I wonder if you remember ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ – the programme in which if you answered enough questions correctly you could win a £1,000,000, however if you got the questions wrong you could lose everything. The real skill seemed to be in knowing when to stop and walk away with your winnings so far. I imagine it could be lonely sitting in the spotlight with Chris Tarrant asking ‘Are you sure?’ and the dramatic music pushing you to make a decision. Perhaps that is why the programme included the opportunity to seek help, to ask the audience for their opinion, to ask the computer to reduce the options, or even to phone a friend. At the end of the day though, the decision could only be made by the contestant.
For the Ephesians, they too had been forced to make a decision. Would they accept the wholesome spirituality that Paul was offering in Jesus or would they stick with their old spiritual practices – witchcraft and spiritualism and other occult activities. The Ephesians had chosen the Holy Spirit and to prove it had burned thousands of pounds worth of expensive spell craft books.
The trouble is, as Paul explains in his letter, turning to Jesus and away from occult practices isn’t a one off decision. There is a constant battle going on in the Spiritual World – Satan wants his people back, and even though they now belong to Jesus, they need to be on their guard, and so do we. We need to protect ourselves from the things that may drag us away from the heart of Jesus. The witchcraft of the Ephesian world may seem quite archaic to us, but there are modern day evils which are much more subtle.
This summer two stories have dominated the news (or at least my news feed): the immigrant crisis at Calais and the milk crisis here in the UK.
The Bible teaches us to love the widow, the orphan the alien in our midst, yet there is so much hatred regarding those who are seeking asylum; there is selfishness and greed and pointing the finger. Everything that is wrong with this country is down to the ‘foreigners’ who have invaded it. The unholy spirit works within us to spread fear which in turns lead to anger.
The Bible also teaches us to give thanks for all that the land provides, and Paul himself taught that everyone who works deserves to be paid a fair wage. So why are we allowing the supermarkets to engage in price wars that cheat our farmers? We are allowing the spirit of ‘anything for a bargain’ rule our hearts rather than acting as loving and responsible members of a community. Which is even more shocking considering that we live in a rural area and have friends who farm.
Then of course there’s the perennial issue of taxes. I get excited as much as anyone when I am offered a tax rebate – an unexpected windfall to be celebrated. It means that I have, in good faith paid too much, and that excess is now being returned. However, there is always a temptation to pay as little tax as possible, and it seems that those with the highest incomes are able to find the tax loopholes more easily than anyone else. The concept of tithing in the Bible is there to enable everyone to give towards God’s work – 10% should have the same impact on those with little and those with less, but as someone once commented to me, ‘when you have as much as we do, 10% is rather a lot of money to give away’. It’s not just individuals either – large, successful corporations are happy to take our money and to grow their profits without giving anything back. When we continue to give our money to Starbucks, Cafe Nero, Amazon… because we like their product or because they are easy to use, then we are self seeking and not acting righteously. When we then, having turned a blind eye to the large scale tax dodgers who are robbing our country in order to point the finger at benefit cheats, perhaps we are allowing ourselves to be influenced by an evil spirit? Perhaps we are turning a blind eye, a cold heart towards the Hoy Spirit?
So what should we do, if we are to faithfully serve Jesus?
Paul suggests that we clothe ourselves in armour to protect us in this Spiritual Battle, and prepare ourselves to fight for the good. At the time of writing Paul was imprisoned, possibly even chained to a Roman Soldier.
The belt of truth is what holds everything together: we need to not just speak the truth but seek the truth and see it for what it is, not turn a blind eye because we can’t handle it or want to be inconvenienced by it.
The breastplate of righteousness protects our vital organs, our hearts and lungs which enable us to love as Jesus loves and to breathe justice in all that we do.
The shoes of a Roman soldier had soles which could grip or could graft – good for marching and for standing firm. There will be times when we are called to take Jesus’ words into places that may not want them to be spoken; there will be times when we will need to stand firm until that truth is heard, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel. These are not Hush-Puppies with cushioned soles.
The shield of faith is not the gladiator’s small round one for use in one on one battle, but the large rectangular shield of the Roman Legions, that could be locked together to form a wall of protection, all around and overhead too. Standing by our convictions can be hard to do on our own, we need to spend time with other like-minded people – let’s call it fellowship, or church, or homegroups – so that we can protect and strengthen each other in our resolve to serve Jesus and to put him first in our lives.
The helmet of salvation protects our heads and our necks – there will be times of question and doubt, they are both a natural part of faith – but if we are protected we may find ourselves convicted to such an extent that we are willing to stick out our necks and speak up for what is right.
And then Paul gives us a weapon: the word of God. How dull do we let this ‘sword of the spirit’ become? And yet this sword is what cuts between what is true and what is false.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is dealing with the fall out from all the miraculous feedings and talk of bread, his body being the bread which we are to feed on. People are turning away from him, not able to commit after all. Jesus asks the 12 closest to him whether they also wish to turn away, after all, ‘this teaching is difficult’. The 12 decide to stay. Peter’s heart and soul have hit the nail on the head once more – ‘where else would we go – only you have the words of eternal life’. However, we know that Judas’ heart was already being turned away. Peter wearing that helmet of Salvation was fighting faithfully on towards the goal. Judas had already begun to lose the spiritual battle.
I wonder where we are today as we consider these words, and this challenge? Some of us may never have fully committed our lives to Jesus, despite having been baptised and confirmed. Some of us may feel battered and bruised by the spiritual battle that is raging around us without even recognising the battle for what it is. We need to make the decision, just as the disciples had to – will we stick with Jesus or wander away – and we need to make that decision for ourselves. We can seek advice from others, ‘phone a friend’, but at the end of the day the commitment we make to Jesus is ours and ours alone. So what will it be?
Paul began this letter by telling the Ephesians that he never ceases in praying for them, and now he reminds them to keep praying for all things at all times, and he asks them to pray for him. So I pray for you as you consider these words, that you will don the spiritual armour, sharpen your spiritual weapon, and commit to loving God and loving your neighbour in every possible way.
Read Paul’s description of the ‘heavenly armour’Ephesians 6: 10-20