Lectionary Readings – Proper 16
If asked about the Army’s recruiting slogan, most of us here today would probably remember “Be all that you can be.” You may even be able to sing the jingle. This campaign lasted for twenty one years, from 1980 until 2001, when the Army changed the slogan to “Army of One.” This new slogan lasted only a few years, because the slogan inspired more people who wanted to be like Rambo, than those who wanted to be a part of a team of soldiers working together for a common cause.
In many ways, this passage from Paul has often been used in a similar capacity. Often this idea of putting on the armor of God is presented with the idea that you, yourself, are a lone soldier in the Army of God, and you alone are responsible for the battle over your mind, your body and your soul. It is true, the elements of the Roman Soldier’s armor that Paul mentions is indeed intended to keep our minds and hearts pointed toward the work of God in this world, but it doesn’t stop with us. The people Paul was speaking to understood that the Roman soldiers were part of something larger. Battles are fought together, with people working in unity toward a shared goal. Battles are not won with a single soldier, nor wars fought with an army of one.
When we make the armor of God about protecting ourselves, and our own minds, we begin to see the world in black and white, we begin to see the world in right and wrong, and we look for justifications to make sure that we are always “in the right.” And when we do that, we surround ourselves with people and with information that feeds upon those self-justifications. This then turns into an Us vs. Them mentality, and when we claim Christ as our mascot, our whole worldview turns into the idea of the Christ who agrees with us as Christ against Culture instead of Christ with Us, or Christ among us.
And if we begin to think in this mindset of Christ against culture and see the world as full of those with Christ, and those against Christ, we run the risk of believing that the Christ we have framed as agreeing with us means that Christ is with us alone.
And then the belt of truth becomes the belt of my own bias – the truth I already believe.
And the breastplate of righteousness becomes the breastplate of my own self-righteous indignation.
And the helmet of salvation becomes the helmet of self-justification.
And suddenly the good news of Christ has morphed from being good news for the world, and simply turned into good news for those that believe exactly as I do.
To be fair, we all fall into this category at times. We all take on the mindset of wrong vs right, and believe that we are in the right. But in that mindset we also quickly forget that the way that Christ is made visible in this world is through us. That Christ among us or with us means that we are the image of Christ to the world.
Paul says that “our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11). It is against these nebulous forces that we fight. We do not, as Paul says, fight against flesh and blood; we ought not to fight among ourselves for whose Christ is the truer representation. We fight against systems rigged toward evil and discrimination; we fight against powers that seek to divide and separate; we fight against systems that deny the truth of history; and we fight against ideologies that seek to deny the Love of God to those deemed unworthy or outside the acceptable.
To show just how easily and quickly we can jump into fighting flesh and blood – those that disagree with our view of Christ – we need only look at history. We see the Crusades, which sought to reclaim the Holy Land from those that were deemed unholy; we see the Inquisition, which attempted to convert people to Christ under the threat of death; we see the wars of the Reformation where both sides claimed Christ as their leader, and in which both sides framed the others as “tools of the devil,” and “followers of evil.”
Think, even, for a moment, on the divisions that have recently faced our country – between those who who wear masks and those who don’t, between those who got their covid vaccines, and those who won’t, or even those who think the Jan. 6th riots were treasonous, and those who think they were patriotic.
We no longer speak about having “differences of opinion,” but instead speak of having “differences of morality” and frame the other side as followers and purveyors of evil. And we go on the offensive, to fight, physically at times, for the sake of that which we deem right, forgetting for a moment, those commandments that Christ himself called the greatest:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul,
Love your neighbor as yourself.
It is because this passage of Paul has been used in many ways to justify the ideologies of division that this persistent desire to move toward physical violence continues to exist. On the one hand we have the two greatest commandments that Jesus himself proclaimed, and then we have these ideas of our own making that we use to justify our anger and violence toward others.
But Paul is not telling us to prepare for a physical war, violence, or even anger. Paul is telling us to “Stand Firm” (v. 13). He tells us to stand firm in the spiritual shoes that “will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of Peace” (v. 15)
The Gospel of Peace.
The former congressman John Lewis spent most of his life fighting for equal rights, and more than once he would tell people to get into what he called “Good Trouble.” In a way, he was telling people to fight a good fight, to put your energy into fights that will lift up as many people as possible. A good fight is one that is fought for the betterment of many, and is not one that benefits those in power, or the wealthy, or those with connections.
Many people like to represent freedom as an ideal, something to be attained, but the congressman understood that no matter how far you’ve come, there will always be those who seek to push and prod and test the limits of good conscience, those that will justify physical violence, hatred, and separation through the ideologies proclaimed by the Christ they claim as their own. And so he defined freedom as this:
“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”
John Lewis faced opposition, he faced violence, he faced all manner of evil while trying to bring about this just society. In many ways, this was a battle. And he, along with others like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, or Mahatma Gandhi have all pursued this goal of freedom relentlessly, despite opposition, despite ridicule, and despite danger.
This is standing firm.
Standing firm provides protections for those who are beleaguered and oppressed, and gives them the space to truly be themselves, so that once they have healed from any hurt they may have, they can join the children of God. Standing firm means opening our arms and welcoming all who seek God, despite our judgements.
Several months ago, the American Council of Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church voted to deny the Eucharist to the 46th President of the United States because they decided that they did not like his political stance on the matter of abortion. Disregarding the president’s personal stance on the same subject, they chose to deny him the opportunity of standing in God’s presence, and receiving the grace of Christ’s sacrifice.
They chose to deny someone the opportunity to partake of the grace of God.
Pope Francis rightly told this council of bishops “not to use access to the Eucharist as a political weapon,” because it would create discord, rather than unity. And later Pope Francis preached that the Eucharist is “not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.”
In different words, Pope Francis was saying what our very own presiding bishop has often said: “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” Because it is by abiding in the Love of God that we welcome all to become a part of the Family of God, a part of God’s beloved.
Those that would tell you that people are to be excluded from the table of God’s grace, are the same people who claim that the Christ that agrees with them is the only Christ, and that the good news that they proclaim is the only real Gospel of Christ. But any self-proclaimed truth that does not welcome all people into the open arms of God is not the truth at all. Any self- proclaimed truth that seeks to convince, cajole, and persuade, is a gospel that does not abide in the grace and love of God because it does not proclaim the Gospel of Peace.
There will always be people who wish to persuade, cajole and convince us that the Gospel is only for those that behave and believe a certain way. It is for this reason we put on the armor of God – to protect each other from convincing words that seek to exclude people from God’s grace until they’ve proven to live up to some arbitrary requirements.
It can at times be tedious.
Yet we find the strength to stand firm because of this table of Love, this table of Grace.
Christ tells us that if we eat of his flesh, and drink of his blood, that we will abide in him, and that he will abide in us.
If we truly understand the grace of this table. The depth of our sin, and the heights to which we have been raised through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, then we can see that the only proper course of action is to engage in those good fights that lift up all people, regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation or identity, or any other dividing ideologies that have yet to show their face in this world.
When we stand here at this table, we recognize that we are eating the “bread of sinners.” Sinners, beloved by God. And if we are God’s beloved, then everyone who comes and seeks God is also God’s beloved.
And when we welcome these people into the family of God, the family grows and multiplies to all parts of the world, not because we have convinced them through persuasive arguments or self-justified violence, but through the gift of abiding in the Love and Grace of God. The family of God grows because we have put on the armor of God and fought for inclusion rather than exclusion, because we have fought the good fight not just for one another, but with one another.
This is abiding in Christ, and living out the Gospel of Peace.
This is standing firm.[This sermon was delivered at The Episcopal Church of St. Matthew in Tucson, AZ on August 22, 2021.]
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He will attend Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022.