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08.28.16 War, It’s Spiritual, not Religious Ephesians 6.10-20 Sermon Summary

by on September 1, 2016

Just how, exactly, are we to interpret “putting on the full armor of God”? The same way we are to read the rest of the Bible.


  • The growth of “Spiritual But Not Religious”
  • A comment on This Present Darkness
  • How to get the most out of allegories and parables
  • Two examples: The “sword of the Spirit” and the “shoes for our feet”
  • Two clues for interpreting this passage
  • Three answers to the question: How does God reconcile things
  • Our congregational prayer which was interrupted during worship

A recent story based on documents leaked out of the ISIS camps proves what those of us who have studied Islam already knew: Most ISIS recruits don’t know much about Islam. They know plenty about hatred and violence. In the same way, those of us who know something about Presbyterianism readily acknowledge that though he claims otherwise, Donald Trump is no Presbyterian. He does know a lot about inflammatory rhetoric. These are examples of how something can be “spiritual, but not religious.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of religiously “unaffiliated” Americans rose from 15% to 20% between 2007 and 2012. And 37% of those unaffiliated say they are “spiritual but not religious,” or SBNR.

I first heard about the SBNRers when I was a college chaplain, long before it became popular to consider oneself such. I think the designation is helpful in maintaining a conversation about spiritual things and for what the church can learn from such people. But SBNR is entirely incompatible with mature Christianity. The Bible and theology and history all point to Christianity as a religious community. The best SBNR can do within is Christianity is produce anemic Christians, separated from the Body of Christ, however spiritual they may be.

That being said, SBNR does accurately describe Trump’s version of Presbyterianism and ISIS’ version of Islam, and also the state of war in which we find ourselves.

The biggest contributor to our experience of war, whether an internal struggle with our emotions and thoughts, the simmering relationships we have with others, or even the international conflicts that exist today, is spiritual in nature.

When I was in high school, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness was the most popular book among my friends. It vividly describes two realms, the earthly and the spiritual, and how the latter determines the former, depending on the prayers of the faithful. It had the effect of bringing the spiritual back into consciousness. It also increased our prayer.

But the book also distracted us from action since we were praying so much. It gave us a sense of our own self-importance in determining the outcome of world events. It lulled us into collusion, which is the appearance of activity resulting in little progress.

Central to the “spiritual warfare” movement is this “whole armor of God” list. It is an allegorical passage, much like a parable. As such, it spawns creative reflection and application, like Peretti’s book. But it is not to be taken too literally.

We know this because the list itself is ironic. It is the “armor of God” to be worn in pursuing “the gospel of peace.” The point of the list is to redirect our trust to God, not to arms, and to pursue peace, not war.

There are two other cautions to keep in mind with allegories. One is to not become too attached to them. The way you interpret a parable today won’t be the same as a year from now. And don’t be too universalistic. The profound meaning you discern for your life today doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone else.

Let me share two examples of these interpretive guidelines from my own life. Ephesians lists among the armor of God the “Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” As a young conservative evangelical, I knew this sword was the Bible. We learned that swords are both defensive and offensive weapons. So we trained to use it that way: To argue, defend, and attack with the Bible—a verse parry here, a verse thrust there.

Later I discovered what Hebrews 4:12 says is true: “The word of God is living and active.” God didn’t stop speaking in the second century when the church decided what books would be in the Bible. I realized that the sword is “of the Spirit.” It continues to blow and flow, as Jesus said, and so God’s Word can’t be read off a page: It must be discerned.

Another example is the “shoes for your feet.” If you look around you you’ll see everyone has different shoes—unless you’re on a sports team! Just think how many different shoes you have for dress, sports, beach, etc. These are all shoes though they are different. They share a common purpose to protect your feet. But the choice is yours as to which pair will do that best. Just so, Ephesians says, we’re all to be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. But how we do that varies according to each individual.

You can, and should, interpret every item on this list in the same way, and then discuss it with others, keeping in mind not to universalize your interpretation onto them.

The key to the meaning of this passage comes at the beginning: “Be strong in the LORD, and in the strength of his power.” We’re not to be strong in our own power. We’re to rely in all things on the Spirit. And we begin to do that through prayer—not so much prayer against the evil spirits, and certainly not prayer against our earthly enemies. But prayer discerning God’s will for the saints and our ability to proclaim peace.

There’s another clue in that Ephesians speaks about the “mystery of the Gospel.” The particular example of this mystery in Ephesians is the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. In principle, the mystery is God’s reconciling activity. How does God reconcile? Traditionally there are three answers.

One answer is that God separates in order to reconcile. This understanding helped Daniel and his friends reconcile living in Babylon, for example. They separated themselves with diet and prayer. This is also the idea behind an eternal heaven and hell. But it seems strange that reconciliation would employ separation, so another answer was developed.

The second answer is that God reconciles by annihilation. Instead of separating sinners and saints, for example, the sinners simply cease to exist. This idea seems to underlie such parables of Jesus about harvest of good crops and destruction of bad.

The third answer is what informs Ephesians. It is that the “dividing wall of hostility is brought down in Christ.” Somehow, the separated Gentiles are brought together with the Jews. Somehow the progidal son returns to the family. Somehow, mysteriously, God is able to reconcile all things.

And this is the point: it is a MYSTERY how reconciliation is done, and it is GOD’S responsibility to do it.

Ultimately the “armor of God” list invites us to meditate on these things: Dependence on God; the mystery of gospel; the person of Jesus Christ; the presence of the Spirit; and the true nature of our enemies. Meditating on these things makes it possible for us to: “Love our enemies; pray for those who persecute us; turn the other cheek; live in hope; and experience a peace that transcends understanding.”

And all this is possible when we remember that war is spiritual and not religious.

Below I include our pastoral prayer because on Sunday we were distracted with our concern for a member of the congregation who fell and was injured during the prayer.

This morning we remember with thanksgiving the life of Kathy Figenshau. We are in mourning over her death, not only because it takes her away from us, but also because it was so unexpected. We thank you for your faithfulness to her, and the hope we have because of Christ’s resurrection. As we remember her service to this church, and the example of diligence and excellence she offered to us all, we offer to you our grief and our thanks.

We pray for our congregational Nominating Committee who will prayerfully discern Kathy’s replacement on our session. Bless them as they perform this important service to our church, and also as they seek members of our Memorial Committee and the Annual Campaign Task Force. Make us all sensitive to your calling in the Spirit as we seek to follow Christ in service to the church and the world.

We pray regarding the murders of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill in poor, rural Mississippi. We thank you for their ministry of healing, of both body and spirit. And we pray now for comfort for their community, providence for their medical needs, and justice in accordance with your love.

We ask you to be with the recovery efforts in Italy following the earthquake there. We pray for the grieving families and friends of those whose lives were ended in this disaster. And we ask you to bless and keep safe all who are working to help affected communities respond and rebuild.

Praying in the Spirit, armed with your armor for the battle of redemption, we are bold to pray for that which can only come from you, even peace. We bring this supplication because we know you are a God of love—you want to help us. And we know you are a God of power—you are able to help us. Seeing your love and power revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection, we pray for the peace of the world, and give thanks for the progress of peace in places like the country of Colombia.

Armed with your Spiritual armor, we are also bold to intercede for victims of war. We ask you to comfort those who grieve the loss of their family and friends and health and homes. Guide military leaders to victories for peace, and guide political leaders to distribution of justice. And we pray for the other victims of war, those who perpetrate it. They act against the divine image with which you created us. They betray their calling as your children. Their brokenness manifests in their aggression. We pray you bless them with healing.

And as Ephesians urges upon us, pray for those who proclaim the mystery of the gospel, the good news of reconciliation. Make us all ready, by whatever shoes we wear, to join their ranks, and to be messengers of love and acceptance, and of forgiveness and reconciliation, and of your peace which transcends understanding.

In the silent moments that follow, hear the prayers of our hearts concerning those things that keep us from fully experiencing your peace in our own lives . . . Hear us, we pray, for we pray in the name of him who taught us to pray for justice and peace, saying Our Father . . .


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