Weekly Seeds: Prayer and Protection

Sunday, August 22, 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
Prayer and Protection

Focus Prayer:
Gracious God, although we once were strangers, you receive us as friends and draw us home to you. Set your living bread before us that, feasting around your table, we may be strengthened to continue the work to which your Son commissioned us. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Ephesians 6:10–20
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10–11) 22–30, 41–43 and Psalm 84
Joshua 24:1–2a, 14–18 and Psalm 34:15–22
Ephesians 6:10–20
John 6:56–69

Focus Questions:

  1. What evokes fear within you?
  2. What amplifies fear within you? What mitigates you?
  3. What is protection? In what ways do we seek it?
  4. How do you feel when you released from fear? How does being protected feel?
  5. What armor (arsenal and barriers) do you erect in order to get to that feeling?

By Cheryl Lindsay

We live in a world that loves the fight. Battle imagery and metaphors of power through and demonstrated by violence permeates all aspects of society. Modern sporting events assume the trappings of the ancient colosseum and athletes are regarded as gladiators. Politicians do not work together to ascertain the common good in a solution-oriented negotiation. They fight for the people they represent against the other side who are positioned as adversaries rather than colleagues with a different approach. Even the effort expended to stop the spread and subsequent destruction of the coronavirus is couched in the language of battle. Eulogies proclaim that they fought the good fight and announcements of overcoming a severe illness shout victory as much as healing.

Even the pages of the Bible reveal the pervasiveness of the language of war, battle, and violent struggle. Peace, defined as the absence of conflict, seems elusive enough, but the concept is a minimized reflection of the ancient ideal of shalom, which my seminary Old Testament professor, Daniel Hawk, defined as “everything as God intends it to be.” That doesn’t sound like fighting. It sounds like the garden. It evokes images of lush abundance, fertile landscapes, clear and clean skies and water, and harmony between humanity as part of creation, not above or below.

War torn places do not resemble that imagery. Battles do not produce harmony or achieve God’s shalom. Fights do not make friends or forge community.

So, as followers of Jesus, why do we love the fight? Or…why do we like the idea of fighting?

This week’s focus scripture deliberately employs the language of the warrior with a fervent exhortation to be clothed and equipped with tools used to wage war. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians frames the Christian journey as an epic battle, for the individual, but even more significantly for the church–the body of Christ who is called upon to be prepared and vigilant in facing that struggle:

The framework that Paul utilizes in Ephesians, therefore, is dramatic. His vision of truth is something that Jesus performed. Truth is not merely a set of facts. This truthful, life-giving and transformative performance is something the church is to study, talk about, learn and, ultimately, to perform. In doing so, the church will grow up into Christ, embodying the life and love of God on earth. (Timothy G. Gombis)If the letter is written as an unfolding drama, chapter six provides the climax not the conclusion. That work is to be written as the hearers become the primary participants in writing the next phase of the story. Paul’s “Finally,” which begins this passage should be read less as a last point in a series and more as the central point of the life of the community of faith. As Hoke Smith, Jr. notes, “Paul is interpreting the Christian’s experience in terms of what it means to God in the realization of [God’s] unfolding purpose for the universe. [Paul’s] emphasis is not so much on the significance of redemption to the redeemed as on its significance to the Redeemer.”

This text is often read as a toolkit for individuals to resist personal sin. A careful reading of Ephesians exposes a cosmic orientation to the struggles, warnings, and prescriptions contained within the epistle. It’s a helpful reminder that faith as personal expression rather than communal identity is a relatively new phenomenon. Many of us marvel that Lydia’s entire household was converted or that the redeemed jailors of Paul and Barnabus evangelized their families, but those statements would not have been surprising to the original audiences. Frankly, I’m old enough to remember when it was customary for children to accompany their parents to worship without consultation. (This is not a judgement, but a reminder that cultural norms change, and that our reading should account for the fact that these texts we read were written to people with a particular worldview and culture.)

The early church would have likely heard this as a call to arms for the community to so equip themselves. They would not have expected to engage in a war by themselves. It’s helpful to remember that recent experience of war in the United States is markedly different. From the Gulf War/Desert Storm of the late 20th century to the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the burden has been disproportionately borne by those directly involved on the ground and their families. When I served in ministry at Mt. Zion Congregational UCC in Cleveland, I had a daily reminder of the cost of war as the church is located across the street from the third largest Veterans Administration Medical Center in the nation. As we engaged in ministry in collaboration with the veterans service office, we connected with many of the recently wounded service persons. I couldn’t forget that I lived in a nation that was at war. Yet, at the same time, there was no call for collective sacrifice or action. I needed the reminder because my individual life hadn’t changed. The fact of the matter was that those wars had become individual matters where the nation delegated the execution, responsibility, care, and even attention to a small fraction of the population.

The church has done the same in terms of living out the Christian life. We have turned a communal movement into an individual expression, but this letter was not originally written for personal devotion but for community formation. This was a letter to a people not a person. The struggle that Paul refers to is shared; therefore, the precautions and proactive measures he recommends should be adopted by the community as a united whole. The Christian life is meant to be lived together and response to any threat to that life should be shared by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within, through, and among God’s people:

Though there are significant topics throughout the letter, the overarching and most important aspect of it for us today is perhaps the focus on the spiritual realm. Not only does this focus foster beliefs in a literal and embodied devil as a spiritual evil being (6:10–16), but it also creates a worldview primarily interested in spiritual warfare and attending to people’s souls or spirits more than addressing the needs of this physical world. This in turn can lead to a form of escapism, if not simply a seemingly depoliticized or apolitical perspective on the world. In the twenty-first century, we cannot afford to live such disinterested and disconnected lives. Rather, however spiritually we experience the world, we also need to be intimately involved in making it a more humane and just place to live. (Jennifer G. Bird)

The recommendations found here are largely defensive and protective in motivation, but not necessarily in practice. Each suggestion addresses a potential vulnerability, yet these actions are proactive and assertive in nature. This battle is spiritual and victory will be found in transforming the world far too defined by war into the kindom of God’s peace. Implicit in the taking on of spiritual armor is the repudiation of traditional military means of conflict engagement. But, Paul’s admonition goes beyond that to embracing a new way of relating to one’s perceived adversaries.

Several years ago, I participated in a citywide prayer summit. In the preparation for that service, a group of intercessors received training that included logistical considerations as well as study on prayer. As the leader of that group talked about spiritual warfare, she reminded us that “it’s never the person.” In other words, as Paul said, “our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers….” Individual struggles are real and God attends to them, but that’s too small a reading for the drama that Ephesians narrates. This passage prescribes our actions to participate in the kindom of God and the spiritual tools at our disposal in the quest for God’s will on earth as it is in heaven: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, Spirit, and word.

These “weapons” contrast with the tactics of the world. Does our witness do the same? This fight then is largely about the fight itself. How we engage is as pivotal to our success as any particular outcome.

Most battles have been fought in direct contact. The adversaries show up and face each other in some way. We identify the side someone is on by their uniform. The letter to the Ephesians describes the Christian uniform: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of Spirit/word of God. We could spend time trying to determine the significance of each garment, but I suspect that the only thing we need to note is that we are to wear it…on the outside. We can hold each of them in our hearts, but in battle, they need to be displayed in full sight:

According to Ephesians, the church performs the cosmically significant role of divine warfare through mundane embodiments of God’s life on earth. Cosmic conflict does not involve defiant chest thumping in the face of the defeated powers. On the contrary, we are called to purposeful, humble, cruciform faithfulness as we perform Jesus for the good of the world. As we will see, the church embodies the divine warrior by undergoing constant community transformation through renewed imaginations and practices. When the church participates in this transformative process, it harnesses and radiates God’s resurrection power, which has a transformative effect on outsiders. (Timothy G. Gombis)
The countercultural nature of the armor of God is that it draws us into the safety of compassion (“suffering with”) and the pursuit of God’s shalom rather than to erect barricades and aggressions from fear, bitterness, and resignation. Normal armor protects by isolating; God’s armor creates community. Normal armor forces distance; God’s armor enters incarnationally. Normal armor declares danger; God’s armor invites conversation.

Paul ends with an appeal for prayer in the Spirit, which reminds us that is the true covering the church needs and the mightiest of instruments we yield.

For further reflection:
“Yet, all armor—from a lobster’s shell to a Navy SEAL’s
flak jacket—ultimately reveals the same truth. All armor highlights
vulnerability. It trumpets the fact that below that hard exterior lies
an interior that is soft, fragile, and in need of protection.”
— J.K. Franko

“I used to think that the measure of true faith is certainty. Doubt, ambiguity, nuance, uncertainty — these represented a lack of conviction, a dangerous weakness in the armor of the Christian soldier who should ‘always be ready with an answer.. . . . Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it.”— Rachel Held Evans

“If you care about something you have to protect it – If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” — John Irving

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.