I continued our summer sermon series through Ephesians by preaching on Ephesians 4.1-14.
“He didn’t realize the war was over, his battle posture in vain, and that what he thought was reality had been a fiction.”
Pay attention to the passive voice there- “…what he thought was reality had been made a fiction.”
In January 1972, 2 American hunters encountered Shoichi Yokoi in the jungles of Guam. Yokoi was setting one of the fishing traps that had kept him alive for 30 years when the hunters happened upon him. A sergeant in the 38th regiment of the Imperial Army of Japan, Yokoi had been stationed on Guam in February 1943. When American forces captured Guam a year later, Yokoi and a handful of other Japanese soldiers resisted surrendur and retreated deep into the jungle whence they would emerge on occassion to attack their (former) enemies.
The 2 American hunters who happened upon Yokoi 3 decades later marched him at gunpoint to the nearest police station where the sergeant told incredulous cops his story.
Turns out, Yokoi knew all along Japan had surrendured to the Allies in 1945. He knew the war- it was finished.
He knew he was free to live in a new world.
He just didn’t want to. So he resisted.
Instead he hid for 30 years, living in a cave in the jungle and surving on fish and fruit, snails and frogs. A tailor by training, Yokoi wove clothes from tree bark. “I chose to live,” he told police, “as though the hostilities were still raging.”
Yokoi was returned to Japan, but what was meant as a hero’s welcome for him was marked instead by ambivalence. Many Japanese were embarrassed by him. Younger Japanese in particular saw him as pathetic and mocked him for stubbornly sticking to a false reality.
Yokoi himself, though he lived until 1997, was never at ease in the new, changed world.
Again and again, he returned to Guam, visiting the cave in which he’d hid for decades. He even took visitors to see it. Back in Japan, Yokoi taught survival lessons. He taught others how to live in the world as he’d chosen it.
The discovery of Shoichi Yokoi in 1972 sparked a Pacific-wide search for other soldiers who either hadn’t heard that the war was over or who, like Yokoi, hadn’t accepted that it was over.
A couple of years later another soldier in the Imperial Army, Hiroo Onoda, was found living in a cave in the Phillipines.
Onodo had just turned 83.
Unlike Yokoi, Onodo hadn’t heard the happy news that the war was over.
As a Manilla newspaper said of him: “He didn’t realize the war was over, his battle posture in vain, and that what he thought was reality had been a fiction.”
Onoda had such a difficult time believing the news and adjusting to it that, rather than return to a home he no longer recognized, he emigrated to Brazil where he lived out his last few years.
Our arranged marriage called Methodist itinerancy is a month old this Sunday. I’ve been here long enough now to know what you’re thinking at this point in the sermon.
What does this have to do with the scripture text, Jason?
I’m glad you asked.
In order to understand what Yokoi and Onoda have to do with what the Apostle Paul tells us today about Christ making captivity itself a captive and what he tells us before that in verse 3 about “maintaining our unity in the bond of peace,” you must first understand what Paul means by the s-word.
Only when you understand that s-word can you begin to appreciate what St. Paul means by that other s-word, salvation. If your understanding of the former s-word is too small, your awe over the latter s-word will be too slight. Now, the rap against St. Paul, as everyone already knows, is that the dude talks a lot about sin. It’s true. Paul talks about sin more than anybody else…except Jesus.
Everyone knows Paul spills a lot of ink on sin, but few stop to notice the way in which Paul writes about sin. Few notice how Paul conceives of sin. Across his letters, approximately half the time Paul uses the word sin, hamartia, he does so as the subject of verbs.
I’m going to say that again so you get it:
Paul makes sin the subject of verbs.
He makes sin not the verb we do.
He makes sin the subject of verbs.
He makes sin the doer of its own verbs.
“Sin came into the world…”
“Sin produced in us…”
“Sin exercised dominion…”
And the word Paul uses there for ‘dominion’ in Greek is the same word Paul uses later for Jesus, kurios. It means ‘lord.’
“Sin exercised lordship over us…”
Despite how we most often think about it and speak of it, in the New Testament sin does not primarily describe human behavior.
Sins, scripturally speaking, are not misdeeds or misdemeanors- sin is not missing the mark.
In the New Testament, it’s Sin.
It’s singular, and you will understand it best if you give it a capital S.
In the New Testament, Sin is not a problem we possess.
Sin is a Power that possess us- a hostile Power.
A Pharaoh, that stands over and against God, enslaving us in captivity.
If I teach you anything in my time at Annandale Church, then let it be this interpretive key. In the New Testament, all our little s sins- our avarice and our rage, our begrudging and our deceit, our violence and our self-righteousness and our racism- are but ways our captivity to the Power of Sin manifests itself. They’re the ways we clank the chains to which a Power who is not God has clasped us.
As my teacher Beverly Gaventa puts it:
“Sin is an anti-God Power, synonymous with the Satan, Death, and the Devil, whose defeat the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated.”
The cross, as St. Paul understands it, is not just about Christ bleeding and dying for your little s sins. The cross, as Paul sees it, is a cosmic battle- a battle God wages for you against the Power of capital S Sin. This is why Paul so often uses militaristic imagery, especially at the end of Ephesians where he talks about the armor of God.
Sin isn’t just a mark on your rap sheet.
Sin is an Enemy with a captial E, an Enemy with a resume all its own.
If you don’t get this you don’t get it: If you think of sin as just your problem instead of an Enemy from whom God in Christ rescues you, then it’s easy for you to end up with a god who seems to have a forgiveness problem.
Sin isn’t just a mark on your rap sheet. Sin is an Enemy with a resume all its own, an Enemy that ensnares even God’s own Law, has taken God’s own commandments hostage, so as to enslave us. No matter what we’ve done to soften it or obscure it: the love of God in Jesus Christ, as scripture testifies, is not sentimental. It’s a love that invades enemy territory to rescue you from captivity to a Pharaoh, a Caesar, called Sin.
It’s this understanding of capital S Sin that St. Paul has in mind when he tells us, earlier in Ephesians, that in Christ God has put an end to the hostilities between us.
And it’s what Paul means here in verse 8 when he says that Christ our King has made captivity itself (i.e., the Power of Sin) his captive.
Paul means here what Christ says from the cross: “It is finished.”
Paul means here what St. John says in Revelation: “Jesus Christ has thrown the dragon down.”
Paul means here…the war is over, the battle’s won, the enemy has been defeated- like Pharaoh and his army, the Enemy has been drowned in the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Listen- here’s the shock of the Gospel Paul’s proclaiming: all the ways our enslavement to the Enemy still exhibits itself, the hate and the hostilities between us, they’re not really real.
They’re not really real.
What we take to be reality, the hostilities and acrimony among us, has been made a fiction, which makes us who choose to live abiding that fiction as tragically comic as those Japanese soldiers hiding their heads in caves.
“He made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”
The Apostle Paul is quoting there from Psalm 68- that’s why he introduces it with “Therefore it is said…” Psalm 68 is a processional hymn, a victory song, the bookend to the Song of Moses. Psalm 68 sings of Yahweh the King taking up residence in the Temple as the culmination of the Exodus. They sang Psalm 68 because the goal of God redeeming his people from captivity had been accomplished.
Only, Paul changes it.
He changes it, Psalm 68.
The original line doesn’t read as it does here in verse 8: “…he gave gifts to his people.” The original line in Psalm 68 instead reads: “He made captivity itself a captive; he received gifts from among his people.”
Paul changes it from God receiving gifts from us to God giving gifts to us.
You’ve got to go back to the top of the text. It’s not just that God has redeemed us from our captivity to the Power of Sin. It’s that God has replaced our bondage to the Power of Sin with bonds of peace.
“…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Maintain, Paul says. Notice the admonition.
It isn’t to work for peace and unity in the name of Christ. It’s to maintain it. It’s not to advocate on behalf of, build towards, strive for peace. It’s to preserve it. The exhortation is not to aspire for that which is not yet. It’s to abide by that which is already: Peace and unity among us is not the fiction.
Martin Luther King Jr famously said: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
But St. Paul today might tweak MLK to say instead: “The love of God in Christ Jesus is the force that has transformed enemies into friends.” Maintain, Paul says to the Ephesians. Hold onto what is already true.”
And actually maintain is a bit pedestrian a word by which to translate it. In Greek, the word is axias. It means “to safeguard” or “to treasure.”
It’s the word the chief steward says to Jesus at the wedding in Cana: “Everyone else serves the good wine first, and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten drunk. But you have axias the best wine for now.”
It’s the word Jesus uses about his own words: “Very truly I tell you, whoever axias my word will never taste death.”
It’s the word Paul uses in another letter for how we should regard our betrothed: “…treasure her…” Paul says.
I realize I’ve already devoted more attention to the scripture text than your average United Methodist can tolerate so if you’re about to nod off here’s the quick Cliff Notes version to Paul’s Gospel:
By the cross and resurrection of Jesus Chrsit, we have been redeemed from bondage to the Power of Sin, and God the Holy Spirit has replaced those bonds with bonds of peace between us.
Maintain what the “real world” will tell you again and again is a fiction.
I know what you’re thinking-
What does this have to do with real life?
What does this look like lived out?
I’m glad you asked.
Daryl Davis lives just up the beltway near Bethesda, Maryland. I met him at a conference last fall. By trade and training, he’s a rock-n-roll piano player. He’s toured with Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
He’s acted too, on stage and on TV, in Roseanne and the Wire.
In addition to music and acting, for 30 years Daryl Davis has had an odd hobby.
Odd for a black man.
For 30 years, Daryl Davis has befriended high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In his memoir, Daryl Davis explains how it all began. He’d been playing a gig at a honky tonk night club when a fan from the audience came up to him to strike up a conversation during which the (white) fan volunteered that he was a member of the KKK.
And Davis recalls responding to this revelation with (pay attention, now): “How can you hate me?”
How can you hate me?
In other words:
He’s made that captivity his captive.
You hating me is impossible now.
Daryl Davis resisted.
He refused to believe in the reality of hostility between them.
He insisted on axias-ing the peace and unity that was between, already.
So that night in the honky tonk, Daryl Davis decided he would make friends with the klansman, and, in the weeks and months following, he’d call up the klansman and say things like “I’m headed to Home Depot, you want to come with me?”
And the klansman did and would.
Believing that the peace between them was not aspirational but had been accomplished aleady- it afforded Daryl Davis the patience to discover it and to give grace in the meantime along the way.
Again and again, Daryl Davis would just make up reasons for them to spend time together so that “the reality of their friendship could be revealed.”
That friend, the klansman from the honky tonk, eventually became the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, the national leader of the klan, but today- his white robe and his hood, they’re just down the beltway from here. In Daryl Davis’ guest room closet. The racist gave all his robes and hoods and paraphenalia to Daryl Davis when he quit the klan.
There’s a reason there’s documentary about him.
After that night in the honky tonk, Daryl Davis has since converted something like 200 racists- racists of the worst kind- out of the klan
He was down the road in Charlottesville too, a year ago this weekend, wandering around the other side of the barricade, walking right up to racists and saying ‘Hey, how can you hate me? Want to talk?’
One news story from Charlottesville showed Davis being screamed at by nearly everybody: white progressives with their hate has no home here signs and anti-fascists and cops calling him crazy stupid and bigots calling him boy.
You tell me who’s living in the real world.
All of us who scream at each other with signs and social media, who hate on each other with hashtags, who nurse grievances and grudges by getting up when a preacher we don’t like speaks.
Daryl Davis and his slow, gentle, patient insistence that the hostility between us, is in fact, a fantasy. For all of us with privilege, maybe it’s a tempting Westworld sort of fantasy but a fiction nonethless.
You tell me who’s living in the real world.
Because when I think about Daryl Davis and then catch my own reflection in a window, you know who I see staring back at me?
Someone who’s heard the news but refuses to abide by it.
As Daryl Davis says:
The peace between us, already
The unity between us, already
The absence of hostilty between us, right now
It’s like Jesus say it is- It’s like a treasure, an axias, hidden in a field, buried in your backyard. Just because you don’t realize it’s there. Just because you refuse to believe it’s there. Just because you won’t risk looking like a fool and go digging up your yard
It doesn’t mean it’s not there. It doesn’t mean it’s not real and true. It doesn’t you’re not already sitting on a fortune and could be living out of those riches.
If you would but trust Paul’s Gospel promise that what you think is the real world- it’s been made a fiction, and the resentments between us- in our politics, all over your marriage, at your office, on your Facebook feed, across the pews- no matter how loud our chains sound, the hostilities between us are his now.
And our trust- our faith, alone- in the Gospel is the only key we need to unlock the handcuffs with which we bind ourselves.
Let me make it plain-
A lot of people like me will like someone like Daryl Davis because not only does he inspire, he let’s us off the hook (we think).
If only African Americans could be as amiable to oppressors as Daryl Davis, then all our problems would be solved (we think). What’s a little slavery between friends, right? I mean, come on Chenda- why can’t you be more like Daryl?
But to hear it that way is not to have heard St. Paul’s Gospel announcement this morning.
Daryl Davis doesn’t let us off the hook.
He compels us to come out of hiding in the comfort of our caves.
He compels us to come out into the real world and say to whoever we need to in our lives: How can you hate me? Or, more likely: How can I hate you?
The war is over, the battle won.