BE STRONG IN THE LORD
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. Ephesians 6:10-20. August 24, 2003.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
- Ephesians 6:10
What comes to our minds when we talk about someone being strong? What are some of the ways that we think of people being strong? Do we think of body builders? Of professional athletes or maybe wrestlers? Or do we think of military “forces,” or others such as police officers and judges who exercise authority as being strong? Again, perhaps we think of those who garner political majorities in elections when we think of people who are strong. You may have many other examples that come to your mind.
These and similar examples of being strong were there in the Mediterranean world in which St. Paul lived, yet this is not the kind of strength that he meant as he wrote this letter to the church at Ephesus. And some scholars who specialise in the letters of Paul feel that this was not just a letter to one church, but in fact was intended to be a circular letter – one that was sent around to many churches.
And what did Paul say to his readers about being strong? He did not say to aspire to greatness, did he? He did not say to garner as much authority as you can, did he? No, he didn’t. What he said to them may sound a bit strange to our ears, yet it bears a hearing. He said to be strong in the Lord. To be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. And when he says that, he lays out some specific context for what he says.
First of all, he talks about being “able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” and says that “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 darkness in the heavenly places.” I suspect that this is not our usual kind of discourse, but Paul is saying that regardless of what kind of struggles we may find ourselves engaged in as Christian people, the primary struggle is a spiritual one. It is the struggle of good against evil. And it is not always easy for us to know which is which, is it?
In fact, this kind of talk may sound strange to our ears as modern Western people. It may even sound a bit extreme. And yet, let us not quit listening too quickly. This is the same Paul who at another point said that “the good that I would do, I don’t do; but the evil that I do not wish to do is exactly what I end up doing. Isn’t that a spiritual struggle too? Does that ring any bells of familiarity to us? I suspect for many people it does. Let us then listen further to what St. Paul says.
After telling his Christian readers that we are engaged in a spiritual struggle, St. Paul tells them to “take up the whole armour of God” so that they may be able to stand firm. And he uses the armour of a Roman soldier as a metaphor. He speaks of the belt around the waist, but it is to be the belt of truth. He speaks of the breastplate, of the shoes, of the shield, of the helmet, and of the sword; but it is to be the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and shoes that will make them – or us – ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. These are interesting images, and all the more so to us who are not so familiar with the armour of a Roman soldier.
But Paul is listing all of this to emphasise his point to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” And all these things are so assist Christian people in their struggle against the devil – against the forces of evil.
In the second paragraph of today’s reading, St. Paul urges the church the “pray in the Spirit at all times,” and to “keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” Then finally, he asks them to pray also for him, who at that time was imprisoned, or as he said, an “ambassador in chains” for the gospel. He asks that when he speaks, he be given a message “to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” He says, “Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.”
This, of course, is the dilemma that faces Christians today as well as back then. How shall we “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power”? How shall we declare the gospel boldly as we ought to speak?
The issue which I raised last week – of whether or not a church should grant sanctuary – is only one such issue out of a great many. Some of them deal with our personal lives and practices. For example, not quite a year ago, we held a congregational meeting to discuss and come to agreement on one such issue, namely the place of gambling-related activities in the church. It was a controversial issue and evoked some strong feelings, yet we deliberated and made our decision in a civil and respectful way.
Other issues may catch us unawares. One such example has to do with the interconnectedness of the world economy. Now what does that have to do with how we live as Christians? Well, one thing it can mean is that when we buy certain cash crops – such as flowers from the florist shop, for example, we may at the same time be depriving someone of food to eat because in their country carnations are a more profitable crop to grow than food is. It gets complicated, doesn’t it?
We are called to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. We might begin by remembering how our own walk with Jesus began. When and where did we begin to sense the presence of God in our lives? Not just to hear the story, but to sense God’s presence? And how has our journey proceeded since then? Do we have a daily sense of God’s closeness and care for us, or has God become remote – distant from us? Do we practice the presence of God, or do we not think much about it? Are we strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power? And are we engaging in that spiritual struggle against the spiritual forces of evil which can appear in very un-spiritual looking ways in our own time and place?
Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it? Having an awareness of God’s presence may be difficult for some of us, but it is rather easy compared to allowing God to lead us into the deep waters of controversial issues – places where we would not chose to go. And that, of course, is just how the devil works. That is just how the force of evil gets a foothold in our world and our lives – when we hesitate to follow God’s leading. About 30 years ago, Pierre Burton wrote a book about the church – in fact, it was mostly about the United Church. He called the book The Comfortable Pew. Some of us here may remember that book, or at least have heard the title.
The hard part about our Christian walk is that we dare not linger too long in that comfortable pew. When we have known God’s presence and God’s strengthening while we are gathered in Christian community, then we are then called – or perhaps I should say “sent” – to move outside our walls and our doors and practice the presence of God in our neighbourhoods and in our city and country, and even beyond our borders. We are to be a people in whom God’s grace and love are seen and recognised, and through whom that love is experienced.
Be strong in the Lord. Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, and stand from against the spiritual forces of evil. And pray for one another, that we may be able to declare the gospel boldly as we must.
This morning I ask each one of you to ask yourself how you hear God’s call. What is God calling you to do at this time that you would rather not? How will you respond? And what will be the results of the way you respond?