A Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity
October 29, 2023 at Holy Communion
“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
This Wednesday at our choir rehearsal, as we learned the offertory hymn, Linda commented, “What a good text for our times!” And she’s entirely right. I’ll read the first verse, and see if you can figure out what she meant. It says,
“O day of peace that dimly shines through all our hopes and prayers and dreams, guide us to justice, truth, and love, delivered from our selfish schemes. May swords of hate fall from our hands, our hearts from envy find release, till by God’s grace our warring world shall see God’s promised reign of peace.“
Does anyone else long for the day when we will no longer hear about “wars and rumours of wars” (Matthew 24:6) whenever we turn on the radio? These are signs of the times, signs (as our Epistle last week said) that “our days are evil,” and that we must pray for the redemption of the world.
We will also sing another hymn. Our final hymn will be “Onward Christian soldiers” which is more familiar, and goes like this: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ, the royal master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see, his banners go.”
Now, “Onward Christian soldiers” has fallen out of favour somewhat, because so many people are concerned that it encourages a fighting spirit, that it justifies the very kind of violence that the other hymn, “O day of peace,” discourages. But this is a mistake: if “Onward Christian soldiers” seems violent, it is because we are reading its military imagery entirely too literally.
The sword in a Christian’s hand is not made of metal, but of paper: it is the word of God. The body armour on his chest is not made of Teflon, but of righteous deeds of mercy and gentleness which make his conduct irreproachable. The Christian soldier doesn’t wear combat boots, but running shoes which will carry him swiftly wherever the gospel needs to be preached.
As Saint Paul puts it in today’s famous Epistle about the “armour of God”, “our conflict is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). We Christian soliders, marked with his banner of the cross in baptism, are not called to fight our fellow-men: we fight against the devil. In fact, we fight against the very forces of conflict, disorder, and violence which make the world cry out for peace. We, the sons of God, are blessed if we are peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).
The experience of a Christian in the world is to desire peace, but to have that longing constantly resisted by forces of darkness which hate peace. For me, Psalm 120 (4–6) captures this especially well. It says, “Woe is me that I am constrained to dwell with Meshech, and to have my habitation among the tents of Kedar! My soul hath long dwelt among them that are enemies unto peace. I labour for peace, but when I speak unto them thereof, they make them ready to battle.” Now, I don’t know where Meshech or Kedar are, but this only makes the psalm more powerful: Meshech and Kedar rise again wherever someone labours for peace but no one will listen. Psalm 120 is lament, a groan from the heart because men pay no attention to the appeal for gentleness.
We can pray, certainly, but very little we can do practically will bring peace between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, or between Christians and Christians in Eastern Europe. So what does it mean for us to be Christian soldiers, pressing the cause of peace?
If we think that war is something that happens far away, with guns and bombs, we haven’t understood the nature of the conflict we’re in. War comes from the human heart, and war is waged every day in every home. St James says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1–2). We fight and quarrel, and this is war; this is from the devil. In the home and in the heart is where we wage our peace.
Considering what we believe, we Christians have a deplorably high tolerance for hurtful speech, by which I mean the ordinary ways that we daily poke and prod one another, goading one another on to anger. We are upset about this, that, or the other thing—it hardly matters what—so we say a sharp word about something unrelated. We are disappointed with ourselves, so we dig up other people’s faults and failures, either just to think about them miserably to ourselves, or to mention them and sour the mood. When we hear about the successes of others we feel threatened and do some boasting of our own to compensate. We are masters of passive-aggressive suggestion, and we do not speak with gentle tongues.
Make no mistake: when we fall into these patterns, it is the devil who has made war against our souls, and won. But the Christian soldier, “the one who overcomes” (Revelation 2), stands in the door and doesn’t let an evil thought or an evil word pass. He is the angel with a flaming sword guarding the entrance to paradise (Genesis 3:24). The Christian soldier drives meanness and competition from his home. When he hears a word which turns truth to a lie or peace to war, he has no tolerance for it, but rebukes it and casts it out, with the insistence of bull and the gentleness of dove.
This is a battle for which we have been well-equipped. If you need to face lies and distortions, put on the belt of truth. If you need to face malice or impurity in word or deed, make sure that your own conduct is blameless by putting on the breastplate of righteousness. When the devil shoots flaming arrows of discouragement, raise the shield of faith. When you feel weighed down and your mind occupied with stressful trivialities, lift up your head and remember the helmet of salvation which has been placed there.