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Discipleship: Not Warfare Only, But Warfare Always

 

    Ephesians 6:10-20      1 Timothy 6:12      2 Timothy 4:7

 

The Roman soldier was the most hated person in first century Palestine. He personified everything Jewish people hated about the occupation and its detestable army. Not only had Jewish people been deprived of political self-determination, they had to be reminded of it every time the uniformed soldier marched by. In addition, they couldn’t do a thing about the arbitrary power the soldier wielded. The soldier could compel an Israelite to do anything at all. If a soldier barked, “Carry my pack!”, you put down your bag of groceries as fast as you could; you said, “Yes, sir”, and you carried his pack for as long and as far as he told you. Otherwise he might just tickle your tonsils with his sword. What grated most on Jewish people, however, was the Roman disregard of everything Jewish people held sacred, such as the temple in Jerusalem. Only the high priest entered the holy of holies, the innermost room of the temple, and even the high priest did so only once per year, on the day of atonement. General Pompey, however, had tramped around in it in his muddy boots, then had walked back outside with a smirk and had announced that he hadn’t seen a thing in the unadorned cubby-hole, never mind the God that Jews were always talking about. He had made no secret of the fact that as far as he was concerned the holy of holies was of no more significance than an outhouse. Roman soldiers were loathed.

Nevertheless, whenever Jesus spoke of them in the course of his earthly ministry he spoke well of them. A Roman officer said to him, “I am an officer; when I speak people jump. You have authority too; I know you have. My servant is sick unto death; if you but speak the word your word will free him and he will be healed”. Jesus looked around at the crowd of spectators who were disgusted that he would even speak to a soldier and said to them, “I haven’t found anything approaching this fellow’s faith among the lot of you, and you think you are God’s favourites!”

Needless to say no Jew, and therefore no Jewish Christian, would ever have wanted to join the Roman army. But no gentile Christian could. All Roman soldiers had to promise unconditional loyalty to the emperor, and no Christian could agree to this. Isn’t it startling, then, that since soldiering was alien to both Jewish Christians and gentile Christians, the apostles used pictures from soldiering to speak of Christian discipleship! Paul especially compared following Jesus to military existence over and over. Plainly he admired much about the men whom everyone else despised; plainly he saw many aspects of soldiering which the Christian must take to heart.

Today we are going to look at one or two such aspects, examine the military metaphors, in order that our discipleship might be made more resilient and of greater service to our Lord.

 

I: — The first point is simple: the soldier is trained to fight. A soldier may do other things, will do other things (such as help civilians in times of natural disaster, or search for lost children); but these tasks are ancillary to the one task for which the soldier is trained preeminently: fighting. In the same way discipleship isn’t fighting only (there are other things we do); nevertheless, discipleship is fighting always. Faith never ceases having to fight.

Faith — yours and mine — has to be contended for every day. To be sure faith is God’s gift; we can never bestow it upon ourselves. At the same time that it is God’s gift, however, faith is that for which we must struggle and contend every day. Every day faith is assaulted, and therefore every day I must resolve afresh that this day I am going to think, believe, do as a servant and soldier of Jesus Christ. Not to fight for faith every day is to succumb to despair; not to contend for faith is to fall into hopelessness; it is to surrender to the world’s way of thinking, believing, doing; it is to “go with the flow”, drift downstream, finally drift on out where the lost are drowned.

This isn’t to say that each day brings an intensity to the struggle that couldn’t be more intense. There are days like that, to be sure, as well as days — many more them — which are much less intense. But there are no days when the Christian can coast. If we are unconvinced that we must fight for faith then we should look at our Lord himself. First in the wilderness, where he is tested to the breaking point: is he going to deceive the people with bread and circuses and guarantee himself a popularity and a following he will never have by holding up the way of the cross? is there a pain-free shortcut to the kingdom of God? is obedience to his Father no more demanding than a snooze in a rocking chair? Then see our Lord again in Gethsemane: sweat pours off his forehead as though he had received a fifty-stitch gash. Then see him on the cross. He quotes Psalm 22. It begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As he hangs he is still fighting for faith. You see, he knew what he was doing when he cited Psalm 22 as his affirmation of faith, for verse 24 of the psalm declares, “God has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and God has not hid his face from the afflicted one, but God has heard when the afflicted one cried to God“. Our Lord’s confidence in his Father is undiminished at the last; but what a struggle to get to the last!

Henry Farmer, a British philosopher whom I read in my undergraduate days, was preaching in an English church during World War II. He was preaching on God’s love for us. A Polish fellow who had escaped to England when Poland was overrun waited behind to see Farmer after the service. “Like you, I know what it is to be loved by God”, the Polish man said, “unlike you, however, I know what it is to struggle for it when the blood of one’s dearest friends is running in the gutter on a cold winter’s morning”.

I have sat with tragedy-racked people whose tragedy should have rendered faith forever impossible, according to the psychologists. Yet they hung on, groped for a while, floundered a while longer, began to claw their way out of the emotional rubble which seemed to be suffocating them, and persisted until they could finally say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him”.

Paul writes to Timothy, a younger minister, “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called; seize this life!” Note carefully: the apostle does not say, “Fight a good fight” — this would mean, “Give it a good go, my boy, and do your best”. “Fight the good fight of faith”. Faith is the fight which we shall always have to wage in a world of unbelief, which world forever wants to render us blind, impotent unbelievers ourselves.

Faith, you see, is not only that which we must fight for; faith is also that which we must fight from. The faith we fight for is the standpoint we then fight from as we contend with everything which hammers us day-by-day. Christians, possessed by the One who is ultimate reality, engage a world of falsehood and illusion. Clinging to the righteousness of Christ, we are immersed in the world’s morass of sin, both subtle and shabby. Desiring no other leader than the one who has made us his through his costliest mercy, we journey with him in a world where he is either not recognized or not esteemed but in any case rarely espoused. Now either we fight in this environment and thrive, or we capitulate and disappear.

Frequently I remind you people of the misunderstandings which surround Jesus (the misunderstanding, for instance, he was always and everywhere “nice”; nothing could be farther from the truth). Another misunderstanding is that the Prince of Peace wants peace at any price. This notion, of course, is patently ridiculous since peace-at-any-price types never get crucified, since they never offend anyone. From the day his public ministry began Jesus was immersed in conflict without letup, as the sketchiest reading of the written gospels will disclose.

Yet because the misunderstanding persists — “Jesus calls us away from conflict” — conflict is the one thing that UCC members fear above all else. We fear conflict more than we fear heresy, more than we fear blasphemy, more than we fear falsehood, more than we fear illogical gibberish, more than we fear outright denial of our Lord. We fear conflict so much, and so dread a fight (not understanding, of course, that faith is a fight) that we will submerge convictions concerning holiness, righteousness and godliness. Congregational capitulation on matters which congregations oppose in their hearts proves this.

The earliest Christian confession, and the most elemental Christian confession, is “Jesus is Lord”. But you will look in vain for it in any official UCC publication. It is now deemed offensive (for many reasons) to say “Jesus is Lord”. The earliest Christians knew better than we just how offensive it was — for they were willing to die for it. I have watched lay-representatives from different congregations march off to presbytery determined to speak up on behalf of the congregations which have commissioned them. They are ten minutes into the presbytery meeting when a presbytery leader (usually clergy) suggests that their outlook is narrow, bigoted, uninformed, cruel, anti-Christian. Either the lay-representative asserts himself or he caves in. If he asserts himself he has a fight on his hands; but all his life he has been told that Christians don’t fight; therefore he caves in — and unrighteousness has triumphed again. If the fifty largest congregations had contended the way this congregation did in 1988 and in 1990 the face on the denomination would be entirely different. Yes, I am aware that the person who is always looking for a fight is sick; I am aware too that the person who is always fleeing a fight is faithless. Before our Lord brings peace he brings conflict. His own ministry demonstrates this.

“Fight the good fight of faith”, Paul tells the younger man, “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called; seize it!” We fight for faith and we fight from it. We fight for faith as we are assaulted by unbelief and are tempted to despair; we fight from faith as we follow our Lord as he invades a rebellious world.

 

II: — Since Christians cannot avoid life-long fighting we plainly need life-long armour. Paul explores the military metaphor once again (this time in his letter to the congregation in Ephesus) as he speaks of “the whole armour of God”. We need the whole armour of God, all of it, if ever we are going to do what he insists all Christians must do; namely, “withstand in the evil day”. (We should note in passing that since the day (ie, the present time) is evil, and since Christians neither capitulate to evil nor compromise with it, therefore conflict is both unavoidable for Christians and unending.)   In other words to be a Christian in the midst of “this present darkness”(Eph.6:12) be means that our Lord has not co-opted us for a “work bee”; he has conscripted us for warfare. Nothing less than the whole armour is needed.

The first item of armour which the apostle mentions is truth. We are to gird our loins with truth. In first century Palestine men wore an ankle-length garment. When a man “girded his loins” he reached back between his legs, pulled the back of his garment up between his legs and tucked it into his belt. He did this whenever he was about to work, run or fight. Battle dress for the Roman soldier on the other hand (and Paul is thinking here of soldiers particularly) didn’t include an ankle-length garment. Strictly speaking that which girded the soldier’s loins wasn’t part of his armour; it was his underwear which he wore beneath his armour. (Now precisely the nature of the underwear which the soldier wore as loin-girder I shall leave to your imagination, since I am known for my delicacy and refinement. Suffice it to say, however, that no male athlete is ever found without it.) The loin-girder which the Christian is always to be clothed in, says Paul, is truth. Truth is the Christian’s underwear: not flaunted, not flashy, but essential support for those who have to fight.

When the apostle speaks of truth he has two meanings in mind: truth in the sense of truthfulness (transparency, straightforwardness), as well as truth in the sense of the verities of the faith, the substance of the faith, doctrine. The Christian’s loins are to be girded with truth in both senses. We are possessed of the truth of faith, and we are transparent in attesting it before others.

In the ancient world the loins were regarded as the seat of strength and the seat of reproduction. It is only as the Christian is equipped with truth in both senses that the Christian herself remains strong in the evil day and that her witness gives birth to new Christians who do not fail to thrive in an inhospitable environment. Remember: before the Roman soldier put on a single piece of armour he put on his underwear, he girded his loins. The apostle insists that the most elemental aspect, the most basic aspect of the Christian’s preparedness is a grasp of the truth and a truthfulness which is transparent to it.

 

We haven’t time to probe every aspect of Roman armour outlined in Ephesians 6. Still, we shouldn’t leave this topic without looking at the single most important defensive item (the shield) and the single most important offensive weapon (the sword).

“Take the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one”; all the flaming arrows. The worst military defeat a Roman army suffered occurred when enemy archers ignited their pitch-dipped arrows and fired one volley into the air, like modern-day mortar fire. These arrows rained down on the Roman troops as they held their shields above their heads. Whereupon the enemy archers fired a second volley straight ahead. The Roman soldiers could not protect themselves against attack from two directions at once. In addition, whatever flaming arrows they managed to block with their wooden shield promptly set their shield on fire and they had to drop it. Now they were completely defenceless and were slaughtered.

From how many directions is the Christian assaulted at once? And how many different flaming arrows are there? There is false guilt, imposed by a world which mocks Christians for being less than perfect. There is the self-accusation which lingers from an upbringing which thought that magnifying a supposed sense of sin would magnify a sense of God’s mercy, only to find that the latter never got magnified. There is the temptation which can fall on any one of us at any time and leave us weak-kneed, so vivid and visceral can temptation be. There is disillusionment as other Christians let us down; discouragement as we let ourselves down, bewilderment as we wonder how many more attacks we can sustain from how many more directions. Faith, says the apostle, and faith alone, faith in our victorious Lord will ever keep us from going down. We shall neither be burned up slowly by the flaming arrows nor be left bleeding to death quickly. The shield was the soldier’s most important piece of defensive armour. The shield of faith finally defends Christ’s people against everything which tends to sunder them from him.

The only offensive weapon Paul mentions is the sword; “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”, is how he speaks of it. The Christian individually and Christians collectively must ever wield the gospel only. The church of Jesus Christ must never coerce; the only offensive weapon we have is the Word of God (the gospel) in the power of the Spirit. And if the advance of the gospel seems turtle-like and the power of the Spirit largely ineffective, too bad! The church has always behaved its worst when it forgot this and coerced people. It has coerced them militarily, coerced them economically, coerced them psychologically. Today I hear it lamented that in a secular era the church has no clout. No clout? Whoever said we were supposed to have clout? We are called to crossbearing, not to clout-clobbering. After all, it is the crucified one who reminds disciples that no servant is above her master. Because the church is no longer in a position to coerce in any way Christ’s people will have to learn what it is once again to have nothing more in our hand than Spirit-infused-gospel.

In any case the Christian whose underwear is truth, whose defence is faith, and whose only offensive weapon is the gospel is equipped for anything which may befall him in the evil day.

 

III: — If you are growing weary of a sermon which explores the metaphor of fighting, be weary no longer: relief is on the way, for no soldier fights for ever. The day comes when fighting is over. It comes sooner for some soldiers than for others, but one thing is certain: we shan’t have to fight eternally. When Paul knew that the Roman government had had enough of him, knew it was going to execute him, knew he couldn’t delay it any longer, he said simply, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” His fighting days were over; he knew it, and he was glad of it.

How glad? He wrote to Timothy, a young minister, “The time of my departure has come”. Departure. ANALUSIS. A common Greek word. In everyday speech ANALUSIS was the word for unhitching a draft horse from the wagon it had hauled throughout the heat of the day; no more toil to be endured, no more strain, just rest.

It was also the word for loosening the ropes of a tent. The apostle who had journeyed across Asia Minor and Europe was striking camp again, with one journey only in front of him, and nothing at all arduous or threatening about this one.

It was also the word for unfastening the mooring ropes of a ship as the ship began its voyage home.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith; the time of my departure has come.” Departure. ANALUSIS. Rest from fatiguing work, folding one’s tent for the final journey, slipping one’s moorings for the voyage home.

 

In a day when soldiers were loathed and soldiering was despised the apostles followed our Lord in finding in soldiers and soldiering a rich picture of Christian discipleship. We must fight the good fight of faith, fight for faith and fight from faith, every day. We must be equipped with the whole armour of God, since we have to withstand in the evil day. Truth, faith and gospel are as much armour as we shall ever need. And then there comes the day when we shan’t need any armour at all, for this time the soldier has gone home.

 

                                                                                                   Victor A. Shepherd

November, 1992