Ephesians 6:10-20; Mark 10:35-45
20th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 17.10.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we come to the end of our six-part series in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In the letter, we have encountered some awe-inspiring visions of God, and, as with two weeks ago, also encountered some practical lessons on what this means for our daily living. Well, as Paul comes to the end of his letter, he returns to a theme that must have been foremost in the minds of those he was writing to: how to cope with the struggles of life. For the Christians in Ephesus, facing often severe persecution for their faith, this must have been a live issue. And for Paul himself, in prison and facing a death sentence, the issue must have felt particularly pertinent.
But for us too Paul’s words hold relevance. For all the technological and health advances made in the last two thousand years since Paul wrote his letter, it is rare to meet anyone for whom life is a breeze, for whom there are not aspects of life that don’t present struggles or challenges.
For some of us life just feels like a struggle, a battle: with our health, with the challenges of caring for loved ones, with loneliness or depression, with relationship difficulties, with anxieties about the future. There are personal struggles.
And there are larger systemic, institutional struggles as well, for justice and integrity in our public life. Take the spotlight on the metropolitan police at the moment in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder. It is clear that its not simply the case of a few bad apples in the police force, but of a culture which allows such apples to be tolerated and affect others. Indeed Paul writes that our struggles are not just against flesh and blood but against the “powers of this dark world”. Overcoming evil and injustice in our world is not just a matter of replacing some bad people with some good people, but is about bringing about systemic change, changing the culture and values of our public life and institutions.
The truth is that this side of heaven, life will never be without challenge, without struggle. Indeed, our Gospel reading makes that clear, when Jesus asks James and John whether they are willing to drink the cup of suffering with him. So the question is: how do we respond? How does our faith in God help?
Well, to answer that, Paul turns to an image that would have been very familiar to him and his readers – that of the Roman legionary. He would only have needed to have looked out of the window of his prison cell to the Roman soldier standing guard to get inspiration for his image. The Christians in Ephesus would only have had to wander onto the street to see a Roman legionary passing by to be reminded of the metaphor.
The Roman army was the most ruthlessly efficient and powerful fighting force known to the world at that time. The Roman Empire existed and was sustained by the legions and by the legions alone. And their unrivalled strength came not from the size of their armies – they were normally far smaller than the armies of the gauls, goths, persians and other tribes and nations they fought against – nor from their individual strength or bravery – other peoples were physically larger and braver – but from their unparalleled discipline, attention to detail and preparation. Roman soldiers were better equipped, better protected and better armed than any other soldiers of their day.
And it is to this that Paul refers when encouraging the Christians to take a stand amidst the struggles of life. Put on the full armour of God he tells them so that when evil days come you may be able to stand.
Buckle the belt of truth around your waist. Onto the belt of the Roman soldier everything else was hooked and kept in place: not just the sword but the armour as well. The truth of God’s promises and commands, the truth of his love for us, is the place where we start. How often do we remind ourselves of the great truths of God – his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his victory over death. When we start a new day, when we approach a situation that we know holds real challenge for us, we would do well to heed Paul’s encouragement, and remind ourselves of God’s great truths. We may do that by reading the Bible, by reciting the creeds, by singing a hymn, by reading a prayer. Stop, and consciously remind yourself of some of the great truths of God.
The next piece of the armour is the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate provided the body’s main protection, covering the body’s vital organs – the heart, the lungs, the liver. When Paul talks about righteousness he is meaning that which makes us “right with God”. We are to remind ourselves that we have been made right with God, that our sins have been forgiven, that Christ died for us so that we might know life. It is what we remember every time we take communion. Our confidence comes from what God has done for us.
In the face of struggles we can often feel guilty or inadequate. A voice inside of us may say: “You’re not doing enough… or You’re not good enough…”
During such times we are to remind ourselves that whatever our situation, it is God who has reached out to us, it is he who has taken the initiative. It is not our worthiness, but his love, that holds us fast. It is not what we have done for God but what he has done for us that is our source of strength.
We find strength to face and respond to the struggles of life by trusting in who God is and by trusting in what he has done for us. We also find strength by supporting one another.
Paul’s next part of the Roman soldier’s equipment he focuses on are the sandals. Compared to swords or armour, these seem rather unimportant, but not to a Roman legionary. It was the design of the sandals, with strong leather and metal studs, perfected over decades of use, that gave the soldiers maximum grip in battle, to prevent them slipping or stumbling at the crucial moment, whilst retaining the comfort that could enable them to march up to forty miles a day.
In the same way, living in peace and unity with one another (Paul describes putting on the sandals of the gospel of peace) can seem unimportant or taken for granted, but is vitally important if we are to stand up amongst the struggles and challenges of life. If you have watched any of the BBC documentary on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, you will have seen their frustration that so much energy was spent on internal feuding between their two sets of staff rather than them working together to address the major issues of the day. If we are to be able to respond to our challenges, whether personal or wider, then we need the strength that unity brings.
And that message is reinforced by a fourth piece of equipment, the shield of faith. These shields, once soaked in water, were highly effective at putting out burning arrows fired against them, but the greatest strength of the Roman shield was how it could be linked together with other shields to form an impenetrable wall. Indeed in certain circumstances, the legions would form a “tortoise” where shields were held over their heads as well. Most armies the Romans fought against valued individual honour and glory above all else, and so their warriors acted as thousands of individuals spurred on by a desire for personal glory. The Romans instead drew strength and protection from each other, looking out for the interests of the soldiers either side of them. And its what helped to make the Roman army almost undefeatable for several centuries.
James and John in our gospel reading wanted individual glory, to be raised above the other disciples to positions of power and authority. Jesus instead calls them to serve the needs of others.
When we love one another, when we live at peace with one another, when we serve one another, we can find the strength to respond to the struggles and challenges of life. And as Paul points out, a huge part of that is through prayer. He urges them to pray for their fellow Christians and to pray for him. And if he was writing to us today, he would be urging us to pray for one another too, to be holding one another up in prayer.
Paul began his letter to the Ephesians with prayer; he interrupts the middle of his letter with prayer; and it is appropriate that as he ends his letter, he is urging his readers to pray too. It is one of the ways we express our unity and love for one another, and it is one of the ways we express our faith in who God is and in what he has done for us. As we face the challenges of life, let us pray, and let us place our faith in God.