Sermon: August 29, 2021 106 160 johnpaddock

Sermon: August 29, 2021

St. Mark says that evil comes from within. The things that defile us aren’t the unclean foods, the improperly prepared meals, the un-kosher kitchens. True defilement flows out of an impure heart. This kind of evil manifests itself in many ways. Mark has a list.

Theft, murder, adultery, envy – these are understandable enough. But let’s define these others:

  • Fornication is sex without love.
  • Avarice: excessive, insatiable desire for wealth or gain; avarice is extreme greed.
  • Wickedness: evil in character, behavior, or tendency. Having a bad disposition. Poisonous or toxic
  • Deceit is not just the act or practice of deceiving, but deliberate false representation.
  • Licentiousness is marked by the absence of legal or moral restraints.
  • Folly: lack of good sense or of normal prudence and foresight; weakness or triviality of intellect. Folly is an inability or refusal to accept existing reality.

Have you picked out some names of folk to place beside each item on the list?

“All these evil things come from within, from the heart,” says Mark’s Jesus, “and they defile a person.”

What we need to be leery of here is to see these as only, or even primarily, sins that belong to individuals. 

The point of this text is to remind us that even though we may outwardly obey the law, wash our hands, eat the right foods, perform the holy rituals – there’s an inward spiritual illness and we’ve all been exposed to the virus. This virus is in the world as it is.

Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is absolutely clear that we aren’t contending with individual sinfulness and evil human hearts. 

Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, 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. –Ephesians 6:11-12

These evil forces (what some translations call the “principalities and powers”) are clearly beyond individual human shortcomings and sins. Although verse 11 refers to “the wiles of the devil,” there’s certainly more intended here than a red-suited, pointy-tailed, creature with a pitchfork in its hand. What/who are these rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces?

New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins, in her commentary on this text, says that early Christians tended to understand that the “demons” were external to humans and attacked the souls of Christians from beyond. 

“Contemporary readers are less likely to see the demons as external beings than internal forces that infect the psyche. The quest for holiness forces a confrontation with the tangled web of confusion, sin, and ignorance in the human heart. Nor should the injunction to take up the armor of God and stand firm be limited to individuals. Groups are also subject to a dynamic that works for evil that no one individual would engage in separately.”[1]

Walter Wink has written a trilogy on the subject of “the powers” in the New Testament.[2]

“Here . . . we have what is essentially a series, a heaping up of terms to describe the ineffable, invisible world-enveloping reach of a spiritual network of powers inimical to life. . . . We must include here, then, all the principalities and powers we have encountered, not only divine but human, not only personified but structural, not only demons and kings but the world atmosphere and power invested in institutions, laws, traditions and rituals as well, for it is the cumulative, totalizing effect of all these taken together that causes the sense of bondage to a “dominion of darkness” (see Col. 1:13) presided over by higher powers.  . . .We must not neglect to mention here the spirit of empire, which perpetuates itself through a succession of rulers which was so powerful, in the case of Rome, that it was able to sustain the madness of three emperors in one century (Caligula, Nero, Domitian). Nor can we leave aside all forms of institutional idolatry, whereby religion, commerce, education and state make their own well-being and survival the final criteria of morality, and by which they justify the liquidation of prophets, the persecution of deviants, and the ostracism of opponents.”[3]

What we are talking about here is that the architecture of evil is corporate, not individual. Evil may, indeed, emit from individual hearts, but those hearts were formed in atmospheres of corporate powers like racism, terrorism, classism, militarism, and all the other –isms and cultures and forces that diminish humanity and threaten God’s creation.

So if we contend against principalities and powers, how do we fight against them? Ephesians suggests that since this is a spiritual battle we need to put on spiritual armor (verses 13-17), the armor of God. Once again we turn to Wink.

“. . . this armor turns out to be strange armor indeed. Faith, the gospel of peace, the word of God, truth, salvation, and righteousness—these are not “weapons” in any usual sense of the word. It is a warfare to be waged with an enormous concentration of prayer. What good is truth—unless it is the way the Powers are finally unmasked? What use righteousness—unless it reveals God’s true will for the world? What value salvation—unless the certainty of it is needed for reassurance in the moments of despair or darkness when the gathered might of the Powers makes doubt seem only sensible? What can the shield of faith do—unless we have learned to discern when flaming darts are aimed at our hearts, with their insinuations of inadequacy and guilt or their appeals to egotism and the worship of the golden calf? What good is a sword made only of words, in the face of such monolithic evil—unless evil is not nearly so much a physical phenomenon as a spiritual construct, itself born of words, and capable of destruction by the word of God? And why pray—unless that is the only way we can consolidate, by continual affirmation, the divine counterreality which alone is real, and freight it into being?”[4]

A short word about shields. The round shields of Roman legionnaires that often appear in the movies actually were elongated very early on. Two-thirds of the shield covered the soldier’s body and one-third covered the legs of his comrade to the left. This brilliant innovation encouraged tight ranks, since each fighter was in part dependent on his neighbor for protection.

“Against such evil the church is well-advised to stand shoulder to shoulder, shields overlapping. Hence this instruction in armaments is issued in the plural throughout the paragraph. Not individuals but the whole people of God is addressed. Solitary efforts may at times be necessary, but far better when many, each individually equipped thus, can struggle together and perhaps even “prove victorious over everything.”[5]

The work, the mission, the purpose of the church is to engage is this struggle. Far more than personal comfort and edification, our worship and Christian formation programs are designed to equip and arm God’s people for spiritual battles. We provide pastoral care and fellowship so that we can care for one another with overlapping shields. We speak the word of God, bathe ourselves in the stories of the faith, in order to form human hearts that promote light and life. We engage in mission here in Fairborn and in other places like Haiti and, today, the Gulf Coast to bring to light the counter-reality we call the realm of God.

Too much of American Christianity dilutes the faith and trivializes the battle by: first, concentrating on the individual (Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior); and second, by focusing on the personal and warm sins like adultery and fornication – while essentially ignoring the corporate and cold-hearted evils of our modern life: avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, and folly.

We claim no special righteousness, no new revelation, and certainly no perfection. But we do ask those who claim to preach a “whole Gospel,” to pay attention the Gospel of Mark and the Epistle to the Ephesians. For salvation is not about “some” going to heaven while others are “left behind”. Salvation is about liberation for all people and making the whole creation new.

Let the people of God say, “Amen.”

[1] Pheme Perkins, The Letter to the Ephesians in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 351.

[2] Walter Wink, Naming the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); and Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). Wink also published a digest of the trilogy with some additional elements entitled The Powers That Be (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1999).

[3] Wink, Naming the Powers, 85.

[4] Wink, Naming the Powers, 88.

[5] Ibid.