The readings on which this sermon is based are found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r133.htm
s133e03 Sunday 21 24th August 2003
"Be strong." Ephesians 6.10
Today we finish our journey through the letter to the Ephesians and next week we turn to the letter of James.
The writer concludes his letter saying that the most important thing is to be strong, and the final words are things to achieve this.
For the writer, being strong is more important than being compliant. The writer wants us to stand - not to crawl on our knees.
And we need to be strong because the rulers and the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil want to make us cower, ever want us to be less than human, ever want us to be subservient, ever want us to obey - them! We are to withstand them, to stand firm, arming ourselves with "the sword of the Spirit".
And, in the end, if we are subservient to the Bible or Church tradition as in being ruled by anything else, we are still being subservient. This is the real problem with any infallibility, be it of scripture, the Pope or the past Rector. If we are called to obey unthinkingly, then we are expected to remain compliant children for the term of our natural life.
God, on the other hand, invites us to think, to reason and so to be fully and adult human beings.
A natural part of life is rebellion against parental authority. Children have to make their own mistakes - goodness knows I've made enough in my own life.
It is natural to rebel against God also, and we find when we return, God embracing us as enthusiastically as the prodigal Father embraced the returning younger son. The son is returned to his former status as a son, even though he thinks he's only worth taking on as a slave. God does not want any of his children to live a life of servitude.
God does not want any of us spending our time berating ourselves for things we have done wrong in the past. We are to get on with life and loving.
The choice given to the tribes of Israel by Joshua, and the choice to go away given to the disciples by Jesus are real choices. That picture of the prodigal Father embracing the returning son shows us that the choice is real - not imaginary. We will not be consigned by God to hell if we choose wrongly, though we can be pigheaded enough to turn our backs on God eternally because we disdain the rest of the company God keeps.
And so the essence of Jesus' ministry is not about demonstrating a special status of Jesus before God but about Jesus making the people he met strong. Naturally he was opposed by those who imagined that God had ordained that the bulk of people were to be subservient to them. So Jesus so often says to people "Your faith has made you well" and never "My power has made you well".
And as I was thinking about this I thought of the woman caught in the very act of adultery and those initially confronting words at the end "do not sin again". This would be a tall order for anyone - let alone a woman caught in such a predicament. And I suddenly thought - Jesus was serious. She was able not to sin again. She had the strength to not sin again - and so do we. She had the ability to live life and to love others acknowledging the contributions others made to her life and contributing to others as she was able - and so do we. For surely "do not sin again" and "be completely morally spotless for the rest of your life" are rather different things! The second is indeed a "teaching" that "is difficult" and I would not commend it to anyone - for I certainly couldn't live up to it myself. The first must be good news, something that through the grace of God is readily achievable, by ordinary people like you and I, and by men and women whose marriages have broken down, by people who have loved as recklessly as God.
The sword of the Spirit is a nice turn of phrase, we might be thinking that the author is just waxing eloquent here. But the Spirit which accepts other people indeed divides people, just as the ministry of Jesus divided people - the "haves" against Jesus because he treated the "haves" and the "have-nots" with equal dignity.
Sin, we are told is primarily separation from God, but if this is true then our separation from God is most clearly manifest in our separation from other people. A freely offered intimacy between God and us, means implicitly that it is also true for others. So intimacy with God implies that we are accepting others with whom God is equally intimate. One cannot have one without the other.
And if we change the name "God" for the name "Jesus" then the same statement is entirely true also. We cannot have a friend in Jesus if we do not accept that Jesus has other friends also. The only point to a special status of Jesus is that this is truly the message of God - that he and the Father are one - in this desire for all people to be strong - not just some.
Clearly this includes people who have done the wrong thing, it includes you and I, it includes everyone. So the woman caught in adultery is more able to be without sin than the Pharisees who by very definition separated themselves from others. Again the words of Jesus towards his opposition come to mind: "Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." John 9.41
At this stage the question remains: "Do we dare "reinterpret" the Bible and the ministry of Jesus thus?" Well, the choice is before you as much as it is before me. The choice is given to the tribes of Israel and to the disciples of Jesus. No one is forced - for that would be to treat people as less than the adults we are all meant to be. And so it is a matter, not of certainty, but of belief. You and I are invited to believe that this is what God wants for us and for all. The opposition to Jesus believed that God wanted (other) people to be eternally subservient (to them). Believing in Jesus is believing that God actually wants us and all people to be strong.
We can turn away from this, but in the end it will be ourselves who suffer. I actually don't think this is much of a choice, because the Jesus I "know" treats me incredibly mercifully, I have no hesitation in commending God to others, for I know that God will be equally patient with them. I have glimpsed in my own life something of the strengthening of the Lord, and know that that is there for each and every person too.
The alternative is not self reliance but fear and this is also why I say that to me there is little choice. Why would one return to a life accepting an imposed servitude when it was and is not necessary and certainly not God-ordained?
The good news is that God invites us all to think, to reason and so to be fully and adult human beings. Why, for heaven's sake, would anyone want to be anything other than this?
I continue to work my way through the book "Lost Icons" by Archbishop Rowan Williams - I would not pretend to anyone I understand it all :-) However these words jumped out at me: "The act of questioning is the act in which the self is itself. Reflection, says (Walter) Davis, is "irreversible"" (page 180). It is when we reflect on our existence, the joys and the frustrations, that we are most fully human - and as these words also hint at, it is when we grow. We grow, not necessarily as we find solutions or solace, but by the very act of reflection and thought, we exercise those parts of our existence which so many others would seek us not to use. So I would encourage everyone to find someone you can trust to do this with, as I have my own spiritual director.
It is that moment when the son in the far off land "came to himself" that change and growth became possible. So another person is not necessary, but another often helps us see ourselves more clearly. Actually for the younger son, the absence of mutuality in the situation in which he found himself in the far-off land initiated the self reflection. For me the discipline of knowing that I am going to meet and talk with someone else "makes" me take the time to reflect.
And this is not just sophisticated "navel gazing" for while obstacles may be avoided for a time, when we find the personal strength, these become less difficult to surmount.
Every encounter we have in life, be it with another person, the work or words of another person, or an act of self reflection, changes us, albeit imperceptibly, but nevertheless irreversibly. For all we imagine how nice it would be to have all the answers and to be able to rebut all comers, the only person who is static is dead.
So being strong is about not having all the answers and accepting that we don't have all the answers. Being strong is about being able to appreciate that others have a contribution to make to our lives, the contribution that they want to make, not the contribution that we want them to make. Being strong is having eyes open and receptive to the good that is all about us. We are strong in interdependence not in independence.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.