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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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".
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."
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.