The Invisible Enemy – Acts 16:24-34 – Ephesians 6:10-20
When our youngest son was a junior in high school he had it in his mind that he just had to go to an Ivy League School. Well with financial fear and trepidation Susan and I decided that we would go along for the ride and see where it would lead. So whenever one of the Ivy League schools would send their admission teams into the area, we just had to go. The only one that I remember was the University of Pennsylvania. The memory isn’t from its proud place in the academic arena, or from the rich history that this particular university has brought to our culture. No, it was from the oxymoron that one discovers when one cheers for their sports team.
As a Quaker colony those who attended the University that Ben Franklin founded were know as the “Quakers.” Today they are known as “the Blue and the Red” signifying more the colors of their sport teams’ jerseys than their history. For after all, it would be really weird to attend a football game between the University of Pennsylvania and say Yale, and here the Yale fans yell out, “Go Bull dogs”. (That would make the Butler fans jealous.) But to hear the University of Pennsylvania crowd yell out “Go you Fighting Quakers” well, would be really weird, because Quakers are not known as fighters. They fit into those religious categories of pacifists as are the Mennonites the church of the Brethren, and the Amish.
At least one of those oxymoronic statements has been part of the Christian Faith for a long time. And that is the fact that the people of Christ have been known throughout history as the people of peace but also at times the army of God and sometimes even as the militant army of God. And to be honest, we do have to admit that there were times when the Christian cause was the banner for things other than peace throughout its history. The Crusades and the Inquisition are terrible reminders of our violent history. The long standing institution of slavery and what erupted in Charlottesville over the summer, is a stark reminder of other examples of how in the name of religion and faith in a loving God, people have turned that message into one of hatred and violence. And who can forget the church’s silence in support of the violence toward the Jewish community during World War II.
Over the years we have struggled greatly with that side of the Christian faith that would portray people of God as violent warriors. Those who grew up in the 30’s through the 70’s are quite familiar with two hymns that have disappeared from our hymn books and no longer seem appropriate to sing. They are of course, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the Battle Hymn of the Republic”, both of which disappeared from our hymnal in the 1950’s primarily because they were seen as being too violent in nature.
So it really should not strike us that even Paul takes up the call for what appears to be warfare. Paul is quite certain that Christians are in a battle between the forces of good and of evil. For in five chapters in Ephesians, Paul has pastorally proscribed the church in Ephesus on the strength to be found in the fellowship and community of God’s people and their adoption into the Lord’s family as Children of God. Now he sets the stage for this cosmic battle as he calls it, where truth and justice would be victorious over the forces of evil.
However, before one goes out to fight this enemy of good and righteousness, they needs to identify it, and Paul here implies a rather radical change in this definition. For centuries the enemy was obvious. They were the Germans in WW II, or the North Koreans or Chinese in the Korean Conflict, or the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. But with the rise of terrorism and sectarian conflicts the enemy has become much more difficult to identify. We would be hard-pressed today say that all Muslims, or all Non-Americans, or blacks or Hispanics are our enemies, though some unfortunately might hold that position.
So Paul the preacher of inclusions takes another route when he defines the enemy and removes it not only from nationalities or ethnicities of religions, but in fact removes it from being a human characteristic at all. Note the description that Paul gave: “… Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the ruler, against the authorities, against the cosmic power of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
What? Did I hear that correctly? How can you possibly imply that the enemy does not consist of flesh and blood? Are we to change our thinking to believe that natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey are more evil than the violence and hatred that we saw in Charlottesville over the summer or the divisions that separate our country?
Well let’s take a step backwards for a moment. If the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is in fact that God of love who loves all of humanity even those who reject the Divine love, is there a way to bring harmony to what we believe about God and the rapid running of our emotions when we see something like Charlottesville? Could it be that we jump too quickly to identify the evil by saying, “It is all those people with swastikas tattoos or offensive flags or weapons”? Could it be that God loves those very people whom we hate the most, the ones who are most destructive to what we believe and hold dear?
Writing this sermon made we think of something my father said to me when I was ordained, back in 1975. He stood there in the pulpit, looked in the eye and said, “Galen, you are now called to love the unlovable.” There is quite a task!
If my dad is right and Paul is correct then it would be difficult to make the enemy out to be a person. So if it is not the person with a swastikas on their arm or shirts or a different ethnicity or nationality or religion then who is it. It is instead the attitude and the belief that they are spreading that is the enemy!
Now I have to be very careful here because I am splitting a hair but it is an important one. I am sure that I would not go as far as President Trump and say that there were good people on both sides of that demonstration last month in Charlottesville, because there were people acting very badly there. But if the people acting badly there are also children of God, then we may be able to see that Paul really is correct. The enemy is not blood and flesh.
And that makes our battle much more difficult. You see it is easy to point a finger at the demonstrators, or at one particular demonstrator and say, “There you are, that is the person who is responsible for all the bad things that happened there.” Or: “If it weren’t for these people …!”
When we do that, we let ourselves off the hook, by believing that we have identified the problem: have seen that it is out there, but not in me or my neighborhood so someone else can deal with it.” “If we just got rid of those people then everything would be OK.”
To make this clearer we have to go to the book of Acts, where we find the account of Paul being freed from prison. You may remember the account. Paul is in jail when an earthquake suddenly shakes the cell and the doors are opened. When the guard comes upon the scene he feels that he has been so derelict in his duty that he must take his life. But when the guard sees that Paul and Silas are still there his heart is so moved that asks to become a Christian. Later than evening the three go to the home of the guard’s family for a meal and the entire family is baptized.
Walter Wink in a book titled “The Powers That Be” indicates that if freedom is to be truly obtain, we have a twofold obligation. The first obligation of course is to free those who are imprisoned. And the second obligation is to free the person of the attitude, belief, practices, or structure that places that person in captivity in the first place. I think that is what Paul is talking about. The enemy isn’t the person but the belief that has taken over their thought and mind and turned that person into a person who would deprive another person of the freedom, dignity, faith and salvation that they are entitled to.
I know that not everyone is a fan of the movie producer Michael Moore. He is one who certainly has the ability to put his personal slant and opinions into the movies that he makes. And not everyone certainly believes in his political positions that are far to the left. However there is one scene from one of his films that serves as a perfect illustration.
In the final scene of his movie titled Fahrenheit 911, Mr. Moore takes the viewer to the White House to see a mournful mother, named Lila, who lost her son in the Iraq War. The narrator then names the enemy and the name of the enemy is President George Bush. She even calls him a terrorist. Then the camera turns toward the White House again and fades out while we hear Lila say, “It’s tougher than I thought it was going to be here. But it is also freeing because I have a place to put all my pain and all my anger and release it.”
It was that easy for Mr. Moore to find probably what is inside most of us. Not the evil that we project onto the president regardless of who the president might be, but our inclination to place evil in a person and then believe that if we just got rid of that person then everything would be ok.
For Paul it wasn’t the person we have to stand against, but the notion that things that are wrong are right, that things that are unjust are just, and the institutions and organizations of society that probably have more to do with perpetuating themselves than practicing equality and justice, freedom and understanding. And that is what makes Paul’s statement in Ephesians so difficult. Because this notion of Grace that is so important to Paul is lying there under the surface when it is so difficult to see.
It is easy to see how the people who are acting and behaving properly can be called children of God, but it quite another to see those who are acting badly or even evilly as children of God. And it is even harder at times to recognize that they, like us, are in need of the same grace that God gives to the people he loves.
It is interesting to note as we close, that in order to fight this invisible enemy of evil that we are to put on the whole armor of God: a belt, a breastplate, shoes, a shield, a helmet and a sword. The first five are all defensive protection equipment to make sure that the falsehoods and injustices of life do not creep into our lives. That is where we stand as Paul puts it: making sure that the evils to not creep into our lives. It is only the sword that is offensive: The word of God – that is offensive.
So cherish God’s words in the future that you would stand strong in your faith. Amen