Sermon for October 10th, 2021

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Ephesians 6:10-17

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Hebrews 4:12-13

12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Ulrich Zwingli: With Sword in Hand

Tomorrow is the 490th anniversary of the Battle of Kappel. In this battle, 7,000 Catholic soldiers descended upon the protestant city of Zurich in Switzerland. It was a surprise attack, and the citizens of Zurich were only able to muster about 2,000 defenders. The battle lasted less than an hour, and ended in defeat for the protestants. 25 pastors fell in battle defending their city that day. Among them, in fact leading the protestant army, was the pastor Ulrich Zwingli, who died with his sword in his hand.


I took this picture when I had the opportunity to visit Zurich a few years ago--it's a great depiction of Zwingli by his people in the city where he pastored. From the moment I saw the statue, I knew I wanted to preach a sermon about him. I knew I wanted to learn more about him, too. Zwingli is often considered the third most influential of all the 16th century reformers, behind only Martin Luther and John Calvin. But he's also the least well known of the three, although his teachings were a clear influence on Calvin as well as the followers of Luther.

Zwingli died with a sword in his hand, but to understand him (and the sword) we have to go all the way back to the year 1513, and another battle, the Battle of Novara in Northern Italy. A young Zwingli, recently ordained as a Catholic priest, was assigned to accompany Swiss mercenaries from his hometown as their chaplain. This may have been the first time he wielded that famous sword. But the battle wasn't even a Swiss battle--it was between France and Italy (or more specifically, the King of France, and the Pope, who had hired the Swiss mercenaries to supplement the Italian forces. This time, Zwingli's side won the battle, but he watched 1,500 of his countrymen fall in the process. When he returned home to his congregation, he began to preach against the practice of sending young Swiss men to fight in foreign wars--and this, of course, put him at odds with the Pope, and the Catholic church.

In addition to preaching, Zwingli began to teach himself Hebrew and Greek--the original languages of the Bible. And he began to study the Bible, and preach directly from the Bible. This may not sound surprising to us today, but it was a pretty unusual thing for a priest to do in his time. In any case, most sermons were delivered in Latin, a language that only a small, educated few could even understand.

Around this time, under the influence of what he was studying, Zwingli laid down one sword and took up a very different one. The scriptures (and both of our passages today) often compare the Word of God to a sharp, two edged sword, with the power to engage in spiritual warfare against cosmic forces, and the power to cut through layers of deception and falsehood, to the very heart of truth and justice. Zwingli devoted the rest of his life to wielding this kind of sword, and he did so far more effectively than most in his age.

Zwingli's reputation as a talented preacher grew quickly. He actually understood the Bible, and helped other people to understand it as well. Before long, he was invited to become the pastor of Grossmunster church, the largest and most prominent church in Zurich. He held this post until the end of his life. On his first Sunday in the pulpit, he opened his Bible to the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (the first book in the New Testament) and preached in the language of the people. Over the next weeks, he continued to preach straight through Matthew, and then kept going until he had preached through every verse of the entire New Testament. Then he went back, and began to preach through the Old Testament as well.

He taught his congregation that they should measure everything they said or did against what the Bible taught. And his congregation called him on that: During the season of Lent, when the church told people they had to fast and refrain from eating meat, some of his congregation members asked him where exactly it said not to do that in the Bible? Zwingli considered it; he studied it from all angles... and then he gathered with them for breakfast, sliced up some sausage and served it to them, eating it with them, and decisively ending the unbiblical practice in most Reformed churches.

Zwingli proved himself to be a compassionate pastor, too. In 1519 there was an outbreak of the plague in Zurich, which took the lives of one fourth of the population. The wealthier residents of Zurich left the city, but Zwingli stayed, and put himself at risk by continuing to preach, continuing to minister to the sick, and continuing in all his pastoral duties. In September of 1519, he contracted the plague. What did he do then? Did he regret his decision? No. He cheerfully prepared for his death, and even wrote a song about it (did I mention he was a talented musician?). I love his attitude in the words he writes (which actually rhyme in German):

Help me, Lord God, help me.
(I think Death is at the door!)
If it is your will, 
remove this arrow that wounds me
And will not let me rest.  

BUT...If you want death to take me
In the middle of my days, then let it be so.
Do what you want--I'm okay.
I'm yours to make or break, either way.
Because if you take my spirit from this earth,
at least it will not grow more evil,
and will no longer screw up the faithful lives of others.

That's the first movement of the song. The second movement is in the depths of his illness, and is not quite as cheerful, but still very faithful to God's will. The third movement describes his recovery, and you can hear his cheerful sense of humor coming back too:

Healthy, Lord God--healthy,
(I think I'm coming back!)
If it pleases you that this evil
should finally release me,
then my lips MUST praise you
and teach of you even more,
no matter what dangers I face from here on out.
I'm still going to die someday,
Maybe an even worse death than this.
But even then, I'll still face it
bravely and defiantly, with your help.
Because without it, we're all toast.

After his full recovery, Zwingli continued to distance himself and his city from the Pope and the medieval Catholic Church. He got married and eventually had four children--about a year after Zwingli's marriage went public, Martin Luther decided that was a good idea, and he got married, too.

Zwingli held several public debates with prominent Catholic bishops and theologians, and in every case he grounded his arguments solidly in the words of the scriptures. In every case, the people and the government of Zurich voted in his favor, and the worship and practices of the city became an example that other cities--including Calvin's Geneva--would eventually follow.

After his death, the city of Zurich appointed one his followers, Heinrich Bullinger, to take his position. Bullinger wrote down most of the doctrines and teachings of Zwingli in a comprehensive theological document called the Second Helvetic Confession. Today that document, in its entirety, is part of our Presbyterian Constitution--the Book of Confessions. That means that we consider it, still today, to be an authoritative interpretation of what the scriptures lead us to do and to be. Whenever a pastor or officer of our church is ordained to ministry, we promise to be guided and led by these words--in other words, by the doctrines and teachings of Ulrich Zwingli, among others.

Ulrich Zwingli died with a sword in his hand, defending his city against an unexpected attack. That sword, and his love for the people he defended, is forever memorialized in his statue, resting (point down) in his left hand. But so is the sword Zwingli loved best--in fact, it occupies a higher position, clutched to his breast, cradled in his right hand as he steps forward, off the pedestal, carrying it forward into the world.

That sword is within your reach, too,

Both literally and figuratively.

It's right in front of you,

translated into a language you can understand,

waiting for you to reach for it,

waiting for you to wield it...

Bravely and Defiantly,

Compassionately and Cheerfully,

With God's help, until the end of your days.