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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. – Ephesians 6:10-20
Evil is real. Evil is real, and not just real but personified, in spiritual beings like the devil and demons, and these evil beings, these powers of darkness, are engaged in an ongoing, eternal battle with God and the angels. This was the view of many people in the ancient world of the first century, including those touched by the Greco-Roman understanding of the cosmos. That included many of the Gentile Christians too, and it certainly included the Christians that the Letter to the Ephesians was written to. What we heard this morning was the conclusion of the letter, filled with last-minute words of encouragement to a group of people who needed it. These were Christians trying to live out their faith in a time and place where it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus. They were being persecuted – really persecuted, , in a way that makes some modern-day American Christians’ claims of being persecuted downright laughable. These were people who were punished severely by the Roman army for claiming a loyalty to Christ over the Roman Emperor. And these words were meant to show solidarity with them and to offer them hope and advice regarding how to respond to that persecution.
It’s unfortunate that in the centuries that followed, after Christianity became not just legal but the official religion of the Empire, a lot of people in the church read these words and understood them in a completely different way. Now, they were being read as a justification for Christians to switch from being the oppressed to becoming the oppressor. Now, with the increased status and wealth of the church, and with the self-interests of church and state becoming completely intertwined, it became easy for these words about “rulers and authorities” and “this present darkness” to shift from being about the cosmic, spiritual forces that they originally referred to, to earthly powers and situations. And it became easy to turn this passage about soldiers’ armor into a justification for spreading the faith – or at least, the church – by way of physical force and violence. Anyone who saw the world differently was now seen as part of that “present darkness” that needed to be wiped out, supposedly in the name of God.
Of course, that mindset didn’t die out after the Crusades or the Middle Ages. You don’t have to look very far to find Christians who hold this view even today. If you’ve ever heard of Christians being called “Triumphalists” or “Dominionists,” those are two modern-day variations of this way of reading this passage.
Well, I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any of you for me to say that I don’t think this passage means what they think it means. I’m certainly not the first person to point out that all of this “armor” that’s supposed to protect these Christians is *defensive* in nature, to protect against an aggressor. And according to the passage, what are these pieces of armor? Truth. Righteousness. Peace – peace, of all things! Faith. Salvation. All of these defenses are attitudes and relationships – with God, with one another, and in this passage, especially with those who would oppress us. “Oh, but wait,” someone might say, “there’s a sword in there, too; what about that?” yes, there’s a sword. But what is it? The only supposedly offensive weapon identified is not a physical weapon at all, but rather, the Spirit, the word of God. In other words, our only offensive weapon is to speak the truth – God’s truth – to power. Not to take up arms against it, not to resort to violence against it, not to try to wipe out that power and put our own power in its place. Our most powerful weapon, according to this passage, is to speak God’s truth, and the most effective way to do that is to *live* it – to model Christ in this world, for all to see and hear. That’s our sword.
And we need to keep using that particular kind of “sword,” because whether we believe evil is personified in the form of a being like the devil or not, we can surely all say that evil is real, and we’ve all seen it. We’ve seen it in cultural systems and institutions that dehumanize and perpetuate racism and other forms of social injustice. And we’ve seen it at least momentarily personified, not in spiritual beings but in beings who are all too human, in places like Wounded Knee, and Auschwitz, and Deir Yassin, and Selma, and Oklahoma City, and Sandy Hook, and Charleston, and who knows where next week.
Evil is real. Good is often under attack. But we have to be very careful in how we respond to that evil – first, because it’s all too easy for us to see something, or someone, as evil, when in fact, they’re just different. Second, when we respond to evil by means of physical force and violence, we just end up becoming evil ourselves, perpetrating the same exact kinds of evil acts in return, in retaliation, and often perpetrating them in even greater measure because we have to escalate, up the ante, in order to defeat whoever we’re retaliating against.
No, this passage is clearly no justification for trying to spread the faith through the threat or reality of physical force, as it’s been used in the past. And it doesn’t offer any cover for responding to our enemies with violence. It doesn’t add any qualifiers or conditions to Jesus’ command that we love one another, even our enemies. The Kingdom of God is a game, if you will, that can only be won through “defense-as-offense.” This past week was the 50th anniversary of a major speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Montreat Conference Center in the wake of the Watts Riots. As we all know, most of Dr. King’s successes were accomplished through the philosophy – the theology, actually – of non-violence, peaceful resistance, and defense-as-offense. This method, and this message, was relevant to the Ephesians of the first century, and it was relevant during the civil rights struggle of the ‘60s, and it’s no less relevant as a model for God’s people today. Because today, we continue to fight evil and forces of darkness. Some of these battles are new, and others are frustratingly familiar. But however these battles manifest themselves, this passage from Ephesians still teaches us how to “dress for success:” Having faith, and trusting in God. Working for peace in all things, and in all ways. And using our one and only offensive weapon, speaking God’s truth to unjust power.
I know, It can be so tempting to want to respond in kind when we’re attacked or persecuted. It’s perfectly logical, by all human standards. But it isn’t logical by God’s standards, and it isn’t the way God calls us to respond. It can feel like the right thing, the justifiable thing, the only reasonable thing. It can feel like the right outfit, the right armor, that God would want us to put on, the right way to dress for success when we’re attacked . But in God’s eyes, when we put on that different kind of armor in order to supposedly follow God’s will, it really becomes comes nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes.
Thanks be to God.