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Sermon- The Principalities and Powers

Ephesians 6:10-18

Dark Vader from Star Wars; Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter; Sauron from Lord of

the Rings; Joker from the Batman series. We have so many rich characters in our

movies that represent pure evil and the powers of darkness. Whether it’s the fear

brought on by Darth Vader’s heavy breathing presence, or the towering burning eye

of Sauron, or the slithering voice of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, we have

many representations of what the presence of pure evil looks like. But is this just

fiction, or does it point to something real? Are we just having fun at the movies, or

are these characters revealing to us something true about reality?

For most of us modern ‘progressive’ Christians we’d probably answer those

questions by first denying the reality of evil and the demonic. That’s just the

thinking of a superstitious past, or today’s fundamentalist Christians, but it’s not

‘real’. So our answer would likely be, “Those movies are certainly good fun, but in

the end they’re only fiction”. I understand this response. With the advent of

modernity and science and the Enlightenment in the West, the notion of evil as a

force working in the cosmos was rejected. This was considered the outmoded

thinking of a bygone era, and dismissed as a bunch of hocus pocus. So-called evil

was now thought to arise solely from the bad decisions made by human beings, who

just didn’t use their rationality and their free will properly. But their actions, as

terrible as they might be, had no outside source. It was only poor choices made by

weak-minded humans, not some ‘demonic’ force that possessed them.

Today I want to argue that our rejection of the reality of evil, and of supernatural

entities such as angels and demons, was a big mistake. I want to make a case that us

moderns should re-integrate this understanding back into our worldview. Why?

Because I think there’s plenty of there there, as we’ll talk about, and not taking this

reality seriously weakens our ability to understand our planet and what’s happening

on it. And because we’re currently witnessing layer after layer being pulled back

from a dark underbelly that’s been operating under the surface of our world for

many decades. I’m talking about things such as the serial sexual abuse that’s gone on

in Hollywood and the entertainment industry, by people like Billy Cosby, R. Kelly,

Harvey Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey. I’m talking about the revelations coming out

around the mysterious billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was running a human

trafficking and blackmail operation involving some very powerful players. I’m

talking about NXIVM, the Hollywood [sex] cult that was involved in human

trafficking and slavery.

So much that’s been hidden in darkness is now being brought into the light. This is a

wonderful thing. But my research tells me that the ongoing revelations of the rot

below the surface are only going to get worse. So I felt called this week- and I mean

literally called, something was moving me in this direction- to write about this topic,

so that we can have other tools for understanding any further revelations that may

come to light.

One of the best places to get an understanding of the dark forces operating in the

cosmos, is in how the New Testament talks about the “principalities and powers”.

Let’s look at the first three lines in our passage from Ephesians. Paul says, Finally,

be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that

you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes”- and here’s the key line- “For

our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the

authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of

evil in the heavenly realms”. Our struggle on this earth is ultimately not against flesh

and blood humans, although they do play a role as conduits for dark powers. The

forces we truly struggle against are the spiritual forces of evil operating in the

cosmos. These forces use human beings and human institutions to do their bidding.

In this biblical worldview, the cosmos contains both light and dark spiritual forces,

which are often in battle. And human beings can be taken over, or ‘possessed’, by

these dark forces. We can also align ourselves with the light forces, as we’ll talk

about later.

The New Testament writers use many different words to speak about these dark

forces, words such as principalities, powers, authorities, dominions, world rulers,

thrones, princes, strongholds, spirit of the air, lion, dragon, beast, and many more

(1). Although the Romans are the face of the brutal domination system that ruled in

Jesus’ time, the New Testament writers are more interested in looking past imperial

Rome to the spiritual forces of darkness that rule it. That’s where true battle lies. In

the gospels these dark forces also get personified in the character of the devil, who

tempts Jesus with the dark side. When the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the

world, and says they can all be his if only he serves him, the devil says that he can

give them to Jesus because they’re already his (Luke 4:4-6). The thrones of this

world are already beholden to the forces of evil. That’s the pit that we’re trying to

dig out of.

It’s possible that we’ve gone to church for years and not really heard too much

discussion about the principalities and powers. The Bible is a big book and certain

eras in history are going to highlight certain things, while others fade from view. It

was a man named William Stringfellow who brought the discussion of the

principalities and powers back into the theological discussion in the 1960s.

Stringfellow was a very interesting guy. He was lawyer and an activist and a lay

theologian. He was also gay and “half out” in a time when that was dangerous (2).

And although only a lay theologian, the towering figure of Karl Barth once called him

the greatest theologian in America, probably prompting many people to say “Who?”

As an activist lawyer Stringfellow worked with oppressed and impoverished

peoples in places like Harlem, and through this work he came to see a brutal system

that had systematized racism and oppression. To make sense of the cold and harsh

reality he discovered, he turned to the New Testament writings on the principalities

and powers to understand how a system could become so ruthless. The reason the

system was so inhuman, he discovered, was that nonhuman forces were driving it.

Stringfellow’s rediscovery of this dimension of New Testament teachings

reverberated into mainstream theology and has continued to this day. I learned

about him my first year in seminary, and I’m grateful I did.

We can turn to another example to see these nonhuman forces at work in the world.

Take World War 2. This is what the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1932

while living in Germany- “How can one close ones eyes at the fact that the demons

themselves have taken over the rule of the world, that is the powers of darkness

have here made an awful conspiracy” (3). Bonhoeffer saw that something very dark

had seeped into Europe and his country, and he drew from Ephesians 6 to describe

it. Bonhoeffer was later killed by the Nazi’s for his part in a plot to kill Hitler. If we

want to hear the accuracy of Bonhoeffer’s theological analysis, we can listen to a

letter from a German soldier named Joachim Veetter, who fought in the horrible

Battle of Stalingrad. That battle lasted for five months in 1942, and during the

carnage close to two million people were killed or wounded.

Veeter wrote this in a letter that got sent home to Germany: “Now faced with the

imminently impending final catastrophe [the battle of Stalingrad encirclement], the

question about the sense of what was happening that plagued me so often during

the war seized me again with cruel force. Hundreds of thousands of flowering

human lives were suddenly being senselessly snuffed out here in Stalingrad. What

an immeasurable wealth of human happiness, plans, hopes, talents, fertile

possibilities for the future that were thereby being destroyed forever. The criminal

insanity of an irresponsible war management, with its superstitious belief in

technology, and its utter lack of feeling for the life, value and dignity of man, had

here prepared a hell on earth for us. Of what importance was the individual, in his

uniqueness and distinctiveness. He felt himself as if extinguished, and used up as

raw material in a demonic machine of destruction. Here war showed itself in its

unmasked brutality. Stalingrad appeared to me as an unsurpassed violation and

degeneration of the human essence. I felt myself to be locked into a gigantic

inhuman mechanism that was running with deadly precision to its own dissolution

and destruction" (4).

When we survey the terrible carnage of the twentieth-century, with its wars and

gulags and genocides and holocausts, maybe it’s not just superstition to think that

there are more than human forces at work in our world. Have you ever heard that

famous line, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he

didn’t exist”? I think that’s what happened in our time. We were fooled by our overconfident

belief in reason and progress, so we dismissed the reality of the spiritual

forces of darkness. But what if they’re real? What if we reintegrate this New

Testament understanding of the principalities and powers? And more importantlyhow

are we supposed to deal with this frightening reality?

The answer to that question is in the rest of our passage from Ephesians. The

cosmos might be filled with the spiritual powers of darkness, but it’s also filled with

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the spiritual powers of light. And as it says in John 1, “The light shines into the

darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it” (John 1:5). To do spiritual battle

with the forces of darkness we need to walk in the light. Jesus says, “I am the light of

the world. Whoever walks with me, will never walk in darkness” (John 8:12). How

do we walk in the light? In our passage from Ephesians Paul uses a series of military

metaphors to describe what walking in the light means. He says, “Therefore put on

the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand

your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the

belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in

place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of

peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can

extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and

the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all

occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests”. Truth, justice, peace, Spirit, faith

and prayer- if we use these spiritual weapons the forces of darkness cannot defeat

us. They will be repelled from our world and our hearts and our institutions and our

communities. The principalities and powers might be Legion, but in the face of the

light they’ll be driven over a cliff to perish.

So to answer the question we began with, I do think our stories about evil villains

are pointing at something real. Tolkien knew this. He fought in World War 1, he saw

the carnage, he saw the bodies strew across the fields. He saw that something dark

was involved in that war. But that didn’t make him a pessimist about life, because he

also knew the light and its powers. He wrote this in a letter to his son in 1944, in the

middle of both WW2 and his writing of The Lord of the Rings- “Evil labours with vast

power and perpetual success, but in vain, preparing always only the soil for

unexpected good to sprout in”. The forces of evil constantly try and capture our

hearts and our institutions in their quest to spread their darkness. But there’s a light

deep within us that cannot be overcome. We see this depicted in the movie Return of

the Jedi. Luke believes that even though his father had turned so far to the dark side,

there was still a kernel of light within him that could shine again. Maybe that’s the

part of us that’s made in God’s image. In the climactic scene of the film, Luke refuses

to fight Darth Vader or the Emperor. He drops his weapon and says to his father, “I

feel the good in you, the conflict”. Vader responds, “There is no conflict. You

underestimate the power of the dark side. If you will not fight, then you will meet

your destiny”. Yet despite these defiant words, the love in Luke’s heart got through

to his father. The light within him was activated, and Vader picked up the Emperor

and destroyed him. And then he abandoned his allegiance to the dark side forever. If

we bring the light, the light wins.

So friends, I don’t know what the future holds. It may reveal things that are hard to

swallow, or it may not. But what I do know is that if we put on the armour of Godthrough

prayer, through faith, through love and through truth telling- the flaming

arrows of darkness will never pierce us. If we walk in the light together, the

principalities and powers don’t stand a chance. So grab your shield, and let’s march

into the glorious new morning that awaits us. May it be so. Amen.

~~~~~

“This is your sword, this is your shield

This is the power of love revealed

Carry them with you wherever you go

And give all the love that you have in your soul”.

- Bruce Springsteen, ‘This Is Your Sword’

~~~~~

Endnotes

(1) Charles L. Campbell, The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching, Ch.1.

(2) Nathan Schneider. “The Biblical Worldview of William Stringfellow”. Religious

Dispatches. http://religiondispatches.org/the-biblical-circus-of-williamstringfellow/

(3) Quoted in: Bill Wylie-Kellerman, “Not Vice Versa. Reading the Powers Biblically:

Stringfellow, Hermeneutics, and the Principalities”, Anglican Theological Review 81,

4(1999):671.

(4) Joachim Veetter letter from: Dan Carlin, Hardcore History 27, ‘Ghosts of the

Osfront’. https://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-27-ghosts-of-theostfront-

i/