Undermining the Devil’s Foothold

A sermon inspired, in part, by the Lectionary readings for 8th August 2021: John 6:35, 41-51 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

In August the lectionary presents a series of Bible readings Jesus as the bread of life, something that immediately brings to mind some knowledge my father once passed onto me.

A fragrant offering

My father spent most of his working career in retail. It was a career that I suspect he wished me to follow him into, but helping my parents to run a village shop and then working summer and weekend jobs stacking shelves persuaded me it was not a career for me.

When we opened our village shop we had a bakery installed. I loved it! The aroma of the bread and the danish pastries would often drift up into my bedroom high above the shop. The intoxicating smell would capture me, draw me down to the cooling racks where I would sometimes take a still hot roll (or my favourite a cherry danish!) and, because it was too hot, juggle it as I went back to my room.

Eating my family’s stock wasn’t, my father said, why he kept insisting on the door to our accommodation be kept shut. The door to our home was kept shut so that the smell of the bakery would flow with full force into the shop. It was a selling tactic he had learnt when running supermarkets for others.

The aroma of freshly baked bread is sometimes pumped to the entrance of shops because not only does it attract people but it can make them feel hungry. And hungry shoppers are likely to buy more food.

The Devil’s Foothold

The aroma of freshly baked bread that attracts our attention, feeds our senses and taps into our hunger is paralleled in who Jesus is, what He offers and what He does. During His earthly-ministry Jesus drew people to Himself because He was offering something that people, even without realising, both wanted and needed. Jesus tapped into people’s hunger for truth, justice and hope in life. His words and actions attracted them.

But we can be attracted to things that smell, sound and look great at the start but can lead down a path of decay and division. Paul recognised the slow creep of minor gripes, of white lies and tall tales, into problems that can undermine and shake our foundations. He called it the devil’s foothold, and urged the Ephesians church to not let it take root.

You may remember the Arab Uprising/Spring that occurred during the last decade. It was a time when leaders like Colonel Gaddafi and President Mohamed Morsi were toppled from power across North Africa and the Middle East. This past week Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, was speaking about that time (during an annual conference called New Wine).

During the Arab Uprising At that time, levels of persecution towards Christians increased. 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were executed by ISIS in Libya. Churches and homes of Christians were destroyed in Egypt and elsewhere.

Archbishop Angaelos told of how these attacks did not come out of nowhere. They began with the denial of small things, access to services, resources and employment. They began with lies and negative language, insults and innuendo that became too common to stand out as unusual or even wrong. The devil had gained a foothold.

In neither case did the Christians in Egypt retaliate. They didn’t fan the flames of hatred and division by reflecting or imitating the language and the actions used against them.

After churches were destroyed, Christians returned to the rubble to worship and wrote on messages of peace towards their persecutors on the the walls that still stood — similar to how “Father Forgive Them” was written on Coventry Cathedral’s walls after the Nazis bombed it. And after the murder of the 21 men by ISIS, relatives of the men publicly forgave the killers. They were grieving and they were angry, but they didn’t let the sun go down on their anger, they didn’t become captive to it.

Archbishop Angaelos spoke of how even the most moderate and liberal islamic journalists reported how the kind words, the forgiveness and the lack of retaliation confounded them. The impact was that the devil’s foothold was lessened. But more than that, many were attracted to the fragrance of Christ emanating from the Coptic Christians — the intrigue of those who expected hate to be met with hate, but found love, were drawn towards Christ. Curiosity led to understanding, understanding led to respect, and respect led to the volatile situation diminishing, a diminishing that diminished the devil’s foothold.

We are not experiencing the destruction and persecution faced by the Coptic Christians but signs of the devil’s foothold that Archbishop Angelos saw develop in Egypt are nevertheless evident.

A couple of weeks ago Trafalgar Square was filled with people attending an anti-covid vaccination rally. There were many chilling aspects to the rally but the one which chilled me to the core was a speech by a former nurse who had been struck off the medical register. She made parallels between the Nuremberg Trials after World War 2 and the pandemic today: suggesting that just as doctors and nurses were tried and hung for their crimes during the Holocaust, doctors and nurses who had treated and vaccinated people in the COVID pandemic should face a similar repercussions (something that has worryingly gained traction since).

The chilling call for hate did not come from nowhere. The crowd and speakers the rally attracted didn’t happen overnight. It came from the devil’s foothold that Paul spoke of, from the bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice that went unchecked. It came from a failure to do what Paul commended the Ephesian churches to do: to not let the sun go down on anger without checking it to see how justified it is and where it will or should take us.

But how do we recognise justifiable anger? How do we recognise when ‘free speech’ becomes ‘hate speech’? How do we recognise the good, the bad and the ugly in what attracts us and draws us in?

In the the Gospels Jesus is recorded as saying ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” (Matthew 12:25). Jesus checked and used His anger to build people up, not to divide them or knock them down. Paul urges us to imitate Christ and do likewise.

Paul urged the Ephesian church, and indeed urges us, to check our emotions, feelings and behaviour against Jesus’s model. He did so that we could make sure that misplaced anger is recognised and dealt with, so that it doesn’t give the devil a foothold that can slowly and subtly undermine the foundations of our lives and communities to the point of a painful collapse.

Paul commends a standard of behaviour and speech that brings people together rather than divides them. We are called to check ourselves against speech that slanders, divides, condemns; speech that fuels anger and bitterness, that masquerades falsehoods as truth. We are called are called to build each other up, to communicate grace, kindness, love and forgiveness. We are called to imitate Christ.

The challenge and the hope

Archbishop Angaelos and the Coptic Church provide the hope and the challenge that we need to keep our lives and communities healthy. There is the hope from the legacy they created by exercising the tender-hearted forgiveness and grace of Christ. There is the challenge of avoiding giving the devil a foothold by being kind to one another, forgiving one another, and loving one another even when we disagree.

The way we speak and the way we behave matters, especially as individuals and community fed by the Bread of Life. Whilst the Holy Spirit can work both through and despite us, how people see and perceive followers of Christ affects how they see and perceive Christ.

The greater we reflect Christ’s fragrant offering, the easier it is for people to distinguish the aroma that sustains from the aroma that which decays. When we prevent the devil gaining a foothold in our lives, community and country by imitating Christ we receive an antidote to hate and division that we can pass on.

The Bread of Life Jesus offers is attractive not just because it smells good but because it nourishes, sustains and builds up. It is a bread that never goes stale, that never goes mouldy, that never decays. When we clear the way for people to see and smell Christ, the hope of the eternal becomes the reality of now.

A recording of this sermon can be seen in a simple online service available for a time on YouTube via this link.

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