War Against the Soul
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for The 3rd Sunday after Easter, May 3, 2020
“I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.”
THERE IS A WAR ON. Enemy reconnaissance has you spotted and tracked from out there somewhere, and he is making plans based on your movements and what he perceives are your weaknesses. Perhaps he has struck already, leaving you a casualty in the war. I am not talking about Al-Qaeda, or North Korea. I’m not speaking of ISIS or even COVID-19. The enemy isn’t Russia or Venezuela or China. But someone is out to get you. And he is very good at making your life one constant barrage and the desperate search for a bomb shelter.
People who don’t believe in angels don’t believe in devils either, and my talk of warfare will seem to them as paranoid ramblings. I know this arena, yet I can still be fooled, betraying myself and shelling myself with the enemy’s bombs. What am I talking about? War against the soul.
St. Peter says in today’s Epistle. “I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among [unbelievers], that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation... that by doing good you may put to silence… foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as servants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” 1 Peter 2:11-17
We are but sojourners and pilgrims. We aren’t really from around here. I know some of you were born in Chico, and I’m a fourth generation Californian, but since the day that we were born from above, made new creatures by our faith, the life of Christ is in us and we are now citizens of another realm. Our home is already heaven. We’ve just never been there.
Impossible? Think of Moses. He was born in Egypt, spent his first 40 years in Pharaoh’s palace, hid out in Arabia, and never set foot in Palestine. Was he an Egyptian or a Jew? He was the quintessential Jew. It’s not where your feet are, it’s where your destiny calls you that makes you a citizen of that place.
Right now, we live in enemy territory. Although Jesus did come and take away the death grip Satan had on all of us, we still live in that evil one’s territory and his battle rages on against us. Satan had a legal right to us since the day he fooled our first parents to disobedience. The pattern was set and all their human descendants would fall into sin and selfishness. From then to now, none of us were worthy of God’s kingdom. It seemed pretty hopeless.
But thank God for Jesus. His story we know, and His triumph over sin, and even death, giving us redemption through His blood, is why we celebrate this season of Eastertide. We are new citizens of the blessed realm.
But Satan is still in business. He has hordes of angry demons who spend less time on the other billions of lost humans than they spend on you and me and all Christians. Why? First, we present a threat to their kingdom. The light we possess brings light to others. They don’t want to lose their slaves.
But they’re also bored with them. The true sport is in conquering someone whom Christ has won, converted and repatriated. If you and I, by our faith, by the water and the blood, are in Christ, then we are new creatures and God knows us to be His children. It’s a legal adoption, a heavenly naturalization. Our salvation is based on who we are in Him.
So, the first thing our enemy does is change the game. “It isn’t about who you are, it’s about what you do.” This feels true to us. We are always concerned about our deeds, as well as our titles, possessions, associations, appearance and skill. These create a sense of value in us, and we may think that God is impressed by these as well. Conversely, if we have no title, have few possessions, associate with the wrong people, have a lousy body image, and can’t do anything useful—we have nothing to offer and therefore are of little value. Our value, if based on these outer things, is fragile and perishable. This is foolish, and yet we may believe that we are the things we have and what we do.
Getting us to focus our attention in the wrong place to assess our value and identity, the enemy’s next move is to tempt us into disobedience, when we already know the will of God. This used to be simple, when the rules and regulations of the Pharisees numbered over 500 edicts on human behavior. You could violate dozens of them without knowing or trying.
Christ came and made it far easier to know—if harder to do—the will of God. “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and will all thy strength, and will all thy mind. And love thy neighbor as thyself.” Finally, at the Last Supper, He commanded us to “love one another as I have loved you.” You see, the will of God is not hard to know or to remember. You don’t need a booklet of 500 rules. You need to cultivate love and follow love wherever it leads. Love, not lust. Love, not need. Love, not avarice. Love, not cravings.
If that’s hard to work out, stop doing it with your mind. Let the Holy Spirit within you identify love when you have a choice to make. Which way is love? Ask Him. The answer will sometimes surprise you. Love can be tough. It can be strong, patient, counter-culture, and darned inconvenient and uncomfortable at times.
What does the enemy want to trick you into doing instead? It’s an old word but a useful one. Sin—an old-fashioned concept, it sounds as quaint as the word Repent. What do these mean? Sin means going away from God. Repent means coming back to God. It really isn’t complicated. All sin leads away. Repentance is turning around and returning to Him. But we get this all fouled up when our flesh cries out for something over there. St. Peter called it fleshly lust. Let’s see what that is.
The world, the flesh and the devil are against us, and lead us to sin. The world is mankind arrayed against God, and it invents thousands of things for us to pay more attention to than to Him. A simple computer can erode your relationship with God by being more interesting and offering more fun than you have in prayer, at Bible reading or at church. TV, fashions, pornography, alcohol and drugs, gambling, sports, race cars: it’s all for sale and we are bombed daily with the ads. The world is Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Wall Street and Playboy. The world is Babylon. Always open for business: 7 deadly sins, one convenient location.
The devil, we already spoke of.
The flesh is our innate weakness that responds to the call from the devil or the world. Part of us likes sin. Something in us feels like this time it will be good. Never mind that last time we ended up in the gutter, guilt-ridden and conscience-sore, ashamed of ourselves and fearful of anyone finding out. This is the enemy’s primary game.
To undermine our faith, Satan provokes us into sin. Then he accuses us of buying what he just sold us a moment ago. Now it’s our fault.
The next step down is shame. We don’t want this getting around. We don’t want our wives or parents or children or friends finding out about our sin. So: we hide. We lie. We create a place of secrecy and in that place we begin to live more and more of the time.
Sin tends to shame, and shame to secrecy, and secrecy to isolation. The Christian separated from God is like an X on the artillery map for the enemy to simply pick his time to take us out.
If God’s kingdom is really all about love, and about faith—the sin, shame, secrecy and separation have done the enemy’s job. Love grows cold when sin goes unrepented of, undisclosed, and God’s Spirit doesn’t get us to quit and come back home. Sin builds a wall, and many sins wall the poor sinner off from the only hope he has.
Faith fades away. It’s been said that theological doubt begins with moral doubt. What that means is, when you see a man who doubts the existence of God, you probably have a man who is doing something he knows is wrong. Adultery, theft, addiction, mental cruelty—lifestyles anybody knows are wrong. Suggest Christianity with its absolutes, and the man laughs. It’s his only defense. He won’t believe in a God who tells him to stop his lifestyle. “What a bunch of hooey! Simpletons and hypocrites. I don’t believe any of that nonsense.” You see, the man first camps out in his disobedience of God, then he conveniently disbelieves in the God he’s sinning against. But the heartier laughter comes from another voice, and from a different realm.
Fleshly lust wars against the soul. St. Peter encourages us to live respectful lives. Obey laws. Honor rulers. By our being good citizens in this world, we reflect well on the world of which we are truly citizens, so the world around us will see it. We are free, but we don’t use that freedom to do our own will, but the will of God’s Spirit in us. And that is always to love.
Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “War is hell.” If that is mathematically true, then Hell is also War. Hell is at war with our souls: it means to make us its captives as prisoners of a war against Heaven by bombarding our souls.
The weapons of our warfare are not those of the US Military, past or present. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” 2 Cor 10:4-5
We might think our bodies betray us. That’s not so. There is something in physical nature that’s been twisted, but there is also much good in the body we were given by a good Creator. He called it “good.” So should we. But let it be good. Let us love with abandon. Let us remain in the light and keep short accounts with God, going to Him immediately upon falling and not hiding in shame. Let’s be clear with our loved ones and seek to be forgiven, so we can move on. The enemy’s devices always angle for our complicity, that we think it’s about what we’ve done, not who we are in the Beloved.
Life and love can be painful arenas. But Jesus will return and we will rise. Never let go of that fact and stay on your guard. There’s a war on.
Now we know what the enemy is up to.
Let’s not be fooled again.