Pentecost 13B: Real Enemy, Real Weapon

The Readings for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost are…

Old Testament       Joshua 24:1–2a, 14–18

Psalm                    Psalm 34:15–22

New Testament      Ephesians 6:10–20

Gospel                   John 6:56–69

The Ephesians lesson tells us life involves combat, not with flesh and bone, but with spiritual forces of evil. The point is to stand firm, armed with such defensive and offensive weapons as

truth, righteousness, readiness to proclaim peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer.

In John 6 Jesus warns us of loss of faith when up against these kinds of cosmic enemies. We do it by taking him in by taking in his words of spirit and life. This is sacramental language—things we take in from outside us—things that are common—yet things that are life-giving.

When families are falling apart because one member of it is abusing alcohol or drugs, it is common for them to designate that addicted one as the problem. That parent or child is the enemy. Yet, acting on this assumption throws the family in a downward spiral, since it lets everyone else off the hook. The dynamics of the entire family contribute to the kind of confusion and discouragement that enable addiction and drive others to distraction.

A powerful exercise sometimes used in family therapy is to gather several afflicted families in a room and have all the members of all the families draw their own conception of the monster that is threatening their happiness. Everyone then places their portrait of evil on the chair next to them and unleashes their anger on it with the help of a big, plastic baseball bat.

The lesson? You have a right to be angry but if you are to get healthier you need to focus your anger on the right enemy. Once you know the true enemy you can better choose the right weapons to use against it. And the sooner you understand that the enemy is inside each of you, the sooner you can join forces, for the true enemy cannot be vanquished alone.

Our reading from Ephesians is a famous for talking about the weapons we must use: the belt, brerastplate, fast shoes, shield, helmet, and sword. Hearing it we are all motivated to sing a few verses of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

But back up a second and think: Who is the enemy?

Ephesians puts it this way: Our enemies aren’t flesh and blood – but they are cosmic—forces of evil in heavenly places.

Libraries are full of books exploring the sources of evil and the ultimate enemies we face. But have we come nearer to a true understanding? Some of us want to say it’s always the other guy – those villains in the black shirts, riding black horses, most often with black skins—they are the evil ones. Others want to say, “No we have studied it and we know evil comes from bad potty training and too much or too little spanking.”Still others claim all bad people come from bad systems of policing, bad schools, bad politics.

But I treasure the Bible’s insight that the our ultimate enemy is something bigger and beyond all of that. Our enemies are cosmic because they have been able to hide in plain sight.

Think about it! Every culture and religion in the world basically agrees on the contour of evil. It looks like this: It has contempt for your parents and all your tradition, it steals, it breaks promises, it makes itself look good by bringing others down, it is greedy and tends to love things and exploit people, very often sexually. Yes there is diversity of cultures, yet there is near unanimity about these evils. These things Christians used to call “sin.”

But our ultimate enemy has the cosmic super-power that it hides in plain sight because we help it in a couple fundamental ways. First, we habitually and subconsciously blind ourselves to the true extent of sin—the sin inside ourselves. We do it when we become expert in pointing out the sins of others.

We get a good start as kids when we tattle on our brothers and sisters. By the time we are parents we have become obsessed with how our children are behaving. We read books, memorize concepts, and nag with millions of words about good behavior, all while we miss the fact that our example is the most volatile force in shaping our children’s morality. Oh, and then there are the preachers. I know all too well how easy it is for us to describe sin than to be appropriate and explicit about how God helps us do battle with the Evil One.

Our enemy is cosmic and powerful because it’s invisible to us. By our habit we can pick out the specks from our neighbors’ eyes, but we don’t even notice the log in our own.   We know the sins. But we can’t see them in ourselves.

One more reason we can’t see the enemy is something a new book just reminded me of: We hide from sin by getting others to do our dirty work for us. The book is by Eyal Press, titled Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.

This book helps me understand why it is so common now to see some crisis on the TV screen and we think, “How could this have happened? How have things gotten so bad?”  It’s like poking at a little black mold in the railing or the wall and finding the whole back deck or the whole house is full of rot. How did it get this bad without my noticing?

The answer is that we have gotten others to do our dirty work for us for so long the evil can now ambush us. Why are kids getting trampled to death in the panic and chaos outside the Kabul, Afghanistan airport? Because of the chaos we Americans have built by being and insensitive, heavy handed, inept foreign influence in that country. We spent billions, but we were still outsiders. Yet only a tiny fraction of our citizens ever worked or fought there. Some who killed there were just pushing buttons for drones—remote control killing. So, in effect, we got some people to do our dirty work for us; and the irony is that we know they are the less educated and less privileged among us that we recruit.

And why are people being lined up in hallways in our overwhelmed hospitals? Why are some of the very sick being turned away? It’s because we have exercised our precious personal freedom not to wear masks, not to get vaccinated, and not to give up some of our clubbing and concerts—all while we let other people do our dirty work for us. And now the ambulance crews, nurses, and doctors are worn out and quitting, and we cannot staff our so-called health-care system and things are collapsing.

We can pretend all we want that we honor and respect our essential workers, the thin blue line of police, those who “serve their country” in the armed forces; but what is really happening all the time is that we get others to do the dirty work and we continue to under-value, under-pay, and under-respect them. And at the same time we keep our own sins at arm’s length and out of sight.

We know the enemy – it’s sin. But we don’t want to see it in ourselves. And we get others to do our dirty work for us so we can’t see the damage our sin has caused.

Finally, the one thing both our ways of blaming others and palming off dirty work have in common is that they divide us.

As I have tried to point out in this blog before, I emphasize now: The Godwe know in Jesus Christ gathers us. The Evil One divides. Jesus Christ draws us together to work on sin together. The Evil One loves it when we fight each other. That’s the way addiction and alcoholism tears families up. That’s the way churches fall apart. That’s the way our nation and our world falls apart.

So, if the enemy is us, as Pogo once taught us, what are the right weapons to fight it? What is the good news?

First of all, that list of the sins that the whole world knows as sin – we know them because of the 10 Commandments. But before the Decalogue talks about stealing, killing, adultery, lying and greed, it says, “Have no other Gods.” Turning to the God who loves you and gathers you together as family–that’s the first weapon. And it is a powerful gift of God’s grace that forms the foundation of all the good news of the Bible.

Another weapon we are given by God’s grace is the nourishment of our spirits with the Word of God.

When the Fourth Gospel tells us about the sacrament of the Eucharist, it gives us this long discourse of Jesus in chapter six.  Jesus tells us he sustains us with spirit and life through this sacramental gift. On your own you are not up to doing battle with such a cosmic enemy, hidden away in your heart. But if you take my word inside you, you will have spirit and life. Martin Luther called this the “alien righteousness” that is the only effective weapon against the sin inside you. Trying to overcome the dishonesty, unfaithfulness, greed, petty bigotry inside you just by trying harder won’t ever work. But the promises of God are checks that don’t bounce, and nourishment that never fails to sustain.

And, once we know that the enemy is our own sin, and every move we make to separate and alienate us from others, then the armaments mentioned in Ephesians make perfect sense. They are all gifts of grace that help us join God in the all important work of gathering. These are defensive and offensive weapons used not against other people, but against all that divides: The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes that speed us on the way of proclaiming peace, the shield to douse the evil flames of fear and hatred of the other, the helmet of God’s promise of salvation, the word of God that can penetrate to people’s hearts. Along with the gift of prayer these things become a most complete arsenal. They keep us from blaming others, or assigning others our dirty work.

Like a dysfunctional family our nation is losing its ability to see that the enemy is not “those other guys” but sin that lurks inside all of us. We are losing our ability to listen long enough to those we disagree with to discover that we have more in common than we do that separates us. We are losing our ability to work together on our common problems. And if we keep on this way we will never be up to the task of standing against our real enemy.

But if we can pray to the God who gathers, turn from our own sins, and use all those weapons God has given us, we will do alright. 

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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