The True Struggle and Victory

In March of 1999, I had a profound experience of praying in the Spirit for a friend, and rejoiced when she shared her testimony of being freed from spiritual attack.  For the whole story, click here.
I shared Carol’s story because I think it illustrates a truth so essential that Paul uses it like an exclamation point at the end of this letter.  Let’s hear from Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18.

Paul’s practical applications of the gospel in cch. 4, 5, & beg. of 6 dramatically change here with his urging to put on God’s spiritual armor.  The question is: “Why?”  Why talk of spiritual battle in a letter meant to reconcile a divided people?
First, Paul knew that in general, ignorance about the spiritual world makes us vulnerable.  Consider this: if Adam and Eve had been aware that God had an enemy, and the enemy was a liar who would target them personally...they might have been wiser about the serpent’s advice.  But because they didn’t know, they were easily fooled.
Second, Paul saw a spiritual struggle as the ultimate cause of the divisions plaguing that early Christian community.  So early in this letter Paul wrote: “Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the …dividing wall of hostility,”
And here he concludes: The true nature of our struggle is spiritual, so our true victory is in Christ.

GOD’S PART & OUR PART
Paul’s urging in today’s passage to “put on the full armor of God,” is one example of many throughout the Bible of co-operation between what God does and what God calls us to do.  Now here, there is even cooperation in the spiritual world.  Paul uses the phrase “heavenly realms” five times throughout Ephesians:
In the “heavenly realms”:
- We are blessed (1:3)
- We are given God’s power (1:19-20)
- We are seated with Christ (2:6)
These first three are done BY God,  FOR people. The progression continues, that “in the heavenly realms”:
- We make known God’s wisdom (3:10)
- We struggle against evil forces (6:12)
These last two are done BY people, EMPOWERED by God.
To that end, we are called to be strengthened by God by being clothed in God.  God is the power, but we must participate.  
In this letter, our co-operation with God in the heavenly realms means confronting spiritual forces of division that are expressed in conflict that leads to bitterness, anger, and malice.    
If we strive for reconciliation without confronting the spiritual struggle, we will remain stuck in what Pastor Aaron identified last week: Humanism -- relying on ONLY our own power and knowledge to pretend at Godliness...and then grieving as we repeat the same mistakes, wondering how we continue to let the serpent fool us.  

AN EXAMPLE FROM HISTORY
Now, please remember:  Paul is not talking about spiritual warfare in general.  Paul is Talking about the spiritual battle specifically behind human conflict and Division.  
So I have felt compelled this week to consider another example of human division, which I believe is also spiritual in nature.
Earlier this week, our daughter asked if I had ever heard a short poem called Ballad of Birmingham.  I hadn’t, so she insisted on reading it to me.  When I heard it, I immediately knew I had to read it to you; then I’ll explain why.  *Please note that I’m going to refer to acts of violence.  

Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall.
“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
 
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”
 
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”
 
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”
 
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
 
The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
 
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
 
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”

We did not plan for the Ephesians series to finish the day after Juneteenth, which commemorates the effective end of slavery in 1865; we certainly couldn’t have known it would also be three days after Juneteenth would become a national holiday.  But when our daughter read that poem to me, I knew illustrated what I had been studying in Ephesians 6.

Because the poem helps me move beyond the mere intellectual concept of division, and have greater empathy about the human cost of division as it dramatizes a mother’s experience from September 15, 1963, when four young girls were murdered by a Ku Klux Klan bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church.  

That made me think of similar tragedies, another of which happened in a church, exactly 150 years (minus two days) after Juneteenth.  The Charleston church shooting where nine people were killed in cold blood.  Another attack in the house of the Lord.

I’m sensitive to the fact that Hearing me bring these things up might conjure a variety of feelings: grief, anger, sadness.  A desire for justice.  You may also be feeling defensive, wanting to point out the progress that has been made, and good people that have shown love.  I acknowledge and respect all of that.  

But my job today is to expound on Paul’s conclusion to his letter.
And our job together is to heed it.

If we are to take the word of God seriously, we can no longer ignore the spiritual forces behind human division — division which characterizes all of human history, not only America’s brief history — and which appears to persist in spite of our best efforts.  

So I am convinced that in addition to obeying God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves in words and actions,
the Church of Jesus Christ is also uniquely being
called by God to reawaken to the cunning of our spiritual enemy,
called to cast off delusions of grandeur about our own capabilities,
called to participate with God in the struggle against dark powers of division.
And to do this as Paul describes right here — protected by God’s power, proclaiming God’s Word, and praying for all the Lord’s people in the mighty and merciful name of Jesus Christ, who gave his life to save the world.

Let’s start now.  Will you pray with me?

Mighty, Loving, Powerful, Gracious God:
For too long, I have known about the spiritual world
But not taken it seriously enough.  
For too long, I have despaired over
Problems that seems impossible to solve,
Pain that seems impossible to heal,
Hostility that seems impossible to forgive.
But your Word says that nothing is impossible for you.
So it is in your name, Lord Jesus, and by your power, Holy Spirit,
That we turn our attention away from our neighbors, flesh and blood against whom we need not struggle,
And turn instead to face our true enemy, engage in our true struggle,
And protected by your armor,
command spiritual forces of evil to flee,
And ask for your divine love to have the victory,
so that every man, woman, and child might fully
“grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [all] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
May it be so in Jesus’ name --Amen.


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