Believe it or not — that’s us! (Ephesians 6.10-20) [sermon 8-6-2017]


August 1, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for August 6, 2017. The final in a series, “Sitcom theology: Reading Ephesians with the classics.”

Text is Ephesians 6.10-20.

If you read Paul’s letters and his Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17, you’ll find him using pagan poets, playwrights, and prophets to preach the Gospel. Paul used classic Greek literature to help people understand God’s plan for saving the world.

In this series, we’re using vintage sitcoms to illuminate Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Even one of Paul’s fellow apostles, Peter, admitted: Some things Paul writes are difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3.16). Like a lot of things Paul wrote, Ephesians can be difficult. But it’s an important part of understanding how we live out the Gospel as a church. Well, Paul can be hard to get. But the old sitcoms were easy. So today, we’re going to be reading some of the closing remarks from Ephesians along with the classic ‘80s sitcom, The Greatest American Hero.

The Greatest American Hero

The Greatest American Hero is kind of a deep cut. A cult classic. It only ran for 3 seasons—from 1981 to 1983. The show was created by Stephen J. Cannell, the powerhouse producer, screenwriter, and director who also brought us The Rockford Files, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street, and The Commish. Among such a massively successful body of work, Greatest American Hero is sort of a forgotten gem.

But even if you don’t know the show, you may remember the theme song. It spent 18 weeks in the Top 40 in 1981, peaking at number 2 in August of that year.

The premise of Greatest American Hero is pretty far-out. Ralph Hinkley is a mild-mannered inner-city high school teacher in Los Angeles. His life becomes an adventure when aliens give him a suit that grants him superpowers. Those powers include flight; invisibility; holographic projection; super strength and reflexes; even psychic abilities and telekinesis. He only has these powers when he wears the suit. The extraterrestrials also pair him with FBI agent Bill Maxwell. The idea is Bill can show Ralph the problems of the world; and with his superpowered suit, Ralph can fight against powerful evil. 

Now, here’s the thing that puts the comedy in this situation comedy. Almost as soon as the aliens give Ralph the super-suit, he loses the instruction manual that teaches him how to use it. So whenever he dons the suit, he has all these superpowers that he can’t control or harness. So he learns how to fly in it, but never how to land. Which usually means he crashes. Or his invisibility power will go on the fritz, meaning he’s suddenly visible to bad guys when he needs to remain hidden.

Probably the most interesting thing about The Greatest American Hero is that it’s basically Superman-in-reverse. Superman really is a superhero by nature—the suit is just a gimmick. Clark Kent, his civilian identity, is his disguise. But Ralph Hinkley is just an ordinary guy, and only becomes The Greatest American Hero when he puts on his suit. Ralph Hinkley is who he really is, and the suit is both the source of his powers, and his disguise. That’s why the theme song describes his superpowers with an air of surprise—Believe it or not, I’m walking on air! But it’s honest about the fact that, underneath the suit, there’s just an ordinary person. Believe it or not, it’s just me.

Suiting up to fight evil forces

The Greatest American Hero is a show about a guy who’s given a superhero suit. This suit gives him powers to fight against evil forces in the world—hit men, crooks, Nazis, and terrorists.

In our reading today Paul says believers also get a superhero suit. He calls it the full armor of God. Like Ralph Hinkley’s superhero suit, when we put on God’s armor, we’re given power to fight against our enemies. But Paul says: We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Our superhero suit is spiritual armor for a spiritual battle against spiritual enemies. Just like Ralph, we’re still who we are underneath the suit—everyday people putting on power that doesn’t come from us. Paul says when we put on God’s armor, we are strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength.

Before we suit up, we need to be very clear about who our enemies are and what they do. Among other things, we just heard Paul call them rulers [and] authorities … in the heavens. This language shows up all throughout the letter. For instance, in Eph. 3.10, Paul says: God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church. That means God wants the church to help him put down and subdue these hostile, rebellious spiritual forces.

And believe it or not, that’s us!

When Paul says these rulers and authorities are in the heavens, he means they’re in the spiritual realm. Chief among those dark spiritual forces is the devil, or Satan. In Eph. 2.2, Paul calls Satan the ruler of the kingdom of the air. That’s an interesting way of putting it. Ancient peoples believed that demonic forces were dwelling in the atmosphere. As near as the air we breathe, and as real.

That’s important to know, so we don’t misunderstand Paul. We often think of spiritual warfare as something that happens outside the earthly, physical realm. But all ancient peoples believed—and the Bible reflects this worldview—that whatever happens in the spiritual realm shows up in the stuff of earth. The dark spiritual forces not only tempt individuals to do sinful and selfish things. They also corrupt governments and other institutions—even churches. So anytime you see a tyrannical king or a war or even a famine or disaster or plague on earth; they’re signs of ongoing spiritual warfare in the heavenly realms.

So if we brought someone like Paul from the ancient world to look at our world today; and we showed him terrorism; or generational poverty; or homeless veterans; or the epidemic of bullying in our schools and on social media; he wouldn’t chalk it all up to individuals making poor choices. He’d call it what he did in our reading today: the tricks of the devil; and the flaming arrows of the evil one. He’d remind us that there’s a war going on in the spiritual realm between God and the forces of light; and the devil and the forces of cosmic darkness. And individuals, communities, sometimes entire nations, even the creation itself; have all gotten caught up in the battle. And he’d remind us that other people wounded in the crossfire or taken captive in this old war aren’t our enemies. Our enemies are spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.

The stakes of this war are cosmic. It’s a battle for control of God’s territory, which is all the creation, and everyone and everything that dwells in it. Believers are called to fight with God for the sake of all creation. So whenever the church is divided; we don’t love each other well; or we demonize other people because we forget they’re not the enemy—that’s a victory for Satan and the cosmic forces of darkness. The stakes are that high.

But Ephesians also assures the church the victory will be with God, and already is God’s. After all, Eph. 1.21-23 says the risen Jesus is already at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority … not only now but in the future. God has already put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything. God already has a battle plan for bringing all things together in Christ, and it’s the church. And the church is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way. Believe it or not, that’s us!

And in our readings today, Paul says when we put on God’s armor, we can stand [our] ground. And when the war is over, the smoke clears and the dust settles, the church will still be standing. Celebrating the victory with God.

The superhero suit instruction manual [1]

We’ve drawn some comparisons today between The Greatest American Hero’s suit and the armor of God. But there’s a huge difference between his superhero suit and ours. I bet you’ve even figured out what it is.

Unlike The Greatest American Hero, we still have the instruction manual for our suit.

And we will need to understand how God’s armor works. Because the more we see all things brought together in Christ—more reconciled people, beloved communities, living out the Good News of peace in Christ, in greater unity—the more panic-stricken Satan and the cosmic forces of darkness are. And they will attack with greater ferociousness. Since God raised Jesus from the dead, they’ve known their days are numbered. And they want to raise as much hell on earth and unleash as much destruction on humanity as they can until Christ returns.

So Paul warns us to pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day. Now, here’s the first thing you need to understand about God’s armor. It’s not just armor God gives us. It’s God’s own armor—the armor God himself wears to battle. In Exod. 14.14, with the Reed Sea in front of them, and the Egyptian army at their heels; Moses told the Israelites: The Lord will fight for you. And after God swallowed up the Egyptians in the Sea, Moses and the Israelites sang: The Lord is a warrior (Exod. 15.3). God is still a warrior, fighting to save humanity and his good creation. The hope of the Bible is God will swallow up Satan and his dark army—including death itself—just like he did the Pharaoh’s army at the Reed Sea.

God, the warrior who fights for us and with us and through us against the cosmic forces of darkness protects us with his own armor. First Paul tells us to stand with the belt of truth around your waist. For Paul, the truth is found only in Jesus. For Paul, the truth is Jesus.  Earlier in Ephesians, he’s talked about the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation; and how the truth is in Jesus (Eph. 1.13; 4.21). Jesus shows us the truth about God, ourselves, and God’s plan to save the world. Just as God didn’t let evil and death have the final word over Jesus, but raised him from the dead; so will God do for us, and for all creation. And why would we wear Jesus as our belt? Because God’s plan is to bring all things together in Christ. Jesus holds us together. Jesus holds everything together. Because he is God’s promise as we fight against the darkness that God will not let evil and death win.

Paul also says to put on justice as your breastplate and take the helmet of salvation. Remember how I said the armor of God is the armor God wears? These are actually from Isa. 59.17, which says God put[s] on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head. So when we put on these pieces of God’s armor, they remind us that God is always fighting for us.  They remind us that we’ve already been saved by God’s grace because of [our] faith (Eph. 2.8). And God is fighting to save the world, just as we have been saved. The breastplate of justice and helmet of salvation is the armor God wears as he fights to save humanity and all his creation. God shares that armor with us as we join him in the good fight.

Next we’re told: put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. This is taken from Isa. 52.7, which says:

How beautiful upon the mountains

    are the feet of a messenger

    who proclaims peace,

    who brings good news,

    who proclaims salvation,

    who says to Zion, “Your God rules!”

This means that our feet must always be following Jesus, who announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near (Eph. 2.17). Even as we fight the spiritual enemies of God, we are called to preach and live out peace before our flesh-and-blood neighbors. The gospel is a message of peace and reconciliation among all the races, every tribe and tongue, under the heavens. Because as we heard a few weeks ago, Jesus has broke[n] down the barrier of hatred that divided us (Eph. 2.14).

Above all, Paul says, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. The Roman army used shields coated in leather. To keep them from catching fire when struck with flaming arrows, they’d soak them in water before a battle. Shield-bearers would mach in formation, catching and extinguishing the flaming arrows of the enemy. [Sub 6] So that’s how Paul envisions the church. We are faithful to God and to each other, supporting and protecting each other as Satan and the cosmic forces of darkness attack us with doubt, fear, shame, and sorrow.

Finally, Paul calls us to take up the only weapon he mentions here: the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. It’s tempting to think he means the Bible. And that he means you need to memorize a lot of Bible verses to quote. But earlier, in Eph. 5.26, he says the church has been washed in a bath of water with the word. He’s talking about baptism there. And the word is God’s promise of eternal life to those in Christ. [Sub 7] I think that’s how we should take it here, too. I think we should read it long the lines of Rev. 12.11, which tells how God’s faithful people, the church, gained the victory over [Satan] on account of the blood of the Lamb and the word of their witness. Because they trusted in God’s promise of eternal life, Love for their own lives didn’t make them afraid to die. I believe the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word is God’s faithful promise through Jesus that every wrong will be made wright; every wound will be healed; every tear will be dried; and death will not have the final word. This is the only weapon the church needs as we fight against the devil and the powers of cosmic darkness. Because every time the sword of the Spirit flashes with the light of God’s word, the rebellious and hostile spiritual powers are reminded: You already lost this war when God raised Jesus from the dead.

So now we know God gives believers a superhero suit. Not to fight human enemies, but dark spiritual powers. And how does Paul say we fight? By offering prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. And staying alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. We fight through prayers? Of course. It’s a spiritual battle we’re fighting in the heavenly realms, after all. But prayer also forms our lives in humble obedience to God’s will. Elsewhere, Paul also says we’re God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things (Eph. 2.10). We also fight this spiritual battle through love and patience and kindness. By healing wounds and making peace and feeding the hungry and standing against bullying. It’s prayer that keeps us ready to do these things, and gives us the strength to do them well. These are practical things we can do to stand against the darkness, and demolish dark, demonic strongholds.

Wait—who can it be, fighting Satan and his dark army through patient prayer and works of love and justice, mercy and kindness?

Believe it or not — it’s us!

[1] This section relies heavily on Mark D. Roberts, Ephesians, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 238-54; and somewhat on N. T. Wright, The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, Paul For Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002, 2004), 72-80.


2 thoughts on “Believe it or not — that’s us! (Ephesians 6.10-20) [sermon 8-6-2017]

  1. Superb take on Ephesians 6, Jeremy. Blessings on you and your ministry!

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