Onward Christian Soldiers?

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Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Ephesians 6:10-20

Toward the back of our hymnal
is a section of hymns
that fall under the heading
“Christian Vocation and Pilgrimage.”

That label sounds pleasant enough,
but take one look at what’s collected there
and you quickly understand
why we don’t use them very often.

“Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
ye soldiers of the cross;
lift high his royal banner,
it must not suffer loss:
from victory unto victory
his army shall he lead,
till every foe is vanquished
and Christ is Lord indeed.” [1]

. . . or . . .

“Onward Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus
going on before!
Christ the royal Master,
leads against the foe;
forward into battle,
see his banners go.” [2]

Now don’t get me wrong.

There’s a major part of me
that still treasures these hymns.
Perhaps it’s the same part of me
that enjoys medieval tales
of knights, horses, and banners
all rallying under their king
for the sake of some noble cause.

But in the last 500 years or so—
especially in the last 100—
we have learned a few things
about the ravages of war.

We have seen the horrors and atrocities
of which we, as a species, are capable,
and in the histories we tell,
we choose rightly
not to forget them.

Thus, for many of us,
the idea of “Jesus as General”
or “Christ as Commander”
no longer fits quite like it once did
when these texts were written
in the mid-1800’s.

And because peace
is at the heart of who we are,
many of us Christians
are skeptical of anything
that would reduce our faith
to little more than a military parade.

So what in the world do we do
when Paul tells us in Ephesians today
to “put on the full armor of God?”

“Therefore,” he says,
“take up the whole armor of God,
so that you may be able to withstand
on that evil day . . .
fasten the belt of truth around your waist . . .
put on the breastplate of righteousness . . .
take the shield of faith . . .
take the helmet of salvation
and the sword of the Spirit.” [3]

*     *     *

First of all, you have to imagine the situation.

At this point in his life,
Paul was under house arrest
for preaching the Gospel. [4]
He was, as he says,
“an ambassador in chains.” [5]

Of course, back then they didn’t have
court-ordered ankle bracelets
with GPS tracking capabilities,
so you know what they did?

If you were placed under house arrest,
they assigned you a Roman soldier
and chained you to him
in your own home
so you couldn’t run away. [6]

So here’s Paul, writing to the Ephesians,
literally handcuffed to a Roman soldier.
(Poor Paul. Poor soldier.)

Some say it makes perfect sense, then,
that Paul would look at this guy—
his unlikely, unwanted roommate
dressed in all his Roman armor—
and start thinking about what it means
for us to arm ourselves, too.

But it goes deeper than that.

Paul wasn’t just a prisoner
playing “I Spy” with the objects in the room.
Paul was a scholar.
Paul knew his scriptures.

So when he starts saying things like
“fasten the belt of truth,”
“put on the breastplate of righteousness,”
“take up the helmet of salvation,”
he’s not just making stuff up
or taking inspiration from his guard.

No, Paul is quoting Isaiah,
who eight hundred years earlier
had already proclaimed that
our God, our Protector,
is girded with faithfulness [7] and
“[puts] on righteousness like a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on his head.” [8]

Paul knew from his reading of the scriptures
that if anyone fights the cosmic battles—
if anyone wins the War—
it is God, not us.

And this is my first point.

When Paul says,
“take on the armor of God,”
the whole point is that
it is God’s armor, not yours.

The truth is you and I are
meager, and frail, and weak.
In the great metaphor
of medieval kingdoms and knights,
we are merely peasant serfs
who don’t have a fighting chance
against the principalities
and powers of this world.

But our King does.

And it is under
his protection,
his banner,
his armor
that we find ourselves secure.

*     *     *

This, of course, goes against
what so many Christians
seem to believe these days:
that everything is a battle,
everything is a war.

For many of our brothers and sisters—
including, perhaps, some of you—
Christianity and politics
have become inseparable forces,
and the continual rallying cry is that
we’ve got to mobilize,
we’ve got to fight,
we’ve got to resist . . .
or else everything we hold true
will all be taken away. [9]

I do not wish to minimize the fact
that there are some things in this world
very much worth fighting for.
(The second world war showed us that.)

But, O Christian, don’t you see?
Don’t you see that the moment
we start carelessly applying the terms of war
to the terms of our faith,
we’ve already lost it all?

Too many times in our lives—
especially when we are afraid—
we act as though we do not believe
the very thing that we profess:
that Christ has died,
that Christ is risen,
that Christ will come again.

Victory is not ours to achieve;
the victory was already fought and won
once and for all
on Good Friday and Easter Sunday
some two thousand years ago.

And this is my second point.

Our strength does not come from within us,
and every time we think it does,
we have lost our way.

When Paul says today,
“be strong in the Lord” [10]
we miss something important in the translation.

A better translation of the Greek would be,
“Let yourself be strengthened.”

Do you see the difference?
“Be strong in the Lord,” is something you do.
“Let yourself be strengthened,” is something you receive. [11]

In other words,
you don’t have to fight so hard.
Let him do this for you.

*     *     *

None of this is a new idea.
It’s not new now,
and it wasn’t new for Paul.

In fact, the idea that God is the one
who is and always has been
fighting on our behalf
is as old as the Old Testament itself.

I will never forget the day
of our first major exam
in Old Testament class in seminary.

There we were, shaking in our boots,
certain that we’d forgotten everything
and that we were all about to fail this test
and flunk out of the priesthood.

Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams
saw the panic on our faces
and said, “I’ll distribute the exams in a moment,
but first, take out your Bibles.”

She made us turn to Exodus 14,
and here’s what she read:

As Pharaoh drew near,
the Israelites looked back,
and there were the Egyptians advancing on them.
In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord.

They said to Moses,
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt
that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?
What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?
Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt,
‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’?
For it would have been better for us
to serve the Egyptians
than to die in the wilderness.”

But Moses said to the people,
“Do not be afraid,
stand firm, and see the deliverance
that the Lord will accomplish for you today;
for the Egyptians whom you see today
[here Dr. Fentress-Williams inserted
“for the exam that you see today”]
you shall never see again.

“The Lord will fight for you,
and you have only to keep still.” [12]

And this is my final point.

Even as far back as the parting of the Red Sea,
God has been trying to convince us
that he is on our side
and that he himself
will do the fighting for us.

In the words of Moses and Paul,
we have only to stand firm
and keep still.

*     *     *

So with the victory already secure,
the battle already won,
what hymn might we take up to celebrate?

Well, let me close with the words
of another great hymn, “A mighty fortress,”
penned by none other than Martin Luther,
who knew better than most
the lasting victory of God’s grace:

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing;
were not the right man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing:
dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his Name,
from age to age the same,
and he . . . (not you, not me)
. . . will win the battle. [13]


[1] Duffield, George. “Stand up, stand up, for Jesus.” Hymnal 1982. Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985. #561
[2] Baring-Gould, Sabine. “Onward Christian soldiers.” Hymnal 1982. Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985. #562
[3] Ephesians 6:13-14,16-17
[4] Acts 28:16-20
[5] Ephesians 6:20
[6] Ibid.
[7] Isaiah 11:5
[8] Isaiah 59:17
[9] Jones, Scott & Heidi Hankel. “To Whom Can We Go?” Audio blog post. Synaxis: A Lectionary Podcast, 20 Aug. 2018. Web. 22 Aug. 2018.
[10] Ephesians 6:10
[11] Jones & Hankel.
[12] Exodus 14:10-14
[13] Luther, Martin. “A mighty fortress is our God.” Hymnal 1982. Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985. #687