Please note that the sermon below is a different sermon than the one preached in the streamed service. The streamed service was pre-recorded, the sermon below was preached in our parking lot.
Proper 16 (21), Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
22 August 2021
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
We have seen tragic pictures from Afghanistan, images we wish we had not seen and wish we could forget.
Much has been written about the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. Some of the pieces have focused on whose fault the disaster is, others on what’s now in store for the people of Afghanistan, and others yet on what the withdrawal means for American identity and future military engagements.
I know someone who served in Afghanistan with the Canadian military and whose armoured vehicle drove over a roadside bomb, and yet he survived. I am glad he came home alive but 160 or so did not.
I will not add my opinion, others are better qualified to do so. I will only say that the disaster wasn’t just what happened in the last ten days or so.
In the last chapter of Ephesians Paul admonishes the church to take up the whole armour of God. Paul then goes on to name the different pieces of a foot soldier’s equipment. But the catch is that the fight the prisoner Paul (who is in chains, 6:20) speaks of is not against enemies of blood and flesh. This is not a fight that demonizes opponents and seeks their destruction. This is not a fight that seeks to drive out the Amorites (Joshua 24:18). Rather, Paul speaks of cosmic powers, and present darkness, and spiritual forces. The fight is not against people who have a face and are created in the image of God, but the fight is for the church to be the church, to live the new life in Christ, even though they are living in an environment not conducive to the Gospel of peace. Perhaps not completely unlike us. Paul clearly thinks that it takes more to be a follower of Jesus than to believe in the creed and go to church on Sundays.
Rather, truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer are the armour of the church and they are not just some equipment that sits in the garage until the church needs it but it is what is required now. We, because Paul is speaking to the church, not to individuals. Paul is saying, you all.
When I first stumbled upon this passage in my youth, the metaphors didn’t speak to me, but they do now, because I know this passage is not about armour and fighting, but it is about living the new life in Christ, and one way the Apostle describes the mission of the church is this, “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (6:15) This is not about war then, this is about peace because Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
In 2009 I read an article about aid work in Afghanistan. It is entitled, “the Cost of Peace.” This was about eight years after the coalition’s invasion. The article was written by a Christian development worker in Afghanistan who worked in Afghanistan for a number of years. The problem he describes is that of mandated increased security for aid workers, which meant that aid workers traveled in armoured vehicles accompanied by armed security personnel. Yet the author writes that travelling with hired guns undermines the ability to build trust with the local population. He writes,
“Afghanistan has a high concentration of development and humanitarian aid agencies, many of which have worked in the country for decades. During that time, these agencies have developed strong local knowledge and experience of what works. Most of them still have ‘no guns’ policies. That is because they understand that the most important condition for security is community acceptance. They’ve learned that those who work with gunmen often alienate themselves from ordinary Afghans and get themselves embroiled in local conflicts, thus compromising the perception of their impartiality. The presence of gunmen also raises the profile of an aid agency, at a time when low-profile travel is one of the most effective ways to keep reaching communities.”1
The point raised seems counter-intuitive, in a hostile environment one must do everything one can do to protect oneself. That is the logic of the politics and of military. The Gospel shows the opposite. Jesus is unarmed and suffers for the sake of others.
Trust can only be built through vulnerability. That was the experience of many aid organizations in 2009 and it is true today.
Perhaps you remember the murder of eleven aid workers of Halo Trust, a Scottish charity founded in Afghanistan in 1988 whose purpose it is to remove landmines. Despite this tragedy, they plan to continue their work.2
Paul’s speech about the armour of God and the gospel of peace raises the question for the church in how far we trust in powers and whether we are ready to instead trust the power of God. The problem in much of Israel’s history was precisely that Israel was constantly seeking power and protection from things, people, and nations that were not God. And we too are inclined to seek our security in places other than in God. And yet, in Jesus we have learned that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor 12:19)
What does it mean then to wear the whole armour of God? It means to seek our strength not in ourselves, not in culture, or state, or wealth, or weapons but in God. Putting on the armour of God is to stay close to Jesus.
Glenn Clarke describes this beautifully, “When Hercules wrestled with Antaeus he found that every time he threw him down upon the ground the enemy arose stronger than before. But when he discovered Gaea – the Earth – was the mother of the giant, and that every time her son fell back upon her bosom he rose with renewed strength, then Hercules changed his tactics. Lifting Antaeus high in the air, away from the source of strength, he held him there till he brought him into subjection.”3
Clarke suggests that the trials we experience in this life should always bring us back to God from whom we will rise with renewed strength. And if our strength is in God, we need to seek nothing else.
Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches. In order to live the new life in Christ, in order to prevail against a culture of accumulation, power, self-fulfillment, violence, and division, against the powers Paul writes about, we must remain in the vine, which is the armour of God for there is our strength and our life.
1 The Cost of Peace – In Afghanistan Success Requires Risk, by Joel Hafvenstein, August 10, 2009, Commonweal Magazine, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/cost-peace
2 CBC As It Happens, 10 June 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-thursday-edition-1.6061053/june-10-2021-episode-transcript-1.6062872
3 Glenn Clarke, The Soul’s Sincere Desire, 1953 St Paul, MN: MacAlester Park Publishing Company, page 74.