Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

I remember (and you might too) a Sunday School coloring page based on the Ephesians reading showing the “armor of God.” It was usually a kid, about 6 or 8, in knight’s armor (here’s an example). My teachers understandably wanted to keep the attention of boys around that age, and they apparently knew how: let us dream of being soldiers. Incidentally, St George the dragon-slayer was one of the first saints I remember – same concept. Part of us likes this idea, to “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” and conquer our enemies so as to make the world safe for Christianity.

Some of us – many of us, probably – are a little troubled by this. Whatever resonance it may have with our primal urges, we’re bothered by militarism, or at least by military images in church. This is dangerous territory, and not just because religion tends to justify war when it comes around. People kill each other regardless, although it is easier and bloodier with a religious rationale. It’s not because the people fighting for religion are on the “wrong” side; now and always, religion is on both sides of every conflict. We cringe, I hope, because no religion makes war right. When religious people try to justify war, they typically come out at odds with their own deepest principles.

So before I plant that image any deeper, let’s think back through the Ephesians reading. The author uses military images, but he describes a completely defensive posture. Verse 2 of “Lead On, O King Eternal” describes the point: “For not with swords’ loud clashing, Nor roll of stirring drums; With deeds of love and mercy The heavenly kingdom comes.” That’s the armor we’re talking about here. This armor is no defense from human enemies. People hurt each other regardless of righteousness, salvation, faith, or the Spirit. This armor protects us from spiritual forces and cosmic powers. These are enemies deeper than human institutions. This is resistance from the very way life works.

That’s unsettling reassurance, that God saves us from the world in which we live. We might worry, why do we need protection? It’s like walking in the park on a clear day, when a police officer with a bullhorn comes by and announces, “Nobody panic. The situation is under control.” Is this a good sign? Maybe, but I didn’t know to panic in the first place. I’m thinking, “Wait, what did I miss?” Reassurance can be the same thing as caution. If Ephesians says that God will protect you, it’s also saying that you’re about to be attacked.” If you have to tell me not to fear, I’m going to be at least a little afraid. So nobody panic, but “wicked spiritual forces and evil cosmic powers” are about to come crashing down on you.

Still, the church has no real human enemies. The danger to the early church was not really from Rome. The same powers and forces are still at work 1700 years after Christians took over Rome. Human structures will always resist truly Christian life on some level, as the drive for power and control compete with love for God and neighbor. This resistance doesn’t come from particular human decisions, but from forces deep beneath life. They come from the need to define and control. This reassurance, that we’ll be protected from the inevitable struggles, is a stumbling block for people who come seeking only comfort from the church. It turns out that the road to heaven is an uphill climb.

If the church faces resistance, it provides it too. Jesus’ followers trip on the good news in John and find it tough to swallow. We know it’s hard to swallow. Jesus is talking enigmas about eating flesh and drinking blood, and we’ve had four weeks of this cannibalism talk in our worship! Jesus’ followers complain, and he asks if they want to give up. He really asks if this offends them. Is this too scandalous for them? It’s as hard on our ears as it is on theirs. They (and probably we) are offended on at least two counts.

First, this really does sound like cannibalism, this talk of “eating my flesh.” That was an early accusation against Christians, and this story sure didn’t help put the rumors to rest. Some cultures have ritual cannibalism, and most have strong taboos against it, and some have a mixture of both. Eating human flesh was obscene in Judaism, and it would be worse yet to drink blood, but Jesus talked about both of these, and in a synagogue to boot! We don’t even get to the metaphysical issues of bread turning into human meat, because we’re offended already.

Second, when we look deeper, it’s still hard to  hear. Jesus also refers to his own death, his veneration by violation, torture, and murder, and he asks, “Does this offend you?” Then what about the thousands of peasants who are routinely crucified for political reasons? What about the humans who fight each other for sport in the Coliseum? Does this offend you and that doesn’t? What about the thousands of soldiers and countless civilians killed in a war justified by false pretenses? What about the millions who live without health care because neither government nor charity is willing to help them? What about the billions living on less than a dollar day?

We must eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood. We must acknowledge his image in those who suffer unjustly, we must confront our own complicity in their pain and death. If we claim to be offended by cannibalism, by the death of this perfect human being, we have to acknowledge our deep connection to all humans. Jesus invites us to imagine even more than that: to see this slaughtered human sanctified, raised to heaven, to see the image of God in him. It’s no wonder that people balk when they see the full implication of this life, of God’s devastating self-gift to the world.

John tells us that the Twelve closest to Jesus don’t fall away. They’re experiencing Jesus’ life, not just his teachings about it. They know Jesus more deeply and are learning to trust in Christ by living in the new truth he reveals. Many of us listen to Jesus and hear teachings. We might find an explanation for things, learn to organize our lives better, or fill some hunger we experience. Christ wants to do this, of course, but then the teachings get harder. Jesus starts to say that God redeems the tragedy of life by living it. He starts to imply that the nasty, disagreeable people matter too. That doesn’t click with most of us, because we’re usually not at a place where it makes sense. It takes an exceptional experience to make a statement like that seem reasonable.

The Twelve knew that Jesus didn’t have to make sense to tell the truth. They were beginning to sense that the deepest reasons of life are illogical, unpalatable, even scandalous. They learned from walking with Jesus that the only way to life is through mundane experience, not through spiritual ecstasy and emotional joy. It’s a daily business to tune your soul to feel God’s depth, to stay open to new ways of living, and to seek the best for your neighbor. It’s daily work to eat and drink the incarnate Word, to dive into the life of flesh and blood people around us. This is the way of life that changes us.

The powers of the world don’t want us to change. The spiritual forces within us don’t want to change, because change is uncertain and scary. So we tend to reduce life in Christ to teachings. Teachings about wisdom, ideas about community, doctrines about Jesus. I tend to do this too. As Ephesians reminds us, we don’t do this because we mean to or because someone forces us against our will. Deeper forces lead us to shy away from this level of truth. Church is a whole lot easier when it’s about what we believe, what we think is a good idea. Having ideas is a whole lot easier than living differently. There’s some sadness in Jesus’ voice when he asks the Twelve, “Do you want to leave too?” but there’s no surprise. Human ways lead us to do this.

Jesus is sad for the people, but less so for the church. As people fall away, they present a moment of decision for the people who stay. They force those who remain to take this life more seriously. The church was in charge of the world for 1700 years. We knew the answers and gladly told you what to think and do. We could do this because we had mixed God’s freedom with the world’s power. That was always a dangerous marriage with the forces that keep us separate from each other, that distance us from the humanity of others. Today, we’re not here just because this is all we’re allowed to think. Now we’re here because we find something deeper in the experience of life through the church. Now there’s no reason to come to church, other than to seek wisdom, community, new beginnings, and companions on the journey. Now you might as well not show up unless you’re seeking God.

The powers of the world resist this good news. Their resistance is expressed not least in the assumption that the only good church is one with more warm bodies in the pews, more programs than the next church can support, more money coming through the bank account than we had last year. We live in defiance of these powers. We live in faith to a God who seeks love more than success. We try to find ways of life that honor people, that acknowledge our connection to humans and to all creation. We seek to place service as our highest good. We seek a life nourished by the body and blood of Christ, equipped for conflict with the forces that would make us seem silly for living this way. We live in Christ despite a world that suggests that this won’t work. In this way of life, we find the truth of life.

So join me in this affirmation of faith: “In Defiance.”