SERMON: 14 Pentecost B 8 26 18
1Kgs8:1,6,10-11,22-30,41-43; Ps84; Eph6:10-20; Jn6:56-69
You can see on the cover of today's 10 am bulletin a picture of Solomon before the temple, igniting a burning sacrifice, as described in our Hebrew Bible reading. It brings to mind the age-old Sunday School question: where was Solomon's temple located? Little Johnny thought and thought and finally suggested, "On the side of his head?"
Our epistle reading for this Sunday is one which allows us to step away from everything before us at the moment and reflect on the Bible, in particular the epistles, and to spend a little time considering how it all came about. For Christians the epistles are the primary description of the church in the decades following Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension. They are letters which describe the activities, the challenges, the successes and failures of the church in its early years.
In seminary we learned a lot about church history. One date that sticks in my memory is 10-28-312, October 28, 312. Maybe I remembered it because my birthday is 312. But I've always been pretty good with dates. That special date, that particular one, is the date of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The Milvian Bridge was a Tiber River crossing near Rome. The importance of the battle, though, is that Constantine, the Roman emperor, chose before the battle to include the cross in his army's battle banners, encouraging his Christian soldiers to fight harder. Constantine's army and its many Christian soldiers won the battle and Christians won official recognition for their religion. This official endorsement of Christianity by the emperor was the beginning of the end of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.
Long before that, however, epistle writers, such as our namesake, Paul, were writing about the church and how members of the church could best deal with their status as outsiders, often persecuted, sometimes tried, even executed. After all, the Roman Empire's emperors expected to be treated as gods and they didn't like the idea that any other entity was being worshipped.So the period of persecution of Christians was under way when the epistles were written. The church was a widespread and loose organization which met in homes and other private places where followers of Jesus didn't have to worry about being spotted in worship. There were hundreds of these so-called house churches, a name these days often given to groups of Christians who decide to form their own church, often in someone's living or dining room.
The early Christians were hungry for information about Jesus and about the infant church being formed in his name. The epistles were the primary way of spreading guidance and other information that gave the Christians comfort, knowing what to do, what not to do, and to learn how Christians elsewhere were handling their responsibilities and staying out of trouble with the authorities. Some of the epistles address specific issues in communities. Others were written and circulated because the general information they contained was considered valuable to all Christian communities. The letter to the Ephesians is one of the latter. You'll notice that there has been no reference to any community in our readings from this epistle to date except in the salutation. That is one signal Bible scholars note that indicates probably it was a circular letter, rewritten and addressed to many different congregations.
Of special value to Christians were the paragraphs we read this morning. They are considered one of Paul's major exhortations to the church. It calls for church unity, love as an imitation of God, and separation from all impurity, according to my Bible's notes.
Please reflect for a moment on how different communication was then compared to now. The epistles and word of mouth and common worship was all Christians had. They didn't receive the Episcopal New Yorker in church. They didn't get a printed bulletin every Sunday. They didn't receive an email newsletter, either.
They had no email or FaceBook or Twitter or even cell phones. So they depended on what came their way, trusting that it was sent by folks committed to the survival and growth of the church. Every epistle, every word of it, had meaning to them. It was all they had.
But to receive these lessons fully I think we have to imagine the lessons coming to us as if we were a member of a house church. Kind of like you'd receive an email or a text today. Or like you'd receive a telegram or a letter in the past.
Finally, there were epistle writers other than Paul. But Paul was so significant, held in such high regard, and so prolific in his writing that his writing stand out like none of the others. People followed Paul's words as though they were the Gospel, although we know better. Our namesake was an itinerant tent maker who railed against and then comforted infant churches throughout his ministry in the eastern Mediterranean. It is thought that his letter to the Ephesians was perhaps written while he was jailed in Rome, reflecting on what he had seen so far in the life of the church. It is also speculated that this letter was not written by Paul, but instead by someone familiar with his ideas who sought to increase Paul's legacy. The language of the letter differs somewhat from the letters which are well-established as Pauline creations.
There are also significant comparisons made between the letter to the Ephesians and the Letter to the Colossians. Ephesians may have followed Colossians and they both may have been written by Paul or one of Paul's acolytes may have written the letter to the Ephesians using the form of Colossians. Either way, the letter uses the strongest images to help followers of Jesus keep on track. Many of the images are references to military preparedness:
Put on the whole armor of God;
Fasten the belt of truth around your waist
Put on the breastplate of righteousness
Take the shield of faith
Take the helmet of salvation
Take the sword of the Spirit
Many of these images and references relate to specific goals of the faithful. The last two actually are combined as follows:
Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Isn't it comforting that by offering a protective metaphor, like a shield or a sword, one can be assured of spiritual reinforcement? Of course, the sword and the shield are the Word of God, so one needs to be ready with one's faith in Jesus and familiarity with God's word, the Bible.
Paul also urged followers to "...quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one..." and to "...make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel."
This pairing of resisting the arrows of Satan with the imperative to share the Gospel with others with boldness is an especially Pauline treatment of a frightening prospect. It reminds me of a prayer for the sick in the Book of Common Prayer which prays that the sick person would not submit to the "...temptations of the enemy." And what would those be for someone with serious problems? I can think of a handful.
First is the temptation to give up. Second is to blame God. Third is feeling sorry for one's self. Fourth is to let go of one's faith. These seem to me to be temptations of very nigh magnitude for someone who is ailing.
Paul also admonishes us to be "...strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power." How do we do that? By praying the prayers we know and the others we read, by singing the songs of our faith, or at least hum them in our heads, to remind us of the power of faith in our lives.
All this equips us to "...stand against the wiles of the devil," we believe.
Paul also reminds us "...our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, 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.
I was reminded of this notion this week when a friend came to speak with me about some business that overlaps her realm and mine. We had a good talk. We each gained some new understanding. And as if that wasn't enough, then we went into the church and prayed for our community, for the people who are trying to make things work, and above all for the will of Almighty God to be done. Let me tell you, I felt empowered by the word and will of God. I felt protected by the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation.
This is our namesake speaking to us. Thank God for his ministry and his vision. Thank Christ for his conversion and for the church, infant and largely unprotected in those early decades, except by the will of God which insisted that the church survive and grow. Thanks be to that very same gracious, powerful, loving and forgiving God. Amen
A sermon preached Aug. 26, 2018 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector