The Sword of the Spirit
The Whole Armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) #6
Palm Sunday; March 25, 2018
Most folks who have been around awhile enjoy the hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers." I remember one church supper that included some hymn-singing; when we sang that hymn we marched around the room. It's really fun to watch a bunch of Presbyterians march around Fellowship Hall singing, "Onward, Christian Soldiers." I have a hunch that those who love the hymn aren't thinking about the words so much as about the stirring tune: it's usually march tempo and it builds to a great climax and then comes in for a landing.
I grew up in the Presbyterian Church and it was in our hymnal (The Hymnal 1933), but I don't remember singing it much. It's not that we were pacifists, but that our Pastor tended to prefer hymns about the glory and work of God than about how great we are. Be that as it may, Presbyterians tend not to use it much anymore because of its martial character. Unless you pay careful attention to what the words actually say, you may think it's a call to grab your weapons and go kill an atheist for Christ.
We can have the same problem with this image of the Word of God as a sword if we don't pay careful attention to what the words actually say. The list of components of the whole armor of God concludes with this: "Take… the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." Although a sword can be used defensively, the main purpose of a sword is to attack an enemy. Many of us cringe at such an image. But see the rest of the sentence: "…which is the word of God." So, as with all the rest of the armor of God, the Bible isn't telling you and me to grab a weapon and go kill an atheist for Christ; the Bible is telling us that the weapon we need to attack the evil one is the word of God.
Now, the "word of God" means three things: the word of God spoken, the word of God written, and the word of God incarnate. What does the word of God do? It filets. It cuts meat from the bone, it lays bare what is inside us. The writer of Hebrews says that it reveals your secret self to God and also to you. We can be quite practiced at self-deception, but the word of God cuts through our masks and pretensions in order to lay bare who we really are.
The word of God is spoken, written, and incarnate. Perhaps you have heard something in a sermon that cut you to the heart; you may remember that I told you how I have sat in church and listened to preachers and been angry because I didn't believe what they were saying. Well, that revealed that I needed to work on my faith, not that they needed to work on their preaching. The Bible can cut through to lay us bare: consider the Psalms, which have so much in them that we think probably shouldn't be in the Bible. John Calvin says that the Psalms are a mirror that reflects the human soul; they reveal to us what is going on inside that we would rather not admit. And the word of God is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, especially in his Cross.
This Holy Week is a good time to ask ourselves what is revealed of us as Jesus walks the Way of Sorrows to the Cross. When we are gathered around the Table with Jesus and we share his body and blood, and then one of us runs off to the Council to betray Jesus, and then the police come and we all run away and leave him alone, and then one of us stands at the fire and says, "I don't know him!" what does that reveal of us? And when Jesus stands before Pilate and the crowd shouts, "We have no king but Caesar!" what does that reveal of us? And when Jesus hangs on the Cross and says, "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing," what does that reveal of us?
But the sword is an offensive weapon, the only thing in the Whole Armor of God that is not devoted to defense. How does the word of God spoken, written, and incarnate protect us from the evil one? Well, remember another name the Bible has for the evil one: the Father of Lies. The best offense against the Father of Lies is the truth. The evil one uses lies, deception, and masks, but the word of God spoken, written, and incarnate shine the radiance of truth. I have seen that the Church has been at our best when we have told the truth: the truth about ourselves, the truth about our society, the truth about our experience of God. When we have been deceptive, tried to put on a good show, and above all lied to ourselves about ourselves then we are at our worst.
Here's the story that helps me with this; I hope it will make sense to you. In Madeleine L'Engel's novel A Wrinkle in Time, there is a being that is the incarnation of evil, simply called It. In the movie, that being is called The It. It captures a little boy named Charles Wallace and is using him as a spokesperson; his older sister Meg goes to rescue him. There are three strange characters helping them, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which (by the way, I like the casting of these three characters in the movie).
Now, this key moment is in the novel but not in the movie. Before Meg goes to confront It to try to rescue her brother, Mrs. Whatsit tells Meg that she loves her. During the conversation, when Charles Wallace is speaking for It, Meg tries everything she can to persuade him to leave It. At some point, Charles Wallace says, "Mrs. Whatsit hates you." And Meg pretty much automatically replies, "No, she doesn't; she told me that she loves me." And suddenly Meg knew the key to rescuing Charles Wallace.
What follows is very well done in the movie. She says to Charles Wallace, "I love you. I know that you love me. You are my dear brother and I love you. And you have shown me that you love me." The truth of her love spoken to him breaks the hold that It has on him and Charles Wallace is free.
Whatever lies the evil one tells, the best weapon is the truth, the truth of God's love. That is what, above all, the word of God makes clear to us: God's love. This Holy Week, hear the word and read the word of God's love. And walk with the word made flesh, Jesus: sit with him at the Table on Thursday as he breaks bread and pours wine and says, "This is my body and my blood, given for you." Go to the Cross on Friday and see his arms spread wide to embrace the world. And run with the women to the tomb on Resurrection morning. Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; it reveals you to God and to yourself and it attacks the evil one with the love of God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master