Monday, September 3, 2018

Soldiers of the Savior

In Nomine Iesu
Ephesians 6:10-20
September 2, 2018
Proper 17B

Dear saints of Our Savior~

If you’ve been paying attention for the past eight weeks, then you know that we’ve been reading our way through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians is a powerful book full of good news—that you were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be adopted as God’s own child, that you have been saved by grace, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians is a book that pulls no punches, reminding us that we are dead in sin—we are spiritual corpses—apart from Christ. Ephesians tells us how to live together in the unity of the Spirit, as children of the light, speaking the truth in love. All that, and so much more.

But now, today, we finally come to the word “finally.” We hear the final words from Paul to the congregation in Ephesus. This was a congregation dearly loved by Paul. Paul’s farewell to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20 is profound and deeply moving. Decades later, in the book of Revelation, the church at Ephesus gets singled out as a doctrinally pure church whose love had grown cold. Loveless doctrinal purity is always a danger in the church. It’s a reminder that it’s possible to be right . . . but in all the wrong ways.

“Finally,” Paul concludes, “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” He doesn’t just say, “Be strong” or “Live strong.” Their own strength meant nothing. Your own strength means nothing. Be strong . . . in the Lord. Whatever the challenges you face, you don’t have to survive on your own strength. God’s power is made perfect in weakness—in the weakness of the cross and the
grave. Left to our own devices and ingenuity we’re doomed. It’s only in the strength of Jesus that we can “be strong,” and face our fears head on.

We need to be clothed, too—clothed as (of all things) soldiers of the Savior. When Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians he was under arrest—under guard 24/7. It’s safe to conclude that there was an ever-present Roman soldier stationed nearby. Perhaps as Paul beheld that soldier’s uniform—through his Christ-centered vision—he saw you and me—baptized believers—dressed in the full armor of God, like soldiers of the Savior.

A soldier, first and foremost, needs to know and recognize the enemy. And so Paul makes that point clearly: “We do not wrestle,” he writes, “against flesh and blood, . . . but against the powers of this present darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil. . .” Our fight is not against people—flesh and blood. Our enemies are not the atheists or the “freedom from religion” crowd or the Muslims or Planned Parenthood. Christ died for all people without exception. There is no one for whom Christ did not die. Our battle is ultimately with the powers of darkness, the devil and his demons. If you don’t know this—if you don’t know who the real enemy is—then you’re just a sitting duck—a big, fat target.

This is why you need the whole armor of God. We need all the protection we can get. I was sharing this passage about the armor of God with a member in the hospital last week. If you’ve ever been hospitalized, then you know about the standard-issue hospital gown. The typical hospital gown is designed to leave you as unsupported, exposed and as vulnerable as possible. Medical personnel need access to your body, and the hospital gown provides nearly unhindered access. What a privilege it was for me to remind this weak and vulnerable sister in Christ . . . that she was neither weak nor vulnerable—that she was strong in the Lord—that she was clothed in the full armor of God Himself.

Just what is this armor? As a soldier of the Savior, you’ve got the belt of truth around your waist. Truth may be in short supply these days, but truth is the foundation of our faith. God’s Word is truth. God’s people speak the truth . . . in love. You know and believe the truth—that your sins are forgiven in the death of Jesus, and you will live forever in His resurrection life. That’s the truth that enables you to stand your ground in this world of lies.

As a soldier of the Savior, you’ve got the breastplate of Jesus’ righteousness over your heart. It’s like a Kevlar, bullet-proof vest. In your baptism you were clothed with that righteousness of Christ. And listen carefully to what that means: Jesus kept the whole law as your substitute—every commandment. And that perfect life is now yours as a gift. He became your sin in death, so that in Him you might be the righteousness of God. That righteousness is your armor breastplate. No charge can stick to you. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

As a soldier of the Savior, your feet need to be ready to move. Soldiers don’t stand still; they march. Your shoes, Paul writes, are the gospel of peace. When we have good news we’re motivated to move; we want to tell others. The good news about Jesus was meant to be shared and spoken and preached and proclaimed and demonstrated in acts of mercy. In fact, the word “gospel” is a term that comes straight from the battlefield. When the fight was over and the battle won, they sent a runner to bring the good news—the gospel—back to the king. That’s how the marathon was invented. Some guy with a long Greek name ran 26.2 miles to tell the king the gospel, the good news of victory. And then he dropped dead. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it does inspire thousands of people to go out and run marathons every year. (Runners are weird.)

Please note that this good news, Paul writes, is the gospel of peace. Soldiers of the Savior are not waging war (or jihad); we’re waging peace. There is now peace between God and man because of the God-Man who died and rose again. Our enemy is already defeated. The holy war was waged at Calvary, and was won when Jesus died. This morning’s opening hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” is slightly off the mark. We’re not “marching as to war.” We’re on a peace march, telling the whole world that the fight is o’er, the battle won. Christ has conquered, and through faith in Him you have the victory.

Oh, and don’t forget your shield. Arrows hurt, especially the flaming kind. The Roman shield was made of leather and it could be soaked in water ahead of time to extinguish flaming arrows. Your shield is the shield of the faith. I say THE faith because I don’t merely mean the trust in your heart. I mean THE faith once delivered to the saints—the Christian faith—the doctrines and teachings of Christ. That’s what deflects the arrows of Satan.

That’s why Luther found such comfort in the Creed and had people pray the Creed, and why he himself always prayed it with the sick and troubled. When you are sick or weak or doubting, take up your shield, soaked in the water of your baptism, and confess those sturdy words that recall your baptism: “I believe in God the Father almighty.” Going into the world without the teachings and doctrines of THE faith is like going into battle without your shield. You don’t stand a chance. The same goes for the helmet of salvation upon your head.

And by all means, don’t forget your weapon—the soldier’s best friend. But because our battle is not against flesh and blood, our weapon is a spiritual one. The only weapon God puts in your hand is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Nothing but the Word. That’s all we have to defend ourselves. That’s all we need. But a word to the wise: Be careful. Swords are dangerous. Make sure you know how to use your sword, the Word of God. Learn how to apply it and use it appropriately and draw from it life and salvation. How? Go to Sunday school. Attend Bible class. Dust off your small catechism.

Many years ago I was in a production of “Tom Jones,” and in one scene I and another fellow had a good, old-fashioned sword fight. That was one scene that required lots of practice and rehearsal. Forget the sequence of sword strikes, and you risk getting whacked or worse. The battles we wage with the Word of God aren’t pretend, but real. They have eternal consequences. The only way you’re going to get better at handling that sword is to study and apply your mind to the Word of God—and I’d be delighted to help you with that.

Well, there you have it, the whole armor of God—everything you need to withstand the powers of darkness. It’s not exactly the most fashionable and trendy clothing in this year’s fall collection, but only those wearing this attire will be left standing on the last day.

Paul’s final exhortation in Ephesians is that we pray—pray for each other. Pray for all the saints around the world, but especially those who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake. Use your Our Savior picture directory to pray for each person you see in that book. I wonder what might happen in a congregation that prayed intentionally for one another? And please pray for me, your pastor. Pray that I have the courage and the wisdom to apply God’s Word to the lives of those whom God has entrusted to my care.

Paul concludes his letter to the Ephesians on a note of peace and love, and I can’t improve upon his conclusion, so I’ll make it my own: “Peace be to you, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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