Sermon: “Fight the Power”

Ephesians 6:10-20
Twelfth  Sunday After Pentecost
August 7, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon podcast.

brzpw84cuaaz3rsOne of the earliest hymns I remember singing was “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  And I have to admit that I liked the song.  There is something peppy with the music, and yes, it has almost a martial beat to it.  For those of you who don’t know the lyrics it goes like this:

 

Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!
Christ, the royal Master,
leads again the foe;
Forward into battle,
see his banner go!

 

Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!

 

I haven’t sung the hymn for several years, in fact I think it has been about 20 or even 30 years since I’ve sung the song.

 

Part of the reason is that in many churches, the song is considered too militaristic, glorifying war which contrasts Jesus’ nonviolent ministry.  There were moves in the early 80s to strike the hymn from the Methodist and Episcopal hymnals and in 1990 the Presbyterians were able to strike the song from their hymnal.  For many Christians, this is a song that distorts God’s action in the world.  Earlier this year, noted evangelical pastor Brian McLaren felt moved to re-write the hymn.  He had seen the Republican debates where there was talk about Islamaphobia, massive bombing and talk of Jesus all in the same debate.  McLaren worries that the use of the word “foe” is ambiguous and could be interpreted to go against people of a different faith or race. This is McLaren’s re-written first verse:

 

Onward, all disciples, in the path of peace,
Just as Jesus taught us, love your enemies
Walk on in the Spirit, seek God’s kingdom first,
Let God’s peace and justice be your hunger and your thirst!
Onward, all disciples, in humility
Walk with God, do justice, love wholeheartedly.

 

Now it is common in the church that when anything is changed, there will be pushback.  This time around, the push back came from Russell Moore, the head of the Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Moore responds by saying that violent imagery is found not only in hymns, but in the Bible itself.  He notes that Jesus uses warlike imagery and so does Paul.  He says that the foe in the hymn is clear: it is the devil.  He goes on to note that we are peacemakers because we know the real battle doesn’t involve guns and tanks, but it is a spiritual one that is lead by Jesus against the powers.

 

Moore is I think closer to the truth here.  While hymns can be used to justify violence, they also can remind us what it means to live as a Christian: that everyday we face a battle, one that is bigger than anything we have faced.  We need Jesus to lead these armies to battle the foes that keep humanity apart from God and each other.

 

In this last chapter of Ephesians, Paul is giving the church in Ephesus some parting thoughts. Now Paul is writing this from a prison cell.  While he sitting in jail he tells the Ephesians that even while he might have to deal with Roman authorities, the real enemy are forces of cosmic darkness. Because we face powers that are beyond this realm, Paul tells the church to rely on God and be clothed by God to withstand the attacks of the devil.

 

I know that there are some that don’t believe in a devil.  We might find it a bit strange to be talking about a devil and a spiritual battle.  It’s more important to deal with actual problems than something that is made up.

 

But if you have ever dealt with someone dealing with an addiction, you can understand that sometimes evil can be a problem that is bigger than all of us.  Someone with an addiction can want to give up the alcohol or cocaine, but find it so hard to do so.  I’m not saying that serious issues like addiction can only be solved through prayer.  But sometimes evil can wrap us up into situations we never expected to be in.

 

Paul tells the church that faith is not a game.  It is something that needs to be taken seriously because we are in a spiritual state of war.  Paul calls the church to discipleship, to learn how to follow Jesus in order that they can stand against the wiles of evil.

 

We live in a world where we are in a battle where evil is wrecking lives.  I’ve shared this story before, but about 25 years ago, I was on a mission trip in Chicago.  It was in a poor neighborhood, north of downtown.  We spent a week at a Baptist church that was involved in the community.  I remember one evening we stood outside in the early spring after a youth meeting.  I remember we started talking to this one young girl who had to be about 15 or so.  She calmly explained that her mother had kicked her out of the house.  Here is this young girl that now has to look for a place to call home and she had to find it quickly.  This wasn’t just about a young woman dealing with housing insecurity. It was also about the powers that separated mother from child and forcing her to

 

There was a lot of poverty and homelessness in Uptown Chicago.  The powers seemed to rule.  But then came Sunday.  When the church worshipped, they worshipped.  It was joyous and it reminded me that even though life was hard, they believed that with God, the powers would be defeated.

 

Fighting the powers means we have to be prepared.  This is why Paul uses this military imagery about the things that we use to stand against the powers of evil.  The belt of truth, the breastplate of justice, the shoes of peace, the sword of the spirit are all the things that train us in the art of battle.  It’s easy to think that when injustice is in the land that it makes no sense to go to Bible Study.  But when we place the amour of God on us, it prepares us for the battle against evil.  We learn from the Bible in church to prepare us for the mission outside.  

 

Onward Christian Soldiers can seem like it is praising war.  And I don’t doubt that it has been used that way.  But what if it is expressing a truth: that all of us sitting here this morning are soldiers in a battle and it is a battle that we will win because God leads us. I think this hymn expresses the reality that this church lives in.  

 

In 1989, the director Spike Lee released a movie called Do the Right Thing.  A soundtrack was released and I remember there was one song that was associated with the movie: Fight the Power by rap group Public Enemy.  It’s a pretty bold song and Public Enemy tended to be a group that was provacative.  In reading the background of the song, I was reminded that the song was revealing of the racial problems taking place in American culture.  Some might think that things are fine and dandy, but the song reveals that things are not fine.  The whole song is an interupption to the status quo.

 

Onward Christian Soldiers might seem anachronistic today.  It could also be something that explains reality in a jarring way just like Fight the Power.  It might just remind us that things are not okay.  That we are in a battle.

 

Brian McLaren is right that we must spread justice and peace, but we are dealing with a battle between good and evil. We do that in love, but the stakes are high, this is not a test.  

 

So let us go out and love each other and love those outside of this church.  But let us know that we are also dealing with powers that aim to keep people down.  We might be small in number, but with God, we will be victorious.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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