“The four S’s”
Sunday 26 August 2018
How many of you have ever visited the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey? There has been a lot of archaeological activity there in recent decades and you can get a sense of what a significant city it was in its heyday. History tells us that it was one of the most important centres for trade and commerce in the Aegean during the first century AD. It was also a leading political and intellectual centre and was home to the Temple of Artemis – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Eventually, the Cayster River, at whose mouth the city stood, silted up its harbor and the city became useless as a port and went into ruins.
But Ephesus’ problems go back well before the silting of the harbor. According to Saint Paul, the Ephesus he found in the first century had a deep pathology much more serious than its financial security. We read today: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor 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”.
This is very strong language from Paul. In his mind, in Ephesus, the problem is not just the people and the way that they live, it is the source of the evil they commit that concerns him the most. As I said before, he sees it as a pathology of the community. The forces of evil are at work and they must be taken seriously and nor underestimated. They must be tackled with every weapon at the disposal of the Christian community. They are “cosmic powers of present darkness” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”.
We have other references to the presence of evil spirits in the Ephesus community. In Acts 19.11-12 we read: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.” And following on from that, in the next verse, we are told about the Jewish exorcists that were already in the city. “Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits.”
In his First Letter to Timothy, Paul indicates that it is not just the powers of evil that needed to be contended with in Ephesus, but also the presence of false teaching. As he leaves Timothy behind in Ephesus, he explains that he is doing so in order that he might instruct “certain people” not to teach any different doctrine.
So, let there be no doubt about it, Ephesus was a tough nut to crack. We could say that it was about as tough as our own society in this country. We might not refer to cosmic powers so much in our description of the Australian culture, but we can certainly identify areas of pathology that hamper the spread of the gospel.
A few years ago, I attended our Diocesan Clergy Conference and we had two Church of England priests as speakers addressing the challenge of “Leading Your Church into Growth” and they gave an excellent description of the English society in which they were called to spread the gospel.
They used the image of the game of rounders – a variant on softball. The game involves running from base to base among four bases. And they described current day English society as being engaged in a game of rounders where the bases were the four S’s: Shopping; Sexing; Supping and Soccer. I think it is a very god description of our own Australian society, although we might change Soccer to Sport. Shopping; Sexing; Supping and Sport.
Don’t you think there is a lot of truth in this? Shopping – Advertising constantly tells us how happy we will be if we just spend more money on buying things. We even have the phrase “retail therapy” as if shopping will somehow rid us of deep-seated malaise. Sexing – Our entertainment industry assures us that all we really need is more sex and more sex and we will be entirely happy. Supping – Binge drinking has become a compulsory feature of social life. Sport – It doesn’t matter how many people are drowned on refugee boats, or killed in natural disasters or terrorist attacks around the world, did our sporting team win this weekend?
This cultural malaise is every bit as much of an obstacle to the gospel as the spiritual evil that Paul found at play in Ephesus. No wonder Paul turned to the image of battle to provide us with a remedy to these opponents of the gospel.
And so, he reminds us that we have the truth. Recall Jesus’ words in John 8.31-32: There, Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The truth is found in Jesus’ word and of course Jesus himself is the Word. The truth is found in Jesus and in him alone.
We have righteousness. That is a word that has seen gallons of ink used in trying to describe exactly what we mean by it. But for the context in which it is used here by Paul, it surely has to do with being at one with God, at rights with God. If we remember constantly that we are sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ, we will remain at one with God. This is one of our defences against the forces raised against us as Christians.
We have to be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Remember the first thing that Jesus said to his disciples on the first Easter evening: “Peace be with you.” Amidst all the turmoil of our world, we are to be ready to proclaim that very same word that Jesus did. Remembering as well that peace forms such an integral part of the upside down world that God’s kingdom is as taught in Jesus’ beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
We have faith. And remember, faith in the Bible rarely just means belief in God. It has the deeper meaning of trust in God. Our faith is a weapon for us because it allows us to have full confidence in our God that he will always be true to his promises.
We have salvation. We are saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as God saved the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, so we have been saved from sin and death by Jesus’ victory of death.
And finally, Pauls tells us that we have the Spirit, the Word of God. We can often fail to see the power of the Spirit at work in our lives. But it is there. It is there when we act in a way that makes God’s presence evident to others. It is there when people turn to God from lives of meaninglessness and despair. The Spirit is present within us and works within us in our prayer, in our sharing of our faith with others, in our efforts to grow as disciples of Jesus.
This little reading from Ephesians that we have considered today not only gives us encouragement and advice about how we can remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of a society that is blind to the message of the gospel, it also gives us a clue as to the sorts of things that we have to offer to that society in order to bring it to Christ.
I would encourage each of you to try to find a little time later today to sit down with your Bible and to reflect again upon that text. Let the word speak to you about how you can be strong in your faithfulness and how you can bring the gospel to those in your life who desperately need to hear it.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen