Ephesians 6:10-20 CEB
Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.
Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.
The challenge with any popular scripture passage is how to make it feel fresh again, for a familiar scripture reading is a lot like an old pair of shoes, comfortable on our feet but all the traction is gone. Can we find ways that this kind of passage can still speak in fresh ways to afflict us where we are too comfortable and be a sweet salve where we are hurting? Our scripture reading this week has imagery both familiar and a bit strange, as helmets and swords and shields are things we know about but that don’t really fill our day to day like they might have for the Ephesians. Why would the letter to the Ephesians contain this imagery of armor and swords and the cosmic forces of evil? In taking a closer look at this imagery, our final Sunday in Ephesians will remind us that God loves to subvert the familiar and the expected, and we might find ourselves surprised just how God equips us to face this life as a community of Christ.
Let’s start off with this imagery of the armor. We have the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. All of these pieces of the armor of God look a lot like what a Roman soldier wore back in the time of this letter. A strange choice for the author to make as these are the same Romans who did not much care for Christians. The same Romans that hung Christ upon the cross and destroyed Jerusalem. These are also the same Romans that occupied and controlled much of the western world through their military might. It feels a bit odd to think that God would be asking us all to dress like Roman soldiers. I mean, does God’s kingdom look like the Roman empire with all Christians becoming soldiers, or maybe, just maybe more is happening with this imagery of armor than it first appears. In our reading this morning, look at the one line from verse fourteen where it says we are to stand with “justice as [our] breastplate.” Our armor as Christians looks strange indeed! We are to wear justice and truth and peace and faith and salvation and the Spirit. Unlike armor, we can’t just put these on, in order to say we wear any of these, we must show them by living them out. Wearing a Roman soldier’s armor serves as a visible reminder of violent force, a threat to the ruled to keep them in line. However, the armor of God has a different nature, one of outwardly living our new lives in Christ where all can see the ways that these gifts and attributes of God work in our lives. If the Romans conquer through violence and bloodshed, then our God transforms through peace and giving hope to this world through all of us.
When Rome fights, it is against other people, but the kingdom of God is again different in that we resist sin, death, and evil. We do not fight the way the Romans do, seeking to be the biggest and the strongest and the mightiest, to overcome their enemies by force. Christians are to stand firm in God and lean upon the Spirit for strength and guidance. Even when we are at our weakest, we can be at our strongest! Look no further than Paul, a prisoner to the Romans, confined to chains, yet is able to transform other prisoners, guards, soldiers, and many other powerful people from a lowly prison cell. Look to those early followers of Christ who showed their strength, praying and singing hymns from the middle of the Coliseum, while surrounded by gladiators and wild animals bent to kill them for the pleasure of the Roman crowds! They were thought weak because they did not fight back! One of my favorite stories comes from the fifth century where the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, faces persecution and banishment at the hands of Empress Eudoxia and Emperor Arcadius, the rulers of the Byzantine Empire. The empress threatens to banish John at which point, he responds:
“You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house,” said John.
“But I will kill you,” the empress said.
“No, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God.”
“I will take away your treasures,” said Eudoxia.
“No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.”
“But I will drive you away from your friends and you will have no one left,” Eudoxia responded.
“No, you cannot,” said John, “for I have a Friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you. For there is nothing you can do to harm me.”
It is not a weakness to stand firm in God. It is not a weakness to lean on God daily for support and guidance. God’s strength is ours, and it allows us to firmly plant ourselves in the face of rulers and authorities. The true sadness of this story is that this was not a Christian bishop standing up to rulers and authorities that did not understand the faith. The Empress and Emperor were Christians as well, but because they did not agree with John, they declared him to be an agent of evil to be banished or killed.
I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, but verses like this have been used in our history to name people and fellow Christians as agents of the devil, in league with evil, to be fought and killed and banished and persecuted. It is funny, when Christians were being persecuted we resisted by standing strongly in our faith and wearing our peace and justice on our very persons for all to see, but when Christianity became legal and then the official religion of Rome, Christians quickly began to persecute fellow Christians. Unfortunately, this did not stop, instead our Christian history is filled with instances of violence. Folks would take their opponents and make them less than human, turning them into demons, devils, and part of the forces of evil. This made it easier to kill, to persecute, and to banish. When scripture like this is taken and misused, everything gets viewed through a lens of conflict because we become dressed as Roman soldiers who only knew how to interact through conflict. When we put on Christ, put on the divine attributes of the Spirit in how we live, verses like this become a place where God surprises us. By living out faith and justice and peace, we may be surprised how it transforms us and the world around us. We may be shocked to not see others as enemies but as friends and neighbors being transformed by the Spirit of the Living God.
We may be surprised because we may have forgotten the other words found here in Ephesians where it says, “We aren’t fighting against human enemies.” Another translation reads, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” We aren’t fighting each other. No human being is our enemy. In fact, the only offensive item listed in the whole armor of God is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Now, we have understood it to simply be scripture, but the Greek used here is rhema which means the utterance of God which can be all the ways that the Spirit speaks to you and me! This is hardly a weapon as the Spirit cannot and would never harm another child of God! Instead, the presence of the Spirit keeps us from the other spirits of this world, it cuts through their false promises, full of bittersweet words. Here, our minds might go to demons or devils, but that is too narrow! The spirits of this world can be ones of money and success and power and fame and ideologies! They are anything that we try to hold in place of God! They are the idols that demand everything from us and give nothing in return. Evil is pervasive but it is not personal, not like the Spirit of God. Evil cares nothing for you and for me, it only cares to widen the brokenness of this world, to let the power of death and sin prevail! That evil is never another human being but it can be found in the brokenness of our systems, governments, cultures, and our societies. Too often we have targeted the people that we believe are the cause of these evils and have denounced and fought against our own fellow siblings of Christ and beloved children of God. Instead, ours is a more subversive call, ours is to stand in those broken places to be a source of peace and healing and light and love and grace and justice in this world. We can do this without fear, much like John Chrysostom, because we belong to God and whatever happens to us, we are always held close by our Lord and Savior. Nothing can pull us away!
We have come to the end of Ephesians, and things have come to fruition. The letter started by describing how God has lifted us up and empowered us through grace and love and truth and the Spirit! God reminds us how we are all connected! Ephesians offers guidance in how we are to be a healthy community, and now we are told what is possible by being a healthy and whole and Spirit filled body of Christ! We are able to stand at the margins, in the broken places, in the spaces where death pervades and sin rules. We are able to stand in those places and bring healing! We are able to stand with God in those places where those cosmic forces of evil, those rulers and authorities would seek to divide and break and destroy! We resist by standing firm and speaking boldly using the gifts God has graced us with! We remain strong by praying constantly and seeking God’s support every day of our lives. God has geared us up for this journey, this journey through this world that is hurting and sick and grieving and filled with peril! We journey through these places and bring the Spirit of God with us to bless and heal and transform the world. We are kingdom builders not through force or violence but through truth and peace and love and most definitely grace. My friends, how has God equipped you? How has God equipped this community? Where is God calling us to stand today? Where are the broken and bleeding places? Where are the hurt and the lonely? How can we stand there today? That is our mission and our call, and our God will always be there with us in that journey no matter what, no matter where. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman