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Our Struggle

  • November 25, 2018
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 25 November 2018 (Christ the King Year B REV)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Ephesians 6.10-20, 23-24; Psalm 93; John 18.33-38

Title:               Our Struggle

Give us your spirit of wisdom and revelation, O God, that we may have power to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, and to stand firm always in the strength of your power. Amen.

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh” (Ephesians 6.11-12).

Sisters and brothers: in the time of struggle, where do you find the strength to stand firm?

Well, we have finally come, my friends, to the end of the year in the cycle of the church’s celebrations, and also to the end of this inspiring little Letter to the Church in Ephesus.

We call this Christ the King Sunday. It is the final Sunday before the cycle of the year begins again with the first Sunday of Advent and our preparations for the celebration of our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem.

Here at the end of the church year, we stop to recognize and to remember that all of the year, and all of history, is in the hands of Christ, safely and secured managed by God.

Now, thankfully, we don’t have kings any more. At least not in this part of the world. There is still a king in Saudi Arabia who yields real power, but beyond that there are few royals – if any – who are more than mere figureheads.

This is how we typically understand the idea of kingship – in terms of power. The power to coerce, to force, to demand.

One of the original depictions of Jesus in visual form is known as the Pantokrator. High in the domes of many early church buildings, there are mosaics or paintings of Jesus holding the book of the Gospels in his left hand and giving a blessing with his right hand. And usually there is a rather stern look on his face.

This traditional icon image is known as the Pantokrator, which is often translated as “the Almighty” or “the Ruler of All.” Christ the King.

But his kingdom is not from this world. And we know that Christ is NOT a king as we typically think of it. And it is also possible to translate Pantokrator as “the Holder of All”, the One who Holds All Things Together.

Yes, that works. The One who holds all things together – even when it appears that things are falling apart.

The apostle Paul, or else the one who wrote in Paul’s name – at the very end of this Letter, the writer leaves these believers with a final encouragement to be prepared and to be strong in the face of the many challenges that are certain to come.

Yes, challenges come to everyone and to every community, but we must not miss the crucial point about the nature of these challenges.

“For our struggle is not against blood and flesh.” My friends, this point cannot be over-emphasized.

We are not armed with physical weapons to protect ourselves against other human beings. The saints of God have never pursued nor advocated that course of action.

Just look again at the context of this letter. If Paul did in fact write it, then he probably wrote it while imprisoned in Rome, or on his way to Rome. He was being held “in chains” (Eph 6.20).

But is there anywhere in this text even a hint of bitterness or anger toward his captors? Or is there a call to the believers to come and break him out of prison?

You might expect this. It would be totally understandable for most people writing a letter from prison. But not for the saints of God. Not for the people of God. Not for those who have gathered around One whose kingdom is not from this world.

Both Jesus and Paul stood calmly with confidence before earthly rulers and authorities because they knew that this was not where the REAL struggle is found.

They knew that “our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6.12).

Now, if you are anything like me, then this language may seem a bit odd to you. If that is so, then a bit of context will be helpful. The city of Ephesus, which is the present-day city of Izmir in Turkey, was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the great temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess of fertility, childbirth, animals and hunting.

Built seven hundred years before the writing of this letter, the Temple of Artemis was twice the size of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. It was enormous and it was famous. And the worship of Artemis included practices of magic and astrology designed to influence the spiritual powers of good and evil which were understood to control the lives and destinies of every person.

In fact, the word translated in our text as “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” originally referred to the planets of our solar system, each of which was assumed to exert some power and influence over humanity.

This language about the cosmic powers and authorities may seem strange to us, but it is important to understand how basic this was to the worldview of these Christians in Ephesus. All of them were brought up and raised in this way, believing in these planetary powers and using forms of magic to steer things in the way that they wanted.

Things changed when they learned about the Messiah. When they embraced the mystery of the gospel, they turned their back on these old ways, on the use of magic and on the desire to control their destiny.

Instead of these kinds of techniques, now these women and men found their strength and hope in God.

They no longer had any need to control the future, because trust in the power of Christ was sufficient for them – and it is sufficient for us as well. It may be difficult for us to see the world in the same way that they did, but they still lived in that world of cosmic powers that surrounded them. This was the worldview they inherited and such things only change very slowly.

Change did come as they learned how not to fear any authority or ruler or power – whether in the heavens or on the earth, but rather to trust and stand in the strength of God’s power alone.

One time in the desert back in the fourth century, a group of brothers gathered for the Eucharist. The presider was informed that a group of thieves had come and were stealing from the rooms of the brothers while they were all gathered together for worship. And the presider said, “Let them do the work that they need to do, and let us do ours” – which is the praise and worship of God! (Apohthegmata Patrum Anonymous N.607).

You see, trouble comes to every one of our lives, and to every community. No one is exempt.

But do you know what I think? I think that our temptation is to focus on the material nature of our troubles, on the outward presentation. But that’s just the packaging. That’s just the frame.

We have to understand this and to deal with that element, of course. But that is not where our primary focus needs to be. For the real struggle, the real battle, is always a spiritual one.

What are the struggles that we face? They could be financial challenges, or health challenges. You could receive the diagnosis of an unexpected illness. You could have troubles with your job, or challenges in taking care of your elderly parents. You might really struggle with the news of the world and feel unable to disconnect your emotions from what’s going on.

Whatever the particular case may be, the external nature of the struggle is not the one that requires your most focused attention. That is the packaging, the exterior frame. You have to deal with it, of course, but the packaging is not the heart of the matter.

In every case, there is a spiritual struggle that is deeper, one that strikes at the heart of who you are and at your connection with God and those around you.

For those brothers in the desert back in the fourth century, the trouble was not the loss of a few material things at the hands of thieves. The real struggle was if they would allow themselves to be distracted from the presence of God, and from the worship of God. THAT was the real challenge. And this remains our struggle as well.

To prepare for the real struggle that awaits us, we are called to take up the full armor of God.

The belt of truth. The breastplate of righteousness. Shoes for carrying the message of peace. The shield of faith. The helmet of salvation. And the sword of the Spirit.

And prepared with all these components, what is the one thing that we are called to do? How is it that we fight back? We pray. We are called to “pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication”.

My friends, the struggle is real. Make no mistake about it. The struggle is very real. We may not think of it in terms of cosmic, planetary forces exerting influence over our lives, but it is the struggle of the soul that matters most.

So I ask again: when you find yourself in the time of struggle, where do you find the strength to stand firm? Can you stand with trust and confidence in the power of Christ who holds all things together? May it always be so among us.

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