Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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. 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. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 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. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
And I found sermons with titles such as:
- “Be a warrior, not a wounded one”
- “Fighting the good battle”
- “Spiritual Warfare”
- “Power up!”
- “The Fight of Our Lives”
- “God has Prepared us for Battle”
For some of us the image of a warrior or knight or soldier in Christ is exciting and comforting – not so for me. I have nothing against soldiers. I believe becoming a soldier is just one of the many ways God’s calls us to put our lives on the line for the good of all of humankind and their presence has been a comfort to me in the past.
Growing up in West-Berlin, Germany, I remember seeing entire Battalions from the military bases of the allied forces march through the city for exercise drills. With guns over their shoulders, backpacks on their backs, and their faces camouflaged with paint these soldiers from Great Britain, France, and the United States always looked ready to take on whatever comes their way in order to protect others during the war. These soldiers represented the end of WWII and the end of the atrocities Germany – my home country - had committed. I was thankful for them because of the history and stories of WWII that I grew up with. Their presence was somewhat of a comfort., a sign of it never happening again. However, their presence was also a reminder that, although it had been a long time since WWII, the war was not truly over yet but we still lived in the aftermath of it. Until 1990 anyway, when Germany was united, the wall was gone, and Berlin was once again restored as the capital of the country…and, at that time, the allied forces left the city. Their leaving symbolized peace and a trust in ongoing peace, while their presence symbolizes having not yet fully lived into the kingdom of God and God’s shalom – that time and place when all of humankind live together peacefully and in harmony.
The image of the soldier for Christ who fights battles against the devil or all that is evil and the militaristic image of armor that protects us may be a source of comfort and strength for those who see humankind constantly engaged in spiritual warfare. I, however, like to look at the world in a slightly more idealistic way and through rose colored glasses. For me, Images that remind me of conflict or combat like the image of an armor of God clashes with that of the God of Love, revealed to us in the person of Jesus who was anything but armored – but who was vulnerable. Very vulnerable. And whom we follow and attempt to emulate.
As I struggled with this text I took to Facebook – because that’s what many pastors seem to do these days - and I asked my clergy friends – “How do you redeem this image of the Soldier of Christ?” And in response I received a lot of silence and only one response from a clergy friend in central Pennsylvania; he wrote, “This will not make it anywhere near my church this Sunday!” A part of me wanted to agree.
And yet – the text, our reading, is in the Bible and so – can we just discard it or ignore it? Or maybe, just maybe, there is something about it that is worth looking more deeply into and preaching about. Perhaps the image of the armor-clad warrior is all wrong. I believe it is. I very much agree with one pastor, who stated, “Paul’s rousing words feel militaristic – but are they? Do they really support the talk we hear among some Christians about “spiritual warfare”? or does Paul envision a non-militaristic sort of struggle that isn’t triumphalistic? We put on the armor (the Greek word really is panoply!) – not the first time Paul has used getting dressed as his controlling image: Colossians 3 advises we put on meekness, kindness, and forgiveness. Paul saw Roman soldiers everywhere, so we can understand his use of the image – or did he have Goliath in mind?”[i]
The Giant Goliath is one of the most famous characters in the Book of Samuel. The biblical narrative in 1 Samuel 17 goes out its way to describe him as an immense figure – just allow your imagination go wild for a moment and imagine him, this “champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was 6”6”. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was 125lbs of bronze. He had the armor of bronze on his legs and a curved sword of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed 15 pounds of iron…”[ii]
Is this the vision Ephesians really wants to convey?
And even if – I would hope that many of us would object, because today the term “religious warrior” often does not really sound all that promising and good. Because, somewhere this morning in the world there is fighting going on in any of the names that people call God or some other god, causing grief and destruction and death. Somewhere today people will insist that they are warriors for God, holding the Bible up like a weapon and throwing scripture around like arrows, in order to oppress or silence others and to stand firm in their way of seeing God’s will for the world – as if they have first dibs on what exactly God wants. Somewhere someone will try to exert power over others in God’s name.
And we all know how the story ends with Goliath. Power is deconstructed. Instead of a great battle between majestic warriors, there comes the little David onto the battlefield. David who is too small to wear the heavy armor. He does not meet Goliath with a sword and a spear but armed with a staff, five stones, and the name of God; "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts…the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into my hand," David said. And God did.
And when we go back to our text from Ephesians and look more closely at the armor, we can see it. Rather than the image of a soldier, we see a deconstruction of power. If we remove all the armor pieces the way David shed them, what remains are truth, righteousness (or justice), the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and the word of God. What remains are the things that matter in our relationship with God, our life with God, and God’s purpose. And although the author of Ephesian’s dresses these stunningly beautiful and spiritual words in military concepts, the text does not counter violence with violence. Instead, weapons of war are laid down in favor of peace and love. And, as followers of Christ, we know that the only way to overcome the powers of darkness is with light. As Paul writes in Romans, “Do not be overcome evil by evil but overcome evil with good”[iii]. Similarly, Martin Luther King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”[iv]
Likewise, when the Letter to the church in Ephesus states to “be strong in the Lord”, it means to
- Stand with generosity and hospitality and against stinginess and selfishness
- Stand with compassion and consolation and against coldness and indifference
- Stand with the courage to raise our voices for the truth against the lie
- Stand with remembering against forgetting
- Stand with confidence against fear
- Stand with the community of faith against loneliness
- Stand with solidarity against betrayal
- Stand with singing and praying against shouting, chaos and noise.
To put on the belt of truth and the rest of the items, is to be clothed with the new self, created in the likeness of God. To wear the whole armor of God is not to be strong in the way that we already know to be strong but to be strong in the way that the Jesus is strong – to feed people with nothing but a few loaves and fishes, to speak words of love to those who need to hear them, to attempt to make the powerful care by being a voice for the marginalized, to risk making a fool of ourselves by standing on the side of love and peace and justice. And so, the call of Ephesians this morning comes at us loudly and with all seriousness, "Be strong in the Lord!"
Our epistle text challenges us to constantly discern our view of where and how we as sisters and brothers in Christ and citizens in the Kin-dom of God should speak and act upon the gospel of peace in our world. it challenges us to become more specific and intentional about how we can embody the God of love. And none of us are alone in this task. We are never alone – God is with each one of us, always, and we have each other. It is incredibly important to know that the text in Ephesians does not stop with the armor. Let's hear how it is written:
“Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”
The list of the armor of love culminates in prayers and supplications in the spirit and for each other. It culminates in an act of love. And so, this is also our invitation this morning: that we strengthen each other with mutual prayer and intercessions so that - despite any real or imaginary chains that we may find ourselves held back by, such as time or age or other resources - we remain aware of the new life that we have been given in Christ. That we put on this new life and make every attempt to carry God’s love into each other’s lives and into the world - in all that we say and in all we do.
This is our beautiful and holy calling. Thanks be to God!
[ii] 1 Samuel 16:4-7
[iii] Romans 12:21
[iv] Martin Luther King, “Loving Your Enemies