August 26th 2018 Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook
I don’t know about you, but I do not love conflict. In fact, I typically try to avoid it if possible!
But I’ve learned the hard way that conflict doesn’t go away on its own. You can’t make conflict disappear by simply ignoring it. Conflict needs to be addressed, and the fastest way to get through conflict is often to address it head on.
We’ve been talking the past few weeks about what it means to “live in love.” We talked about “building one another up in love” and “walking in love.” Last week we talked about “giving thanks in love.” And now this week we’re talking about “moving forward in love.”
It may seem odd that the text for a sermon entitled “moving forward in love” is all about struggle and conflict, with imagery of armor and weapons. But the reality is, love and conflict are not in opposition to one another. In fact, love often requires dealing with conflict. Imagine a love story that doesn’t involve some sort of tension, or struggle. It wouldn’t make a very interesting story, would it? When we really love someone we often have to fight to be with them, or to keep them.
Love doesn’t come easily. There’s always something that must be overcome — whether we’re talking about loving ourselves, loving a significant other, loving our neighbors, or loving God.
You could say that in some ways, the opposite of love is actually apathy — just simply not caring. When you really love someone or something, you care very deeply. It’s when you stop caring that you stop fighting.
And so, Paul closes his letter to the Ephesians, a letter in which he uses the word “love” 17 times (tied for fourth place in the New Testament), with a word about struggle and conflict. Paul doesn’t want us to give up or to be apathetic. He wants us to love God and one another so much that we are willing to engage in conflict, that we’re willing to do battle.
He wants us to be prepared for the fact that as followers of Christ we will have struggles. We will face conflict. It’s not a matter of if, but when. As a church and as individual Christians, there will be skirmishes. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing something wrong, in fact it might mean that we’re on the right track. If we are seeking to live in love and walk in community with others, there will be battles.
Paul has already talked about a number of struggles that we face throughout the book of Ephesians. In chapter four he talked about striving for unity in the midst of divisions within the body of Christ (4:3), about being on guard against false doctrines and deception (4:14), and how we need to try to get rid of bitterness, rage and anger (4:31). In chapter five he talked about avoiding sexual immorality (5:3) and greed (5:4). Each of these are struggles that we face not just outside the church, but within the church as well. Each of them can cause conflicts that threaten to deter us from walking in the way of love.
The True Source(s) of Conflict
The first thing that Paul wants us to be mindful of is the source of our conflicts. Paul tells us that ultimately our struggle is not against other people. Although conflict often comes in the form of other people (and some people seem to stir up trouble wherever they go!), the real origin of our struggle as believers surpasses people – it goes all the way up to “rulers…authorities…powers of this dark world and…spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).
But before we go starting to look for demons behind every rock and tree, let’s keep in mind that these spiritual forces are not necessarily mysterious or unknown. The causes of division are racism, sexism, nationalism. The causes of greed are egocentrism, selfishness, and self-centeredness. Sexual immorality is about looking out for my wants and desires at the expense of others. Falsehood is about manipulating others for our own ends. In chapter five, Paul says that these things are essentially idolatry (5:4) – making ourselves the center of the universe, putting myself in the place of God, thinking that everything revolves around me.
And so, Paul tells us that we need to be prepared. We need to be ready for battle. This battle is not against other people, but neither are these spiritual forces completely indiscernible. These spiritual forces are all around us, and if we’re honest, they’re inside each of us as well.
And so how do we prepare ourselves for spiritual battle? Well, the weapons and armor that we are to put on are fitting for the type of battle that we are engaged in.
The belt of truth. In order to identify what is false, we need to know what is true.
My wife Eboni and I both used to work as bank tellers. And do you know how we were taught to identify counterfeit bills? By memorizing what real money looks, feels, and smells like. It’s pretty much impossible to be alert and aware of every counterfeit bill in the world. If you tried to memorize every fake dollar bill in the world, you’d go crazy because you could never keep pace with all the counterfeits that are constantly being created. The only way to catch a counterfeit bill is to be so familiar with real money that when a counterfeit comes your way you know it’s not the real thing.
It’s the same way with false doctrine. We could try to study false religions and cults all day long in order to be aware of what we’re up against, but the only way to really guard against falsehood is to be so deeply rooted and grounded in the truth of Jesus Christ that we immediately know when something is counter to the way of Christ.
The Breastplate of righteousness. “Righteousness” is the same word in the Greek as “justice.” It’s “rightness,” the way things ought to be. Wearing the breastplate of righteousness means that we do not allow ourselves to get distracted or become complacent with the way things are. It means we’re constantly remembering the way things are supposed to be. Sometimes at work when there’s a policy that everyone disregards, the exception becomes the rule. You give up on following the right procedure because no one follows it anyway. But righteousness is keeping in mind the way things are supposed to be and actively working to make things right.
Verse 15 says that we should have our “feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel [the Good News] of peace” (6:15). We need to be ready to go and to share the Good News about Jesus Christ. Notice that this is a gospel of peace. Although we’re talking about conflict and struggle, the end result of the Good News is peace. Not absence of conflict, but a real, genuine peace where everything is made right, where there is no more need for conflict because the sources of the conflict have been dealt with.
The shield of faith. Faith is not just about believing the right things. It’s about taking action on what we believe in. It’s about putting our absolute trust in God, recognizing our dependence on God. Faith in God doesn’t just happen overnight, it needs to be cultivated, it needs to deepen, but somehow if we’re able to do that, then we can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one.
One of the things that I love about this imagery of the shield is that Roman shields (which of course Paul is referring to here), were made to be joined together. Roman soldiers had these huge shields that basically covered their whole body. But each soldier didn’t just hide behind their own shield. They would link their shields together to form various formations – to form almost like a tank. The soldiers in the front would stand shoulder to shoulder with their swords in their right hands and their shields in their left, partially covering the soldier next to them. The soldiers in the middle of the formation would hold their shields over their heads to cover themselves and the soldiers in front of them and behind them. And they basically became this impenetrable formation not just to protect themselves, but so they could move forward and attack the enemy.
This is a beautiful picture of the Church. As we join forces, as we come together, we build up one another’s faith. Where my faith might be lacking, your faith might be strong, and where your faith is lacking my faith might be strong. Together we can encourage one another to trust and believe God for what we need.
And then lastly, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. A helmet, because so often the enemy attacks our mind and tells us we’re not good enough, or not worthy enough. We need to be not just emotionally and spiritually prepared, but also mentally prepared to withstand the attacks of the evil one. This is why, in chapter three, Paul prays that the Ephesians would “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (3:18-19).
It’s interesting that Paul equates the “sword of the spirit” with “the word of God” (6:17), and it’s intriguing that he uses the image of a sword. The Holy Spirit, speaking through the Word of God, cuts through the lies, the falsehoods, the things that threaten to separate us and divide us. The Holy Spirit allows us to perceive the true causes of division, and that allows us to get to the heart of conflict and struggle.
Friends, in this life we will have struggles. We will face trials and temptations. But as Jesus says in the Gospel of John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
We will face conflict. It’s inevitable! We will face struggles, both individually and as a community. But we need to remember that the real source of our struggles is not each other. There are forces at work beyond our realm that are striving to tear us apart. But, armored with truth, righteousness, the Gospel of peace, faith, and salvation, with the Holy Spirit and the Word of God as our armament, we can not only withstand everything the enemy brings our way, but we can actually move forward! We can move forward with the love of God, bringing God’s love to those who need it most, those who have never experienced the love and grace and mercy of God. We need each other, we cannot do this alone. With God’s help and the love and commitment of each other, we can move forward in love!