Homily for Proper 21, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 23rd, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 6:10-20
“Put on the whole armour of God.”
May I make a confession? I do not find the militaristic language of putting on the “whole armour of God,” to be terribly helpful language. Of course, I mean no disrespect to those who have served or continue to serve in the military. The image is simply outside of the realm of my own experience. I have never served, and please God, never will serve in a uniform nor raise a sword against another human being. And to be quite honest, as someone who believes the Christian gospel to be a message of peace, I find the language troublesome. While I do realize that the militaristic language used is about battling supernatural evil and standing against life-destroying powers of darkness, it is all to easy, and we are all-too-ready, to point out and judge evil without much critical thought or reflection. Too be sure, we should stand against the forces of evil that threaten God’s good gift of life, but I think that often we name as evil things that simply frighten our sense of well-being and security, things that challenge us, and in the end we learn that they are not evil at all. Furthermore, we spend much time looking for evil in those around us and forgetting our own propensity to harm others. I find this troubling. Thus, this passage’s militaristic metaphors of armour and battle may serve more to mislead than to encourage.
To deepen my wariness of such language and metaphor is the way the Church has appropriated such this particular passage in hymnody and its Christian Education. Now, I know that Onward Christian Soldiers will be a much-beloved hymn to many and I am aware of the arguments that state that the language of such a hymn is simply symbolic or a metaphor for the Christian life. But there is no such thing as a “simple” metaphor or as something being “just” a symbol. Symbols and metaphors are things of great power. They carry within them a depth of meaning that is internalized and then lived out in practice. Should we choose to see the mission of the Church as “marching as to war” then we make it in the nature of our faith to conquer, suppress, and hurt others in whom we perceive the forces of evil at work. There can be no other outcome -- in wars people are hurt, are maimed, and are killed. And whether or not we physically hurt others, through living out this metaphor we have within us the potential to do incredible psychological and spiritual harm to others, not to mention ourselves. The men and women around Jesus expected him to draw the sword and overthrow the oppressor, but Jesus overcame evil not through shows of force but with a demonstration of humility. Indeed, our Lord’s humble self-offering robs such frightful metaphors of their power.
Sadly, though, the Church has laid hold of this particular metaphor as near and dear. Many who grew up in conservative Christian traditions will remember being taught to memorize Scripture, as a sort of “sword drill” in which memorized passages are sputtered out in attack against all manner of heresy because the “sword of the Spirit is the Word of God.” What kind of Christian education is this? The Word of God as a weapon to attack another child of God leaves me cold.
As we hear Scripture proclaimed in our assemblies and as we read our sacred texts we discover, though, that Scripture is graced with an abundance and variety of metaphor. We are not restricted to one particular militaristic metaphor that speaks of the Christian life; rather we have an expansive repertoire on which to draw. We are free to think in multiplicity of metaphor; where one ceases to function with meaning, we return to the core of our faith and begin to explore new ones. This is exactly what Paul was doing when he first employed this militaristic language. It was a language that made sense in his context. When Jesus went about his preaching, he used agricultural metaphors, of seeds scattered and vineyards planted, for he preached amongst a rural people. When Paul began his preaching, his metaphorical grammar shifted, to a language of sport and battle, of races won and battles fought. He did so because the people to whom he preached were an urban people and these were urban metaphors.
Who are we, and what does the gospel of Christ have to say to the world in which we live? What are the metaphors needed today to share the word of faith? Most importantly, though, what is at the heart of any metaphor of the Christian faith, and what does the metaphor proclaim?
If we leave aside the armour metaphor itself for a moment, let us consider Paul’s purpose in using it. He begins this passage by asserting, “be strong in the Lord.” He ends the passage by praying that he might “make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel.” Within this context of strength and boldness, the militaristic metaphor surely makes sense. Yet, when we consider where it is that we find our strength, truly, I feel drawn in another direction, to a servant-king, whose humility and gentleness were stronger than any sword, shield, helmet or spear. I am drawn to the metaphor of a master who bends down to wash the feet of his servant. I am drawn to the metaphor of the great physician who when we are found lifeless, beckons to us in words of hope, “wake up, come forth.” I am drawn to the metaphor of a mother hen gathering her brood within her embrace. I am drawn to the metaphor of a good shepherd who suffers not the loss of one of his flock. These, too, are bold metaphors – bold in their gentleness, and bold in their claim to power in vulnerability.
How do we proclaim our gentle faith boldly in our context? What are our metaphors?
When someone among us feels lonely, having lost their life partner, and indeed their own hope for the future, shall we not take the risk of wrapping them in the blanket of compassion, which is the embrace of Lord?
When someone has been given the heart-breaking news that their job will come to end, or even more tragically, that they are faced with chronic or terminal illness, shall we not take the risk to be their companion and walk with them on the Emmaus road, a road in which tears are wiped away; a path, which is the presence of our Lord?
When someone has been immobilized emotionally, psychologically, physically, by forces beyond their control, shall we not take the risk of offering the word of encouragement, which is the Word made flesh, in whom we live and move and have our being?
And when someone is overtaken by the poverty of hunger and pangs of thirst, shall we not offer them food and drink, which is truly the life-giving body and blood of our Lord.
Boldness in humility, proclamation in acts of gentleness: These are the metaphors that give me strength, and yes, I believe they are true to Paul’s longing to preach the Word of God boldly. These are the metaphors that clothe me in Christ. There are, for each of us, many more. It would be a shame if we chose not to explore them.
c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means without the express, written permission of the author.