In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.
Next Sunday we will celebrate The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
In Buechner’s book The Magnificent Defeat, he gives an insightful sermon based on this passage entitled “The Two Battles.” In it Buechner describes two different types of war:
“Whatever we do, to live is to do battle under many different flags, and of all our battles, there are two, I believe, that are major ones.
The first is a war of conquest, which is a war to heat the blood of even the most timorous, because one way or another we all fight to conquer, and what we fight to conquer is the world. Not literally the world, perhaps, although like Walter Mitty we may dream a little in that direction sometimes; but for the most part our goal is a more realistic one: just a place in the world, a place in the sun, our place… We feel that we must conquer a territory in time and space that will be ours.
If that is the goal of this war of conquest that we all must wage, there are also the adversaries with whom we have to wage it; and they are adversaries of flesh and blood. They are human beings like ourselves, each of whom is fighting the same war toward the same end and under a banner emblazoned with the same word that our banners bear, and that word is of course Myself, or Myself and my Family, or Myself and my Country, Myself and my Race, which are all really MYSELF writ large.
To use the metaphor of Ephesians, what is the armor to wear in such a war? Not, certainly, the whole armor of God here but, rather, the whole armor of man, because this is a man's war against other men. In such a war, perhaps, you wear something like this. Gird your loins with wisdom, the sad wisdom of the world which knows that dog eats dog, that the gods help those who help themselves and charity begins at home. Put on the breastplate of self-confidence because if you have no faith in yourself, if you cannot trust to your own wits, then you will never get anywhere. Let your feet be shod with the gospel of success—the good news that you can get just about anything in this world if you want it badly enough and are willing to fight for it. Above all, take the shield of security because in a perilous world where anything can happen, security is perhaps what you need more than anything else—the security of money in the bank, or a college degree, or some basic skill that you can always fall back on. And take the helmet of attractiveness or personality and the sword of wit.”
Then Buechner goes on to describe the “other” kind of war—the one of which Paul speaks:
“But there is another war that we fight, of course, all of us, and this one is not a war against flesh and blood. ‘For we are not contending against flesh and blood,’ the letter reads. Then against what? What worse is there to contend against in this world than other men? "The principalities . . . the powers . . . the world rulers of this present darkness . . . the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places," Paul writes.
This other war is the war not to conquer but the war to become whole and at peace inside our skins. It is a war not of conquest now but of liberation because the object of this other war is to liberate that dimension of selfhood which has somehow become lost, that dimension of selfhood that involves the capacity to forgive and to will the good not only of the self but of all other selves. This other war is the war to become a human being. This is the goal that we are really after and that God is really after. This is the goal that power, success, and security are only forlorn substitutes for. This is the victory that not all our human armory of self-confidence and wisdom and personality can win for us—not simply to be treated as human but to become at last truly human.”