“Suit Up and Stand Up!” — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 6:10-17

We stood in line at the outfitters shop on the Taylor River in southwest Colorado. As a family we were preparing to ride the rapids in a big rubber raft. We rented wet suits, boots and gloves, life vests and oars. Our guide—a confident woman who was, I thought, younger than some of my sweat socks—helped us into our gear.

Just as we got on the bus to head for the river, another party arrived. In those years, people could decline the equipment. That’s what they did in order to save expense and time. The guides tried to persuade them to suit up, but they declined. Off we went.

The un-suited party got their raft into the water first and headed downstream. Soon we were in the boat as well, pitching and rolling in the aggressive water. It was all great fun. Great fun, that is, until we rounded a bend and found a raft pinned against a big rock.

The group ahead of us had taken a bad turn and hit the water. One of the un-suited party was clinging to the raft. We pulled him into ours. Another was floating face up near the bank. We got him in as well. A third member clung to a rock downstream and was rescued by another raft.

It was a a sobering lesson for all of us. We were so very glad we had taken the advice of our guide and suited up for the journey. Paul gives his readers similar advice here at the end of his letter. “Put on the whole armor of God,” he warns them, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” It’s time to suit up!

Paul uses a descriptive Greek word that we translate as “the whole armor.” It is the word panoplia, from which we get our English word “panoply.” Imagine a cohort of Roman soldiers, armed with spears and swords and protected by shields. When the cohort came under attack or advanced into battle, the soldiers could lock those shields together into a nearly impenetrable shell. If they stayed together, they were nearly impossible to defeat.

These Roman infantrymen were called “hoplites,” and they marched in this formation, called a “phalanx.” When Paul uses his term, his listeners would see that phalanx of locked shields united in common cause for the sake of the Empire. So it’s important to read these verses as addressed primarily to a group of Christians rather than to us as individuals.

There’s another element in this description. It’s the “stance” we adopt for the battle. Four times Paul uses a word that means “stand” or “withstand” or “stand firm.” If our stance is right, we can, as the old commercial used to say, “take a licking and keep on ticking.” It’s time to suit up! And it’s time to stand up!

I was a poor wrestler, but I liked to try. The first thing you learn is how to stand: feet about shoulder width apart, knees bent, shoulders forward, center of gravity, well, in the center, head up, eyes forward, hands ready to engage the opponent. One of the most important things in wrestling was to keep a good “base” under you. If you did that, lots of other things would go better. It’s time to stand up!

That’s Paul’s point here. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. The right stance and the right suit are necessary for dealing with the attacks and challenges the forces of evil will launch against us. It’s time to suit up and stand up!

For a third time in Ephesians, Paul reminds us about the nature of the enemy we face. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” he declares, “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.

These are the same rulers and authorities and powers Paul describes in chapter four. Paul urged his readers to speak truth to those powers through the united voice of Church in the name of the Messiah and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Here he reminds us that the battle continues.

How do we suit up and stand up? We take the battle seriously. Church is not a weird kind of card club. Christianity is not a hobby. Congregations are not museums or memorial societies. This is about the meaning and purpose of life. This is about the direction and destiny of history. This is about whether death wins or life triumphs. If we’re not that serious, we should stay home. Paul witnessed to his faith by dying. Will we witness to our faith by living?

How do we suit up and stand up? We live for the praise of God’s glory. We express that praise in regular worship. We welcome the gift of faith as the Holy Spirit equips us to be God’s works of art. We live in the unity of that Spirit as people who are no longer strangers to one another. We trust the Spirit to expand our imagination and energize our prayers to ask for what we need for mission and service.

How do we suit up and stand up? We celebrate the gifts given to the church for ministry and leadership. We live by the power of God’s love as one people in all our relationships. We submit to one another in love to show the world what the kingdom of God really looks like. We speak truth to the rulers and authorities of this world and remind them that they are temporary and answer to a higher authority. We rely on God’s word in Scripture and sacraments to fill us and form us for the fight.

It’s time to suit up and stand up! One weapon remains—prayer. Next time we will stand up with Paul as he comes to the end of this letter.

Servant Power — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 5:15-33

We live by the power of love, not for the love of power. The power of love is always “servant power.” Servant power is always FOR others. That’s today’s main thought.

About a hundred miles inland from Ephesus was the little town of Colossae. There you’d find a local businessman named Philemon. Philemon was married to Apphia. They had an adult son named Aristarchus. Philemon, Apphia and Aristarchus hosted the new Christian congregation at Colossae in their home. They must have been fairly well off. They had a house big enough for such gatherings. And as a family they owned slaves.

We know about Philemon and his family in a brief New Testament letter from Paul written to Philemon. Philemon may have met Paul on a business trip to Ephesus. Philemon came home an enthusiastic Jesus follower. Soon his wife and son joined him in this new way of life.

There was a problem. One of the household slaves, Onesimus, had escaped from his master. Onesimus may have stolen some household money to fund his fleeing. Onesimus headed down the Lycus River valley to Ephesus. Maybe he planned to hop a ship and skip town before he could be caught.

Then Onesimus met Paul. Paul was under arrest in Ephesus, but he was still free to receive visitors and to teach the faith. Maybe Onesimus knew Paul from a previous encounter. Maybe it was what some would call coincidence. Either way, Onesimus became a Christian. It must have been a magnificent conversion. Paul referred to Onesimus as his adopted son and valued his assistance in the ministry of the Gospel.

Now to the problem. Following Jesus changes everything. We live by the power of love, not for the love of power.  Onesimus had unfinished business in Colossae. “Thieves must give up stealing,” Paul wrote, “rather, let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so at to have something to share with the needy.” I wonder if Onesimus thought about the tidy little stash he had lifted from his master’s purse.

More than that, Onesimus and Philemon were now brothers in the Messiah. Paul challenged Onesimus to do something about the rupture in this relationship. Paul asked Onesimus to carry two letters back to the congregation in Colossae. One letter was for the congregation. The other was for Philemon. It’s likely that Onesimus read the letters out loud at worship. In the personal letter, Paul urged Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus.

I don’t know if it happened this way, but something like this took place. I share this story because of the directions we find in Ephesians 5:15-33. Paul addresses the relationships between wives and husbands, children and fathers, and slaves and masters. Philemon fits all three of the latter categories. Paul urges him to re-work each relationship based on the power of love rather than the love of power. “Be subject to one another,” Paul writes, “out of reverence for Christ.” If we want a model for servant power, we can look to Jesus. Servant power is always power FOR others.

First century Greco-Roman culture assumed that only freeborn adult men could be fully and truly human. One first century Greek philosopher wrote, “The man has the rule of the household by nature. For the deliberative faculty of the woman is inferior, in children does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves it is completely absent.” Men in this culture assumed that women had limited brain power, children were a work in progress, and slaves were too brainless to be fully and truly human ever at all.

We Jesus followers reject this view. What makes someone a fully and truly human person is God’s image that we bear as a gift and calling from God. We receive that gift and calling in our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Messiah’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit’s presence restore God’s image in us. Living in the Messiah by the power of the Spirit makes us fully and truly human. Anyone can embrace God’s gifts—men, women, children and slaves. Maleness does not open the door to full humanity. Baptism does.

In this first century culture, the master of the house life and death power over spouse, children and slaves. Any talk of limiting that power with love was revolutionary. That is precisely what Paul does in Ephesians. Paul places special responsibility on those with power over others. Servant power is always FOR others.

Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to husbands are disappointing. Requiring women to “submit” to their husbands creates a dynamic where the love of power reigns supreme. Last week Paul reminded us that what we feed is what grows. Too often the church has cooperated in feeding the system of male dominance that is strong in our culture. As the whole church we must repent of that sin.

The wrong emphasis has created ongoing abusive situations in millions of homes. That love of power produces verbal, emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse. Worse yet, the blame for the situation is placed on the victims. Paul travels a little way down the road toward loving treatment of women. We have come farther, but we have not come nearly as far as we thought. We know that “submission theology” endangers women—even in Christian communities. Systems of male dominance produce abuse.

I need to say this as clearly as possible. Emanuel Lutheran Church is a safe place for anyone who needs to escape from Intimate Partner Abuse. We will hear your story. We will believe you. We will support you in your decisions. Women are not responsible for the emotional issues of men.

Systems of male dominance have no place here. We submit to one another out of reverence for the Messiah. We embrace full partnership between men and women. We reject the view that holds women subject to the authority of men.

We know what we need to do. We live by the power of love, not for the love of power. Servant power is always FOR others. The power of love must shape our most intimate relationships. It will be important to keep in mind Paul’s strategy with Philemon as we continue next week. Let’s pray…

“The Living Tapestry” — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 3:1-13

 “My life has been a tapestry,” sang Carole King. I first heard that song as a college freshman. A dear friend introduced me to the magic of King’s artistry, and I treasure the song (and the album) to this day.

A tapestry is a good picture of Ephesians three. God pulls it all together in Jesus. In love and by grace we are the one people of the one God.The church filled with the Holy Spirit is now the “holy temple in the Lord.” Through us, this good news confronts the powers of this world. We do that by living as God’s work(s) of art. We see the purpose of that artistic work in these verses from chapter three. We are God’s living tapestry.

The mysterious message of God’s inclusive love comes “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The phrase “rich variety” translates a wonderful Greek word–“polupoikilos.” It’s fun to say! It means “many-colored” or “variegated.”

Photo by Sophie Louisnard on Pexels.com

Including everyone was always God’s plan. God’s one big family shows the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places who’s in charge. These rulers and authorities “in the heavenly places” represent the powers which stand against God in the cosmos. And these powers are done for.

We confront the rulers and authorities when we are one in the Messiah. In Jesus’ name and through his Spirit, we tell the powers that Jesus is Lord and no one else is. We speak truth to power by being an authentic community, united by the Spirit rather than by a common enemy or by using one another to deal with our own self-interests.

We are the Church—the one people of the one God. We are the Church—filled with color and diversity. The very existence of such a community is fair warning to the rulers and authorities that something new is on the way. Our young people are experiencing that in a powerful way this week at the churchwide youth gathering. We are God’s living tapestry.

Here’s an example. Recently, we partnered with Mosaic in Western Iowa to hold a Mental Health Awareness Sunday. The highlight of the day was called “Kicking the Stigma of Mental Health.” We used our church parking lot to hold a game of kickball. If you didn’t stick around to kick around, you missed something special.

Youth and adults from our congregation, people from our neighborhood and community, people served by Mosaic, and Mosaic staff spent an hour of kicking and catching (or not), laughing and teasing, and just being God’s people together for all the world to see. We resisted a culture that wants to hide people away and ignore our needs for quality mental health services and support. As we played together, we gave evidence of another way to live and love.

I watched our young people enjoy being church together in many-splendored diversity. I was a bit teary as some of our younger folks also learned how to use the experience to serve and learn, to grow and mature in the context of Christian community. This was just one example of the variegated vitality that Paul urges upon us. We are expanding that welcome as we begin a support group for those who wrestle with issues related to mental health.

We are God’s living tapestry.

We are at our best as church when we are multi-colored, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-talented. Because we are God’s work(s) of art, we live out the beauty of this tapestry in our witness and work as the Church. We do this as well in our lives as individual followers of the Messiah. We do it to be a sign of what God wants for all of Creation.

It’s important that we make that radical inclusion real in our own congregation and denomination. It’s hard to call the world to account if we can’t even make it happen in our own house. That’s why we are practicing inclusion here.

Start small. Sit next to someone at worship you don’t know well. Talk to someone at coffee you don’t know well. We don’t do this on our own. The Holy Spirit equips you and me to be the church. “This was in accordance,” Paul reminds us, “with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”

We know all human beings bear the image of God. We celebrate diversity as God’s gift to us and not a threat to our own existence. We rejoice to be part of a country whose ideal includes welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse” of distant teeming shores. We are called to raise questions when the values of radical inclusion are suppressed.

The church lives as an alternative to fear and exclusion. By our very existence as an inclusive community, we remind the rulers and authorities that they answer to a higher power. Sometimes we will suffer as a result. We are not going to be protected from persecution, nor should we expect that. But when we live as God’s one big family, embraced by grace and empowered by love, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s God’s work of art.

In early June, 2018, our churchwide Bishop Eaton issued a letter along with twenty other religious leaders urging the current administration to stop the forced separation of migrant families at our borders. I’m grateful for that statement and to be part of a brave and relevant church. It’s hard to be a sign of God’s love for all people and to be silent in the face of such practices. Our bishop spoke up for us, and I’m thankful.

We are God’s living tapestry. Next time we’ll hear about God’s abundant power to get the job done in us, among us and through us.

“Pull It Together” — Throwback Thursday Books (Sort of)

On Throwback Thursday this summer, I’m going to share a sermon series I wrote on the Letter to the Ephesians in 2018 at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I hope you find it helpful while I take a few days off here and there from writing. LRH

Ephesians 1:1-14

It seems like everything is falling apart. Race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, party—take your pick. In a time when we seem to be more connected than ever, we are retreating into ever smaller cliques and cocoons. As the world widens, our vision narrows. We are headed toward eight billion individual empires—all at war with one another.

Life these days seems like a washer tied to the end of a string. As you swing that washer in a circle, you can feel it tugging to escape. The faster you twirl it, the harder the washer pulls. If you spin it fast enough, the washer and string may fly right out of your hand. The results can be destructive and even painful.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Physicists call that tugging “centrifugal” force. If you are interested, centrifugal force is defined as “the apparent force…drawing a rotating body away from the center of rotation…” If you were alert, you noticed something in that definition. Centrifugal force—that urge to come apart—is only an “apparent” force. Something else is at work.

Physicists call that something else “centripetal” force. This is the actual force “acting on a body in curvilinear motion that is directed toward the center of curvature or the axis of rotation.” No matter how it feels, the force holding things together is real.

Why in the world have I given this lesson in basic physics? I want to focus on Ephesians one, verse ten—“gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.God pulls it all together in Jesus. That’s the main theme in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We’ll come back to that theme many times this summer. So it’s worth saying again. God pulls it all together in Jesus. When it seems like everything is falling apart, that’s some pretty good news.

Honest preachers will tell you that we are often preaching to ourselves. The rest of you get to listen in. I imagine that was true for Paul as he wrote this letter. In chapter three, verse one, he reminds us of his situation. He is “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” He’s not exaggerating. Paul is under house arrest, awaiting trial in Rome. He is accused of treason because he obeys Jesus rather than Caesar. In a few months, an executioner will separate Paul’s head from his body during the persecution of Christians in Rome.

Paul has every reason to think everything is falling apart. He sits in jail while Christians are hounded from pillar to post. His churches in the eastern Mediterranean roil with conflict and division. The Roman Empire reels under the rule of Nero the Narcissistic Bully. During Nero’s persecution, for example, Christians were covered with tar, tied to poles and used as human torches to light Nero’s garden parties. It was hard to make sense of anything.

And yet…Paul launches this letter with a magnificent prayer of blessing. How can he do this? Let’s review our little physics lesson. This feeling of flying apart is not the real force in the universe. The real force is that which holds all things together. God pulls it all together in Jesus.

God’s plan has always been to fill this good Creation to overflowing with God’s unending love. That’s the power that holds it all together. God has always planned “to bless us…with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” God has always planned to make Creation flourish. We know this plan was delayed by sin, death and the devil. But delay is not defeat.

In his prayer, Paul rehearses God’s strategy. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God rescues all of Creation from sin, death and the devil. That rescue operation comes to a head in Jesus. The fake forces of division and destruction are defeated. That rescue operation continues in and through us, the body of Christ.

God pulls it all together in Jesus. Jesus pulls it all together through us. God has chosen us in Jesus by grace to be part of that rescue plan. “We aren’t chosen for our own sake,” says Tom Wright, “but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us.”

How does this happen? Our part of God’s plan begins in worship. Twice in these opening verses, Paul identifies our primary purpose in life. We are made, he says, “to live for the praise of [God’s] glory.” We are most truly human when we live for the praise of God’s glory. That kind of worship makes us more of what God created us to be.

We have a great variety of fans here—black and gold, scarlet and cream, cardinal and gold, purple and gold, and more. Sundays in the fall are always interesting here. Even if I don’t hear the scores, I can tell who has won just by how some of you walk in the door. If my team has won, I stand taller, smile bigger laugh louder. That victory makes us more than we are in defeat.

That’s what worship does for us when we live for the praise of God’s glory. “When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made,” Tom Wright reminds us, “you do indeed grow. You discover what it means to be fully alive.”

Jesus leads us to that point in the Gospel reading as well. The Sabbath was made for human flourishing, not in order to fulfill some legal requirement. Worship makes us truly human. Rest makes us truly whole. God longs for us to live for the praise of God’s glory because it is good for us.

God pulls it all together in Jesus. In worship God pulls us to the center of all life, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. God does that by sending us the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Next time we will talk more about that power for living and loving.

Pastor Lowell Hennigs