By the Rev. Darren Miner
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The Gospel reading this week winds up Jesus’ teaching about the bread that came down from heaven. Honestly, I don’t think I have another bread sermon in me right now! So, instead, I’m going to preach on the Epistle, the topic of which is spiritual warfare. Admittedly, this is not a topic often preached on in the Episcopal Church, at least, not in my experience. But the Letter to the Ephesians does, in fact, have a pertinent message for us today.
The question St. Paul considers is “How should Christians confront evil?” And if you have picked up a newspaper or watched the news on TV recently, you see clear evidence that our world is in a right mess. But how often do we identify the wrongs in the world with real spiritual evil? If you based your opinion solely on popular culture, you might think that spiritual evil is limited to ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and the undead. But true evil, true demonic activity, is to be found elsewhere.
Today’s Epistle speaks of rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil. And in St. Paul’s day, it was thought that the forces of spiritual evil lived in the very air around us. I think it more likely, at least in our day, that such forces of evil live, not in the atmosphere we breathe, but in our every institution. Let me explain.
We Christians often say that where two or three are gathered together the Holy Spirit is present. And I believe this to be true. But when two or three are gathered together other spirits can sometimes be found: a spirit of political struggle, a spirit of bitterness, a spirit of competition, a spirit of spite, and so on. And in our larger institutions, from universities to cities, from police departments to our military, there is a spirit unique to each institution, or to be more precise, there is a unique spirituality. Institutions, like individuals, have a spirituality. And sometimes that spirituality becomes sick; sometimes an institutional spirituality becomes so perverse as to warrant being called demonic. It is in our institutions that we Christians in America are most likely to confront spiritual evil.
We find corporations such as Amazon.com encouraging their employees to turn in fellow employees who aren’t putting in enough unpaid overtime. We find police departments with a suspicious record of shooting black men. We find middle-class teenagers brainwashed over the Internet by recruiters for ISIS, eager to go off to foreign parts and kill. We have a prison system that is stuffed full of people condemned for the actions they took to feed their drug addiction, when they might have been sent to rehab instead. And don’t even get me started on the state of American politics! Our country is split right down the middle, and the political Left and the political Right can’t compromise on anything at all. Politicians refuse to enact common-sense measures to restrict gun sales, because of one demonic institution known as the NRA. Growing percentages of unhappy Americans then display their dissatisfaction with these ineffectual politicians by supporting narcissistic candidates who display not an ounce of mercy toward the poor or vulnerable in our society. No, we don’t have to look up to the sky to find the forces of evil at work. Our core institutions are spiritually tainted.
Too often, we feel useless and defenseless. We feel that there is nothing we can do to confront evil. Today’s Epistle tells us otherwise. We Christians are called to stand up to evil, to stand firm. As St. Paul tells us, our fight is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the spiritual forces that pervert our way of life. And though, I am not over fond of the militaristic imagery of today’s Epistle, its message is quite apt. We do have powerful weapons to combat evil. St. Paul lists seven pieces of spiritual armor: 1) divine truth, 2) righteousness, 3) the gospel of peace, 4) faith in God, 5) our salvation through Christ, 6) the Holy Spirit, and 7) the Word of God.
We know that St. Paul himself confronted evil wherever he encountered it. And if he had not persevered, we Gentiles would not be here in this church. We would not know about Jesus Christ. We would not be the recipients of his saving word. Yes, St. Paul’s battle with evil eventually cost him his very life, but he won the war. He preached the Good News of Jesus Christ to people in desperate need of God’s saving love, and they in turn spread that Good News throughout the world.
Too often, we hold back from confronting evil because we doubt our own abilities. St. Paul reminds us that we are all called to combat evil and we all have access to the requisite spiritual armor. You don’t need a seminary education. You don’t need to be ordained. You already know all that is needed. You already know that God is love. You already know that the Spirit is within you. You already know that Christ is by your side. You only need the courage to act on that knowledge!
And friends, prayer helps to build up courage and dispel fear. So pray not only for your fellow Christians, as St. Paul asked us to do, but for yourself, for the courage to act on your faith. Being members of a liturgical tradition, we have many resources for prayer. One prayer that you already know by heart is the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is a truly all-purpose prayer, and it is particularly appropriate when facing evil, for in it, we expressly ask our heavenly Father for deliverance. In the prayer book service of Compline, near the end of the service, there is a gem of a prayer that asks for angelic protection. It goes like this: “Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” I would encourage you to commit that short prayer to heart as well. But the most full and complete prayer for spiritual protection that we have in our tradition is to be found, not in the prayer book, but in the hymnal. Turn to hymn 370, if you would. This ancient hymn is known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and like the lesson from St. Paul’s Epistle, it enumerates and evokes the spiritual armor that we Christians have at our disposal. And the list is quite long!
The point of the Epistle, the point of St. Patrick’s hymn, and the point of this sermon is that you have all you need to combat the evil that infects our world. You have what it takes to turn our social and political institutions around. Even more, you have what it takes to bring about their very redemption. You need only put on the whole armor of God. Then, secure in God’s protection you can go on the attack with the only offensive weapon listed by St. Paul, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. In other words, the only offensive weapon you will need to conquer evil is the Word of God, and by that I mean both the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and the written word of Holy Scripture.
So today, when you come to the altar to partake of the consecrated bread and wine, which are for us Christ’s Body and Blood, pray for the courage to confront evil whenever and wherever you find it. And later, just before you leave the church, remind yourself that you are protected from head to toe with the whole armor of God—with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, Spirit, and God’s Word. Then, go out into the world and help our heavenly Father to deliver it from evil!
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.