Proper 16, Year B
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
The letter to the Ephesians is written in the midst of captivity by the Romans. Times are tough for new Christians, who are being persecuted by their captors for their faith. Did you notice that the armor described in the passage is the same armor a Roman soldier would wear: belt, breastplate, shield, helmet, and sword? The author is encouraging new Christians, both Jew and Gentile, to work toward unity and not to let their differences get in the way. They are already being oppressed by the ruling government; why add to their difficulties by arguing and hurting each other?
The portrayal of Christians preparing for battle and the metaphor of spiritual forces of evil might seem outdated or antiquated. Just listen to the descriptions from the passage: The “wiles of the devil,” “cosmic powers of darkness,” “flaming arrows of the evil one.” It sounds like we have moved from the image of a man in a red jumpsuit and pitchfork to a description of a Star Wars villain. But regardless of what mental pictures these descriptions evoke, the idea of evil personified probably doesn’t enter our minds too often. “That’s old stuff. Fairy tales. It’s not relevant for us today,” we might think.
And yet, there are countless examples throughout history of unexplained hatred and evil. Think of Hitler and the NAZIs. Of slavery, both in the past as well as today. Of bullying, racism, apartheid, genocide. And it doesn’t stop there. Evil is not just found in foreign countries or in the past; we don’t have to look far to see evidence of it in this country today. Remember the shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and recently Omaha? It’s in our backyard. These instances of evil are so much bigger than just one person. There’s something else at work here. We are dealing with spiritual forces of evil.
Before we get too discouraged, keep in mind that the letter gives us armor, ways to cope with the evil surrounding us. The first item is a belt made of truth. Truth is more than just not lying. Truth brings a sense of trust, of safety, but it also challenges people to speak up when they know that the truth has been altered or broken. Then there’s the capital ‘t’ Truth. We know that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Every Sunday we acknowledge that Jesus, True God from True God (Nicene Creed), came down from heaven to be with us and to show us how much God loves us. It is this Truth that, like a belt, holds everything together.
Next is a breastplate made of righteousness. As the name indicates, a breastplate covers the heart and internal organs. Righteousness means rightness with God, living a morally upright life. When we stand up for what is right and just, we strengthen our hearts. It doesn’t meant that our hearts can’t get broken, but it will deepen our relationship with Christ and one another.
“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” With the passage’s imagery of spiritual warfare, what first comes to my mind is a picture of combat boots: tough, durable, with full protection. But spiritual warfare is juxtaposed with a gospel of peace. Jesus and his followers (as well as the Romans) wear sandals. They provide some form of protection, but they do not fully cover; your feet still get dirty. Think of how many miles Jesus and his disciples walk on dusty roads. To think of all those dirty feet makes Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet all the more meaningful. This is the gospel of peace the author is talking about.
Next up is a shield of faith. I don’t know about you, but faith doesn’t always come easily to me. As soon as I think I have everything figured out, something happens that throws it all up in the air and makes me question, makes me doubt. But, as former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, once said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Think about that for a minute: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” When we are certain about everything, when we know all the answers, then we have no need of God. Faith is trusting that in the midst of fear, joy, pain, and love, God is right there, mourning and celebrating with us. Faith is trusting that despite our doubts and fears and uncertainty, God’s love for us is unchanging. Faith is trusting that the God who “stretched out...arms of love on the hard wood of the cross” (BCP*, 101) will not abandon us in times of spiritual darkness.
Now we come to the helmet of salvation. What covers our head is the knowledge of God’s saving grace. We live in a world of already/not-yet. We know that God has already won the war against the forces of evil. Yet, we also know that we have a few more battles to face. Knowing that God has already won can give us the strength to endure trying times.
The final piece of armor is the sword of the Spirit. Did you notice that this is the only offensive equipment mentioned? Every other one is meant to protect and preserve, but a sword is a weapon; it is meant to strike. But this weapon is not what we would expect. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God, what we listen to every Sunday. In the ordination service for deacons, priests, and bishops, the ordinand must declare that the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God, “contain all things necessary for salvation” (BCP, 513, 526, 538). Yes, a lot of time has passed since the Bible was put together, but the Word of God is not dead, it is very much alive! Every Sunday we stand up here and try to show you how we can still relate to the Word of God today. In studying the Scriptures we learn more about God, ourselves, and our relationship with God. We learn ways to deal with whatever is thrown our way, good or evil.
We’ve come to the end of the armor, but our list of tools is not yet complete; the most important thing any of us can do is pray. Our catechism defines prayer as “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words” (BCP, 856). Prayer is not just kneeling at the foot of your bed; it can take many forms: squeezing a loved one’s hand when they are in the hospital, thinking of a good friend you haven’t seen in a while, taking a moment to look around the faces at the dinner table and thank God for the people in your life. And each week we come together as a community of prayer, “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven” (BCP, 362). We come from many walks of life and have different opinions, experiences, and goals. Sometimes we can let our differences prevent us from seeing Christ in each other. The letter to the Ephesians encourages us to pray for and with one other, recognizing that we have so much to learn from each other. Each one of us has a unique way of looking at the world and relating to God, but we all come here to be spiritually nourished. Life can sometimes feel too difficult, like there is just too much darkness to face, but we know that we are not alone. The Holy Spirit is right there with us, guiding us, inspiring us, strengthening us. Joining together and praying in the Spirit, we can "declare...boldly"(Ephesians 6:20) that even in the darkest times there is absolutely nothing we can’t face.
Obi-Wan faces Darth Vader (Star Wars)
*For those who are not Episcopalians, BCP is our Book of Common Prayer.