Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour 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 armour 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.
Where Did You Get Your Armor? Ephesians 6:10-20
With the exception of last week's excursion to a feast with God's Wisdom, a feast that we find in the book of Proverbs, we've been spending a lot of time with the book of Ephesians lately. The three-year cycle of Scripture readings has given us a great opportunity to delve into a close reading of this letter over the last several weeks. Through these several weeks of study, I have shared with you what I think is a portrait of a biblical writer who is trying to help his beloved church community work through some significant ethnic conflict and social changes. This book has some beautiful language around how Christ offers grace to all people and breaks down the walls between ethnic groups, walls that prevented them from truly living out the Gospel together. This author assured this church, and maybe other churches who would receive this letter, that through Christ, Jew and Gentile were no longer strangers but friends who served together to form the body of Christ.
This author assured the followers of Christ that Christ had indeed equipped them to be one church together, and had given them a model through his own life and ministry of how to live out the Gospel. He assured them that unity is possible, but must be pursued through love and with an understanding that people bring different gifts to the table. He said to speak the truth in love, even in you're angry. Just don't let that anger consume and destroy you. Do the good and work to imitate God by living in love, just as Christ did. I think these sections of the book are so life-giving and can speak so clearly to some of the issues that are important in our contemporary culture. As I watch the news and read social media, I can't help but remember these words: Speak the truth in love... Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger... Do the Good... be imitators of God... You are no longer strangers, but friends. I hear these words and they inspire me to continue to work to do the Gospel, even as I see the division and malice that has so thoroughly infected our public discourse. It also kind of helps me to be reminded that division is not a new thing, and that Christians have been working through Christ against it for a very, very long time.
This author even gave some very specific instructions to different classes of people, instruction was intended to help them live a more Christ-centered life. As I said in the first sermon I shared about Ephesians, I am troubled by this part of the letter. This advice, found in chapter 5 and part of chapter 6 and known collectively as an example of a Household Code, is firmly rooted in inherently unequal relationships between spouses and also never questions the righteousness of the practice of slavery. So many of our current injustices have roots in the unquestioned abuse of these passages and other household codes. We cannot read Ephesians without acknowledging that these ideas are problematic, even as we hold up other portions of the book as beautiful examples of the ways that Christ brings about positive changes in our lives. We do best when remember that we are glimpsing the author of Ephesians as he is being changed through Christ. Even though he has worked through some of the issues he learned through his culture, we can recognize that others kinds of divisions, divisions that surely run counter to the Gospel, are simply not on his radar. The thing is, that's part of my story, too, even though I don't really like to admit it and it might be part of why I have so much trouble with this part of the book. I'd much rather have a perfect writer and be pretty close to perfect myself. I have neither of those things. Recognizing that I still have unexamined parts of my life keeps me going down this Gospel road, too.
And, finally, today, we've come to the end of the letter, the part where the writer wants to make sure that the people know why this whole Gospel project matters. This is his last opportunity to inspire the people he's writing to. And, what does he say? Stand fast. Put on the whole armor of the God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Yes, he talks about the devil. This writer believes that the forces that could destroy the church and keep the Gospel from coming to fruition are not merely flesh and blood enemies, but are instead wholes forces beyond what we can directly observe or control. The scope of the Gospel project is not small or simple. The Gospel is grandiose and complex, measured in cosmic proportions through forces that are better felt than seen. Because we are straining not against other people who we may be able to overpower by sheer human will, but within spiritual systems and forces, we can't do this alone. We must come prepared. This author even says that we need to prepare as though it were for battle.
Now, just as I have misgivings about the Household Code section of the letter, I worry a little about describing spiritual development as in any way similar to war. Too often, the language of God and faith have been co-opted to justify horrific wars and terrible acts against our neighbors. Christians are just as guilty of this as anyone else. When I come to passages that use militant metaphors, I worry that these passages can slip too easily that problematic territory where people end up saying, "God told me to go to war and destroy you." As I researched my sermon this week, I was reminded something important by several different scholars. When this author uses militant imagery to describe a life of faith, his audience is not a large and powerful army who he trying to inspire to destroy the flesh and blood enemies they face. He's not even talking to a single, individual soldier who he wants to help do his job better. He is talking to a small minority group, a group of people from mixed ethnic groups and different social classes, who are finding themselves at odds with the dominant culture. He's talking to people who don't have much power. He's talking to people who've experienced Rome's violent take-over of the whole Mediterranean. He's talking to people who live under the thumb of an empire who's leader believes himself to be a god. He is not speaking to the people who do the destroying. He's speaking to the people who could easily be destroyed... wiped off the planet by Rome's power. He's talking to people who could use a little armor.
As I've talked about before, while Rome did not necessarily prevent people from practicing their native religions, Rome did reserve the right to decide what gods were legitimately worthy of worship. All religions had to be approved by the State. And, the State religion, which was worship of the Caesar, held supremacy over them all. This was a system, a force larger than any one person could battle themselves, that shaped the life of every single person in it. This was a system built on intimidation and violence, very much unlike the ideal of unification in love through difference as described by this author. It is completely possible that for the Christians to whom this letter was addressed found themselves at odds with their neighbors, their family, their city, and their nation simply by virtue of their faith in Christ. Christ called them to love, not dominance. Christ called them to peace not fear, and to anger that does not destroy the downtrodden. How could they not have found themselves at odds with the Empire? How could they not have felt that they were resisting the evil forces of the entire cosmos?
And, yet, here they are... imitators of God called to be strong in the Lord and called to be steadfast... to hold their ground. Several scholars that I read pointed out that most of this armor is intended for defensive purposes. There is a belt that would hold your garments in place and keep you from tripping over the fabric. There is a breastplate that guards your heart and shoes that protect you from the things that make you stumble. There is a shield that protects you from assaults from high places, and a helmet, so you can keep your head in one piece. Truth, righteousness, willingness to share the Gospel, faith, and salvation that is a gift from God, gift that you can use to defend yourself from the powers that want to destroy you. All of these things will surround you and protect you and help you to stand fast. For these people, who have seen the power of the Roman legions, who had seen the soldiers advance on forces wholly unprepared for their power, forces who would quickly be pushed by, what a powerful image this must have been. Imagine having enough armor to stand fast... to withstand all that the powers and principalities had to throw at them. Take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, stand firm.
It is also worth noting that there is only one offensive weapon. It is called the Sword of the Spirit, that is the word of God. And, yet, even the offensive weapon is not for destruction. Remember, when this author told us to use our words, our words are to be filled with love. And, this love is the connective tissue that binds together the body of Christ. Let us not forget that Christ himself has been called the Word of God. The Word is essentially a creative force, like Wisdom that we learned about last week in Proverbs. The Word brings light and life, not death and darkness. When these people imitated God, imitated the Word, imitated Christ, they did what Christ did. They created what one scholar called a "considered, corporate resistance to evil." I think that's what we're still called to do today. We're still asked to make use of this holy armor and stand fast in the promise of God's unity and grace. We pull on those holy shoes and helmet every time we work to live life anew through Christ. And, we keep praying. Because this whole body of Christ is not complete yet. But we've been assured that we will be provided with the strength to stand firm during all the construction. This armor will not fail us. Our shields will help protect us and our neighbors. And, our friends, the other members of the body, will stand fast. Let us hold this line together.
Resources Pastor Chrissy used in writing this sermon
Sarah Henrich's commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2600
Melinda Quivick's commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1380
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.