weaponry in the epistle represent components of the spiritual life. It is likely that St. Paul drew his imagery from two sources. The first source is Isaiah 59, which says, “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head” (59:17). The second source was the soldier standing guard over him. St. Paul was in jail when he wrote Ephesians. It is likely that his meditation on the spiritual battle connected the soldier in front of him with Isaiah 59.
2. St. Paul tells us to “take up” the whole armor of God. The faithful soldier puts on his armor again each day to prepare himself for the dangers of that day. If he takes his armor off to sleep but does not put it back on the next day, he will be vulnerable to attack.
3. Through our daily disciplines of prayer, we arm ourselves for battle each day. Through prayer we experience again each day our union with God in Christ through the Spirit. We cry “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). We remember that we are the children of God and that our sins are forgiven. This guards our head and our heart from debilitating feelings of guilt, shame and fear that come from our enemy. By our daily reading of Holy Scripture, and by meditating on its teaching, we gird our minds and heart with the truth. Biblical truth is a weapon with which we combat the lies we are told by the world. By learning to pray without ceasing, we learn to take refuge behind the shield of faith when we are subject to sudden attack.
4. The epistle talks about having “our feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” I think St. Paul had in mind Isaiah 52:7:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7).
We cannot win a purely defensive battle. We begin to conquer when we learn to go on the offensive through the purposeful and consistent practice of Christ-like virtues. We disarm the enemy when we respond to hate with love; when others attack us and we find the strength in Christ to pray for them and do good things for them—just as Jesus died for the very people who killed him. Does your presence announce the gospel to those you see every day? Do you help others experience Christ through their encounters with you? Are your feet beautiful?
We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.