Understanding the Struggle

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 14/Proper 16
SCRIPTURE: John 6: 60-69 and Ephesians 6: 10-17
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6: 12 (NIV)

PEOPLE STRUGGLE

All of us struggle with something. In fact we struggle with things every day. I was reading an article the other day that talked about this and it highlighted seven things that people struggle with often all of their lives. Here they are:

1.       What your life’s purpose is and are you fulfilling it;

2.       Your relationships – all of them;

3        What money means to you and how to spend it wisely;

4.       The faith that you do or don’t have;

5.       How to be good and kind in a world that sometimes feels like it doesn’t deserve it;

6.       How to find happiness;

7.       Whether who you are is who you really want to be.

I looked at those and I thought, “Yup, there’s a lot of insight here because I think a lot of that describes me. For example, looking at number 1, I do sometimes wonder if I am fulfilling my life’s purpose. I also think there are a few reasons for that. One is because we are empty nesters. I really loved having the kids around. I loved the noise and the bustle and the constant activity. And now the house seems quiet. Rebekah and I were talking a few months ago about life and I said to her, “You know, I miss being a Dad.” And I do because I found a real purpose in raising kids and I really enjoyed that period of life. And Rebekah said, “You’re still a Dad,” which I appreciated. And while it’s true, it’s also not the same anymore.

How about number 4? Do we struggle with faith? I sometimes do. My faith in Jesus Christ and my identity as a Christian are very important to me. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have questions about God and how he works in the world, and my relationship with God and the Church. I think that’s because as we seek to grow in faith, we reach new plateaus where we find new questions. I also think that’s a very common human experience.

And finally, let’s look at number 7, whether who you are is who you really want to be. I struggle with that. I look at the way the way that I live my life and think, “You know, I could do this better or I could practice that and become more proficient at it.” I could spend less time watching TV and keeping our house and yard tidy. I could spend less time playing games on my phone and rather use it to connect with people who really matter to me. Am I the person I really want to be? Sometimes I am but, other times, not so much. But that’s okay because all of us struggle with different things. Maybe you struggle with some of the things on that list. I suspect you do.

DIVISIONS IN THE CHURCH

All of us struggle with things in life. That’s clear in the passage that we’re going to study today from Ephesians 6. Ephesians 6:10-11 (NIV) says this: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus to be strong in the Lord. Why? Why does anyone tell anyone else to be strong in the Lord? Usually, it’s because there is something going on that is challenging. There is a struggle that is happening in life that needs God’s strength.

Think of it. How often when someone has told you about some situation in their life – maybe a family illness or a problem with a child or a parent or maybe a pending job loss or a big decision that needs to be made – have you said that you will pray for that person? It happens all the time – at least I hope it does. When you say that you are saying the same thing that Paul wrote. Basically you’re telling them to be strong in the Lord and trust in his love and mercy.

There is, in fact, something going on in the church in Ephesus. There are two groups of Christians in that church who have both come to Christ but they came from very different backgrounds. On one hand are the Jewish converts who, like Jesus, grew up worshipping the one true God and have a clear understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures. On the other hand are the Gentile converts to Christianity who grew up worshipping many gods and had little or no idea what was in the Jewish Scriptures.

This causes all sorts of conflicts. For example, the Jewish people want to keep celebrating the Jewish festivals while the Gentile Christians want to remake their pagan festivals into Christian festivals. There were also issues about what was proper to eat or not eat and the whole issue of circumcision keeps rearing its head from time to time. And so there is division in the Church and that is not good.

So there are real issues going on here in the church in Ephesus. That’s why Paul is telling them to keep strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. But then he also hints at something else when he writes, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Put on the full armour of God. That is, be ready to fight against the problems that are plaguing the church. Why? Because they are the result of the devil’s scheming.

So what this says is that the conflicts that the Christians are having in Ephesus have a source. That source is the devil who is trying to tear the church apart. The reason why the two groups of Christians – the Jewish and the Gentile converts – are in conflict is because the devil is putting thoughts into their minds and they are paying attention to those thoughts. That’s a problem and the people have to come to grips with it because there is nothing the devil likes more than to see Christians fighting other Christians. When Christians are fighting amongst themselves, the devil’s work is done because as long as they are fighting amongst themselves they will not be able to do the work the God put them on the earth to do. The very best way for the devil to scuttle the mission of the church is to get Christians fighting against each other. Apparently, in Ephesus, that is exactly what is going on.

Sadly, the devil is still using this same trick of getting Christians to fight against each other. And lots of churches still fall for it.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there will always be complete harmony in the church and that Christians will never disagree with each other. We will have disagreements in the church about what missions the church should engage, about direction the church should take and the best way to get there. There is nothing unusual or extraordinary about that. Honest disagreements and healthy debates should be part of the life of the church.

For example, on September 23, we are going to have congregational meeting where we will discuss a couple of important proposals from the Church Board. One is the idea of hiring a second part-time minister who will help develop and support our ministry to families with children and youth. The other proposal is that we enter into a shared ministry agreement with Wheatley United Church that will, hopefully, be of benefit to both congregations. I’m not going to go into the details of those two proposals right now because we will be discussing them in detail in September before the congregational meeting. I just highlight it because I expect that, at the congregational meeting, there will be discussions, debates and yes even disagreements. And there will be questions that need to be answered. And that’s all good.

But the point is this; just because someone disagrees with you, does not mean that they are somehow an enemy. They simply disagree with you and that’s okay. Healthy discussions and debates are good. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’d say that they are an important part of a healthy congregation.

The danger is that people in the church have a history of not understanding that. To be honest, it’s not only true of the church. It’s true in most organizations but I want to talk specifically about the church because that’s who we are. I have had church experiences and so have you when the even the slightest disagreement in the church lead to open conflict.

I remember one woman in another church I pastored who got all in a tizzy because the UCW was making perogies as a fund raiser using her recipe and one of the other woman copied down that recipe. I don’t know why that was such a big deal but it was. These days no one would notice because rather than taking the time to put pen to paper which can take a few minutes people will just discretely take out their phone, snap a pic and that’s it.  But this woman was so upset that someone had copied down her perogie recipe that she got into a shouting match in the church kitchen and she eventually left the church and never came back. Obviously, what seems like fairly minor point to most of us was a major issue for this woman. But was it important enough that she left her community of faith over it? I honestly don’t think so.

DISCERNING THE REAL ISSUE

But the question is, “What is the real issue?” I can guarantee you that the real issue had nothing to do with the perogie recipe. I’m not going to tell you that I know what the real issue was because I don’t know but I suspect that it had something to do with what Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the devil’s scheming. The devil put thoughts into the minds of those two women and they both listened and because they both listened, they got into conflict that caused division in the body of Christ. And what did the devil do? The devil smiled. Job well done. Mission accomplished.

The important question is, “What’s the real issue?” Because if you don’t know the real issue, then you can’t solve it. That’s why in Ephesians 6:12 (NIV) Paul writes these words: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The real struggle that the Ephesians are facing is not against flesh and blood. What does that mean? Flesh and blood in this case refers to fellow believers, Jewish and Gentile converts both. Paul is saying that their real struggle is not against each other. Rather it is against their common enemy. He refers to it as rulers, authorities and dark powers of this world. Or simply, the devil and his angels who are trying to divide the Church of Jesus Christ. That’s the real enemy. It’s not the other Christians. It is the devil and the forces of darkness. That’s the real issue.

But sometimes, it is incredibly difficult to get to the real issue and we get sideswiped by side issues. When I did my training in pastoral counselling, one of the first things I was taught was that the presenting issue that people come with are often not the real issue. That means that one of the roles of a pastoral counsellor is to dig beneath the surface to uncover the real issue.

For example, in couple therapy, one of the most common complains that I hear is about communication. Usually, but not always, it’s the wife who complains that her husband won’t communicate with her. And when he does, it’s shallow and superficial and it’s pretty clear that he’s rather go back to watching the ball game than talk to her. And so they end up in my office with this communications impasse.

But here’s the question: are they really not communicating? Think about this. In the context of an intimate relationship with someone you are living with, it is impossible not to communicate.

Let’s say a wife complains that her problem is that she and her husband just don’t communicate. Her partner responds, confused, that he doesn’t know what she means, or expects of him; that they communicate as much as other couples do. Facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, physical presence or absence, and even what one wears to the dinner table, communicate attitude and feeling. So the problem is not that they are not communicating. There’s lots of communication going on. The real problem is that what she is craving is verbal communication. And once we identify that as the real issue, then we can begin to look at ways of coaching the couple to improve that aspect of their marriage.

Of course, once we agree to do that, the husband often finds the courage to talk about why he doesn’t really want to talk and the wife realizes that there are somethings that she has to change as well. And the lesson here, of course, is that communication issues usually have two  sides. But the bottom line is that you can only deal with a problem after you have identified the real issue.

Paul wrote that the struggle was not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, authorities and powers of darkness, the spiritual forces of evil that threaten to divide the church of Jesus Christ. That’s the real enemy. So stop fighting against each other and unite to defeat your common enemy who is the devil. That’s the real issue and that is where our energies need to be focused.

MAINTAINING UNITY

Paul is very clear about this in the rest of the book of Ephesians. He often talks about keeping unity in the body of Christ. In fact, he talks about it in Ephesians 6:13 (NIV): “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

I want you to note a couple of things about this verse. The first one is that it says to put on the full armour of God so that when the day of evil comes… That’s important because it assumes that the devil will come. It does not say to put on the full armour of God so that you will be prepared if the day of evil comes. It says to put it on for the day when the evil comes. It assumes that that day will come and when that day comes, the church needs to stand against the forces of evil.

Let’s be clear. One day, the devil will notice the church and try to infiltrate and divide it. Do you know when he will do that? It is when the church is on the verge of doing something important for God and for the mission of Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting that it’s usually the churches that are most effective in ministry that get most of the temptation. There’s a simply reason for that. It’s because the devil does not need to waste his energies on churches that are ineffective. Why bother? They’re not doing anything anyway. No need to kill a church when it’s killing itself. But churches that are effective, that are moving forward and have a vision for ministry and a desire to serve Christ, those are the ones where the devil always focuses his energy. So we need to stand against the devil.

Put on the full armour of God so that when the day of evil comes you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. I just want to add a word to the end of this verse because, although it is not explicitly in the original Greek, it is implied. That word is “together.” Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand together.” That’s the second point of this verse. We are called to stand against the devil. We are called to stand together for Christ

Unity is an important theme in the book of Ephesians. In fact, it is the central theme. Half of chapter 2 is about being one in Christ. Ephesians 2:14 (NIV) says this: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” Jesus has brought together the two factions in the church in Ephesus and called them to be one. All of chapter 4 is about unity in the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:3 (NIV) says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” The bottom line here is that it is God’s desire that we be united in a common cause and a common purpose. That means that Christians need to stop listening to the temptations of the devil whose only purpose is to divide us but rather to listen to the Spirit whose desire is to bring us together in our common faith in Christ to do his work, to care for his people and to build his church.

We can only do that when we understand that the real struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. As we keep that straight, we will move forward to fulfill the purpose for which God placed Cottam United Church in this place to do his will. And we will fulfill our mission statement which is to know Christ and make him known.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Father God, we offer our praise to you in morning and in the evening, in our homes and at work, everywhere, without hesitation or reservation! When difficult times arise, you are our refuge and strength. Thank you for the assurance that we are never alone. We can depend on you when our own resources come to an end. You are worthy of praise and adoration and we will honor you with our thoughts, words and actions, acknowledging who you are and what you have done for us. God you have given us the summer breezes, the fluffy white clouds in the sky, the beautiful flowers in our gardens, the birds singing in the trees and the warmth of the sun. Everything we see reminds us of your awesome power.

We know that you love even us. You show us your love every day. Help us to show the love you have given us at all times, through the good times and the bad times. There may be times when we stumble and fall but with your armor snuggly secured we will stand tall and face bravely whatever comes our way.

We give thanks today for the courage you have given us to face the fears hidden deep inside. We give thanks for the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit. You, Oh God are so wonderful and we lift our prayers to you.

We pray for our brothers and our sisters who suffer. We pray for the poor and hungry. We pray for victims of war; keep us kind and compassionate. We pray for those who are sick at home or in the hospital. We ask that you touch them with your healing spirit. We pray for those who mourn the loss of a loved one. Grant them healing and wholeness. Grant them your peace.

We pray specifically for Canadian soldiers in many parts of the world who continue to put themselves in harm’s way for a greater good and more peaceful and just existence. Remind us, O God, that even though they are far away, they are defending us here right now.

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