In the more rational church contexts these texts have long ago reached “out-there” status. They’re a bit too sci-fi fantastical to be taken literally, so we have defaulted to metaphorical understandings. But the words of the author of Ephesians are amazing. As I read them I knew they were true at some level. I couldn’t help but nod my head. And then shake my head at the things in this world that struggle against the will and promises of God.
Something about the phrase “…against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” It gave me a chill to read it.
And it is true that in many ways are contending against forces beyond our control.
And while it seems naive or childish to imagine that the “Devil made me do it,” there is a spiritual sickness that needs rooting out in our present time. Just like there have been spiritual sicknesses in times past. As long as God’s people have been on this orb of dirt and water, as long as we have struggled with flesh and blood people over access to power and resources. As long as we have been in relationship with God, we have faced what the author is trying to put words around. Our rational minds want to push away the idea of spiritual forces. But what if we suspended our need to rationalize and considered our present spiritual health crisis?
When people we have trusted to tell us the truth, offer consistent, blatant lies about things that impact the lives of thousands if not millions of people…
When the evil of racism causes authorities to use their powers to block access to resources, security and well-being for specific groups of people rather than care for their needs…
When we have a growing opioid crisis because market forces pressure some healthcare professionals to skirt the oath to do no harm…
When so many of us are stressed out by the rhetoric of American productivity and industriousness, and find too often that hard work does not always translate to a good living…
We can certainly add more to this sampling.
But combating it is not about donning armor of kevlar or steel.
It’s about surrounding ourselves with the truth and righteousness that comes from a relationship with God. And God’s truth and the faith we’ve been given is what compels us to struggle against these forces. Not with violence and war, but with different weapons.
In a time when we flirt with military parades to show dominance and compensate for insecurities, we are urged to rely on a different means of protection — speaking truth, trusting righteousness, living our faith, nurturing a relationship with the spirit of God.
When the flesh and blood adversaries of this world continue their agenda, the church is called to struggle against it.
In the reading from John many of the disciples at Jesus’ feet can’t get what he is saying. They find his enmeshing of the two kingdoms too out there for them. So Jesus asks the ones that didn’t leave if they also want to walk away. And Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go; you have the words of eternal life?” As a church what we offer is an alternative to the flesh and blood struggles.
Though Jesus speaks a lot about the heavenly things. He is well aware that we are earth-bound people. And this eternal life we participate in through our relationship with Jesus is not about some time after we leave this realm and go on to other, bigger and better things. It is about accessing the power of that relationship with God right now.
Somehow God’s age, God’s time overlays the chronos of our existence. Like an armor maybe.
It’s why the sacrament of communion is so meaningful to the church. It is the moment every Sunday when the cosmic becomes tangible. When what is of God can be held in our hands and touched to our tongues. When the amazing grace of God — the free gift of truth, faith, hope, righteousness, salvation and peace — is handed over to each of us. Not in proportion to how we’ve earned it. But in the same abundance as the person next to us. Or the person in the church down the street. We come hungry for this meal precisely because it is not of this world.
We share the same struggles as the first followers of Jesus. We are stuck in this earthly space where we see with our eyes and hear with our ears things that make us want to scream or fight or just disappear. It can be a lot to process. A lot to bear. And we wonder what will be the breaking point to the spiritual sickness we see around us and among us.
And as much as we want to rationalize our faith, the message of the gospel is about more than that. It’s not something we can put in a box and categorize for our own comfort. It is a force that moves in people of faith, giving us strength and courage to struggle on against the forces that defy God. And as we come to this table, somehow we are fed with the truth, righteousness, salvation and faith of God by partaking together in the body of Christ given for us.