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12th Sunday after Trinity

12 August 2021

Proper 16: Joshua 24.1-2a,14-18; Psalm 34.15-end; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

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IN BIBLE days, war was a frequent reality, a constant threat; to us, even the language and metaphors of war feel alien and unfashionable. Onward Christian pilgrims, not soldiers. Share the real pain, don’t fight the good fight. So the reading from Joshua is awkward; for Joshua encourages the Israelites to feel righteous about the conquest of the indigenous Amorites. The New Testament lection, too, uses military language, painting the struggles of small Christian communities as a cosmic battle against supernatural evil.

Rather than tackle the military mindscape of Ephesians, we may prefer to stay in our 21st-century comfort zone, and focus on “the shoes of the gospel of peace” (verse 15 — like Romans 10.15, a “realisation” of Isaiah 52.7). “God” and “peace” go together, as every eucharist reminds us. But we can take a more holistic approach, and give due weight to the battles that we need to fight, and perhaps even the wars rhat we ought to wage, to bring about that peace.

Sometimes, people draw a contrast between peace as a practical agreement to end a state of hostilities (drawing on Classical ideas), and the nobler ideal that is Hebrew shalom. But both understandings have their virtues. If shalom is the peace of heaven, then pax is peace on earth. It encapsulates that moment when human beings make the choice to stop aggression spiralling, and to embrace compromise. Peace on earth, in other words, is an eternal negotiation.

Stand. Withstand. Stand firm. Stand. The writer of Ephesians pleads with his readers not to run away from the battle. The shoes of the gospel of peace should instil in them the courage to make this possible. Think of them less as the symbol of a pacifist nirvana and more as the necessary groundwork for the aftermath of struggle, when fighting ends and negotiating begins. They should be part of the equipment of every soldier of Christ.

In this cosmic contest, then, we have as much protection against harm as we choose to make use of. We can gird ourselves with the belt of truth. We can put on helmet and breastplate, pick up shield and sword, and make ready to use them. Still, no amount of PPE can protect a person who does not manage their equipment correctly. Our vigilance will never be perfect. Instead, we toughen up through experiencing knocks and blows, learning how to cope when we come into conflict with those deadly authorities and cosmic powers.

The last item in our armoury is that sword that is “the Word of God”. In today’s Gospel, people stopped following Jesus because they did not like the demands that that would impose on them. In this way, idleness really can be a sin. Peter sometimes fell short in living out his promises, but not here. It is not a struggle for him to follow Jesus; it is not even a choice. He can be nowhere else; for Jesus has the “words of life”. From that moment, the shield of faith is fastened to his arm.

There is another element of warfare — or, more specifically, its aftermath — in these readings. Verse 16 of today’s psalm prays that the Lord will strike all memory of evildoers from the earth. Damnatio memoriae, or “deprivation of remembrance”, was an ancient punishment imposed by conquerors on their enemies. It wiped away every trace that someone had ever been, like saying, “In future, you will never have existed.” After conflict, such punishments exemplify the truism that history is written by the victors.

Remembrance is essential to our sense of self. Augustine put it thus: “I am a creature who remembers, I am a mind.” The Israelites served the Lord because they remembered what he had done for them in the past. But damnatio memoriae has a modern lesson to teach us, too; for it can also mean “the condemnation of recollection”.

Think of the rash tweets, the late-night emails, the messages too late repented of, which make a person vulnerable — years and even decades later — to being cut off from remembrance. A former self that, in kinder times, could be quietly allowed to fade like a photo left in sunlight becomes the first, the only, thing that anyone remembers about them. Thank God that Christianity looks forward to the person we are learning to become, not back to the old self that we have sloughed off (Ephesians 4.22).

Forthcoming Events

25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

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