Saturday, November 08, 2014

Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 6:10-20 * John 4:46-50

MY brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

The second lesson from Morning Prayer today says something very similar.

“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds (II Corinthians 10:4).”

Have you seen in the news this week the report from Ft. Lauderdale Florida? A ninety year-old man, a World War II veteran, and two ministers have been arrested, twice, facing five-hundred dollar fines and sixty days in jail for each “offense.” Do you know what their crime was? They were feeding homeless people as a Christian ministry. I haven’t yet learned what denomination they belong to, or if they are even entirely orthodox by our standards. But, I know that they are obeying commandments in the Bible that go back as far as the Law of Moses, and are repeated in various ways in the New Testament. The name of their organization is “Love thy Neighbor.” (Heavens! What a subversive name indeed!)

Here are people trying to obey God by feeding the poor. In recent weeks I have told you about instances in which Christians find themselves as outlaws, facing criminal penalties, simply by being obedient to God’s commandments. In the case of feeding the homeless, this new trend in legislation, which I guess we may call “America‘s War on Charity,” has been enacted in about a hundred and thirty cities and towns across the United States. Sadly, one of those cities is nearby, our state capitol, Raleigh. Yes, in addition to the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror, we see the War on Charity, as well as the War on Unwanted Unborn Babies, and all other sorts of dangerous enemies of the state.

Now I mention this story as an example of something we must face sooner or later. As long as we live in this world, we are in a spiritual battle. Imagining that we have the world’s support, in our endeavor to follow Christ, is a way of begging to be disappointed – at best.

I am reminded of William Wilberforce, the 18th century Englishman, in fact a Member of Parliament, who worked relentlessly for years to abolish the slave trade. As one writer tells us:

Because his colleagues in Parliament would refuse to listen to his words, Wilberforce would sometimes pull heavy chains from under his chair and drape them over himself to dramatise the inhumanity of slavery. Nonetheless Christians and non-Christians ignored him and ridiculed him for years. Sniffed one slave owner, ‘Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon.’ Another, Lord Melbourne, angrily agreed: ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.’” 1

Coming so soon on the heels of All Saints Day (which, in the readings, as well as our liturgy and hymnody, is really about the Church Triumphant), I think we could call the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, “Church Militant Sunday.” And, I mean not just militant in the sense of being alive, but truly militant in the sense of taking up arms, albeit, spiritual arms in the spiritual war.

My fear is not for people who are willingly on the frontlines in spiritual warfare, but for those who try to avoid it. Only they are in real danger. Seeking peace, while living in this world is understandable, but impossible to achieve without compromising with evil. Sooner or later, the world gives us no choice. The illusion that the western civilization is friendly to Christianity, rather than hostile to the Gospel of Christ, becomes less and less tenable each passing day.

I grant, it is more frightening to live in other parts of the world, places that some of you have come from, where Christians are very openly persecuted to the death. In Touchstone Magazine, we have a feature about “The Suffering Church,” a simple collection of news reports about persecution, in every issue. And we must never forget our persecuted brothers and sisters in our prayers.

But, I don’t want you to imagine that the world is supportive of and friendly to your Christian life anywhere. It cannot be so in this life. Don’t go looking for trouble. Just don’t expect that your life as a Christian, if you really want to follow Christ, will be easy. We don’t live in that kind of world. You need, as St. Paul says, to “put on the whole armor of God.” There is no other way to live a godly life that is pleasing to God.

When the Apostle tells us to “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might,” and that “weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds,” he means that the only power and might for the spiritual battle is the power of the Holy Spirit.

“This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts (Zechariah 4:6).”

Another way to translate this from Hebrew is, “Not by might, nor by armies…” All of the armies in the world cannot win the spiritual war. The weapons they carry are carnal. They have weapons merely against flesh and blood. Our enemies are invisible to the human eye, and attack the mind, the soul and the will. They would drain you of faith in God and lure you into sin. They would have the whole Church lose her faith, throw away her creeds, ignore her Scripture, and corrupt her sacraments. They would have the Church overly busy with worldly preoccupations so as not to have time to pray. They would have her members squabbling with each other. They would have her children ignorant of the truth of God’s word.

And, up to now, I have spoken only of defensive warfare. The Church has one offensive weapon in the armor of God, and that is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).” Jesus did not tell us to avoid spiritual battle, but to advance into the world with the Gospel. Listen to our marching orders, His last orders issued before he ascended to the Father’s right hand.

“When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight (Acts 1:7-9).”

There it is again, the power (dunamis) of the Holy Spirit. Jesus did not send the Church out into the world to fight this battle by mere human effort. It is not our own organizational skills, our own brilliance, or our own strength that overcomes the spiritual forces of evil. We absolutely need the power of the Holy Spirit to fight the spiritual battle. Jesus also said, “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high (Luke 24:49).” In other words, He ordered them not to go forth in their own strength, but only in the power of the Holy Spirit. To try to carry on the work that Christ gave to His Church, in merely human strength (which is the weakness of the flesh), is disobedience to the Lord.

I recall one night in 1985, during a service of prayer in a church outside of Baltimore City. A woman in her thirties would attend church services with her parents. She was always kind of gloomy looking, visibly unhappy. What I did not know, until after the events of this story, is that she had been married to a man who used physical bullying to force her into occult activities (a very dangerous thing indeed). During the prayers, she decided, for the first time in years, to really join in by faith and make the prayers her own.

While praying together, we saw this woman suddenly rise in the air a little bit, and proceed to move as if she had St. Victus Dance, contorting her body in a way no dancer or athlete could ever possibly imitate, and manifesting emotional torment. She fell to the floor announcing in Hebrew, “Meshiach! Meshiach!” – a word, it turns out, that she didn’t know. It meant that something in her was alarmed to be aware of Christ’s own presence among us, as we were gathered together in His name.

Everyone in the room, except Diane (who was pregnant with our son David) and me, ran to a corner of the room and huddled together, disappointing me with their apparent fear. I walked over, Diane behind me, and used the one exorcism rite that always has to work, what I call “The Ritual Saint Paul” – from Acts 16:18 – “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” I said it a second time, and added the word, “now.” The woman opened her eyes, sat up and began to cry. She had no memory of how she ended up lying on the floor several feet away from where she stood. She thought she had seen a vision of Jesus Christ as soon as she decided to pray, after so long a time. I suppose the demon in her saw the vision too, and reacted with the kind of fear we read about in the Gospels.

Anyway, after that night she no longer looked gloomy, but instead very cheerful and full of life. Her long dark night of suffering had ended. If I had tried to use mere human strength I might have gotten into a long exhausting sort of exorcism “wrestling match.” But instead, I was aware that the only power that overcomes this sort of thing is the power of the Holy Spirit, and so I said the right words and allowed Him to be the active One.

Mere human strength cannot do God’s work by itself; it might even get in the way. Rather, “Be strong in the Lord, and the power of his might.”


1. From Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day.

1 comment:

Byron Woolcock said...

Dear Father
Always enjoy your useful sermons. As I have allergies and MCS I cannot get to public worship and always benefit from your teachings.
Keep up the good work.May the Holy Spirit continue to guide and bless you.
Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Byron Woolcock,TDC.