A Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (22/08/21): Not Against Blood and Flesh

Ephesians 6:10-20

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the forces of evil in heavenly places.

Paul at the point at which he was writing to the church in Ephesus was in prison. He was part of the church in a stage of its history when it was subject to persecution. The church was in conflict. Paul picks up the obvious metaphor for such circumstances, the metaphor of war, and he portrays individual Christians as soldiers in that conflict. But Paul wants to make it clear, the conflict which the Church and Christians find themselves in, is not a conflict with other human beings. As much as real human beings had laid their hands on Paul, as much as they had taken him and placed in chains and in a prison cell, as much as Christians in many places were suffering persecution at the hands of other human beings, the real conflict which Paul is directing his readers’ attention to is not with people. Perhaps the struggles which the Church finds itself in now is of different order. At least for us it is highly unlikely that we risk physical harm from other people simply for coming to Church, though of course that is not the case everywhere. And yet there are things in the world and in our society which as Christians we are opposed to, and find we would want to struggle against. And in truth our struggle is in the same order which Paul’s and his friends was.
Our struggle is not with “blood and flesh” but with the same destructive forces at work in are world as in Paul’s

Paul comes very close to using a language which we would find very difficult to accept or really understand, a language which the whole of the Bible in fact speaks. Paul comes very close to using the language of demons. He speaks of rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, he speaks of the forces of evil.
His language is rather concrete, as though these things had minds and wills of their own. He is speaking not so much of demons, but rather of the rulers of demons. He sees that there are things which have power to control human lives, and have destructive effects in society, which take on a life of their own.
Perhaps his language is mythological, or perhaps he is being figurative or metaphorical. Paul does, and perhaps we should, recognise that we are in a conflict were are fighting against the forces of evil in the world, our conflict is not so much with people who do bad things but with the forces which prompt them to do those things.

A concrete example might be racism. Our conflict with racism is not with racists so much as it is with racism itself. As believers we see that all humans are created in the image of God and therefore each person is equal in worth and dignity. The action of racists which treats one group of people as of more value than another on the basis of race is to believers self evidently wrong. We object to and should resist what racists do. However our conflict is not with racists, it is with as Paul; might put it, with the rulers and authority, with the cosmic power with motivates racists. It is Paul’s way of thinking which raises the question of what it is that makes a person think and act like that. It is Paul’s way of thinking which raises the question of what circumstances and organising principles sustain and reproduce such thought and action. On the same basis of belief, that of the equal worth of every hum being as children of God, we would or should oppose sexism. We recognise that the oppression, exploitation and/or abuse of women an the basis of their gender is wrong and should be resisted. But again it is that larger question which we have in mind.
Now this is not to say that individual racists and sexists are not culpable. This is not to say that they should not be called to account. This is not to say that individual racists and sexists should not be resisted and the harm they produced prevented. But it is to say that our real conflict is with racism, and with patriarchy and the misogyny which it creates. At this point we recognise that what we might be talking about systemic racism and sexism, or institutional racism or sexism.

Of course such forces of evil are of very little importance if none of us have a planet to live on. The issue of race, or the issue of gender, male or female or of any gender identity is meaningless if our environment can no longer sustain any of our lives. The forces which drive the environment catastrophe around us do seem very much to have the kind of transcendent but wilful power of the sort of cosmic forces of which Paul writes. And yet, no less than racism or sexism this is the product of the thought and action of individuals of blood and flesh. Environmentalists do sometimes point our that half of all the emissions that are driving destructive climate change are produced by just seven corporations. These corporations are run by a handful of individual human beings. We know their names, they have addresses. The suggestion is of course that the struggle against climate change could be taken directly to the people who are most directly responsible for most of the damage which is being caused.
We can also argue that those seven corporations are just the most visible part of the way in which economic life is organised in the world. And that the economic injustice we witness in the world, where some have not nearly enough, whereas a tiny minority are taking an ever large amount to the detriment of the world, it possible to say that this is a product of the same thing. For a very long time I have said that if you ever wanted to understand what the bible means when it talks about the demonic, or especially when Paul talks about cosmic powers or authorities or rulers, we have to look no further than market forces, and the way in which all are lives are subjected to them. But of course there are a very small number of individuals who are benefiting most from the dominance of such thinking. In the political conversation of the last few years those people might be called the “elite” or the “1%”. They of course include all of those individuals who run those seven corporations which are doing the majority of the environmental damage. It is all of a piece.

The extremist position in all of this might be to suggest that answer would the simple elimination of those individuals.. Doing that would go halfway to solving the worlds problems. Just as the elimination of individual racists and sexists would remove racial prejudice and misogyny from society. We know there names, we can get their addresses. A brief letter bombing campaign, and job done, all would be well. Time was when Anarchists had a reputation for throwing bombs, because they maintained a campaign of what they called “propaganda of the deed.” They advocated exactly that kind of assassination to make the world a better place. Truth is, not that you might know it from the way anarchists are portrayed, they abandoned that approach long ago. You are much more likely now to find anarchists running social centres or working in foodbanks now than throwing bombs. This is so because most anarchists have come to the same conclusion which Christians who heed Paul’s advice have known all along. The way the anarchists put it is: “the problem is a social relationship, you can’t blow up a social relationship.” In Paul’s words: “Our Struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh. . .

This passage from Ephesians is most famous for its description of the whole armour of God. In my experience, sermons on this passage usually work through the individual items of equipment which Paul describes, and how they might be used in our own struggles in the present. That seems fair enough, but we can reserve that for another occasion. Any army, any soldier in conflict is looking towards certain victory conditions, what is it they are seeking to achieve, and how are they equipped accordingly. Over recent years we have heard a great deal of debate about whether British soldiers in conflict zones have been given the right equipment to do the job they have been asked to do. If we look at the equipment Paul suggests the Christian is being supplied with what emerges is a picture of what Paul thinks victory might look like. Almost all the equipment which is given is defensive, a shield, a breast plate, a helmet. Even the sword is actually the short stabbing sword that Roman soldiers used to hold off their enemies, not the dramatic two-handed broad sword of later knights. With that equipment the victory condition Paul has in mind is endurance or resistance. Victory is still being there when the enemy has exhausted its attacks. The conflict in which we are engaged is a defensive one, we are trying not to be overcome and controlled by the forces we are resisting. We are trying not to have our lives shaped and determined by racism or sexism or the economic forces that are destroying the world or by any of those other powers that are at play in the world that reduce human life from the fulness which God intends for all his creatures.
Just one warning goes with all of this. When we picture ourselves in this armour, we should not picture ourselves defending the top of some hill. There is no moral high-ground for us as Christians to stand on Each of us is as enmeshed in those powers and authorities as anyone else, the conflict rages within each of us as much as it does around us.

One piece of equipment stands out from the list which Paul supplies: the shoes.
As shoes for you feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
Which strikes me as a nice nice paradox in the midst of all that military hardware. But it also points to how this conflict will be carried out: by announcing the Good News. The early Church, from Paul onwards, grew spectacularly. One of the chief reasons it did grow was it demonstrated its power over exactly the powers which Paul is pointing to in his message to the Ephesians. The church grew because it set people free from the social forces that were controlling their lives and took them into a life that was worth living, that life in all its fulness which God in Christ offers. That remains the mission of the Church and of Christians now. To quip ourselves to build relationships and communities which resist the destructive powers which surround us, by sharing and living the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.

Not Against Blood and Flesh by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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