Primary Text: Ephesians 6:10-12
Introduction and Sermon by Pastor Joshua Demi
Our text for today is not the one printed in our bulletin or projected on the screens. I had intended to preach a sermon series about conflict and the church that would begin with practical lessons from scripture about how to deal with conflict, which would build to a discussion about how these practical lessons fit into the bigger picture of the nature of conflict and where the ultimate battle lies. But then something happened, something which we already mentioned earlier in our prayer time: St. Marks UCC, where Lota Jones’ son serves as pastor, shared a statement from the UCC that we mentioned earlier in our prayer time, explaining that church officials have reason to believe that “liberal” churches could be targeted by extremist groups in the coming days. (Click here to view the post.) I also learned from Lutheran colleagues that, while the denomination has not issued any official warnings, there have been discussions in many Evangelical Lutheran (ECLA) synods. We will start looking at practical ways to approach conflict beginning next week, but right now there is a deeper biblical message that our world desperately needs.
"10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 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."
“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” (Ephesians 6:12). This bears repeating, again: “[O]ur struggle is NOT against enemies of flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12b). Church, if there is a single message that we as the Body of Christ desperately need to hear right now it is this. If ever there was a time when the body of Christ needed to hear this message it is now. What we have seen is the logical outworking of a theology which says that our battle is against enemies of flesh and blood, enemies whose primary concern is with the state of the culture not the state of the soul, and that whether one is producing the Fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Galatians 5:22-23 ESV) – is less important than how one votes. That theology completely flips Ephesians 6 on it’s head; it gets it completely backwards. We are in a spiritual war, not a culture war. What you believe about taxes and healthcare is infinitely less important than what you believe about Christ, and whether you are loving, peaceful, patient, and kind. Whether one trusts in Christ and is producing the fruit of the spirit is infinitely more important than what one believes about tax rates and healthcare.
“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” (Ephesians 6:12). We are not in a cultural war, but a spiritual war. When thinking about how to understand what biblical teaching looks like in practice, it is always a good idea to look back on how elder siblings who have faithfully run the race have understood the teachings of scripture. One of the great classics on spiritual warfare of the 20th century is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is an imaginative work in which Lewis – a veteran of the British military in the first world war, and a former atheist – imagines a senior demon writing letters to a younger tempter, who is systematically attempting to tempt a young believer away from the faith. In Letter 7, which has aged spectacularly over the past 80 or so years, Screwtape discusses how to use the most pressing political issue of the day – the onset of WWII and the discussion of whether or not the UK ought to be involved – to the young tempter’s advantage. This is what he says.
Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.– C.S Lewis The Screwtape Letters, from The Complete Signature Classics. HaperCollins. 2002. p. 205
Lewis’ fundamental insight, itself based on a careful, and honest, understanding of the word of God delivered thorough Paul to the Ephesians, is this: anything can be a idol, and if our faith becomes subservient to our political views – if it becomes part of the cause, part of the culture war – then those views, whatever they may be, have become idols.
I said a few moments ago that this quote has aged beautifully, because it is tempting to object to this by pointing to the importance of the issues that are part of the culture war narrative, and justify the culture war on the grounds that the issues are important, to say essentially, “Yes, we ought to pray for peace, we ought to condemn violence, but these issues are still very important” and to conclude from there that we must still fight the culture war. They are important; that’s the point. One of the reasons why Lewis’ insight is so meaningful is that it’s true despite the fact that there are few matters of national policy in modern history which have effected the history of the world on the magnitude of whether the UK and Winston Churchill were involved in WWII. The point isn’t that the matters that take the forefront in the culture war narrative are unimportant, but that even important things can become idols, and do become idols when we treat them as the most important things. And in the spiritual battle, the enemy is less interested in what shape our idols take than whether we are bowing at them or kneeling in humble adoration at the foot of the cross.
Anything – any nation, any policy, even freedom and justice themselves – anything which takes our eyes from the God, whose very existence compels our worship, who cannot be known and not worshiped, becomes nothing more than an idol. When we reduce beautiful things to dumb idols, we not only sin against the God who compels our worship, we denigrate the thing we seek to praise. Justice shines brightest when seen in light of the fact that it flows from The God who is Justice. Liberty shines brightest when seen in the light of the glory of the God who liberates, the God who set’s the captives free. If they become our ultimate, then they become dead, meaningless, idols, and distorted shadows of their former selves.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 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” (Ephesians 6:10-12). It’s time for the culture war to end, because there is a more important battle before us, a battle which enables us to be more honest with ourselves because it correctly identifies who our real enemy is. Often folks will say things like “I don’t like ____”, be it Democrats, Republicans, whoever, but if they are to be completely honest, they would have to add a caveat: “except for this person, and that one, and them… except for my brother or my sister – they may be a little odd but they are wonderful people, and they are so good to their kids – and except that lady from church – we may disagree on some things but she has always been there for me and I know when she says that she’s praying for you, she really means it – and except for my one teacher I had in school, I don’t agree with them about much but they really inspired me…” We know who our actual enemy is, deep down we know. It’s time to start fighting the real battle. This means getting our priorities straight, putting down our weapons, and picking up our crosses.