August 23 2015 Reflection

13th Sunday after Pentecost
‘WEARING GOD’S ARMOUR IN GOD’S WORLD

 

BIBLE READINGS
Psalm 84

Ephesians 6:10-20

REFLECTION

Khaled al-Asaad, 82, was a renowned antiquities expert in Syria. He was killed by ISIS recently for refusing to tell them the location of valuable ancient artifacts that he had helped hiding for safekeeping. He became the latest victim of the series of brutality that ISIS has perpetrated in the name of Islam.

But these extremists do not represent Islam or the majority of Muslims in the world.

I remember listening to a well-known Muslim cleric who says that Islam teaches two kinds of Jihad: the greater one and the lesser one. The greater jihad is the spiritual Jihad, fighting against evil temptation and desire within oneself to better one’s life. The lesser jihad is the physical Jihad, fighting to defend one’s existence like in a war. The spiritual Jihad is more important than the physical jihad and one may wonder why many people are more interested in the lesser Jihad than the greater one.

In our reading from the letter to the Ephesians, the author of the letter also asked his readers to be prepared not for a physical battle, but for a spiritual one. For him, Christian life was a life that was in constant spiritual battle against evil in the world. And our enemies would crush us if we do not wear spiritual armour for protection.

And to explain the spiritual armour that Christians had to wear, he used the armour worn by a Roman Legionnaire as a metaphor. Like in any modern and ancient army, the armour of a Roman Legionnaire had two functions: defence and offence. He would wear helmet and breastplate and shield for protection, but he would also carry a spear and a sword to attack his enemy.

Most of the spiritual armours mentioned by the author, however, seemed to concern more about the defensive part. The author’s main concerns were things that were necessary for Christians to maintain their integrity: righteousness as breastplate, faith as shield, and salvation as helmet. These were the things that would keep Christians to maintain their faithful living.

Indeed, the readers of the letter were only one of the minority groups living in the Roman Empire; many of them were marginalised people like slaves. We shall not read the letter from our modern perspective in 21st Century when Christianity is the largest religion in the world with more than two billions followers. The readers of the letter to the Ephesians were facing a different kind of world in the first century. They were those who had often been at odds with their families and cities because they had pledged allegiance to Christ.[1] They were marginalised and often persecuted minority. As such, survival was the key theme for them.

But the two functions of the spiritual armour, defence and offence, are necessary; one without the other is not enough. That’s why the author also mentioned things that were necessary for Christians to live out their call to proclaim the Gospel and challenge evil in the world. He reminded his readers to wear readiness as shoes and God’s word as sword.

Indeed, Christian living is not only about being a passive member of the society, trying to survive an evil world; Christian living is also about active engagement, trying to change the world into a place where God intended it to be. Being a minority - small, ignored, and often persecuted - did not mean that the early Christians had to feel defeated or insignificant all the time. They still could make an impact even though they were small.

During her lecture at the recent Uniting Church National Assembly, Dr. Manhong Lin, the Associate General Secretary of China Christian Council, told the crowd that “The Chinese Protestant church has always been small and marginal since its beginning.” “Protestant Christianity was first introduced to China in 1807,” she said, “and it was not well received among Chinese people for a long time after its arrival in China for a number of reasons.” People saw Christians as being unfaithful to their social duties and as opponents of the foundation of Chinese society and civilization (similar accusation was leveled against first century Christians in the Roman Empire).  In the 1920s, Christians became the nation-wide target of the Anti Christian Movement. And, for three decades after 1940s, Leninism heavily influenced China and Christianity, along with other religions, were viewed as the capitalists’ tool and opiate to the society.

Things, however, turned for the better in 1979 when China began its reform and opening up its economy. The attitude of Chinese people and government towards religion has shifted from antagonism to tolerance.

As the result, Christianity grows rapidly and there are now 25 million Christians in China. It’s more than the entire population of Australia, but if you consider the total Chinese population of 1.4 billion people, it is still small. The church still locates in the marginal places of the Chinese society as it has always been.  Many Christians still endure poverty because they live in rural areas where the economy is under-developed.

But being small does not mean that the Chinese Church should feel that they have nothing to contribute. Indeed, there are elements amongst the Chinese Christians who are inward looking, believing that Christians have nothing much to do with non-Christians. They think that there is no meaning in engaging the world thus they withdraw from the world.

But there are also Christians who believe that it’s their Christian duty to be active members of the society. One influential Christian leader, Bishop Ting, asked Chinese Christians to take the new road ahead of them. He asks the church to be inclusive and to engage the world. For him, God’s love and work are manifested not only in the church, but also in the world, so Christians should interact with and love others like God.

Another leader, Prof. Zhou Xinping, reminds Chinese Christians that they have two roles in the society: prophetic role and servant-hood role. He believes that if Christians want to play prophetic role in the society, it must start with serving other people around them. The mindset should change from “one more Christian, one less Chinese” to “one more Christian, one more good citizen” or “one more Christian, one less criminal”.[2]

There are still many challenges ahead facing the Christian Church in China, but I’m confident that Chinese Christians will play a big role in the future. And we can learn from their experiences: their lost and victory; their struggle and dream.

Friends, we too live in the part of the world where Christianity has less and less role. We may think that we sill live in a Christian world, but our Western society has become more and more secular, moving further away from its Judeo-Christian root. Our situation has indeed become quite similar to the one faced by the first century Christians and Chinese Christians today. Our voice as the church has indeed become small and more insignificant. Yet, it doesn’t mean that we shall not or cannot influence the way our society operates. It doesn’t mean that we can’t stand up for the Gospel and challenge what we believe as an evil practice in the world. Being small does not mean being defensive all the time; we still can influence today’s world.

Remember, God’s spiritual armour has two parts: defence and offence. Being Christians does not mean being only passive members of our world, defending our belief and way of life; being Christians is also about being active members of our society, challenging evil and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in our words and deeds. Indeed, it is only when we put these two Christian obligations into action that we are wearing the armour of God appropriately.

Amen.

Rockingham, Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Sarah Henrich, Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20, August 23 2015 (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2600)

[2] Rev Dr Manhong Lin, Cato Lecture - To Be A Marginal People of God: A Chinese Christian Understanding (http://assembly2015.uca.org.au/cato-lecture-to-be-a-marginal-people-of-god-a-chinese-christian-understanding/) (retrieved: August 21 2015)