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Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
While I was in my home state of Tennessee a few weeks ago, I happened to notice in a local mini-mart, a large display filled with ball caps, t-shirts, koozies, car flags, and other novelty accessories. On each item there was embellished a large white letter T, and on the background was the most interesting shade of orange. Some of you may not know it, but that white “T” on orange background is the glorious icon of the beloved University of Tennessee. You also may not be aware that in certain parts of our country, there are followers of a Saturday religious movement known as SEC football of which Tennessee, and I must say reluctantly, Florida are rival constituent members.
Both of my siblings have graduate degrees from UT, and my daughter completed her undergraduate degree there, and will complete her masters in December. All three of them have walked the beloved halls of the many buildings on that campus, they have put in hours of sweat and tears there. My daughter even donned the uniform of the “Pride of the Southland Marching band” during all four of her undergraduate years, and marched on the gridiron of Neyland Stadium. All three of them have beautifully framed diplomas that clearly testify that they have not only earned a degree, but they possess a great commitment, connection, and dedication to this particular community of higher education.
My siblings and daughter are members of a group with roots only at UT Knoxville, but for me (a graduate of ETSU and Sewanee) and many other folks who live in my home state, we do not have the same connection, commitment, and experiences of that school, as does its alumni. For many of us, we are merely fans of the team. We fans like to purchase ball caps, T-shirts, and other accouterments, don them every Saturday when our team is playing on the field, and cheer them on. We fans may have visited the campus, walked its halls, and may have occupied a seat in the stadium during one of the games, but our connection to the school is only a peripheral one at best.
There is a difference between being a fan on the sidelines, and having an intimate, committed, experience-filled connection to something beyond ourselves, a connection that transforms us, and institutes in us, a passion to share our experience. We Christians need to be more than mere fans of Jesus. We need to get out on the gridiron ourselves, and partner with God, and join the Jesus Movement.
The Right Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop-Elect of the Episcopal Church, during his sermon right after the election, said this about the so-called Jesus movement, “I am more and more convinced that God came among us in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the way to be reconciled with the God who deeply and passionately loves each and every one of us, to be reconciled and right with that God and to be reconciled and right with each other as the children of that one God who created us all. He came to show us how to get right and how to get reconciled. He came to show us therefore how to become more than simply the human race – that’s not good enough – came to show us how to be more than a collection of individualized self-interests, came to show us how to become more than a human race.”(1)
A recent commentator on the Bishop’s address wrote, “I like Bishop Curry’s use of the term ‘the Jesus Movement.’ It strikes me that he is edging away from a vision of church as primarily institutional. He seems to be aiming to reclaim the awareness of the church as a living organism, a Body of faith in which the Spirit of Jesus dwells. A “movement” is flexible, open and adaptable. It cannot be static and fixed.” (2)
Now the question for us is this, if we claim Jesus as Lord, then should we not be flexible, open, and adaptable? Should we not move from the sidelines and onto the playing field? Should we not don our spiritual pads and helmets and begin the hard work of becoming people reconciled with God, reconciled with each other in the Christian community, and reconciled with each and every person regardless of their religion, ethnicity, creed, orientation, or political affiliation.” We Christians need to be more than mere fans of Jesus, we need to partner up with him and join his movement, to engage in the struggle against human indifference, violence, hatred, exclusion, human tragedy, and injustice, all of which stands against and thwarts God’s Kingdom.
There is a cosmic struggle with evil that exists in the world, just look at the headlines in the news this past week. An 82 year-old antiquities chief of Syria’s ancient Roman city Palmyra was brutally executed by beheading last week. Last week in Suwanee, GA, five people were shot in a domestic incident where two children under the age of ten were killed. Last month we heard of the brutal murder of five marines/sailors, which took place in my own home state. People are dying and suffering daily, as a result of evil embodied through human acts of violence, hate, and death.
You do not have to go far though to experience evil incarnate. It happens within relationships, families, associations, businesses, political parties, and yes, sometimes even churches. Evil exists and we experience the results of evil later in some of the events of human tragedy. For instance, in 2013 one out of 30 children or 2.5 million were homeless in America. (3) There were an estimated 57,849 homeless veterans in the United States just two years ago. That is 12 percent of all homeless adults. (3) Addiction is growing, with nearly 20 million Americans using illicit drugs. In addition, there is 10% of the American population struggling with some form of depression. Oppression of all sorts and kinds is rife today.
Christian tradition teaches us that we Jesus followers have been, over the centuries, sent out into a struggle with the forces of the human heart, which war against everything Jesus stood for: love, grace, mercy, reconciliation, and restoration. In our world, in our nation, and in our local community we are blind, if believe that all is well, and that our local venues are without injustice, addiction, war, murder, violence, and oppression. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are constantly in a spiritual clash against the opposition that is fueled by a desire for power, which thwarts the way of God’s Kingdom.
We need more folks to move from the stands, to shift from being mere fans, and to move to the field, joining the Jesus movement, partnering with God to bring about God’s kingdom, and it all begins with each of us as individuals. No effective team member just rushes out onto the field though, without first doing the hard work of training, practice, and preparation. No effective team member moves out on the gridiron, without first suiting up with the proper equipment necessary to insure protection.
We must prepare our hearts as the Epistle writer asserts, by taking “up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. The writer uses a metaphor of the equipment used by a Roman soldier to show how we must be equipped, in order to be protected in the struggle against evil.
The “belt of truth” is a metaphor for the God-given courage we need to take a stand against the circumstances of oppression, injustice, and violence. The “breastplate of righteousness” is the God-given means for the existence of right-relationships, which is both being in a right relationship with God, and being in right relationships with one another. The “shoes to proclaim the gospel” is a metaphor for the God-given spirit of peace and love to move toward someone, someone who is different from you, different in culture, ethnicity, orientation, social or economic circumstance, or someone who may be an antagonist and not so easy to love. The “shield of faith” is one like the shields of the Roman army that covered not only the soldier who carried it, but his cohort beside him. The shield of faith is a metaphor for the God-given gift to the church, the Body of Christ, to join together trusting that our future is truly in God’s abiding grace.
The “helmet of salvation” is a metaphor for the God-given gift that reminds us that we can trust in the promises that God will never forsake us. God is with us in all aspects of our lives. The “sword of Spirit” is a metaphor for God’s active presence in the world today, which convicts, enlightens, inspires, and leads us into grace. It is not an offensive weapon to use to attack those different from us, but it is God working in us to show us something new. Finally, we have prayer. This is the most important piece of equipment, for if we are not in an ongoing close dialogue with the Holy, then we are not connected to the source of grace, which equips us for the work we are called to do.
The armor to which the writer of the letter to the Ephesians is referring is not something we can muster up and create ourselves. We are utterly dependent upon God, and the struggle we face as followers of Jesus, is one over which, in our power alone, we have no defense. This Jesus movement to which we are called to join is not easy for the faint of heart.
Jesus tells us, “Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” Following Jesus, standing up to the power of injustice and oppression is a life-long struggle, but hear me out. Being a mere fan of Jesus is at least a start, but you must know that God never leaves us where we are comfortable.
After Jesus challenged the crowds about the cost of following him, and many abandoned the team and left, Jesus asked the twelve remaining disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” So, when things get tough on this faith journey, we must stick with it, put on our armor and stand firm, and resist the desire to just leave, hoping to find greener pastures.
Yes, we will struggle in this world when we make the commitment to follow the way of Jesus. You have to remember that Jesus disrupted the powers of the world and proclaimed a new world where the ways of justice, mercy, love, peace, reconciliation and grace would be the norm. Jesus did this through self-giving, self-sacrificing love. He did not succumb to thwarting power, by the means of power. He did not hit back in the time of trial, nor did he come down from the cross in a Rambo-like move. That is what most of us would have done. No, Jesus challenged power through love, by saying to his accusers and executioners, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Each of us is challenged to take up our cross and follow Jesus and this movement is not one readily begun by the faint of heart.
Fan or Follower? Do you merely put on your ball cap and sit on the sidelines, or do you support the team with your spiritual gifts by being on the field, or maybe you are right in the middle of the action blocking, tackling, carrying the ball, and all the rest. No matter where you are on this journey of faith, no matter where you are as a part of the Jesus Movement, there will be a time in which, you will need to suit up, put on the whole armor of God, and live the faith to which you claim. Are you ready?
(4) Schaper, Gary G, et al. “Homiletical Helps On LW Series B — Epistles.” Concordia Journal 32.3 (2006): 315-334. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.