Ephesians 6:10-20 | John 6:59-69
And so Jesus comes to the end of this whole section built around the imagery of the Bread of Life; finishing, as you remember from last week, by declaring that he, not the manna in the desert, nor the loaves and fish of the feeding of the 5,000, but that he was the true bread, and that it was by eating his flesh that one could experience eternal life; life with God, here, and hereafter.
And many of the disciples found this teaching hard, and many of his disciples chose, at that point, to stop following him.
And notice that word – disciples. It’s not that many of the crowd of onlookers heard these things and said “no, that’s not for me”; it was many of his disciples. Not the twelve; but many of those who had already chosen to become students of this Rabbi, learners at the feet of this Guru.
And there’s something here which on the surface seems a bit strange. Because Jesus has lots of hard teachings. I mean: love your enemy – that’s hard. Forgive the one who sins against you seventy seven times – that’s hard. Give to all who ask, expecting nothing in return – that’s hard. But “eat this bread of heaven” (which we’ve basically translated into “come and have communion from time to time”)? What was it about that teaching that was so hard that people who had opted in to the Jesus movement now opted out again?
But of course the puzzle that question betrays our hindsight. For we come to this part of the story knowing the end. But for the crowds, and the disciples, and, for that matter, the twelve, the revelation that Jesus was not just a prophet, a rabbi, a teacher, but something far more: in John’s language, the Word of God made flesh; that revelation still lay in the future.
Some of them, perhaps, had started to guess at it: they’d seen him walk on water, after all – but then, that wouldn’t have been outside of expectations of a prophet, given the miraculous events surrounding the prophets of the Old Testament stories.
But something made a difference. There was something that the twelve (and many others – for it was not, by any means, all of the wider group who chose to abandon Jesus at this point) got, had seen, had understood, that the others had not.
And we know pretty well from the way the disciples responded to Jesus’ teaching a lot of the time that it wasn’t a case of them being smarter, or more perceptive, or braver, or better people; they weren’t those things. The thing that made the difference was simply this – in the words of Peter:
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
They didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching. But they do understand one thing.
They knew where to look.
Where else would we go? Your teaching might be hard – hard to understand, hard to accept, hard to obey – but where else are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life. We’ve figured out that much. And if that’s true – we’ve going to stick around, whatever might come, because we need to hear these words, eat this bread, live this life. Where else would we go?
This is, truly, the core declaration of Christian faith. At its heart our faith is not a declaration of, an assertion of a creed; nor is it membership of an organisation; nor is it conformance to a particular way of life. At its heart belief in the Christian faith is that question, that trust, that hope, that despair: where else would we go – for you have the words of eternal life.
Do you recognise that cry? The words of the confused, the doubtful, the struggling; but at the same time, the grip on one unchanging core: You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God
This is, to segue rather abruptly into the epistle – this is the shield of faith, with which one may quench all the arrows of the evil one – all the criticism, all the twinges of doubt, all those moments when you wonder whether it is worth it, whether it is true, whether you are fool for even being here: this teaching is hard – but where else would we go?
Now I have a real problem with the whole “armour of God” passage from the book of Ephesians – a problem that you might have got an inkling of in the sketch we did dressing Dayan up.
My problem is this: it seems to me that there are two reasons why Paul used the image of the Roman soldier as a description of the life of faith, and most of the time when we read about the armour of faith we manage to get both of them, not just wrong, but exactly wrong, 180o wrong.
The first is perhaps the more obvious – the image of a Roman soldier is, for us, something out of a history book, or a movie set in Roman days. It’s something out of the ordinary, something a little exotic. Which of course it very much wasn’t for the people of Ephesus. For the Ephesians, as for people throughout the Roman world, the Roman soldier was a an everyday sight –to be seen, almost literally, on every street corner.
And because the image is a bit exotic for us, there is a natural tendency to focus on the analogy – discussing (at great length, as you will find if you do even a little bit of online research about this passage) what the breastplate was, and how the Roman legions had pioneered the short sword, how the shields of Roman legionnaires would interlock, and so on, and drawing all sorts of conclusions about the analogy based on these interesting historical observations.
Missing, of course, the point – that the image of a Roman soldier was used because it was familiar, because everyone knew about them, precisely because it wasn’t exotic and exciting.
So often as an attempt to get past this concern, quite a lot of writers and artists have tried to bring the passage to a modern equivalent – using the equipment of the modern soldier, or trying to avoid the military image, of a police officer.
And there we run straight into the other, and deeper problem. Because whether you picture a member of the Australian military, or one of the Anzacs, or a police officer, one thing I can be almost certain of is that you are imagining someone who is one of us, someone who is on our side.
But the Roman soldier was none of those things. For the Christians in Ephesus, whether of Jewish or Gentile background, the Roman soldier represented the enemy. The occupying force. The power of the world. The empire.
The image of a soldier was not chosen in order to evoke the language of spiritual warfare; not to lend credence to some sort of martial understanding of what it means to live as God’s people in the world.
It was exactly, 100%, 180o the opposite.
The image of the Christian dressing themselves in the “armour of God” was designed not in parallel to the Roman Soldier, but in direct opposition to it. It’s taking a symbol of the power of the world, and completely reversing it as a symbol of the way of the Kingdom. As if to say – “Look, this is how the world understands power, understands control. The force of will, the power of the military, the authority of empire. The ability to force another to submit to your will. That is power – as the world sees it.”
“But what is power for us? What is power in the Kingdom of God? What do our ‘soldiers’ have? Truth. Righteousness. Gospel. Peace. Faith. Salvation. God’s Spirit. Prayer.”
When the Church looks – or looks at itself – like the world; when we measure ourselves by the buildings we own, the dollars we collect, the political power we wield, the size of our email lists, the slickness of our advertising; when the Church has done that, from the day of Constantine to the modern day; that is when we are dressing ourselves as the soldier; the force of empire given a Christian gloss, the crusader going to war in foreign lands with a cross painted on his shield; the bombs dropped on Iraq with Bible verses painted on the side.
No, that is not the Kingdom. Read again those key words in the epistle:
That is what our ‘empire’ looks like.