The Mystery of the Gospel

Ephesians 6:10–20
Andrew Scales
August 19, 2018
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In December 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a lecture about the power of nonviolence when he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The idea that nonviolence was powerful might have come as a surprise to anyone who watched the news footage of demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early nineteen sixties. Fire hoses let loose on crowds of civilians, attack dogs unleashed on children, police beating protesters in the street. And yet, something profound was happening in the Deep South that year. A Civil Rights Act was passed in Congress. The ugliness of segregation rose to a national crisis point that demanded change. Bull Connor, the brutal, racist commissioner for public safety, found himself suddenly out of a job. How could something completely counter-intuitive like the principle of nonviolent resistance have provoked so much change?

In his Nobel lecture, Dr. King describes nonviolence as a kind of sword, but not one that cuts down or destroys. No, nonviolence is a sword that heals. As the new Nobel laureate King said,

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. I believe in this method because I think it is the only way to reestablish a broken community. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.”[1]

A sword that cuts without wounding. Reestablishment of broken communities. A path of peace that awakens people from complacency. These insights Dr. King had about nonviolence as a weapon, one that builds up rather than destroys, came from years of suffering for the sake of living out the words and ministry of Jesus in his present time.

Speaking up for justice and love in a world segregated by violence and hate was not a certain path to victory; it came through King’s own arrests and time spent in the Birmingham jailhouse just the year before he received the Nobel Prize.

Dr. King had his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and it’s not too far a stretch to say that Ephesians is Paul’s “Letter from an Imperial Roman Jail.” Yes, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians comes from a prison cell, where armed Roman guards walk past on patrol. Paul is in prison, put away from society, confined, meant to be forgotten. The first missionary to the Gentiles, the apostle who traveled through Greece and Asia Minor, Arabia and Italy, is now kept behind a locked door. No more adventures escaping through holes in the wall or surviving shipwrecks, no more planting of churches in the cosmopolitan crossroads of the Roman Empire.

At the end of his life, the ambassador for Christ writes to a church he pastored in Ephesus with chains binding him to a wall.

“Put on the armor of God,” Paul writes. That seems like an awkward fit for an epistle, doesn’t it? Helmets and flaming arrows are odd images for a tiny house church in a big city, a community that’s terrified of what Roman soldiers might do to them. This group of people gathers every week to remember that Jesus died at the hands of Roman soldiers dressed in the very helmets, swords, and shields Paul tells them to imagine for themselves. But Paul takes the images of war, and transforms the Christian life from warfare into metaphors for the Gospel struggle—a struggle equipped by truth, peace, justice, salvation, faith, and the Word of God.

Again and again, God calls us away from violence and coercion to turn again toward the harder, healing path of seeking peace and justice. The ancient prophets promised that Israel’s redemption will involve beating their swords into plowshares and studying war no more.  Dr. King and his followers demonstrated a profound way to provoke social change through the waging of peace with nonviolent action. Paul’s imagery of weapons and battle gear equip us, not for carnage, but to live like Jesus no matter where we are. Because the things Paul calls for—truth, peace, justice, faith, hope in God—they are the signs of the world Jesus promised through his life, death, and resurrection.

This promise is for today; the time to take up the work of nonviolent justice is now. Over this summer, the students and young adults of Princeton Presbyterians have been reading Rev. Dr. William Barber II’s book The Third Reconstruction. The Third Reconstruction focuses on Barber’s story as the pastor who organized the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. Now he and Presbyterian pastor Liz Theoharis have revived the Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign was the anti-poverty movement that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began to address economic injustice fifty years ago this year.

In a season of our nation’s history marked by division and disillusionment, Barber is a hopeful coalition builder. His demonstrations bring people together across racial, political, economic, and religious barriers to work toward addressing poverty and civil rights in America. He speaks to large crowds on the platforms at demonstrations throughout his home state North Carolina and the country, but he has also known what it’s like to be arrested and detained in a prison cell.

Rev. Barber has been arrested in the past for making nonviolent protests in Senate office buildings on behalf of Americans with disabilities.[2] Barber himself suffers from a rare and painful condition called ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that fuses your joints and bones.[3] In some ways, he is an atypical leader of a national civil rights movement: it is extremely painful for him to travel; to risk arrest and detention is exhausting and debilitating. And yet, Barber’s preaching and ministry help many people in America, people who are often otherwise forgotten, lift their voices to tell their stories. In his weakness and vulnerability, Barber remains a minister who seeks to continue the life and the ministry of Jesus among vulnerable persons today.

What I love about Barber’s way of doing ministry is that he believes anyone can be a witness to the Gospel, no matter how hard their circumstances are, how vulnerable their situation may be. The Poor People’s Campaign invites people who would never have the spotlight on them otherwise to tell their stories, their hopes, their commitment to bringing about positive change in our country. The work itself—nonviolent protest, building bridges across barriers, telling the stories of voices long unheard—is a move to build up and heal rather than destroy and injure. Barber himself says, “This is the end goal of nonviolent struggle: a new nation—a new world where former enemies can become co-laborers for the common good.”[4]

When we got together as a book group with Princeton Presbyterians, we took some time to reflect, to listen and think about where God might be calling us to engage in non-violent resistance for justice. Each of us took time to reflect on how we might take up a cause for the healing of this world in the coming year. And it’s not the same for everyone; Paul says elsewhere in Ephesians that we all have different gifts, different roles to play in the Body of Christ. But the calling to do justice remains the same. And so, I ask you the same question. We’re at the start of a new academic year; maybe you’re a student, maybe you’re sending the kids off to school, maybe it’s a time for new adventures. What will you do? What is God asking of you today?

There is indeed a struggle against powers of sin and death in this world, and not just abstract concepts high up in the heavenly realms. There are powers of sin and death that keep people from living lives with the dignity they deserve—suffering in poverty or obscurity, their needs unheard by the neighbor. Paul calls upon us to equip ourselves to engage in nonviolent resistance to the powers of sin in this world. We answer a call to pursue justice with the sword of nonviolent resistance because, as Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, “love does no harm to a neighbor” (Rom 13:10).

This armor of God that Paul writes about is turned inside out by the Gospel, so that the power of Jesus is revealed through ways we assume are weak because they are vulnerable. A commitment to telling the truth when it is easier to lie or twist facts to fit our desires and ambitions. Seeking peace in a world that says violence is the solution to our disagreements. Taking up the cause of justice not only when it benefits us, but also when it confronts the injustices that affect our neighbors. Trusting that love is a power stronger than hate, a divine force that overwhelms not only our enemies, but even ourselves, as the power of God to save us from our warring madness. When we do these things, in matters small and great, we are also offering ourselves to participate in Jesus’ healing of the nations.

Friends, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power. The call to stand firm against sin and the powers that dehumanize our neighbors is no less urgent today than when Paul wrote to his beloved church from solitary confinement. Listen to the call on your life to take up your cross and follow Jesus; God speaks it through voices ancient and new. Clothe yourselves in God’s ways, ready to walk in the paths of justice, healing, and peace. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1964” (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/lecture/)

[2] https://religionnews.com/2017/07/13/clergy-arrested-outside-mcconnells-office-while-protesting-healthcare-bill/

[3] The Rev. Dr. William j. Barber II, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2016) 31-32.

[4] Barber, The Third Reconstruction, 67.

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