We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Therefore put on the whole armour of God.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we remember especially those who have died in the great wars that have afflicted the world in the last century.
We remember and give thanks for the courage of so many who went daily into battle to fight against worldly powers that had achieved a stranglehold over particular nations and led to aggression on a grand scale.
So many lives lost and so many wounded in the fighting.
Every one of us here in our family histories has been affected.
I have not lived in England, but I understand from a Canadian priest friend of mine who has ministered for years there that in almost every encounter he has had with those who went through the last war – that they almost all look back on it with a great fondness – obviously not for the horrors of battle itself, but for other reasons: Because of the exhilaration of daily giving one’s all to a just cause, to the kind of sense of unity with so many others in the fight. There was a kind of bright clarity as to what was most important in life – valour, courage, honour, responsibility, the calling forth of the highest in the young and from the community – these are the things that were daily before their eyes. It was a testing ground for souls and for many it was their making as men and women. Civilian life in peacetime could never quite compare.
Young radicalized fighters for ISIS today, no doubt share something of that excitement for adventure and desire that kind of testing of the soul to the limits in the furnace of affliction. They are driven by a desire to rid the world of Western excesses, some of the same things that the Church in the West would criticize – of course their way to accomplish that is completely misguided – the truth mingled with lies, as it was for the Nazi youth of the Second World War.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is surely right to state that it is just for governments to respond with force against such an aggressor, to save the innocent. But also he is right to say that what is even more important is to address the ideological battle for the hearts and minds of the youth who are at risk of radicalization.
He described it as a battle of ideas to the Press who speak to the world. I’m sure he would agree that that battle could equally be described, as St Paul does, as a battle against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
How else can we explain the way in which ideas, the truth mingled with lies, can take their hold over charismatic individuals and gradually come to be held up and perpetuated, through fear and complicity, and lodge themselves so firmly that they control and direct the actions of whole nations.
It is easy in the light of history to see the horrors of Nazism. And there have other movements easy to point to that have been destructive of human life – Stalinism, or the tribalism promoted in Rwanda that led to genocide. But in every case the ideas appealed to the carnally minded man, the ideas crept in slowly in those nations, some would speak out, many did not, until a great evil unleashed itself.
In times of a great war, there can be a clarifying of the battle, we hope that it is easy to line up on the side of the good should it happen again. But in our own day, and in our own society here in the Netherlands, although there is no outward war, there are many ideological battles – principalities and powers that have settled and are seeking to settle themselves on us – ideas that have some truth but are mixed with lies. Will we be complicit in our generation through silence, through fear of speaking out, or through a kind of sloth, a tolerance that wouldn’t be bothered engaging in the big questions, or a complicity that would rather simply “be nice”, not “make waves” by saying nothing? Would we sacrifice truth for unity?
What are some of the issues in our own generation that are destructive of life?
What could be more counter to life than euthanasia – doctors actively taking lives, abortion – the killing of the unborn at levels unimaginable in the past, a sexual libertarianism that tries to reconcile the flesh with the spirit or sever it completely from its procreative intent, unfettered greed destroying souls and the planet – St Paul says “covetousness, … let in not even be named among you as is befitting of saints”. There is very much a battle here and now for the hearts and minds of God’s people.
The days are evil, and we as Christians need to arm ourselves. We are being tested – this is our furnace of affliction and we will be judged by how we respond today.
And as Christians there is of course very good news in the midst of this battle. Whatever the battle is that we are facing, God equips us with every thing we need. These principalities and powers are overcome through our faith in Jesus Christ.
St Paul calls each of us to…
take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
For us to see the truth, we must surround ourselves with the truth – question every assumption without us and within us. Live in the way of righteousness – that is, the moral life that Jesus shows us clearly in Gospel or we cannot see the truth. Do all of this in such a way that we are bringing true peace to others. We protect ourselves with the shield of faith. The Word of God is described as a sword because it cuts through the kind of web of deceit that spreads over us and binds us in a lie of complicity and silence. (e.g. Frodo and the spider webs in the cave in Lord of the Rings) The whole of our lives is to be surrounded by prayer to guard us from our own self conceit, to keep us looking up to the one who is above all. And pray for me that I may speak boldly, and that you may speak boldly, not rudely or offensively (though people will take offence), but boldly – let us not be silenced.
Nothing of this armour is beyond us, it is all very possible in Christ. This is the good news.
At the recent funeral of Hans van Ede in De Dorpskerk in Blaricum – I noticed something very moving in one of the roof beams of the church near the front – inscribed onto the beam were the dates of that five year occupation in the last war, the beginning and end of that painful and destructive occupation, but in between it was a quotation from one of the Psalms – God reigns! Even when our world around us seems to be crumbling, we can look up and know that if it is happening, God has permitted it to happen, knowing that a greater good can come out of it if we remain faithful. We are in the furnace of affliction…so take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore… Don’t be blown over by the winds that are upon us, gust upon gust, but stand!
A final word, looking at today’s Gospel, which can also be seen as a Word to us directly from God, giving us encouragement in the midst of our battles.
In the whole of Trinity season we have been considering the movement of our soul through various stages from immaturity in Christ, when we looked first at our passions and their reform, then on to maturity in Christ, to being ready to receive the manifold gifts of the Spirit inwardly, to the point when we are strengthened in the inner man, and our souls are made ready to contemplate God. This has been the movement – purgation, followed by illumination, finishing with union or contemplation.
Another way of saying this is that when we stop being completely absorbed in the external world, we can move within and allow God to remake us inwardly, that aspect of our soul made in his image and likeness, is illuminated in us, filled with light and truth, and we are raised up within to lovingly behold God. And this is not self absorption, but a coming to know our Lord intimately, and in that encounter he says to us, go out now and love your neighbour.
But this inner man, this inward person, made in God’s image, is the place from which we need to dwell in the world. And in the midst of this battle, that inner man, or inward person, must be guarded and protected and strengthened. That is what the whole armour of God that we put on is protecting. God so loves and cherishes who we are at our core! And if we are engaged in that battle daily, it is not surprising if we find ourselves exhausted, or sometimes fear that we are losing it, that we are at the point of a kind of death inwardly spiritually. Our prayer at that point to Jesus is exactly like that of the official who came to Jesus in today’s Gospel who pleaded – “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” It seems we do require miracles, we are weak, and Jesus knows it, and he reminds us today that he will come down in a most powerful way – in and through his Body and Blood given for us. Here we know strengthening in the midst of the battle, here we know of a certainty that God is with us: that there are many more that fight for us than that are against us; that regardless of the strength of the battle without, we can find a place of calm, entering into the rest within that God promises.
Today we are to trust the words of Jesus to each of us, Go, your son, your inner man, your inward person, formed in the image and likeness of God, precious in his eyes, will live. And will live eternally.
 What I mean is any sexual relations outside of marriage, as that has always been understood by the Church. I am not suggesting the Anglican Church is opposed to the use of birth control within marriage.