Sermon for Sunday, August 22, 2021 – “Clothed with Power”

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

Our reading from Ephesians today tells us to “stand firm” against the forces of evil. We hear that language, “stand firm”, often these days. We’re asked, where do you stand? What’s your position on the issues of the day? Where do you come down?

We want and need to know where our politicians stand. If we use social media, we can often see where our friends and relatives come down, whether we want to or not. We value standing against injustice, standing up for others, standing strong in the face of challenges. And yet, sometimes all this putting our feet down and standing firm leads to very little movement on the important issues of our day, issues that matter for our lives as Christians.

We divide into camps, along battle lines. We dig in and refuse to budge. We demonize those on the other side of the line. If that strategy doesn’t appeal, then it often seems the only other option is to disengage, check out, and try to avoid conflict. Our Ephesians reading this week has often been used by Christians to demonize others and draw those battle lines.

Since Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the 4th century, Christians have used the idea of the armor of God and spiritual warfare to justify inter-Christian divisions, crusades, the Inquisition, and witch hunts. With that history and in our current polarized time, it can be tempting to write off this passage. It can feel so outdated and unhelpful.

The letter to the Ephesians certainly was addressed to people in a very different cultural context than our own. It was written to a young, tiny church that was persecuted by the militaristic Roman Empire. Even if those early Christians wanted to use this letter to justify battling enemies, they just didn’t have the power to do so.

I wonder what those Christians in Ephesians thought when they heard this? “You want us to put on helmets, shields and breastplates? Rome will crush us! Do you want to get us killed?” In their world people who wore armor were to be feared and avoided. The church had no political or military power, they were followers of Jesus, the one who’d taught “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.” Battle wasn’t an option, so wouldn’t it be best to try to avoid conflict with Rome?

Yet, how amazing it must have been for these persecuted Christians to hear that they did have power. They didn’t have to just avoid conflict, they could engage with the forces and powers bent on destroying them. And they didn’t have to use armor intended for death. They had access to a different kind of armor, a different kind of power.  They could clothe themselves in God’s truth, righteousness, and salvation, and join God’s work of bringing life and peace.

It also reframed the situation so the church could see that those Romans in helmets didn’t have as much power as they claimed – they were just bit players. The larger issue was cosmic powers bent on death and oppression. And even against those very intimidating forces, the church had been given the power to work for truth, faith, and peace. This letter helped those first Christians to see the real struggle more clearly and to recognize that they had much more power than they realized.

I think it can do the same thing for us. We often feel so powerless in the face of all the polarization and violence in our country and the world. We feel stuck between two extremes: putting our feet down and demonizing those on the other side, or trying to avoid conflict. We worry about how to deal with loved ones and neighbors who have opposing viewpoints. We wonder, will there ever be any movement? Or will battle lines harden and those on the sidelines just throw up their hands in despair?

This scripture passage reminds us that the struggle isn’t against other people. Our struggle is against larger forces that seek to dominate, oppress, destroy, divide, polarize, isolate, and lead us to despair. We’re all in the same boat: terrorists, that mean kid at school, your angry uncle, the violent mob, that woman who’s checked out. We’re all influenced by and up against forces that lead to death.

In the time of the early church people understood these forces to be personal or quasi-personal forces battling it out in the sky. Now we name them as systemic forces: ingrained patterns of oppression, injustice, tribalism, nationalism, racism and so on. Yet whatever we call them, we’re aware that there are forces that oppose God’s vision of abundant life for all creation. These forces are within and beyond us. They tempt us to claim we have a corner on God’s truth, to seek power for our own ambitions, to stand our ground in opposition to others, or to seek our own comfort and ignore the rest of the world.

Yet these forces do not have ultimate power. God in Christ has faced the power of death on the cross. For three days it looked as if violence and death were the last things standing. But Jesus rose from the dead. God’s life-giving power overcame death and all that seeks to separate us from God and one another.

And now God, in the risen Christ, freely gives us the resources we need to be part of God’s work in the world. Each new day we are given healing and forgiveness for all the ways we have sinned. We are also given a helpful and life-affirming ground on which to stand: We can stand upon the forgiving, reconciling, and healing work of Jesus. Standing on the good news of Jesus allows us to see all people as God’s beloved children and allows us to root and ground ourselves in the things which lead to life.

God also clothes us in what we need to move toward others in love. We are given shoes that will help us to proclaim the gospel of peace. We are given the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation. These uphold us and protect us so that we don’t need to be afraid of others. We can reach out, take risks, and seek to work with others to- wards God’s truth and righteousness. We are also given the word of God to convict, direct and guide us.

At times these tools will seem insignificant and irrelevant in the face of all the systemic forces of death. I would imagine the early church felt like that sometimes up against the power of Rome.

Yet this good news of Jesus empowered them for lives of great courage and love. They witnessed to the reconciling work of Jesus in so many ways.

And even as the church has often been compromised by systemic forces, for centuries the good news of Jesus has helped people, communities, and sometimes whole nations to rise up and challenge these powers. Death dealing empires, governments, and ideologies have risen and fallen, but the risen Christ abides with and for God’s whole creation. Each new day God clothes us in all that we need to join in God’s life-giving work for all the world.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.