I want to begin with the prayer that ends today’s reading:
Pray also for me,
so that when I speak,
a message may be given to me
to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,
for which I am an ambassador in chains.
Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
It’s a prayer for preaching; for preachers, for those who would dare to share the mystery of the Gospel with others. The prayer underlines the gravity of the task of preaching, the importance we attach to it in the church.
Pray that a message may be given to me, a message that makes known—a message that proclaims—the Gospel. Not just any message, not just whatever I, as the preacher, want to say; but the Gospel! The Gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains. It sounds so exaggerated, so overly dramatic: after all, I’m not in chains, am I?
I once heard a fellow preacher describe the pulpit as a kind of witness box, as in the courtroom. It’s a place that, when we’re in it, we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Those who consent to preach are in a very real sense prisoners of the Gospel.
Finally, the prayer says, Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. There’s a sense in which those of us who are called into this vocation of ministry are compelled to speak. Now, I’ve noticed that some preachers have very little difficulty obeying this commandment. But not me; I think of myself as a reluctant preacher. There are many times when I think that I would rather not preach, when I would rather leave it to someone else. And I honestly think that I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t feel God urging me to do it.
There are many times when I would rather not stand up here, in the witness box, testifying to what the Gospel is urging me to say. Times when I would rather not speak, but as a prisoner, compelled to tell the truth before you, I must speak.
Very often the message of Scripture is a message that we don’t want to hear. Very often the message is inconvenient for us. Very often the message calls into question our settled convictions, our patterns and habits of life, our preferences. And let me say, this is as true for me as it is for you: our lives are not all that different. Scripture speaks to all of us equally as Christians. The sermon is directed as much at the preacher as it is at the congregation.
But the preacher has the uncomfortable job of holding up the message and risking inconveniencing you, upsetting you, challenging you, offending you. So please, pray for me.
The text we have before us is a strange text. It’s a text that, in a number of ways, we may not want to hear. It’s full of language that comes out of its ancient context, and we might question how relevant its message is for us. Its martial imagery, the imagery of armor and warfare, may offend us. And its language of the devil, the spiritual forces of evil, and the present darkness may seem very old-fashioned to us. So please, pray for me!
To make sense of this text for us will require some decoding, so that’s where I’ll start. We’re not really sure who wrote this letter or to whom it was written. Tradition says that Paul wrote it to the church in Ephesus; that may or may not be so, but we won’t get caught up in that. Our best guess is that the letter was written in the middle or late first century, sometime between the year 50 and the year 100.
That was a time when the church was young, when many of the people in the church were converts from pagan religion, the religion of the Roman gods and goddesses, and when the church was subject to severe persecution; you could be arrested, imprisoned, and executed for being a Christian. It was a time in which being a Christian required death-defying courage. So that explains some of the militant or martial tone of the text. Christianity was not for the faint of heart.
It also explains some of the language of battle: new converts were being challenged to change their lifestyle, to question their previous beliefs, commitments and habits. They needed to guard against backsliding.
The first century Greco-Roman world was also a culture in which people believed in the reality of the spirit world. Somewhere between heaven and earth there were forces—often malevolent—that worked to upset and undermine the good, orderly world God had created. These are called rulers, authorities, cosmic powers and spiritual forces in the text. It’s important to notice that the battle imagery in this text describes a battle with malevolent spiritual forces. It is spiritual warfare, not physical warfare. It says right in the text, For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, etc.
So, with a little decoding done, what does this text have to say to us? How are we like a persecuted church, challenged by cultural values opposed to the Gospel, and invited to do battle against malevolent spiritual forces? How indeed.
There’s a sense in which the church has come full circle over the course of its two thousand year history. A once tiny, marginal sect, at odds with the values of the surrounding culture, is once again tiny and marginal.
But are we, as a church, at odds with the values of the culture around us? Well, yes and no. If we stick to our story—our original story, what we find in Scripture, in the gospels, in the stories and teachings of Jesus—then yes, we’ll find that what we’re about in the church is in some ways fundamentally opposed to the ways of the world around us. In the church we’re opposed to violence; we’re opposed to materialism; we’re opposed to greed and exploitation.
The trouble is, the church hasn’t always stuck to its story. In the fourth century, in the 300s, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. One way of reading this is as victory for the church—the church converted the Roman Empire to the Christian faith. Another way to read this is as a victory for the Empire—the Roman Empire converted the church into a compliant arm of the government. Ever since that time, the relationship between the church and the wider culture has been compromised. We had these beliefs that were radically opposed to the culture around us, but we’d become comfortably accommodated to the culture around us.
What followed was a long period of time in which the church and the secular culture were tightly intertwined in a relationship of mutual support, each propping up the other, lending it legitimacy. But we’ve arrived at a moment in history when the culture no longer needs the church to prop it up or lend it legitimacy. And so the culture has tossed the church aside.
We’re back to being marginal and tiny, no longer at the centre, no longer having the ear of those in power, no longer important to the big social conversations of our day.
The question for us now is, at this moment, will we reclaim our original story? Will we make a stand, as this text invites us to do, will we make a stand for the Gospel? Now that we’ve been effectively dumped by the culture around us, we have the opportunity to reclaim our voice, our critical voice, our Gospel voice that urges to announce that all is not right with the world, and to call the world around us to account.
Now, don’t get me wrong: when I talk about a church that offers a critique of culture, I’m not talking about a narrow-minded church that focuses on issues of personal morality. That’s not what this text is about either. What they named in the first century as malevolent spiritual forces, we would describe differently. But they are with us, affecting our world and our lives, just as much as they did back then.
What are those forces today? I named some of them earlier: global economic forces that lead to the exploitation of the world’s poor; ideological forces that lead to countless conflicts and wars around the world; our culture of materialism that causes us to turn a blind eye to the impact of our choices on other people, and on this planet that sustains our life. Cultural forces that lead us to work more and more so we can buy more and more, all in pursuit of a satisfying life; yet all we end up with is a gnawing dissatisfaction and diminished relationships.
There are a lot of forces that get in the way of the life that God intended for us. Our story—our faith story—has the power to challenge, to overturn, to defeat those forces. It has that same dangerous power today that it did back then.
The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a story of God who loved the world—who loved us—so much that God refused to leave us and leave the world at the mercy of those forces that diminish life. A God who loves us still, and is willing to go to any length to redeem us, to save us, to free us for life as God intended it to be.
It’s up to us as to whether we choose to reclaim that story. If we do reclaim it, it’s not going to endear us to the culture around us. It may not win us friends, and it may make us some enemies. But if we dare to stand firm for the Gospel, we can offer the world the gift of renewed life, the hope that it continues to hunger for. Amen.
Rev. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2015. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.