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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 21, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
August 23, 2015

Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

‘The s/word of love and hope’

The final segment of Ephesians is a mini-homily in itself, employing the tradition of Isaiah 59:17 and Wisdom 5:17-18, which speak of God’s armour. One response to military might in a world held in check by Roman or any other imperialism is to make it a metaphor for one’s own potential strength. The tradition is, of course, very old. In what ways is God like a soldier? In what ways are Christians like soldiers? Both Isaiah and Wisdom use the imagery to portray God’s strength. Here in Ephesians the focus is the believer. What are these Christian soldiers meant to be doing? Centuries of fascination with power and of Christian engagement with rulers and their armies suggest images of conquest, marching against the foe. God be with you

At worst the metaphor inspires zealous militarism, which has as its goal the defeat of the evil empires. Killing is bad enough, but if people can kill in the name of their God, somehow the whole achievement can be seen as something good and worthwhile. The image doubtless inspires some in our own age to the confidence that they act for God in seeking to rid the world of enemies, usually defined as those who call their lifestyle into question.

By association, the desire to define people as enemies sets up barriers of discrimination and hate across the whole world. So the imagery is quite dangerous and can easily get out of hand in the minds both of ordinary people and of “Christian” leaders.

Yesterday’s Herald carried a feature on Dave Andrews, an author and “interfaith bridge builder”. Andrews tells the story of when he and his friend Nora Amath, a Muslim scholar, were invited to a Sunshine Coast church to speak about how Muslims and Christians could live in harmony. They were met by a group of angry protesters outside the venue.

“There were hundreds of people there waving banners with words like ‘Resist Islam’, and the police were there to deal with the conflict,” Andrews says. “It was terrible to see the way so many Christians express such hate for Muslims in their name of their faith. They were so blinded by their ideology.”

“By far the most animosity I face is from Christians,” he says.

One outcome from Andrews’ experience trying to build religious and cultural understanding is a provocative new book titled The Jihad of Jesus. In it he draws on the teachings of Muslim scholars to recast jihad as a “sacred non-violent struggle for justice” rather than violent holy war. Andrews argues that the “strong-but-gentle” figure of Christ provides the ideal model for non-violent jihad.

“Jesus should not be seen as a poster boy for Christians crusading against Muslims but as a messiah who brings Christians and Muslims together for a non-violent struggle for justice,” he says.

New Testament scholar William Loader, in the same Spirit, points out that Ephesians is not interested in conquest.

Before turning to military imagery, it talks about personal empowerment in relation to Christ. That sets the focus. What is that power about? “Looking back through Ephesians we see that it is about reconciliation and love, the overcoming of barriers, religious and otherwise. In fact it celebrates the overcoming of powers at the point where barriers (including biblically warranted ones) are dismantled and people come together in peace and hope.” In other words, the Christ agenda controls the imagery, rather than the imagery controlling the “Christian” agenda.

When the author declares that our fight is not against flesh and blood, at one level that is simply consistent with what has gone before: standing in Christ’s shoes, as it were, we reach out to people not to strike them or push them away, but to bring them the fullness of God’s goodness, which the author sees as God’s great plan: filling the world with love. At another level, the author is saying that there are forces at work that stand in direct opposition to this good news forces greater than simply what individual human beings do. Employing the language and concepts of his time the author speaks of warfare with the devil and with powers that transcend individuals.

The notions are vague, but they express the sense of vulnerability of human beings to forces beyond their control.

In the ancient world such experiences usually merged the world of spirits and the world of political or military powers they were believed to control. Each ruler was said to have his/her heavenly angels or spirit. The author has effectively defined their role in the preceding chapters. It is the counter-role to Christ. These, then, are the forces that divide, that create barriers, that discriminate, that set people against each other. We fail to appreciate the radical nature of these assertions if we reduce Ephesians simply to worry about evil spirits and dark forces in the spirit world, unrelated to everyday life.

We can identify with the vulnerability their demonology expressed while articulating it in our different terms. We might speak of power dynamics, family or social systems, vested interests and political powers, destructive forces at work in humanity (greed, fear, arrogance, ignorance specism) without needing to embrace a demonology.

Seen in this light, the author employs imagery that usually decorates oppressors to speak of the need for believers to approach life with the maturity that will never be satisfied with reducing the gospel to being good in a very personal and private way.

We are just as much engaged in issues where human beings, communities and nations, indeed the planet, are vulnerable as was the author of Ephesians indeed, on a global scale far beyond that author’s imagining. This global context of the competing values of love and hate is the arena of our being human and being Christian today.

Notice how the armour is, in a sense, disarming of destructive dynamics that threaten humanity. Truth is one of the first casualties of war or hate. Righteousness/goodness/justice is the centrepiece, close to the heart. The feet move not to march in war but to bear the good news of peace (imagine St Francis on his way to negotiate peace with the Sultan I really like Anna Jahjah’s papier maché sculpture of St Francis). Faith is as much about faithfulness and trust as it is about belief. Salvation here probably has a strong sense of security and hope, the basis for the trust. These are all traditional images the author is employing.

This is true also of the word as a sword.

Hebrews 4:12 employs the metaphor interestingly, not aggressively but as an image of really getting to the truth of things. We are called not just to endure and resist, but also to engage in challenging the structures of injustice, the barriers that divide, by the s/word of the good news, which is about love and hope.

Ephesians is thus issuing a call for people to abandon a Christian naiveté that fails to recognise the potent forces that bring destruction and division in our world. For some that will mean facing up to the fact that Christians have been far too easily sucked into the power games of destructive forces in politics and economics.

The final call to serious prayer echoes the emphasis with which this segment began: the need to have a grounded and solid spirituality as a basis for living with Christ’s agenda and power.

Only such spirituality can prevent the image losing its subversive quality and slipping into a justification for Christian triumphalism and hate. When it is seen as subversive, peace has a chance.

Let’s complete the homily together. Is it helpful for you to think of spirituality/faith as a s/word of love and hope? If so, how so? If not, is there an image of resistance and engagement you prefer? … Amen.

Based on a reflection by William Loader.