Once upon a time there was a chapel. It was a small, round building on a college campus. Students and their chaplain gathered there for Christian worship on Sunday evenings, but on other days of the week, groups from the community used the space, which was just right for intimate gatherings.
One summer day, a group of women came together early in the morning to do their spiritual practice together. But when they walked into the chapel, they discovered that another community group had decorated the space with camouflage banners, tiny green plastic tanks, and toy U.S. Army-style guns dangling from the ceiling.
Now, though these women often practiced poses named after warriors, the intent of their practice was union with God and others. In a chapel dedicated to a nonviolent Messiah, they wondered how anyone who followed him could simultaneously glorify instruments of war and pretend they were merely children’s toys. In shock and anger, the women tore down the weapons.
True story: these events actually took place at the Sheldon Jackson College Chapel. The first group was–you probably guessed it–a women’s yoga circle. But did you guess that the second group was actually a local church, leading Vacation Bible School with the theme “Soldiers for Christ?”
You can bet that VBS used this passage from Ephesians 6 at some point in their lessons. Paul’s metaphor, of putting on the “whole armor of God,” might seem right in line with the war kitsch. After all, Paul certainly describes the armor and weaponry of soldiers in his time. The VBS folks probably thought they were just updating the metaphor.
But the yoga women, who themselves regularly practiced the postures of Warrior 1, 2, and 3, thought the VBSers had crossed a line. And I would agree–there is a big difference between the tone and context of Paul’s metaphor, which was given to encourage a persecuted minority dwelling in an occupied nation, and the visual of weaponry produced and utilized in present-day military occupations by a world superpower. Though I also think the yoga women’s concerns would have been better served by opening a dialogue instead of rushing to tear down the decorations!
This story is a parable of a conundrum in which we often find ourselves. Paul is very clear that people who follow Jesus will have to withstand enemies. His metaphor draws on the virtues of the Warrior: standing strong to protect others. But what is the difference between standing strong as a Warrior and being a bully? How do we embrace Warrior virtues without glorifying War?
First, we need to understand the nature of the enemies of Christ. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” Paul says, 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.”
Paul is clear that our enemies are not other human beings, but rather spiritual influences, which infiltrate and distort the inner lives of individuals and the ethos of institutions. And it is very difficult to pin down and name this enemy, because, as Eugene Petersen writes, it is “evil that rarely looks like evil.” Petersen continues,
“There are a lot of things in this world that people do that are wrong and that look wrong. Paul has mentioned some of these…But there is far more that is wrong with the world than the sum total of what we name as sin and sins…This evil has nothing to do with cartoon caricatures of pitchfork-wielding demons or sulphur-breathing dragons.”
“The powers” Paul is talking about “insidiously make themselves at home” in institutions which are founded with good intentions and provide ongoing benefits to society. Money, language, and technology–good things in and of themselves–can become evil when institutionalized in business, governments, the media, schools, churches, and other structures. Petersen writes, “The basic good of money is idolized into the god Mammon; the basic good of language is debased into lies of propaganda; the basic good of technology is depersonalized into a world of non-relationship.”
The early Christians were pacifists. As religious minorities in the Roman empire, they faced harassment, discrimination, and the suppression of their officially illegal religious activities. But they understood that their battle was spiritual, a battle against sin, evil, and death; these forces waged war “in their inner spirit and at the cosmic level,” with tangibly “dehumanizing, death-dealing, alienating” effects. Early Christians died as nonviolent martyrs, rather than take up arms against other human beings.
But as the history of Christianity has continued on, the concept of spiritual warfare has too often been used to justify flesh and blood wars, with some people calling others the ‘enemies of God.’ Christians began persecuting other Christians by 325 CE, after Constantine legalized Christianity. The tragedy is that any time we justify violence against other human beings, all of us created in God’s image, we’ve already been defeated by the true foes Paul exhorts us to stand firm against.
My friends, we don’t have to be defeated! In fact, the victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We face an enemy in its death throes, though still dangerous. And though it is difficult to see, we are not powerless against this enemy. We need to be aware that we will be attacked, sometimes full on, sometimes in distractions, distorted teachings, or in the age-old temptations of sex, money, and power.
Of course, you won’t see it at all if you simply refuse to acknowledge that evil exists or that it is constantly exerting influence upon you and infecting your relationships! But acknowledging evil’s influence does not mean living in paranoia or anxiety, or setting up some kind of fortress to guard yourself from it. Nor should you ally yourselves with those who think of themselves as “defenders of purity,” who “vilify, mount crusades, [and] define [them]selves by what [they] are against.”
Paul describes a third option, neither hiding, nor attacking directly, since the “wiles of the devil” are usually immune to direct attack. Our response to the enemy we face is to stand firm, to “be strong in the strength of the Lord.”
Now let’s pause for a moment and think about the “strength” of Jesus Christ. In the gospel stories, we see that Jesus did not hide from conflict or controversy, and he rarely spoke directly against anyone, though he did rebuke the hypocrisy he saw in religious leaders. Overall, he stood his ground gently and generously, condemning violence when his disciples tried to defend him with swords: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” He did no violence to those who actively harmed him, but on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
“Lowly and meek, yet all powerful:” that’s how one of my favorite songs describes Jesus’ strength. That’s the strength of the Lord in which Christians are called to stand. “We are called to realize and cultivate our unique identity as men and women living under the lordship of Christ in the household of God that is the church,” writes Petersen.
Our strength is in that identity and community. And the good news is that God has provided us tools, not only to withstand evil influences, but even to transform evil into good: We’ve been provided the whole armor of God!
Paul’s metaphor serves to remind us of the tools God has provided: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and word of God. By linking these qualities to items of armor, Paul emphasizes that they are not passive. They are means of active participation which develop qualities of character within us as we engage with Christ in the redemption of the cosmos. In fact, though Paul calls us to put on external items–a belt, a breastplate, shoes, shield, and helmet–as we mature in our practice of them, these qualities become internalized, like a strong backbone and core strength, so that we come to embody the strength of God in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
It does take practice, and we need help: to recognize the enemy’s attacks, to learn how to put on the whole armor, and to stand firm. Thankfully, God has also given us one another, God’s church, a community of practice in which we hold one another up in prayer.
In the final section of today’s scripture, nearly at the close of the book of Ephesians, Paul reminds his readers once more of the power of prayer. The letter began in prayer, and now it ends in a request for prayer. Prayer: the communication of both our thanksgiving and our supplication, our communion, direct with the Source of all that is! Prayer is the most powerful tool we have, not only to withstand evil influences, but to transform evil into good!
Prayer keeps us alert and helps us persevere. Prayer reveals how obstacles can become opportunities. Through prayer we are enabled to see all people with God’s eyes, the eyes of love, so that instead of repaying evil, we can offer and receive forgiveness, and be reconciled to those we have harmed or who have harmed us.
Never be too shy to ask for prayer on your own behalf! Even the mighty apostle needs others to pray for him. He models for us his own awareness of his susceptibility to evil and the struggle of his current state–which he also sees as an opportunity. An “ambassador in chains,” Paul desires to speak boldly the message of the gospel. The prayers of the community will strengthen him when nothing else can!
So, my friends: stand firm! You know well how challenging it can be in our times to discern the influences of evil from the good. You also know the strength of the Lord: lowly and meek, yet all powerful. It is not easy to stand in Christ’s strength, but we are here for one another, praying with and for each other, that we will neither cower in fear nor demonize our opponents, but instead stand firm, consciously participating with God’s truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Word in the redemption of the cosmos, now and always. Amen.
(Note: nearly all quotes are from Eugene Petersen’s Practicing Resurrection, a major resource in the writing of this sermon.)