In the first century

March 17, 2020

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Preached by Canon Roland Riem using Ephesians 6.10-20 at Choral Evensong on Sunday 15 March 2020, the Third Sunday of Lent.

The Armour of God

The New Testament is packed with the strangest beliefs. For example, they believed in an apocalyptic future where the misfortunes that they were presently experiencing, caused by malevolent forces beyond their control, would come to a climax in a time of tribulation and distress.

How foolish they were to be so worried, say we, the children of technology and global reach – or so we said.

Actually the change of Zeitgeist that we are seeing started long before the variety of Coronavirus, Covid-19, and probably inevitably. In the 80s, social philosophers told us we were living in the period of ‘post-modernity’. This meant that people were moving on from modernity, when we hoped for a straight line, with as sharp a gradient as possible upwards, uniting economic progress and rising living standards, increasing liberalisation and greater individual freedom. There might have been party political variation in how much of prosperity-cake went into the private or public sectors, but the cake was definitely growing.

Post-modernity grew out of a lack of trust in that tidy, modern state of affairs, a growing worry about the institutions and powers that held vested interests in this process. The banks were propped up in the financial crash, but not small investors. If you weren’t a liberal because of your religious beliefs, say as an evangelical or a Muslim, the regime offered limited headroom. Trickle-down politics was found wanting – great inequalities opened up in society.

Worst of all, recently we began to see the seemingly irreparable mess we were making of the planet. Our desire to expand indefinitely, to exploit the earth’s resources and to be hyper-mobile, was already reaping a whirlwind.

January and February 2020 were the wettest months in the UK on record. The average rainfall in February was 202mm, nearly 8 inches in old money. The previous record set in 1990 was only 193mm, a smidge over 7 1/2 inches. This was because of the storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge, which swept over the country within the space of a few weeks, bringing misery to over a thousand homeowners and businesses. The cost of the latest clean-up will run to over a billion pounds. One sixth of the housing stock of the country, over five million homes, stand now under threat of flooding.

Whatever happened to that line of increasing prosperity and freedom, rising ever upward?

Post- modernity is just a placeholder name; it says that we are living between the times, between what already is (uncertainty, insecurity) and what is not yet.

After the uncertainty of Brexit (negotiations now in the Delay phase as much as the footie, it seems), Corona virus is the latest thing to knock our confidence in the future. We know that things are going to get worse before they get better. The measures we’re taking are only going soften the blow over the next few weeks.

In times like these, two things happen. Firstly, people strain to get a handle on events, to reduce uncertainty. Radio 5 live, in the absence of sports coverage, now hosts a continual stream of callers asking experts questions about the virus, and about what will happen if …

And secondly, people get defensive. One caller in his 60s with no symptoms but with an underlying health issue said that surely he should self-isolate and was surprised when the expert said that only ill people should. Panic buying is obvious another sign of people drawing in their horns.

As we turn to the second lesson from the Letter to the Ephesian Church we find the same instincts in play, the desire to understand what was going on and the desire to defend themselves. Their worldview was different from many of ours: they believed in a cosmic battle, with the powers and principalities led by Satan and based in the heavenly realms causing havoc in and through earthly events.

Apocalyptic spirituality isn’t one to concentrate on small happenings; it tries to reveal the big picture – apocalupsis means revelation. The scientific community concentrates on revealing the mechanics behind crises: they tell us what happens when greenhouse gases fill the atmosphere to produce global warming, for example, and there is already a scientific hypothesis for Covid-19 based on a lack of hygiene in a market in Wuhan.

The scientific, how-explanation takes us so far, but why-explanations go beyond immediate causality and human action. Remember there are lots of stories of impending destruction and catastrophe in the Bible, where the message is always that God is trying speak to his people through the crisis about how we should treat one another and other creatures. I haven’t time to develop this: but Christians will, like everyone else, want to get a handle on the big picture; and, with other people of faith, they will want to understand current events as part of God’s dealing with the world.

So people want the big picture, but they also become more defensive in crisis. Sure enough, in our letter Paul advises the believers to put on the whole armour of God so that they can withstand the forces they face – withstand rather than overcome these forces; to stand firm rather than crumble.

The armour includes the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation – good solid defensive measures.

We have to be realistic: sometimes the best we can do is not be overwhelmed. But these Christians were called to do a little better than that. There were to put on shoes to enable them to proclaim the gospel of peace, and when they had donned all their defensive wear, they were to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

This means that Christians have something to contribute in these uncertain and frightening times. We have to defend ourselves against evil, which certainly means not becoming an unwitting agent of destructiveness. Chapter is already spending many hours a week in discussion, carefully weighing up Government advice and trying to ensure we maintain the cathedral as a place of worship and a place where visitors find a welcome for as long as possible, without putting our precious staff and volunteers at risk.

And individually, we must all do whatever we can to keep ourselves and others safe, being scrupulously honest about our own state of heath, even if we feel that we’re indispensable to the running of a family, business or even a cathedral.

But we ‘re also called to take up the sword of the Spirit, which means enacting word of Jesus Christ, his word of compassion and mercy for the lost and the least. As Christians, we shall be determined in these difficult times to do whatever we can to help our neighbours, especially the most vulnerable.

We know that, in the next month, the skies are going to grow even darker and many older people will be confined, perhaps for months, needing food, medicine and other essentials. We must be on the lookout for ways to help, by doing errands, by not neglecting to phone or message, and to pray, keeping our distance physically but drawing close in kindness and compassion.

In the days to come we will have to show that it’s possible to be bold and faithful while also being sensible and obedient to the best advice. This will be possible if we’re not driven by fear to hide away from others, or by a false confidence in our own immunity to ignore the danger and risk we pose to others.

Our passage ends in Paul asking through prayer for boldness, but maybe our prayer should be for wisdom, for the times are unprecedented. We know we want to love, but we need to discern how to love, how to be truly Christian.