SJF • Proper 17b • Tobias S Haller BSGWe come this week to the last portion of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, from which we have been hearing readings over the last two months. He begins with that word beloved by congregations with long-winded preachers, “Finally.” There is an old saying that when an Anglican preacher says “Finally” you’re within moments of the end, but if it’s a Baptist don’t get your hopes up!
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand on that evil day, and having done everything, to endure.
When Saint Paul uses this word, he does so in a double sense — not only is he coming to the end of his letter but he is also talking about a more important “finally,” the end of days. He is talking about the final struggle, the last battle, and how Christians are to be prepared, finally, for this conflict.
He begins by advising the people of Ephesus to put their trust in the Lord, and to put on the whole armor of God. God’s armor, mind; not human armor. For, as he assures them, the coming battle is not going to be against human foes — enemies of flesh and blood — but against the disembodied forces of evil that pervade and perfuse the very system of the world. It is not the evil of individual people, the wrong they do or the sins they commit, against which he calls the Christian to be armed. Rather, it is against the system of wrong, the structure of evil itself, that Paul calls the Christian to take a stand.
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What is this system of evil, the cosmic power of this present darkness? One of the TV shows I’ve enjoyed watching over the last few years is The Sopranos. If you’re not familiar with it, it is not about a choir; it’s about a New Jersey organized crime family — but rather than focusing simply on the criminal aspect, as many television programs and films have done in the past, this one shows the family side — not just the Family with a capital F, the Mafia, but the flesh and blood family of a crime boss and his wife and their two kids — and his girlfriends (for he is unfaithful)— and their aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins, the whole mob of them.
And one of the things that’s most fascinating about this world of organized crime is the extent to which those who inhabit it — these flesh and blood people — find themselves forced into doing things they really don’t want to do, things they wouldn’t do if they had the choice, and which aren’t even, in many cases, to their advantage, and which usually don’t make them happy. They are compelled to do these things because of the system in which they are trapped — the system of unwritten rules of respect and revenge, of blood and of honor, and that old Italian word vendetta.
The irony is that they are fully aware of this paradox, this entrapment in a system against which they struggle helplessly. One of them often amuses his cronies by doing an imitation of a character from one of their favorite films, The Godfather — and isn’t it odd that these supposedly real-life gangsters would spend their time watching gangster movies! — “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!” Flesh and blood cannot escape this system, even if they are bold enough to try. For the system is based on obligation. One of the phrases that comes up more than once in this series is, “Tony, you have to do this!” And what Tony Soprano has to do usually involves gunfire, an unscheduled trip to the pine barrens in the trunk of a Mercedes, or an impromptu burial at sea.
And so these organized criminals find themselves trapped in a system which brings them little joy and much suffering: unable to break free from the rules and obligations that create so much needless suffering and pain. Even Boss Tony’s wife, with her fabulous house and lavish jewelry, more than half the time looks like she’s smelling something bad. These folks have become slaves to the system that they thought would serve them, slaves to the rules that have become their rulers. They have learned too late that the system of the mob — in their case with a capital M — the system that allows one to do things one would fear to do alone, or have too many compunctions to do alone — the system of mob violence wreaks its own violence upon those who give themselves over to its systemic power.
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Our gospel reading today gives us a picture of a similar kind of bondage to a discipline, in a religious form. One might observe that organized crime and organized religion have one thing in common: organization! Both are systems. The Pharisees and scribes have enlarged the system, adding to the already compendious law of Moses, with their own interpretations and traditions. And they should not be entirely faulted for this; for the law of Moses was already over a thousand years old in their day, and had been conceived for nomadic, rural culture. Since that time great cities had been built, and many features of the law were no longer easily observed, so new interpretations had to be made. The problem is that in making these interpretations the Pharisees often strayed not only from the letter of the law but from its spirit.
Jesus reads them the riot act in today’s passage, when they cluck their tongues and shake their heads over the disciples eating without washing their hands first — and it is important to note that this is not about cleanliness but about a ritual form of handwashing that pious Pharisees performed before eating whether their hands were dirty or not.
For the Pharisees, no less than Tony Soprano, are so caught up in their rules and regulations, that they end up, as we know from how the gospel develops, plotting against Jesus because he is upsetting the system which governs their lives. The system, which was meant to bring holiness and awareness of God’s continual presence, has become instead a means to assail the Son of God himself. The system has become more important than the God it was intended to serve.
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By the time of Saint Paul, sacred and secular systems are hard at work against the infant church, synagogue and praetorium united against them, and Christians are being persecuted — some of them by their own sisters and brothers, parents or children, as Jesus had said would happen. The whole system of the world seems to be against the church: the rulers of the state, and the heads of the religious establishment. So Paul advises the Christians to take up the whole armor of God, to be able to stand on that evil day.
And note the most important thing he says — or rather, doesn’t say. The Christian is to put on all of this armor: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. And yet, clothed in this whole-body armor, armed with this supernatural weapon — the Christian is not to fight, but to stand; and standing, to pray.
What Paul has learned — from his own experience of kicking against the goad until God struck him literally senseless — is that the only way to beat this system is to stop: to stand still and strong, armed and protected, but not fighting; not responding with anger against anger, with assault against assault, with vengeance taken for wrongs done, respect extracted for slights endured, but rather with endurance and witness and patience — hoping all things, bearing all things. This is the way to break the cycle of violence, to stop it once and for all by not giving in to the rules that say you have to have your compensation, you have to have your revenge, or “Tony, you have to do this.”
Finally — and I really am coming to the end — the strength to confront the powers of this world can only come from outside this world — the strength to stand against the system can only come from outside the system — for it is from within the system that all the trouble comes: fornication (by which Jesus means idolatry), theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly. The system will keep on churning up this muck because that is all it can do, and the only way to avoid being pulled back in is to stand in God’s armor, and to pray. The only way to stop it is to stop, to break the cycle by refusing any longer to stay on the mad carnival ride that is the system of this world.
When one person, or a few people, are willing to stand up and say, “No more,” the world and its system can be brought to a halt. When one person, or a few, are willing to stand and endure, armed with God’s protective grace against all the forces that assail them, systems of evil can be overthrown — undone by their own corrupted powers.
So be strong, beloved in Christ, strong in God’s power and not your own; armed with truth and righteousness, shod with the gospel of peace; shielded by faith and crowned with salvation — and bearing God’s Word as your spiritual sword. Pray, sisters and brothers, pray, and persevere; for the battle belongs not to the strong or the fleet, but to those who stand and endure; in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, henceforth and for ever more.+