A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 22nd September 2019
Some of the best questions about faith come from people who are exploring it.
So when someone this week asked me the question “What does ‘I renounce evil’ mean?”, I had to stop and think for a moment. These words, used at every baptism at St Mary’s – and we’ve had a lot of them this summer – are said by parents and godparents. They are part of the declaration of faith made by those being baptised and confirmed. So they must be pretty important to what it means to be a Christian? What does ‘I renounce evil’ mean? Our final passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians has something to say about this.
A word about the word first. Evil. We might have a Lent Course on philosophy and religion next year, so we can save most of the philosophical thinking about evil for that opportunity, but it’s interesting to note that, in the 20th century evil has made a comeback. Faced with a century of appalling acts of human cruelty – at least in numbers and more well-documented than in previous generations – people have started taking evil seriously again. It’s more than talking about something that’s very, very, very wrong. We need the idea of evil when faced with organised genocide, serial killers and carpet bombing. And we need to think about what it means to believe in God and goodness in the face of all of this. But, again, not today. Today, it’s that simple phrase, “I renounce evil”.
Ephesians 6 takes evil for granted. Paul and his world saw evil as a power external to humanity. He talks of “the devil”, “the cosmic powers of this present darkness”, and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” I think many of us would find that more difficult language to grasp today. We are much more comfortable with identifying evil as something much more human than supernatural, less about devils and demons and more about monstrous acts of cruelty and violence. We are uncomfortable with language about The Devil and Satan. So let me say something about why we need to be cautious about being too clear either way.
First, I think we should be cautious about talking about a personal, living being called The Devil. This is because when we attribute things like personhood and life to such a being, we are attributing things that are basically good to an entity which is not. Even to say the Devil exists is to attribute something essentially good and holy, existence, to something that is not. I’m a little cautious about that and Christian teaching about evil has resisted any claim that there is an equal and opposite power to God in the world.
But I also think we should be cautious about dismissing the reality of such a super-human force, for want of a better word. A good example of this comes I think from those who work in very large organisations, such as the NHS. No-one doubts that there are hundreds of thousands of people working in the NHS are trying their best to serve patients and to deliver first-class care. But many people working in the NHS also know how hard it is to change things, how despite the goodwill and energy and determination, things seem hard to change. Trying to change things in a large organisation is hard because, as many people say, the thing “takes on a life of its own”. One of the ways of understanding evil is when forces seem to operate that seem much larger and irresistible than the sum total of the people involved. Even if you had the best people doing their best, things seem near impossible to change. This is I think a helpful way of understanding evil today, in a way that goes beyond the failings of any particular individual. Somehow there is a power at work that seems bigger than that, resistant to the good that we want to do. People still talk about something possessing them when they do something bad. If the language of the ‘demonic’ seems strange, I think it still has some currency when we think about what modern people talk of in terms of “the system” or “an unhealthy culture”. This, interestingly is the language we use when we think of institutional racism or child abuse. The system has a ‘negative’ even a ‘demonic’ power of its own.
And here Paul also says something really important. He says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, etc etc”. The helpful thing about this language is that it doesn’t invite us to turn against people. For the Ephesians, no matter what hostility they face from those around them (because surely this passage is somehow connected with that), no matter that, they are to understand that the source of that hostility is from a much larger, darker force. It’s that force that scapegoats, or (and we use the word, don’t we?) demonise others. None of that is to be part of the Christian’s defence against the dark. With the rise of populism in our politics, and a narrow nationalism raising its head again, we are to stand firm against the way in which such politics singles out or blames – single parents, immigrants, unelected bureaucrats (be that Jean-Claude Juncker or Dominic Cummings, take your pick). There are people who have ill-intent or who stir up hatred. They are to be resisted, be they criminals or populists, whether they wear a hoodie or a Savile Row suit. The powers, the forces that drive such ill-intent, they cannot be defeated, Paul seems to indicate: but they can be resisted. We are to stand firm.
And so he offers the military image, borrowing the standard set of Roman military hardware as a metaphor. Many scholars have noted that, with one exception, all the armour of God is defensive.
Telling the truth in a world of fake news and spin. How much we massage words to our own ends.
Seeking justice and righteousness – a sense of political and moral fairness – in a world where its easy to think that we simply have to live with the way the world is. Think of those children and young people demanding response to climate change and many of us will feel appropriate guilt at our own willingness to simply do nothing.
Proclaiming the gospel of peace. This could mean choosing a different way to the conflicts – large and small, personal and global – because the way of Jesus demands it.
Faith is a guard against cynicism and despair. Faith is trust in a God who has raised Jesus from the dead, has inaugurated the kingdom of God, has brought hope for us to share with others, never giving up on people because God has never finished with anyone.
Faith too because, if you start telling the truth, seeking justice, proclaiming peace, and bringing hope, someone somewhere is going to feel like you are a problem because threatening the status quo always brings to some people the fear that they will lose power and influence and, without doubt, you’ll start facing challenges. You might be accused of being a “god-botherer” or you might face more active opposition to your principles. As the great liberation theologian, Dom Helder Camara, once said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
And when that happens, remind yourself of your salvation, that you are a child of God. Remind yourself like Martin Luther in his moments of doubt, “I have been baptised”, “I am a child of God”, “this is the way of Jesus Christ I undertook to follow” and know that salvation.
And then there’s the word of God, the only weapon of attack. When the seventy-two disciples return from their mission, their preaching of the kingdom, they cry, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” The preaching of Jesus Christ, the living of the gospel, be it feeding the poor, caring for those in prison, seeking justice for the oppressed, and the countless other things we do because Jesus commanded it, these are the ways we fight evil. One of the most impressive organisations of the 20th and 21st century is the Salvation Army. I’ve always been amused by their quasi-military approach to Christianity. But, look at what they do, serving the poor, providing for the marginalised. Is it perhaps an appropriate approach to the service of God to see it in terms of a battle? General William Booth once said this,
“While women weep, as they do now,
While little children go hungry, as they do now,
While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now,
While there is a drunkard left,
While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets,
While there remains one dark soul without the light of God,
I’ll fight-I’ll fight to the very end!
He understood Ephesians 6. It may seem like an act of charity, and a good one, to work together in the coming months on the Winter Night Shelter and I hope many of us will join together. But it is also, in its own way, going into battle, doing what Jesus did, taking on the power of drugs, addiction, and poverty of ambition, setting our faces against the refusal to acknowledge the reality of real lives lived by people made in the image of God in our own country. To ignore such reality is to collude with evil.
For all of this, the fortification of prayer is essential. Paul says, “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication”. This is his encouragement in how to renounce evil. William Booth, too, says this, “Work as if everything depended upon work and pray as if everything depended upon prayer.” For when we pray, we come to the presence of the Father, source of all our armour and our serving, we come to the foot of the cross and the threshold of the empty tomb, where Jesus defeats evil once and for all, and we come into communion with the Spirit, who strengthens us with the very power that defeated evil, and will give us strength to resist it now.
“I renounce evil” means, “I set my face against all that demeans and holds back the world from being the beautiful, rich place it is meant to be.” “I chose love and life, not death and despair.” It is to turn away from the darkness to the light. It is to choose life.