In the passage we just heard, we learn that the scandal shook not only the crowd, but even Jesus’ disciples. Some complain. Many no longer go about with him.
The apostles—the twelve—stand by Jesus. Still, the lesson is clear: People go through times of testing. Even the best and most faithful struggle at times. Even the best and most faithful fail at times. Struggle and failure are part of the deal.
One way Christians talk about this ongoing struggle to be true to our deepest convictions and our best selves is as a kind of “spiritual warfare.”
Now I have never been entirely comfortable with the language of spiritual warfare, which can be misleading. If we are engaged in warfare, the good news is that it is a pretty one-sided battle. God, the creator of all things, is our ally. Christ has already defeated sin and death and evil on our behalf.
Talk about spiritual warfare leads us astray if it ever causes us to doubt God’s ultimate victory. Talk about spiritual warfare leads us astray if it ever causes us to doubt that we are part of the winning team, that we have been forgiven and redeemed by Christ, that we have been made a new creation in Christ, that in baptism we have died and been reborn with Christ.
Whenever we talk about God and creation and salvation, our language should emphasize hope and joy and grace.
And yet the fact remains, we all do struggle sometimes. We struggle as if the victory were not won, as if we were not new creations in Christ. And, as long as it never calls into question the ultimate outcome, the metaphor of spiritual warfare can be a helpful way of thinking about our struggles.
As Ephesians says, “our struggle is . . . against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
That language is echoed in our baptismal service. At baptism, we renounce “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” We renounce “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” We renounce “all sinful desires which draw us from the love of God” (BCP, 302).
That is scary stuff! We may well prefer simply to read over those parts and just keep moving.
Unfortunately, we cannot. Sin and evil are in our world, and they sometimes threaten to overcome us with their destructive power.
I experienced a bit of that last week. Last Tuesday, I was out of sorts for most of the day. I had trouble working, but my problem went deeper than work. I could not relax. I could not enjoy myself. I was stuck.
The ancient Christian writers describe what I was experiencing as being overcome by sloth. Sloth means a lot more than being lazy, though we sometimes think of sloth that way. Sloth prevents us from doing any of the things we are created to do. Sloth prevents us from working, from resting, from enjoying life, from loving our neighbors, from having fun.
Ancient Christian writers saw sloth as a state of the soul. And over time, they warned, sloth can corrode our souls like an acid.
Sloth is not normally a big problem for me. So why did sloth hit me last Tuesday?
What Ephesians suggests is that, for some reason on that day, I was more than usually vulnerable to spiritual forces of evil, which dragged me down. It was as if I were being attacked by a spiritual virus, and my immune system was compromised.
On that day, I was having trouble living as a beloved child of God. I needed help to be the person God invites me to be.
We all have days like that. We all have days when sin and evil threaten to overcome us. The particular temptations differ from person to person and from day to day. But we all get attacked sometimes.
The question is, what should we do when it happens? Where should we turn for help against the spiritual forces of wickedness that sometimes weigh down our souls?
One place is each other. What snapped me out of my sloth last week was having tea with a parishioner and then meeting with a group of people at Church. By the end of the day, they had vanquished sloth for me.
Paul says a LOT about how much we need each other if we are to function effectively as the body of Christ. We can be each other’s immune system, helping each other to beat off whatever temptations attack us. That was the good part of what I experienced last week.
But Ephesians reminds us that, for the best help of all, we have to turn to God.
Our passage for this morning begins: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”
THAT is what we really need we are struggling: the strength of God’s power.
Then Ephesians develops the metaphor at some length. We take up “the whole armor of God.” We “fasten the belt of truth around our waists.” We put on “the breastplate of righteousness.” We take up “the shield of faith” and “the helmet of salvation” and “the sword of the Spirit.” That is equipment for spiritual battle in the strength of God’s power.
I just want to highlight three parts of this spiritual equipment.
First, faith. Ephesians calls faith a shield with which we can quench the flaming arrows of the evil one. Faith is our best defense, because faith reminds us to turn our problems over to God, whose victory is certain. Without faith, we would be in trouble. With faith, we know the strength of God’s power.
Second, the word of God. Ephesians says that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God. Elsewhere we read that the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword because it discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). Scripture can expose for what they are the lies and the rationalizations and the self-deceptions that we use to justify ourselves when we begin to succumb to sin and evil. Regular Bible study points us away from our own worst impulses and to God in Christ Jesus.
Finally, prayer. Ephesians says to pray in the Spirit at all times. Particularly when we find ourselves beset by spiritual forces of evil, by sinful desires which draw us from the love of God, we should pray. We should pray in that moment for help from the God of our salvation. We should ask God to help us through our struggle, to help us overcome. God will answer.
With help from each other, equipped with faith, informed by Scripture, supported in prayer, we can be confident that God will lead us to victory over whatever comes our way.
Then we will not be like those in our gospel reading who turned away when things got hard. Instead we will be like Peter. We will hear the words of eternal life from Christ, the Holy One of God.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57). Amen