"Be made strong in the Lord"
Friends, I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The bad news first: it’s true, the world is a mess. People in Haiti who were already suffering after the sudden assassination of their president, then thousands of people died during an earthquake, and now affected by hurricanes and mudslides. A hurricane is headed for the east coast of the United States even now. People in Afghanistan watched last week as their elected government fall quickly as armed Taliban established themselves as the new government, and Afghan refugees are leaving from there and some are even coming here to St. Louis. Global temperatures are hotter than ever, water is scarce and fires are raging out of control in the western part of our country. The Covid-19 pandemic remains with us, making people sick, making many of us worry for our health and safety, especially for children who aren’t yet able to be vaccinated and yet are returning to school. People are losing their jobs, losing their unemployment benefits, losing their homes.
How are we supposed to navigate the crushing weight of all of this suffering? What is a person of faith to do? Do we ignore it and focus on our own little lives? Do we turn our attention to our own righteousness?
I promised good news. Here it is: God has not abandoned us. God has not abandoned the people who are suffering the most. God has not abandoned us who are afraid. God has not abandoned creation.
Almost two thousand years ago, someone wrote a letter to the followers of Jesus who lived in the city of Ephesus. Maybe it was Paul who wrote it, or scholars think it could have been someone else writing in the style of the apostle Paul and just using his name, because in the ancient world they didn’t consider that as plagiarism but considered it a way to honor their teachers. Anyway, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians had some encouraging words for the believers there: “be made strong in the Lord.”
The version we just read says “Be strong in the Lord” but the Greek language in which this letter was originally written is a little more nuanced—the imperative verb used here is in a passive voice, meaning to receive the action: “be made strong.” The one doing the action is God. God is the one doing the strengthening. God is the one with the power, giving strength to us, God’s children.
Isn’t it kind of a relief to know that you’re not responsible for fixing the mess in the world? You’re not responsible for empowering yourself, “picking yourself up by your bootstraps,” whatever that even means. You are made strong in the Lord because you are made strong BY GOD.
Now I could stop right here, because God has already accomplished salvation, God has already won whatever wars are being fought—this is what we confess in Jesus Christ. I don’t have to save the world; Jesus has already done it. Amen. Have a nice day.
But I’m not stopping here because Jesus isn’t done yet, either. Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven and wash his hands of everything on the earth. God isn’t done with us. There’s still hurting in the world; there is still healing that needs to happen. It takes a persistent and stubborn faith in God to return in prayer saying, “ALRIGHT, GOD, WHAT NOW? WHAT ABOUT THIS MESS?!” Because you can know that the war is ultimately won, you can trust and believe that God has the power, and you can also still wonder how to get through the battle going on today.
The writer to the Ephesians has a powerful description of this too, incorporating the armor of a warrior going into battle—this warrior imagery wouldn’t be unusual among other religious and philosophical writings of that era. But the writer of Ephesians apparently also knows the ancient Hebrew Scriptures too! Because these same pieces of armor that are mentioned also come from images found in the prophet Isaiah. You might recognize these images from Isaiah, as well.
The belt of truth mentioned by Ephesians sounds like what Isaiah talks about in the 11th chapter, speaking about a leader to come. Listen to Isaiah: “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Remember that image, sometimes called “the peaceful kingdom?” Then Ephesians speaks of the breastplate of righteousness, which is described by Isaiah as what GOD puts on, as well as the helmet of salvation, in the struggle for God’s people.
Are shoes important? The writer of Ephesians also mentions footwear, referencing these lines from the ancient prophet Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Isaiah doesn’t really mention a shield, but there is an image of a sword. The prophet Isaiah speaks of their own experience, “The Lord made my mouth like a sharp sword.”
These images from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures remind us that being a person of faith does not mean we won’t encounter evil in the world—we will. We will be challenged, we’ll sometimes be hurt, occasionally we’ll grieve and we’ll mourn, but at no time are we participating in the cycle of violence.
Professor Sarah Henrichs writes this:
“Note that the armor is designed to help folks stand fast: it is not armor for aggressive action. Standing fast does not require a person to hurt a neighbor in any way. The words calling upon believers to stand fast are plural. One believer alone does not have to be a kind of Don Quixote for God in the midst of a godless world, tilting at windmills and not taken seriously. This passage calls for considered, corporate resistance to evil when and wherever it is embodied in the structures of the world one lives in, through the power of God.”
In other words: the struggle is real. And it matters how we respond as faithful people. What does our faithful action say about the God of our faith? The powers of this world would love to see faithful people lose their sense of hope, and just imagine how much more damage could be done if we narrowed our viewpoint to our own selves, our own lives, our own salvation.
But, friends: there’s more good news. Our God is bigger than that. God desires the salvation of all of us. For those of us faithfully following God, what would “considered, corporate resistance to evil” look like? It might look like this.
Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina, and he writes about this Scripture from Ephesians about the struggle for peace involves conflict with enemies, a nonviolent clash with evil. He writes,
“This peace is not quietism. Pacifism is not passivism. Instead, the peaceable gospel is an incursion against violence’s reign in our communities. …My congregation was part of a coalition of churches that housed undocumented neighbors threatened with deportation. Church properties became protective sanctuaries. Hundreds of community members volunteered to provide day and night accompaniment for the person who lived for two years at our church—all of us ready for nonviolent confrontation with the authorities, were ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents to invade the church. Proclaiming the gospel of peace put our congregation in conflict with the Department of Homeland Security. Our struggle against harmful federal policies made us enemies of neighbors who demanded the use of force to expel Latinx immigrants from our communities. I still have the hate mail our church received, and I haven’t yet deleted the messages threatening my own deportation. Racists dismiss the difference between citizen and noncitizen; they just want brown people sent away, regardless of our documentation status. The gospel of peace will offend those invested in the U.S. racialized order for their identity as citizens. In a society organized by means of policing the borders of citizenship, peace involves the costly work of organizing acts of resistance against evil powers.”
Resistance takes energy and creativity; the kinds of things that God has in great supply. This is how God strengthens God’s people.
God also strengthens us with God’s own Word. Remember how the writer of Ephesians spoke about a sword? The sword we’re called to use isn’t one that causes bodily harm to another creature. Our sword is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. This is why we keep returning to God’s Word, to know the truth and to learn to speak it.
Simon Peter recognized this when everyone else turned away from Jesus when the teaching got too hard. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” he asked. “You have the words of eternal life.” Yes, Jesus’s teaching is hard! Yes, it is difficult to imagine how it’s possible to eat Christ’s body and drink his blood and not get sidetracked wondering if we’re cannibals or vampires or whatever.
God is with us and wants to be part of us, individually and as a group. God desires relationship with us and with all humanity, and liberation for those who are oppressed and healing for those who are suffering. This is the good news for all creation.
And this sign up here at the front of the church that says “127” is here because this year, we celebrate 127 years of ministry in this place at Gethsemane Lutheran Church. And we have a challenge: next weekend, for “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday, our challenge is to complete 127 hours of service during the weekend! Every person’s contribution matters—if you can commit to one hour of service, even doing a project from home, it all adds up. This is our public testimony to show the world how we care for our neighbors and live out our faith.
Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” Well? How would you answer?
 Professor Richard Carlson, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-ephesians-610-20-6  Professor Richard Carlson, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-ephesians-610-20-6  Isaiah 11: 5-6  Isaiah 59: 17  Isaiah 52: 7  Isaiah 49: 2  Professor Sarah Henrich, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-ephesians-610-20-5  Isaac Villegas, “When Wisdom Throws a House Party,” Sojourners, August 2021, page 49.