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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Whole Armour of God

Once upon a time in my teenage years, I was a Crusader. I mean that I attended a Bible class on Sunday afternoons under the auspices of a national organisation called the Crusaders Union. It was founded in 1900 for outreach to young people. Its badge, which I must still have somewhere, consisted of the traditional crusader emblem of a red cross on a shield, with sword, breastplate and helmet. Underneath was the motto in Greek: ‘looking to Jesus’, a quotation from the Letter to the Hebrews. We had fun, made good friends, and learned a lot about the Bible. It all went into the personal mixing-bowl we call ‘formation’, where it lodged with chorister memories, Bach, Thomas Hardy’s novels, an awakening conscience, and my first experiences of girls. It would be years before I knew enough about the medieval crusaders to question the name, but I’m glad to say that they are now called Urban Saints.

You’ll recognise the motifs on the badge from today’s 2nd lesson. ‘Take up the whole armour of God’ says Ephesians: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. The author’s appeal to his readers is vivid and urgent. ‘Be strong in the Lord…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.’ Combative stuff. But it fits exactly into the world-view of the first and second generations of Christians. They believed themselves to be warriors of light and truth in an alien, hostile universe. And just as Christ in his descent into hell had harrowed it, ransoming his own and rescuing them from the demonic clutch of death and Satan, so now the church was called bravely to battle against evil by witnessing to the gospel’s redeeming power and by turning human lives round from the oppressions of terror and wickedness to the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Move the clock forward by six centuries, and we come to St Cuthbert whom we celebrated last week. There is a so-called ‘Celtic’ perception of our northern saint, and there is the truth. The fantasy is that he was a kind of proto-romantic who took himself off to the Inner Farne for peace, quiet, and plenty of time to contemplate ducks. The more austere truth is that he went to the Farne to fight, Bede says, to ‘seek out a remote battlefield farther away from his fellows’.  For him, to be a hermit was to wrestle with evil, the demons within and those without. This warfare was not, or not principally, a private affair. It was an act of the church whereby the ever-threatening forces of chaos and disorder were kept at bay by those called, so to speak, to front-line service. The consolations of the Farne were, to quote the title of a book about desert spirituality, ‘the solace of fierce landscapes’. There is nothing perfumed or rose-hued about Cuthbert’s struggle for the good, the life-giving and the just. Like all who are valiant for truth, like the prophets and apostles, like the desert fathers and Irish monks, like Jesus himself, it cost him everything. He lived for it, and in the end he died for it.
Scroll on to the 12th century and to this building we are sitting in. Durham Cathedral, ‘half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’ say Sir Walter Scott's lines on Prebends’ Bridge. Linked to the castle, it is part of a carefully conceived fortification of this peninsula against the threat of invasion. What is more, it makes a tremendous statement about the power of the neo-Norsemen, the descendants of the fiery peoples who had ravaged Cuthbert’s Holy Island, destroyed his monastery and sent its community fleeing inland for safety. The Normans, now the overlords of England, knew how to build in a way that would intimidate the Saxon natives and remind them who now held sway. But this Cathedral is far more than that. It is built as a spiritual fortress as well, for this was what a Romanesque church was. Its huge towers, massive walls pierced only by narrow windows far apart, its cyclopic piers spoke with one voice which said: this place is a bastion against the principalities and powers, those demonic spirits that make constant raids on human souls to suck them into the turbid maelstrom of the devil. Here was a sanctuary, a defended and sacred place of safety from the terrors outside against which hell would not prevail. This is a different understanding of a cathedral from the Gothic vision of later centuries, as we can see in the Chapel of the Nine Altars, where a cathedral was becoming a casket of light whose walls melted away as the radiance of heaven poured through myriad windows reflecting the glory of heaven itself.
I doubt that most of us live each moment with this vivid sense of how evil crouches at the door, as Genesis puts it, though we glimpse it from time to time, the hells human beings create for themselves, not always in places that are far away. Some of us may have looked into the abyss and wondered how we were not engulfed. So we don’t dismiss the power of evil to grip fragile lives and to crush them out of existence: this was how it was experienced for so many of our forebears, and still is for some. And we can read in the pages of the New Testament how the gospel opened the door to an utterly new world, a marvellously life-changing liberation from demonic enslavement. This explains why the spiritual combat between truth and falsehood is so clearly etched in early Christian writings, and how the daily choices between light and dark became elevated into cosmic battles between good and evil where it took angelic powers to deal comprehensively with the devil and all his works.
And now? For all that it is a good and lovely world, it is also a profoundly broken place where tragedy walks hand in hand with beauty. Very many wake up each morning to this reality: they look on evil’s mighty works and despair. And much of it, I say most of it, is our own doing as the human race, and this implicates all of us. ‘A leaf does not turn yellow but with the consent of the whole tree.’ I am not asking about whether you invoke the existence of a hostile spiritual power to explain it. We can read this language metaphorically; yet the fallen-ness of our state is an unarguable fact of our existence, those ‘great refusals’ that we are in thrall to both collectively and personally. We know only too well about our struggle to live out our baptismal promise to reject the devil and all rebellion against God, to renounce the deceit and corruption of evil, to submit to Christ as Lord, to embrace him as our way, our truth and our life. What a theatre of the soul baptism inaugurates, to fight valiantly as Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants: heroic but so hard!
So Lent takes us into the desert where Cuthbert went to follow Jesus in his ordeals. Jesus knew, and Cuthbert knew, that resisting evil’s claims on us involves real battles. They knew about the re-arming Ephesians speaks about to make us strong and very courageous. To do this we must take evil seriously, be rid of the fantasy that things always improve, that human beings can on their own become better people. It is not blind optimism we need but facing the truth and being properly despondent about the human condition, for only then will we ever find real hope in God. And hope there is in abundance during Lent, for we are promised that these fierce landscapes will bring solace, and life will begin to blossom and flower in the springtime of our redemption. Soon it will be Easter when we renew our baptism vows and celebrate the Deliverer whom death and hell could not hold. Until then, in these days of Lent, we travel on with the whole armour of God to defend us, and in this desert we learn to be God’s people once again.
Durham Cathedral, 23 March 2014 (Lent 3)
Joshua 1.1-9, Ephesians 6.10-20

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