A Sermon preached Sunday, 26 August, 2012, Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Readings for the Thirteenth After Pentecost, Year B:
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:68-69)
This week I was in the training area to watch an exercise. My host, a British Army padre, looked me up and down with an appraising eye.
“Have you got your armour?”
He was referring to body armour or a flak vest as it was sometimes called. Because we were going into an area where hot bits of steel would be flying around at the speed of sound, it suddenly made sense to be wearing body armour. But, since I work on a quiet base, mostly in an office, and have never been issued body armour, it didn’t occur to me.
“Umm, no, sorry. I don’t have any.”
It’s funny how life sometimes gives a preacher the right metaphor to make sense of Sunday’s readings. Today we hear Paul calling on us to “take up the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11) in perhaps the most famous section of Ephesians. Christians have long been fascinated by Paul’s idea the Christian life as a military struggle against the forces of darkness. That idea is behind old hymns such as “Onward Christian Soldiers” (once the march of the Canadian Forces chaplaincy) though that language, now deemed triumphalist and misguided, has fallen out of favour of late.
For Paul, though, the struggle was real. It was a struggle against the “against the spiritual forces of evil” and in that struggle, he needed every piece of protection he could get. You and I may not think that we are in a struggle against “spiritual forces of evil” if we think of that struggle as something from a movie like The Exorcist, but think of what you face every day. Are you vulnerable to some angry or spiteful thought? Are you tempted to put yourself before others? Are you wounded by what others say or do to you, and find it hard to work it out with them or forgive them? Are you exposed to some tragedy or reversal that leaves you hopeless and despairing? If your answers are yes, then it sounds like real life, and real life has spiritual dangers as real as the hot bits of steel flying around the army training range.
So where do we get this armour from? In the climax of today’s second reading, Paul says that his whole purpose, his whole mission, is “to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19). Paul knows that everything he is speaking about – truth, faith, peace, righteousness – all come from the life and message of Jesus Christ. So if we want this armour, Paul is saying, if we want to be prepared for the spiritual dangers of life, we need to turn to the “mystery of the gospel” and we will find it in the mysterious message and person of Jesus Christ.
When we hear the word “mystery” we think of something that has to be figured out and solved, but I wonder if we have to think of Jesus this way? What Jesus has been saying all through John 6 is pretty mysterious, to be sure. Today we hear Jesus repeating the message we’ve heard all through August:
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
These words continue to be difficult to understand, and not just for us but for some who are in the gospel and who up until then called themselves disciples. These people, we are told, “say “tThis teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60). Those who remain don’t necessarily understand how Jesus can be one with God, how they have to eat his blood and drink his flesh so that he can abide in them, nor do they understand how he can give them eternal life. But they understand, simply and essentially, that Jesus is the one voice of truth they can be sure of. In what I think is one of the most poignant and wonderful verses in scripture, Peter says “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
Earlier in John 6, Jesus had a very simple message for his disciples: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’” (Jn 6:29). Today, as we come to the end of John 6, we are reminded that we don’t have to figure out the mystery, nor are we called to mindlessly believe. The message is simply this: Jesus is who he says he is, he and the Father are one, and if we can get as close to us as we can, if we can live in and with him (the meaning of abide, as I understand it) then all will be well, and we will have that spiritual armour that we need to get through life.
When I was on the prairie, my padre host saw that I didn’t have my armour and he said “Right. Well, we’ll see if we can get you sorted.” He got me fixed up so I could be with the exercise. For me, this little exchange helps me understand what happens when we say to Jesus “Lord, where else can we go? You have what we need” Jesus looks at us, sees what we need, and says “Right, I’ll get you sorted”. And then, as Paul says, we have the armour we need to get through life.
Lord, you have the words of eternal life. Only you can kit us out so we can get through all the things that threaten us in this life. Please give us what we need so we can live as your people in this world, and share your mystery with others who need to hear the words of life. Amen.