By Dan Edwards
In today’s lesson from Ephesians Paul urges us to gird ourselves for spiritual battle. He says strap on your gun belt, but you need a different kind of gun because this is different kind of enemy.
We are not fighting against flesh and blood. That means we are not fighting against each other. We are not fighting the people in our family. We are not fighting our neighbors or the members of the other political party. We are not fighting Iraqis or Afghans.
We are fighting against “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” We are fighting against “the spiritual forces of evil.” That sounds pretty dramatic. It sounds like Lord of the Rings stuff.
When Paul talks about spiritual warfare, it includes big cosmic struggles. But spiritual warfare also happens in subtle, everyday ways. Anyone who has read C. S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters knows that evil flourishes in the mundane habits of everyday life. A little malice here, an ounce of sloth there, and before you know it, you’ve got a soul on the path to perdition.
So let’s look at spiritual warfare in ordinary daily life. As usual, Jesus is our best example. I stand in awe of his words and actions in today’s lesson. He has just taught them about the Eucharist. He has said, “Whoever eats me will live.”
Well the crowd did not understand. It sounded like cannibalism to them, and they were repulsed. Up to now, the Jesus movement had been gaining momentum, but this was a crisis. Jesus had offended the crowd. He was on the verge of losing them.
I have been in that position more than once. You know what I have usually done? I have started back pedaling — or explaining. “No. No,” I would have said, “I didn’t mean that. It’s just a metaphor. If that doesn’t work for you, forget about it. Let’s talk about something nice, like the shepherd knowing all his little sheep by name.”
In the face of conflict, I would have rushed lickety split to smooth things out. But Jesus didn’t do that. He said, “Does that offend you? Well, wait until you hear this. And he told them even more astounding things about himself. He added, “If you don’t believe it, you just haven’t been blessed by God with the ability to get these things.”
That’s when almost all of Jesus’ followers said, “It’s been real. We’re out of here.” When Jesus saw that he still had 12 followers left, he asked, “What are you guys doing here? Don’t you want to leave too?”
But Peter said, “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. You are the Holy One of God.”
The most striking thing about this story isn’t Jesus’ shocking teaching. It’s how solid Jesus was in himself, how ready he was to tell the truth, the pure unvarnished truth without regard to how it would play in the press.
Jesus was the human dwelling place of God because he was 100 percent pure, unadulterated Jesus. In the presence of the Pharisees, he was Jesus. In the presence of the Sadducees, he was Jesus. In the presence of Galilean fishermen, King Herod, Pontius Pilate, or his best friends, he was always Jesus. He didn’t need anyone’s approval or permission to be Jesus.
So what’s that got to do with Christianity in general and spiritual warfare in particular? Just this. God made us to be ourselves. Theologian Karl Rahner said, “Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable, word of God.” That means we speak God, we reveal God, precisely by being ourselves. If we are not ourselves, then who will be us?
If we are not ourselves, a unique, irreplaceable, word of God will never be spoken. Never. St. Ignatius Loyola said, “All things glorify God by being themselves.” To the extent we fail to be ourselves, God is not glorified.
St. Ireneaus of Lyons said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” To the extent we are not fully alive, God is not glorified.
Do you see how this leads to spiritual warfare? We rarely kill, steal, or worship idols. But the struggle to be oneself — that’s a challenge.
Why is it so hard to be our unique selves? Paul says, we have enemies standing in our way. He calls them “the cosmic powers of this present darkness … the spiritual forces of evil.”
How do comic power and spiritual forces work to keep us from being ourselves? Let’s start with all the cultural messages that tell us what men and women are supposed to be. Let’s start with all the social definitions of success. I spent the first 30 years of my life mad at God for making me who I am instead of a movie-star hero. I let Hollywood and Madison Avenue tell me what I was supposed to be instead of seeing myself through God’s eyes.
Hollywood and Madison Avenue were the cosmic powers and spiritual forces — or at least their agents. They made me ashamed and afraid to be myself.
Then there is all the negative feedback we get from family and even friends, telling us lies about who we are. We see ourselves through their eyes, not God’s eyes. That keeps us from even knowing ourselves accurately.
So how do we fight against the spiritual powers that want more than anything to prevent us from being who we are? Where do we get the grace to be ourselves, to live out of our true selves, to glorify God by being fully alive?
Paul says we must “take the shield of faith which will quench the arrows of the evil one.” Faith means trusting that God has made us precisely the way God wants us to be. Faith comes from discovering that God loves us, not in a pitying, tolerating way, but God enjoys us just the way we are.
The courage to be ourselves comes from knowing that the world has no jurisdiction over us. The judgments of the world don’t count. God’s judgment counts, and God has judged us good. God has declared us worthy.
God is greater than Hollywood, Madison Avenue, our families, and social definitions of success. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul asked. The answer is: Nobody.
The Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards is the retired Bishop of Nevada.