DEVOTION: Initiation Ceremonies (Ephesians 4:1-5)
We may have to wait until there is a vacancy. We may have to meet certain requirements. We may have to complete an application form and pay a membership and/or annual fee. And we may have to endure some sort of initiation ceremony.
Indeed, when I was at residential college, I was given a task to do to be accepted into the life of the community. (And the tasks that year included: measuring the front of a department store with a string of sausages, and cleaning the post office steps with a tooth brush.) Then once my task had been completed, I had to be immersed in a bath full of a soupy goo to be accepted into the life of the residential community.
Now, of course, that is one extreme—and a silly one at that. But it shouldn’t surprise us, that there is an initiation ceremony when it comes to the church too. It’s called “baptism,” or as it is more commonly known “christening.” (Although properly “christening” should involve the adoption of a new name to distinguish one’s new life from the life that had been led before.)
And the reason the church uses baptism . . ? It’s to give us an opportunity to admit past mistakes and for us to promise God that will try to do better. It’s also about committing ourselves to God and entrusting our eternal welfare into his hands. It’s about admitting we are totally helpless when it comes to that department, and it is about committing ourselves to practice the faith. It’s about promising to put into practice the things that we say we believe, and not just when it suits our other plans. And it’s about committing ourselves to be there for our fellow believers too.
In other words, initiation into God’s church is unlike anything required by any other organisation or club. As a consequence, wanting to join God’s band of followers is not something that should be taken lightly.
Having said that, however, what God promises—the benefits of joining—are many.
They include the restoration of our relationship with our creator. Indeed, God cares, and the one thing he wants above all else is to build a relationship with his people—us. He wants to communicate like a parent and a child. He wants to share our joys, concerns, and troubles. And he wants us to open to a God who offers solutions to the troubles we face.
The benefits include the guarantee of membership in God’s kingdom. Indeed, we can confident about where we are headed and what awaits us when we die. For although everyone will rise from the dead, only the faithful will live with God in eternity.
And the benefits include being a member of a new family—the family of God’s people. And whilst they are perfect—far from it—they should still provide the care, support and encouragement we need to live life, and help us in our spiritual journey.
Joining clubs and organisations, then, is a normal part of life. And initiation ceremonies are very much a part of that. But there can be no more important initiation ceremony than baptism. Because baptism is basically our “yes” to God. It’s where we accept him for who he is; it’s where we accept our own limitations; and it’s where we accept his solutions to life and his gift of eternal life.
As a consequence, baptism is not just any initiation ceremony. It is the most important initiation ceremony of all. But the rite is only the start of the process. What happens after—how we live it out; putting our beliefs into practice—is what living the faith is all about.
Posted: 2nd January 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Seven Reasons for the Existence of the Church (Ephesians 4:1-6)
On many occasions, however, I have wondered whether we need use-by dates for organisations too. After all, how many organisations have been started with good reason, and yet today … Well, you wonder why they still exist? Indeed, you wonder if they have reached their use by date too.
Having said that, however, one of the organisations that many would consider to have passed its use by date would have to be the church. After all, over the years, the church in the western world has been in decline, and many would say that it is no longer relevant in modern-day society.
With that in mind, then, I’d like to refer to Ephesians 4:1-6. Because it gives seven reasons why the church should exist. Then we can ask, “Are these a feature of our church today?”
And the first is that there is a need for a body of people, separate from any association or society in this world, who can meet and encourage one another united in a common faith. Now this isn’t supposed to be a secret society. Rather, it is a body of people who practice their faith in terms of caring for people, and in teaching spiritual truths.
The second reason is that there is a need for a body of people to bring a message of hope to the world. The church isn’t supposed to be a club existing for its own members. Rather, it is supposed to be an organisation, united by God’s Holy Spirit, telling the world of the opportunity for eternal life.
Thirdly, there is a need for hope, in a world where many people live in false hope. So, their needs to be a body of people to correct misunderstandings and share true hope—the hope that salvation brings.
The fourth reason is there is a need for a body of people who are united in a common allegiance to Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus may have died for people’s sins, but their needs to be a group who declare that faith is more than lip service. That faith is about commitment.
The fifth reason, is that there needs to be a storehouse of vital truths. After all, over the years there has been a tendency for individuals and groups of people to twist and change truths to suit themselves. And that is a very dangerous practice. There needs to a be a body of people, therefore, who continually monitor what is being said, and who to continue to uphold the truth.
Sixthly, their needs to a body of people who administer the sacrament of baptism—the outward expression of faith—in terms of people’s commitment to God, and their commitment to uphold all that the church stands for.
One God and Father of All
And, seventhly, their needs to be a body of people who remind the world that we are all God’s created beings, and that we all need to acknowledge him as the creator—and not just in a superficial way.
Because whilst some organisations may have fulfilled their purpose, or even gone passed there use-by date, we should make sure that the church is just as relevant today, as it was at Pentecost, on the day it was created.
Posted: 9th September 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Spiritual Battle (Ephesians 6:10-20)
In life, people face a number of battles.
On the world-wide stage, there are the well-publicised struggles. There are the wars that are fought—like the ones that have been (or still are) being fought in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Sudan, to name just a few. There are the battles for survival—where there is a lack of food, little or no health resources, where people’s life expectancies are low, where disease is rampant, and clean water is absent. And we have the injustices—where people get paid a pittance for the jobs that they do, and often for the benefit of richer nations.
On a more local level, we have some very well publicised struggles, but we also have ones that often get ignored. There are the family disputes—some of which are a bit more than just heated. There are the fights with government departments and businesses—as people fight for their rights, and try to get organizations to perform in accordance with their stated aims. And there are fights over health, and the simple day to day need to survive.
And in all of this, in all of these kinds of well publicised battles, there is one type of battle that often gets ignored. And that is the one that all Christians face: the spiritual battle. The struggle to remain faithful to our God despite some very strong opposition.
And the reason for that, is that the spiritual battle is not one that is taken as seriously as it should. We have it too easy. After all, in twenty-first century Australia, aren’t we free to believe what we want? Or that is what is said.
And yet, whilst to some extent that may be true, I’m going to suggest that we shouldn’t dismiss spiritual warfare so lightly. Because the battle is very real, and we need to take it very seriously indeed.
B. THE CHRISTIAN CONFLICT
1. Background: Paul, Part 1
And to illustrate what I mean I’d like you to imagine with me: The Apostle Paul, confined to a single house, in Rome. A house where he could entertain visitors, but from which he was unable to leave. He was chained by the ankles to two jailers—one on each side. And he was there because of his stand on the Christian faith.
And as he was sitting there reflecting on his life, and on the spiritual battles that he had seen, witnessed, and been involved in—as he’d moved around preaching the gospel of Christ—he was concerned with the spiritual battles that others in the church faced too.
After all, he’d faced battles where people were encouraged not to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. He’d faced pressure where people were encouraged to deny their faith. He’d faced the challenge to water down his message. And he’d faced battles on a number of other fronts as well. But for Paul, the spiritual battle was an everyday reality. And as a consequence, he was concerned on how he could encourage his fellow believers, who faced similar trials and similar battles.
And as he sat there, he felt compelled to write a letter—a letter designed to encourage people in the faith, and a letter warning people against complacency in the spiritual life. And the letter that he wrote was the one we now know as “Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.” And yet, it probably wasn’t a letter specifically written to the church at Ephesus at all. Indeed, it was a circular sent to a number of churches and to a number of believers.
And, in the letter, he outlined the basics of the Christian faith. He warned believers that regardless of their situation, by the very nature of their belief, they would face spiritual battles. And he warned them that anyone who suggested otherwise was fooling themselves.
And as a consequence, when we think of our own situations, then Paul’s letter has a lot to say.
2. The Fact of War (12-13)
Because, firstly, Paul identified where the spiritual attacks would come from. Indeed, Paul’s concern was with “the devil’s schemes, the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world fighting against the spiritual forces in the heavenly realms” (11-12).
In other words, Paul was saying, that the spiritual battle that all Christians face, is not one that just involves us being physically or mentally wounded. It is a battle for our souls. The battle isn’t just a worldly battle but includes attacks from the spiritual realm as well. The battle can be either blatant or subtle, and can come not only from outside of the church but from within it as well.
Now Paul doesn’t specifically say in this letter what that warfare would consist of. But then, as I said, this letter is of a rather general nature. However, from his teaching in his other letters, Paul did warn the different churches of a variety of issues. To the Corinthians he warned them against divisions within the church, drunkenness, greed, spiritual pride, and resistance to helping other churches in need. To the Thessalonian church he warned them against idleness, and the tendency to stop meeting together. And that’s in addition to the many exhortations to stand firm in the faith despite physical persecution.
For Paul, then the spiritual battle was very real. And even though we may not feel we are in danger of any physical harm, the implication is that there is still a battle being fought for our very souls.
3. Our Inability to Fight Alone (10-11,13)
And secondly, Paul identified that the battle that believers face is so strong, the opposition so powerful, that we cannot fight the battle alone. The conflict may be fierce and sustained—and left to our own devices we will fail—so we need God, and we need his strength and power to see us through.
Only at great peril, Paul suggested, would his warning be neglected. The Christian warrior needed to “stand” against great opposition. There would be an evil day—a time when conflict would be so severe that we would be unable to face it alone. As a consequence, we need to depend upon divine assistance.
4. Background: Paul, Part 2
Now I’d like you to imagine Paul again, sitting in that room and chained to those two Roman soldiers. Because, as he looked at those soldiers—with all their armour—his situation may have seemed frightening and hopeless.
But, you know, as he thought about the spiritual battle that all Christians face—and to which he was intent on warning as many as he could—he became inspired. The kind of protection that the Christian needed was precisely like the kind of protection those guards were wearing. And with the armour, he had a perfect illustration for the very point he wanted to make. So, if a believer was unable to fight the spiritual battle on their own, and if they needed God to help them in the fight, what was it that the Christian needed to do?
5. The Defence of War (14-18)
And so, Paul’s third point is that all believers need to put on the armour of God—armour that makes a Christian invincible from the attacks on their souls.
And of course the armour comes in many parts:
a). The Belt of Truth (14)
The first part, the belt of truth, isn’t really part of the armour at all. But in the days where flowing robes were the order of the day, those robes needed to be tied up before the armour could be put on. Otherwise, even the soldiers would have been tripping over their own clothes in the heat of battle.
What Paul was saying, then, was that before any race can be run, or a battle fought, there are certain things that need to be got into order. And lack of integrity, and lack of sincerity are two things that would hamper someone at every turn.
Paul, therefore, was suggesting, that sincerity in beliefs is vitally important. Because it is no good going through the pretence of putting armour on for our own protection, if there is no genuine belief on which it can be placed.
b). The Breastplate of Righteousness (14)
The second thing, Paul said, is that we need to do put on the breastplate of righteousness.
Now believers are to be heavenly warriors. And the righteousness of God, in this instance, is not the righteousness which God gives us, but the uprightness of character that every Christian should enjoy.
In other words loyalty in word and deed to God, is a vital part of any Christian’s armour. And to neglect what is known to be a right act is to leave a gaping hole in the armour, and to lead one open to attack.
c). Feet Fitted with The Readiness… (15)
The third thing Paul said is that we need to dress our feet appropriately for the preparation of the gospel of peace.
Now in this whole section the whole point of the armour is not about being ready to attack or to be on the offensive. Defence is the major theme throughout the passage.
So what Paul had in mind here, then, is that a believer should have a firm foothold in the Christian faith. Because from this point it will be much harder to be moved in the event of an attack.
We are called, then, not to be ignorant about the Christian faith. But we are to be actively involved in studying the faith, working out what we believe, and being eager in learning more about our God.
Having said that, however, taking a defensive position, is not the only position a Christian should take. Because it should not prevent us from taking the message of the gospel—a message of reconciliation and peace—to the world.
d). The Shield of Faith (16)
The fourth part of putting on the armour is the need to put on the shield of faith.
Now, the shield in Roman days would have covered up just about every part of the body. And consequently the image made a very good symbol for the subject of faith.
But the thing about faith is that it is outward looking. It’s not being introspective—about what we can do for ourselves—rather, it is outward looking in terms of acceptance of what God has done for us. The call then is for reliance on God, and the acknowledgment that only a reliance upon God can stop and deflect the weapons that are hurled at us.
e). The Helmet of Salvation (17)
The fifth thing that a Christian is to do is to put on the helmet of salvation.
Now salvation is not only God’s gift against the penalty of sin, but it is the confidence that we have, the help when we are tempted, the hope that fortifies us, the knowledge that we have been delivered, and the confidence that we have been rescued from our bondage to sin. Without that salvation we will be mortally wounded in the conflict.
f). The Sword of The Spirit (17)
The sixth item to note is the sword of the Spirit.
Now the words of wicked men, are said, to wound as a sword. But in the bible God’s word is also a sword in his hand.
The sword is therefore important because it cuts, and divides. And from a Christian perspective it separates fact from fiction, truth from lies. God’s sword, therefore, can not only tell us right from wrong, but it can be used to bring judgement or to bring salvation. And as a consequence, should be wielded by his messengers in the lives of others.
g). Prayer (17)
And the final item, which is not really an item of armour at all, is the need for prayer. Because all of the pieces of armour are to be put on with prayer.
Prayer is for every occasion. And is to be offered with utter earnestness and constantly, not only for ourselves, but for every Christian soul.
The individual Christian is not just to think of his own spiritual conflict but is to be concerned for the rest of the Church as well. In prayer, the Christian cannot really arm himself with Christ, and use his armour, without getting nearer to his brothers and sisters in Christ as well.
For Paul then, writing to the church universal, the spiritual battle was very real. As a consequence, he outlined the source of the conflict, he acknowledged that it wasn’t a battle that we could fight on our own, and he gave some pretty sound advice to his readers on how the battle should be fought.
The battle, for Paul, was mainly defensive. But he doesn’t ignore the need for Christians to use opportunities, no matter how slight, to share the Gospel with others, as well.
Of course putting all of this into a twenty-first century Australian perspective one could easily ask, “What sort of spiritual battles do we face?” But when we consider the practical every day fights that the people in Corinth and Thessalonica faced, we could easily come up with exactly the same issues as well.
Remember, the Corinthian church was faced with divisions within the church: drunkenness, greed, spiritual pride, and resistance to help out other churches in need. The Thessalonian church was faced with members being idle, not playing their part, and some had even stopped meeting together. All issues which face the modern church, even if we leave what we might consider normal persecution aside.
And so in many ways, things haven’t really changed. And consequently Paul’s message is just as relevant today as it’s always been.
However, whatever battles we face—whether blatant or subtle—we do have the armour of God that we can put on:
A belt—the integrity and sincerity we need so we can face the fight. A breastplate—loyalty in word and deed to the laws of God. Foot coverings—giving us a firm foothold in the faith and enabling us to be ready at all times to speak God’s word. A shield—total reliance on God in whatever situations that come our way. A helmet—the hope and fortification we need that comes from knowing that God has already rescued us from sin. A sword—the ability to separate the truth from lies. And prayer—the thing that holds it all together, but not just for ourselves but for others who stand with us in the fight as well.
Battles may be at the forefront of our television news. We may witness wars between nations and within nations. We may hear of family rows or gang feuds. We may even hear of disputes with government departments or other organizations.
But these battles are nothing to the spiritual battle we face, where the thing that’s at stake is not just our soul, but the souls of all the other members of Christ’s church as well. Our spiritual battle is real and let no one convince you otherwise.
Posted: 20th March 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis