A People Standing for Their World (1 Kings 8:22-24, 27-30, 40-43; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:66-69)
Today’s sermon is about who we are and what we do as the people of God. One definition of a Christian Church I thought of is “a people standing for their world.” Each word in this definition is important. The church is people not a building. Then, the church is A People, who have a common commitment to Jesus Christ as the centrepiece of our meaning structure. Then the church is a people who are not content simply to be safe inside the four walls of a building, but who know that the mission is in the world. Churches must also know that the world is their world, as well as, of course, God’s. Churches must be standing together with with folks they meet in the world as co-creatures in God’s world. They have much in common with those with whom they are called to minister, and stand for and with them. Our lectionary readings this morning unpack all this.
We begin with just a brief word from John’s Gospel. We have struggled with Jesus “bread of life” saying in John 6 through much of late July and August. Jesus wanted his followers to take his words and ways as inner sustenance, so he used a bit of a violent metaphor about his body and blood. When he said, “Eat my body, drink my blood,” Jesus meant, “Make me, my teachings, my example, my life, a part of your very being. The very violence of the metaphor, however, caused many people to turn away because they thought that to be spiritual they had to take things literally, even when they weren’t meant that way. Jesus came to his disciples and said, “Will you, also, go away. And bless Peter’s heart, he said, “Where else can we go? You have the words of life.” As far as being a people standing for their world, the words of Jesus provide us with our primary metaphors, and though it’s tough to be God’s people standing in and for the world, Jesus still has the words of life. His words are the bottom line.
The Old Testament Lesson comes from King Solomon’s long prayer at the dedication of the temple that he built in Jerusalem. He began his prayer by praising God as incomparable, by thanking God for faithfulness to Israel through the divine promise to David, kept with regards to Solomon himself. He followed these two things with a confession of the people’s shortcomings before God and with requests for God’s continued blessing of this house or temple and the people that prayed there – whether they were native born Israelites or immigrants. The Bible is clear that both enjoyed the same rights and had the same responsibilities as far as God is concerned.
According to the story, Solomon recognized that, as beautiful and important as this temple building was, it was only a thing, and, as such, not to be worshiped. He said:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.
That Almighty God should choose to meet people in this world at all is a miracle – indeed, it’s a miracle that some people have had a hard time trusting and haven’t often experienced. The story-writer knew it would be tempting to take this temple, this house, and, so to speak, try to imprison God within it, which would never happen. Indeed, none of the little places we humans make can enshrine, or imprison, God. For God, even the whole earth, or even highest heaven, is too confining.
Many devout people since Solomon’s time have thought it possible to put God in little boxes called church buildings (some of them, very beautiful and grand, like Solomon’s). For them, church life is all about what happens in such a place. Sometimes it’s possible to think of the church as a building. “Where’s your church? It’s down on the corner of West Avenue and Main.” But remember our definition of a church began as “a church is people.” Buildings are only there for people to use, not to be preserved and venerated. It’s much better for buildings to be used to death, than simply to be pristine and end up as a mausoleums. (The same is true for enshrining God in doctrine, or tradition, or the like.)
The writer also made clear that the house of God is a contact point for people so that they may worship, pray, and commune with God concerning their lives in the world. In part of the prayer we did not read, Solomon prayed that this temple would be a meeting place where people could lift up their concerns to God, and where God could answer them. So the church is people. Buildings only exist as tools for empowering people to do God’s things out in the world.
We, finally, move to The Epistle to the Ephesians, which assumed that the church was to be found in the world, and spoke about what kind of equipment Christian people would need to work in it. Today’s lesson is usually simply called “The Whole Armour of God” passage.” I don’t want to burden you with a lot of talk about Roman armour. If you share my experience, you’ve sat through at least one very long sermon on this passage at least once in your life, and that’s enough. In spite of all those sermons, this passage really isn’t about how cool or special Roman armour was.
If the church is a people standing for their world, what ought they be doing? This passage answers this way:
…Take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand that dangerous day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore…
The reason for putting on God’s armour is standing. Here, I want to be very careful to be understood. I do not mean that Christians are called to beat up on people, spiritually or otherwise, out there. I also do not mean that we should be out there standing still, going nowhere. When this passage addressed standing, Christians were a tiny minority in the population whose leader, Jesus, stood for radical love in action for those who didn’t deserve it at all (that’s a description of grace). They were liable to be the ones beaten up because the standards by which they governed themselves were different than the dominant ones of the culture. Please note that all of God’s armour, save one piece, is protective or defensive. The only tool this passage named to be used “on offense” is the word of God. This armour was to give its wearers the ability to stand up under the persecution that was bound to come when they tried to put Jesus’ way of living into practice in their world. Here are the tools we have to protect us and help us stand out in the culture and for folks in the world: truth, righteousness, readiness to do whatever makes for peace, faith and salvation. I cannot resist saying just a word about each of these, for we need to realize how deeply countercultural these values still are. What’s valued in our world seems to be doing and saying what it takes to get people on our side, overpowering anyone we need to in order to gain an advantage, the inability (some would say non-necessity) to keep our word even for a little while, the eagerness to polarize and demonize others. Need I say more?
So, the first grace is truth. In the Bible, truth has nothing to do with facts or unerring adherence to them, it has to do with trustworthiness. A true friend is one upon which you can depend, a true bridge is one over which you can walk, a true map is one you can trust to get you where you need to be. We must not try to foist another view of truth as facticity on the Bible. To be true, one must be dependable and trustworthy.
Righteousness, in the Bible again, simply means being and doing what is right. And, because the Bible is really God’s story, being right means conforming to God’s story and God’s standard. Christians trust that conforming to God’s story and standard means following Jesus and what he taught.
Next, “as shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (6:15). Shoes are designed for the journey. They make it possible to be active without damage to the feet. Use whatever you need to equip you to be able to proclaim by your life (as well as by your lips) the good news of shalom (that would have been the word that the Apostle had in his mind). And shalom is not only peace as absence of conflict. Shalom is the opposite of disease and hunger and unrest. Shalom is wellness, wholeness, and being centred in life. If there’s a word that sums up what Christian life is all about it’s this one. Jesus said, literally, “Blessed are the shalom doers.” It is no accident that the last public word I say each Sunday is Shalom. If I have a personal mission statement it might be, “Doing what makes for Shalom, for wholeness. Next comes faith. We do lots of things with our heads, but the Bible won’t let us off the hook that easily. Faith is not simply nodding our head – assenting to this, that or the other, so-called truth (and, as I said a minute ago, that’s not how the Bible uses the word truth anyway). Rather, faith is betting your life. It’s not saying, “I believe that bridge will hold me up.” It’s walking out on it and across it. Faith is closer to trust than mere belief. And, the writer of 2 Timothy said: “I know the one in whom I have put my trust.” We know who God is in Jesus and know that God can be trusted because God’s come through time and again. Read the story of Israel, read the story of the church, read the story of countless saints in this congregation. We are personally acquainted with the one in whom we’re putting our trust. Our faith.
Last, the helmet of salvation. I don’t want to go against my own rule and get very heavily into this, but I want you to notice that this is the only grace so far that Christians do not “put on themselves,” so to speak. The verb here is to “take,” and this word means “to take” (from someone), “to receive.” Often enough, in the Old Testament, the word “salvation” means “victory.” And, if we understand it in this way, we can see that this is not just a soldier’s regular helmet, but a ceremonial helmet given to the victor. This gift is the reason why Christians can do everything they do in the world – because we trust that the victory of Jesus’ values has already been granted by God.
The other grace that these Christians standing for their world receive is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. It is a very difficult thing to say, in the face of constant, widespread teaching and preaching to the contrary, but almost never in the Bible, does the phrase Word of God refer to the Bible. What it does mean varies, but very often it is used as a metaphor for the understandable presence of God with people. If that’s right in this text, then the way in which we stand for our world is by embodying, as far as in us lies, God’s understandable presence to the world. In a way, we help people to understand what God is like by looking at us. Wow, what a task! One we don’t always do well, but in any case, the presence of God in the world is a sword, which sometimes cuts, but is never a club that beats people.
In that distant day when what we call the Epistle to the Ephesians circulated around churches in Asia Minor, as I have said, Christians were a tiny minority that had no real power to assert except the power of love as they tried to be a people who were standing in their world, for their world, explaining God to their world by who they were, what they did, and what they said. In our day the church is losing political clout right and left, and I for one, am glad. We were never intended to be able to legislate people into the faith. Baptists have died to bear this testimony from our earliest beginnings. If we don’t have the power we used to have to force people to look like Christians, we do have the power to stand with them and for them in the love that not only speaks, but acts to serve in the name of Jesus, and to persevere doing that in our world.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.