The congregation is taught and led in the chant “Stand Firm.” Here’s a sound clip.
In our second lesson today, we hear words offered to an early Christian community, The author of the letter to the Ephesians tells this little community of Christ’s followers to “stand firm.”
He then develops a metaphor using images with which they would be familiar: military garb. They knew these images because they saw Roman soldiers all the time. Living at a time when Christianity was illegal, they faced regular persecution and harassment from soldiers. Roman soldiers enforced the unjust laws. Roman soldiers forced them to go to the new temple of the emperor Domitian to test their allegiance.[i] Soldiers came to collect taxes and sometimes to force them off their land.
To this community — persecuted, living under occupation, tempted either to give up or to give in and become part of the oppressive machine – the author says, “stand firm!”
A belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, sword. These are things with which they were all too familiar. But here the author subverts them. He imagines versions that undo the evil they are perpetuating. He imagines a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, a sword of the Spirit. And then there’s my favorite part: the shoes. For shoes, “put on your feet whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
Christ calls these early followers to another way. In the face of “the wiles of the devil,” “the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” and all that threatens to convince them that God is not God, God is not good, and they are not of value, Christ calls them to proclaim the gospel of peace and to “make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel.”
Now, this language about shields and breastplates, flaming arrows, and cosmic power may seem pretty remote, unless you are into gaming or medieval reenactment. But I had several conversations this week with members of this parish that lead me to believe that the idea of being under siege by cosmic forces, flaming arrows and a present darkness resonate actually resonates with us:
- I heard about the frustration and loneliness of trying to raise teens in a culture of relativism and consumerism, where a child’s age-mates engage in risky, sometimes illegal, behavior and sometimes other parents condone it or pretend not to see it.
- I heard of the struggle to plow through the forest of red tape, delays and indifference, to get adequate health care in the midst of crisis, magnified for people with little means or people living with disabilities.
- People shared with me their horror at hearing that a needy Hispanic man had been beaten and abused and that those perpetuating the violence credit one of our presidential candidates as their inspiration.
And many more. Powers and principalities alive and well.
Unfortunately, through the centuries, Paul’s imagery has been misused by Christians, twisted to inspire just the kind of violence Paul meant to critique. The rhetoric of spiritual warfare against the dark forces of evil became literal warfare as Christians forgot that what Paul is calling them to stand firm against is not those people over there, who are bad, but rather “the suprahuman dimension of power in institutions” (Walter Wink) which corrupts our perceptions, the ways in which we all collude to perpetuate violence and degrade others, and the evil impulses and capacities within each of us.
From the Crusades to the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain, to the execution of “Turks,” “heretics,” and “witches” approved by Protestant Reformers, Paul’s call to be a force for peace was often left in the dust. As historian Kathleen McVey writes, “Historical study undermines the illusion, perhaps still widespread among Christians, that theirs is a history of peace while others, such as Muslims, have ‘lived by the sword.”[ii]
So what should we do with this imagery? Well, if you’d like to dismiss it, that’s understandable. Perhaps the weight of the misuse of this armor of God imagery and the foreignness of the idea of spiritual forces of evil and cosmic powers may be just too much for you to find blessing and wisdom in.
But as a mother trying to raise children in a world that feels like it’s stacking the cards against them, and as a pastor praying with people who may not use the terms “cosmic powers” or “this present darkness” but describe experiences to me that resonate deeply with those images, and as a human being who at the age of 50 is pretty clear that I can’t make a dent in much of anything that matters without the help of the Spirit – without the wisdom of the Body of Christ (that’s you) and without the inspiration of those who’ve come before me who have lived into the spirit of this imagery to do incredible work for justice and peace – I want to reclaim this imagery.
I want to do so not stubbornly – with a siege mentality, wrapped in a mantel of self-righteousness, unwilling to take in new viewpoints or have my mind changed – but firmly, standing firmly: nurtured in our tradition, in worship, and in community.[iii]
I see this congregation living into the true spirit of this passage all the time. We took up the belt of truth recently, to raise $650 to help rebuild African-American churches destroyed by arson this spring. Wearing the helmet of salvation, we pray each week for churches and dioceses far away, knowing that we are already united with a community in Christ.
And with the sword of the Spirit we open ourselves up to growth and change as a congregation, knowing that while so much of what we have been and who we have been has been beautiful and blessed in its time, the Spirit is still speaking and we need to be open to all sorts of new beauty and blessing God yearns for us to experience.
We do all this as a tiny church with modest resources at a time when it would be easy to believe the forces working against small churches should just cause us to pack up and go home, when few of our neighbors are off to any house of worship on a Sunday morning, and when the “powers and principalities” of this world tell us we shouldn’t be thankful or hopeful or courageous, but resentful, fearful and cautious.
Thanks be to God, who calls us through Christ to a life of hope, and clothes us with the garments and resources we need to live as we are called and to stand firm together.
We sing “Stand Firm” again.
[i] Haruko Nawata Ward, Theological Perspective on Ephesians 6:10-20, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3.
[ii] Kathleen McVey, “What then shall we do? Pacifism, ‘Just War,’ and ‘Holy War’ in Western Christianity,” in Breaking the Silence: Pastoral Approaches for Creating an Ethos of Peace, ed. Chad Abbott and Everett Mitchell.
[iii] See Archie Smith, Jr. “Pastoral Perspective on Ephesians 6:10-12,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3.