Preaching regularly is tough work. At least it is for me. I find it so hard to have more to say than I did the week before. It is exhausting to read Scripture so carefully, so contemplatively, for a week. And it’s a miracle everytime I have to figure out how to put my encounter with the gospel in the assigned text into words that others can hear. So, after going throught that arduous yet life-giving task, to wake up on Monday and realize I have to do it all over again with new texts… all I could do was laugh!
Anyhow, below is my sermon from yesterday—the second sermon I preached in two weeks. I don’t know if it worked or not. It’s always so hard to tell—how can words make a difference?
Title: invisible enemies. Date: August 28, 2006. Lectionary Texts: Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-71
A new way of seeing. A new way to look at the world. In our passage from Ephesians, Paul offers us new eyes, new modes of vision, eye-glasses. I’ve worn glasses since I was 5 years old. My parents figured out something was wrong with my eyes when they noticed how I still had to squint even when I sat a couple feet from the TV. The doctors discovered I had a lazy eye. After years of corrective lenses, which included a period where I had to wear an eye-patch (luckily it coincided with Halloween, so I was a pirate), my eye got better and better. I can see so much better now—with my glasses on, your faces aren’t just fuzz balls.
Jean Calvin, the 16th century reformer, once talked about how the Scriptures are our eye-glasses; the Bible is the lens through which we can begin to see the world as it should be seen. The Scriptures provide us with corrective lens so we can see the details of the world, of our culture, so we can see more than simple shapes and shades. We can begin to see the beautiful intricacies that make us human, those complexities that bind us together with others in a society. There are lines of connection, of relationship, criss-crossing through us and all around us that make up the world in which we live. And Scripture offers us corrective lens so we can train our eyes to see all the interesting connections, and all the confused messiness that makes living with others sometimes difficult.
But we need new eyes, or at least eye-glasses, to help see this stuff. And that’s exactly what Paul is giving us; he’s giving us language that serves as corrective lenses that help us see the world—language that helps us think about the world. He says, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). But isn’t this a strange world?
Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, talked about the Bible as “a strange new world.” He writes: Scripture takes us out of “the old atmosphere of man and into the open portals of a new world, the world of God.” What Barth says about Scripture in general is quite true about our passage from Ephesians 6 in particular. The strangeness of this text begins to work on our eyes. It’s eye therapy. The words and images messages the eye muscles so we can begin to see the world differently, so we can enter a strange new world where the old world is transformed, enhanced.
This is the invitation of our passage from Ephesians: what happens when we look at the world around us from a different perspective, from the vantage point of Paul’s world, this strange new world where “our struggle is not against flesh and blood (as we usually think), but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” How do we begin to see things differently?
One obvious way Paul wants us to see the world is through the lens of war. We are in a cosmic struggle, Paul tells us. We need to wear armor, God’s armor. And we get a list of what makes up our armor: a belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes, a shield, a helmet, and finally the sword of the Spirit.
But isn’t it a stretch to say we are at war?... that we occupy a position in some sort of cosmic battlefield that encompasses our earth? I mean, to me it seems like war always happened over there—Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia. But not here, not in my neighborhood, or even here at church. I’m sure Paul could say the same thing: Ephesus, or Corinth, or Rome, or Phillipi, weren’t cities at the edges of the Roman Empire where invasions and conquest were the norm.
But nonetheless Paul points to the warrior ready for the front lines and says that we should be like that. We’re in the midst of war; we’re at the front lines; even if the terrain of our everyday lives doesn’t look the wilderness of the Middle East, we are at war. We are locked in a cosmic struggle that is just like the war we read about in the newspapers but different. The same but different. Eph. 6:12: “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 heavenly places.” Our battle, our struggle, our war is the same but different. We don’t fight against flesh and blood, against humans, against people like us. We fight against powers of darkness, rulers in heavenly places.
What can this mean? It sounds like science fiction. What does this spiritual warfare look like? What are we up against? What does our enemy look like? Who are we fighting? Those are the sorts of questions our passage helps us ask. But before we go there, before we start making some constructive descriptions, let’s start with what our war doesn’t look like. Since our struggle is not against flesh and blood, that means it’s useless to kill other humans. But that’s obvious. Guns and bombs don’t work against this enemy. If we think we can kill our enemy with a gun, then we probably have the wrong target.
This vision of spiritual warfare also messes with where we think the strongholds are. It messes with what strategic positions we think we need to take over. And I know I need to walk a fine line here, but I think Paul’s vision of our cosmic struggle challenges simple visions of political victory and political demonization. I’m thinking of Michael Moore’s film about the attacks on September 11, 2001. I’m not saying that the film is without merit, I just want to point to a scene towards the end of the movie where Moore takes the viewer to the White House to hear and see a mourning mother, named Lila, who lost her son in the Iraq war. The enemy is named, president George Bush, she even calls him a terrorist, and the camera slowly turns our eyes to the White House, pauses there and then fades out. That’s the image Moore leaves us with as we hear Lila’s words: “it’s tougher than I thought it was gonna be, to be here. But it’s freeing also because I finally have a place to put all my pain and all my anger and to release it.”
It’s that easy for Michael Moore. We know our enemy. He lives in the White House. In order to win the struggle we have to vote Bush out of office. The occupied territory that we need is the White House. Once we get our man or woman in there, then we have the victory and we can begin to truly win the war against hate, against evil, against the republicans.
Let me be clear: this is not a sermon against voting. I know Mennonites are divided about whether or not Christians should be voting for the commander and chief of the armed forces. And I’m sure we can have a lively conversation around the time of the next presidential election. Maybe we should in fact do that. But I don’t want us to get hung up on the issue of voting. Let’s save that for another day.
What I want to show is how the spiritual warfare we read about in Ephesians doesn’t allow us to make such easy and confident judgments about who is the enemy, and what’s the sure-fire strategy for victory. “Our battle is not against flesh and blood.” I don’t think Michael Moore gets that, or at least the enemy he gives us in his movie can’t be our enemy. Bush is flesh and blood. Our enemies, according to Ephesians, are not.
Part of what Paul is doing in our passage from Ephesians is to show us that there is much more going on than meets the eye. And that’s a scandal to our modern sensibilities. The rulers and authorities that we can see aren’t in fact in charge. They are pawns. Yes, pawns. That’s what’s so revolutionary about our text. Paul tells his audience that those who claim power, those who appear in control, are not ultimately in control. They are governed by invisible forces, “cosmic powers,” “spiritual forces.” In other words, Michael Moore doesn’t realize that president Bush, the most powerful sovereign this world knows, is really only small potatoes. That’s the sort of world that Paul wants us to see—those who seem to have the most political power are small potatoes. That’s the sort of world, the sort of organization, that Paul wants us to see.
It’s a strange world that won’t leave us satisfied with flesh and blood, with what seems self-evidently true or real or powerful. Paul’s world disrupts our grasp on the problems and solutions we think we have. The corrective lenses offered in Ephesians 6 show us how much we’ve been missing. A world of invisible powers that move in and between things.
These are the powers that Michael Moore’s film has a hard time displaying. These invisible authorities make it a little more difficult for us to aim and fire at the enemy. For those who see the world with the eye-glasses Paul provides, the Bushs and Blairs and Osamas and Sadaam Husseins—all those easy targets begin to look like puppets. Sure, they are responsible (and not necessarily equally responsible) for very awful things. But for Paul they all turn out to look more like pawns not protagonists.
There’s a more diabolical plan at work. That’s what Paul wants us to see. There’s an evil scheme to take over the world, and some have been duped. Some in our world have not been able to resist the cosmic plot of evil. To paraphrase Ephesians 6:11, many have not been able to take their stand against the devil’s schemes. They’ve bought into a lie, maybe even passively, without a second thought. That’s why Paul tells us to be attentive, to always be in prayer, to take every thought and action captive.
But the point I want to make is that those evil people, those folks who’ve been captured by the devil’s schemes—those people need redemption too. The violent people of the world need salvation too. That’s why we can’t kill them; they need to be saved from the web of darkness that has enlisted them in its service.
This is where Paul offers us a scandal. He makes our life difficult. Paul won’t let us look at the world like we want to. He won’t leave us comfortable with knowing who are enemies are. Our enemies of flesh and blood are not our ultimate enemy, he says; rather, the enemies who look like us need conversion, they need salvation. Paul won’t leave us alone with our easy, self-evident visions of what’s going on around us. We want to look at the world around in terms of “flesh and blood,” the way things appear to us as self-evident.
But the problem for us, and this is what’s central for Paul—the problem is the good news that Christ has come, and the world we thought we knew is now disrupted, shaken up, transfigured. New life now runs through the fibers of creation and everything is being mysteriously redeemed. Jesus messes with our senses. He complicates our vision. He shows us that there is a whole lot more we don’t know that we thought we knew. Jesus shows us that there is much more to learn, much more to see, if we trust his leading.
But trusting in Jesus is not necessarily self-evident, it might not make sense at first glance. That’s what we hear about in our passage from John 6. I’ll read verses 66-69: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 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.”
“To whom can we go?” Peter says. It sounds like he’s thought about leaving. This Jesus is a little crazy. I’m not sure he’s completely sane. And it seems like everyone else is thinking the same thing—they’re all turning around. Maybe I should too. I’m sure Peter thought about following all the others who have had enough of Jesus. And Jesus looks at Peter, he sees the desperate and confused look in Peter’s eyes. And Jesus says to him, “Do you also wish to go away?” (6:67). With a sigh, almost sounding like he’s giving up the option that makes clear sense, Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
And with that, Peter gives up the old world that made sense, and follows Jesus into a new world where all that was static is set in motion by God’s dynamic Spirit of redemption. Where there is so much strangeness, so much newness, so much to learn.
But the schemes of the devil that Paul warns us against don’t go away as Peter and the rest walk with Jesus into this new world of redemption. Everyone is vulnerable to the schemes of the evil one, even those who count themselves as followers of Jesus, and that means us. The passage from John 6 ends with danger looming on the horizon: “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him” (John 6:70-71).
I think it’s worth noting that in the story the Gospel writers tell us, no one ever starts an inquisition on who the traitor in their midst might be. With this knowledge, the followers of Jesus never set up an intelligence committee, or a homeland security office, or a counter-traitor task force. The story doesn’t call us monitor one another to see who has fallen prey to the schemes of the evil forces of darkness. Instead, we must learn how to be alert, how to help one another resist the enemy who we can’t see, whose seductive schemes are difficult to discern. It’s about learning attentiveness. Looking through the easy solutions, the flesh and blood solutions, and trying to resist the seductions of the invisible powers of evil.
That’s Paul’s call in Ephesians: “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph 6:10-11). All of the pieces of the armor listed have to do with resisting the enemy, about standing firm: belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, and a helmet. But then there’s the last piece: a sword. It’s the only possible offensive weapon. And that weapon is “the word of God,” given by the Spirit of God (v17).
This probably means something about how we think about the stuff we do together at our worship services. We worship together in order to train our eyes, to learn how to see our enemies, and to learn how to resist the schemes of the devil to destroy God’s good creation. We sing songs of worship to our God and submit ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And we listen together to this word, and hope and pray that our Lord Jesus might lead us into the strange new world of redemption, where God is working to free all of us from the devil’s schemes.
And we leave this place with enhanced vision—our senses tuned with songs, prayers, scripture, and the word of God we discern together. With these songs, prayers, and words in our heads, hopefully we may be able to see the world of our daily lives in a new light, and learn how to confront the evil powers seeping into our heads, our lives, and the lives of our neighbors—both near and distant.