Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost
“My brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand to resist the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:10-12).
These words from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians portray the Christian life as a battle against the forces of evil. Evil is seen not simply as personal, but as having a cosmic dimension greater than individual human wickedness. It uses the principalities and powers to enslave the world.
But what are the principalities and powers? The ancient pagan worldview saw man as locked in a universe dominated by vast impersonal forces. They were personified as the divinities of the pagan pantheon. Reality was defined in terms of power and the nature of the gods reflected this. It was necessary to have the gods on your side in order to survive in the world. If you were at war, you needed Mars, the god of war on your side, if in love, the goddess Aphrodite. The world was defined in terms of power and in order to survive you had to be on the right side of those in power, both in heaven and on earth. Behind the visible world were mysterious invisible forces.
But what relevance has the worldview of ancient paganism to society today? Did not monotheism reduce the pagan pantheon to one God, and has not atheism now reduced the one God to no God? Is not this seemingly primitive way of thinking outmoded today?
In fact we are not as far removed as we might think from the worldview of ancient paganism. Today, the world is viewed as very much in the grip of vast impersonal forces. Governments and politicians try to claim credit when things go well, but when things go wrong they blame these mysterious impersonal forces. They refer to social forces, economic forces and political forces. We may no longer give them personal names like the divinities of ancient paganism but these mysterious impersonal forces still seem to enslave the world. The world is still defined in terms of power, and success is defined as placating those in power. Everyone is encouraged to be competing against everyone else for power, and success is defined as playing the game, in other words successfully manipulating the way the world is organised to one’s own advantage. The irony is that modern people claim to be free and emancipated on the surface, but in practice find themselves enslaved to these vast impersonal forces. The advertising industry, which encourages people to buy things that they do not need with money that they do not have in order to impress people who are not worth impressing, wields just as much (perhaps more) power than the gods of ancient paganism.
A different way of viewing the world emerged in ancient Israel. The Jews were the one people who (despite all their failings in practice) refused to bow down to the gods of ancient paganism. They believed that the world was not in the grip of vast impersonal forces, but was rather the creation of one God, the maker of all things and judge of all men, whose nature was not simply power and might, but right. They refused to accept the world as it is. Instead they saw it as a world that had been created good, but had gone wrong due to the fall of man. They looked forward to a time when the present discord between the human race and its Creator would finally be resolved in the messianic age to come, and the world would be redeemed from its present slavery to sin and death.
The early Church proclaimed that this hope had been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. In his life, death and resurrection he had fought and won the decisive battle against the principalities and powers that enslave us. In crucifying him they seemed to have beaten him, as has happened so often to those who have taken on the system in human history. But God raised him from the dead, and so has in principle defeated the forces of evil. He “hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the Kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).
There is still a battle to be fought against the forces of evil, but the good news is that the battle has already been won on our behalf, and we do not need to rely on our own strength, but rather on Christ. We now live between his first coming in great humility, and his second coming in glorious majesty, in that new heaven and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
Soldiers of Christ, arise,
And put your armour on;
Strong in the strength which God supplies,
Through His Eternal Son.
Strong in the Lord of Hosts,
And in His mighty power;
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts
Is more than conqueror.
Stand then in his great might,
With all His strength endued;
And take, to arm you for the fight,
The panoply of God.
From strength to strength go on,
Wrestle, and fight, and pray;
Tread all the powers of darkness down,
And win the well fought day.
That having all things done,
And all your conflicts past,
Ye may obtain, through Christ alone,
A crown of joy at last.
Jesu, Eternal Son,
We praise thee and adore,
Who art with God the Father one
And Spirit evermore.