Ephesians 6.10-20 (NRSV)
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.
If we were to ask people who lived in Ephesus to tell us the most powerful things they knew, they might answer, the Roman army or a Roman soldier.
What if this image of the disciple as a soldier wearing armor was inspired by the Roman soldiers who guarded Paul in prison? Maybe Paul looked up, saw a soldier decked out in Roman style armor and it sparked his imagination.
There might be more to it than the power of Roman soldiers … it might point us toward an even greater power. We are told to “put on the full armor of God.” This makes it sound like it is God’s armor. There are passages in Isaiah that talk about God or God’s servant, who Christians have interpreted to be Jesus, dressed in armor, and ready to rescue God’s people.
Listen to Isaiah 11.1-5 (This is one of our familiar Advent readings):
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. [This could be a connection to the sword of the Spirit, “which is the word of God.] Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. [Paul talks about a belt of truth, but, maybe there is a connection here.]
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” [This connects with what we hear about shoes and proclaiming the gospel of peace.]
And finally, Isaiah 59.17, (the context of this passage is that God has sees injustice and is moved to respond):
He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.
The armor metaphors we see in Isaiah remind us how powerful God is and how much God values truth and justice.
Ephesians is kind of like the “Texas-sized” epistle – it is big and it wants us to know it is big!
Ephesians starts out big (read Ephesians 1.5-10);
5God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
And Ephesians ends big (read Ephesians 6.10-12);
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For 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.
Ephesians reminds us God is big and God is doing big stuff in spite of resistance.
Just before we read about the armor of God, Ephesians gets really small. We hear about regular, everyday, relationships – husbands and wives, parents and children, even slaves and masters. These verses challenged the ways relationships typically worked between people in a higher position and people in a lower position. As much as these household codes have been misunderstood and abused in Christians history, as much as I wish this letter would have pushed further, to match the conviction we see in other Pauline writings that “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ,” in their most basic sense they point toward dignity and value for all people. They remind us Christianity is a way of living that is shaped by our understanding and convictions about who God is and how God interacts with people and creation. Ephesians shows us that the gospel breaks down hierarchies and shapes our relationships. Paul is adamant that the way disciples treat each other and how disciples treat their neighbors and communities matters.
God is working to bring all things together in Christ. This is God’s work. At the same time, Paul insists that what we do … how we treat other people matters. As disciples we find ourselves in tension – God has acted and God is acting to bring about his kingdom, this is God’s action, but at the same time what we do matters and can point us toward and allow us to align ourselves with God’s action in Christ.
We hear about violence and war, and pain, greed, we hear about things happening around us that don’t reflect any piece of God’s heart, or any part of God’s desire for the world … all this stuff can seem so big and so far away … and we can feel so powerless … so unable to make a difference.
Maybe this is why this picture of the armor of God is important. It reminds us God is present and at work in the world. It reminds us that God is doing something big (God’s will be done on earth as in heaven) … it encourages us to live faithfully, to stand even when things seem like they are falling apart … there is life changing and world shaping power in faithful discipleship. This picture of the armor of God reminds us there is power in faithful living.
This isn’t fear and intimidation power. This is the power of goodness and love – truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, God’s word. There is power in these things!
In his book, “Life with God,” Richard Foster tells a story about John Woolman, an American tradesman and Quaker preacher, who lived from 1720 to 1772. Here is the story:
Raised on a farm in a modest Jersey village, Woolman had an unusually sensitive spirit early in life, keenly attuned to the rhythms of the Divine Spirit … So perhaps it was no surprise that in his itinerant Quaker ministry, he became a gracious yet tireless and uncompromising advocate for concerns such as the abolition of slavery, just relations with Native Americans, an end to taxation in support of war, and refusal to benefit from consumer goods produced by slave labor and unjust trade practices … Woolman’s convictions about the evils of slavery grew over time, as again and again he was “afflicted in mind” by this debasing treatment of fellow human beings. … One November evening in 1758, [John was] hosted in the home of Thomas Woodward after preaching powerfully against slavery at a Quaker meeting … Woolman has earned a reputation as a gracious man, not given to sharing his opinions unless he [felt] divinely compelled to do so. And when he [did] speak, it [was] always quietly and respectfully, never confrontationally. Because of his humble and loving manner, he [exerted] an unusually powerful influence upon others.
When John [entered] the Woodward home, undoubtedly tired and hungry, he [noticed] servants and [inquired] as to their status. When he [learned] they [were] slaves, he [didn’t] say a word. Later that night, however, he quietly [got] out of bed, [wrote] a note to his host explaining why he [could not] receive their hospitality, [went] to the slaves’ quarters and [paid] them for the day’s service, and [walked] out into the night. His silent testimony [pierced] conventional attitudes and behavior like a carefully aimed arrow of the Spirit. When the household [stirred] to life the following morning, Thomas Woodward—over his wife’s vehement protests—[set] free all his slaves. (Foster, “Life With God,” pp. 149-151)
John Woolman’s faithfulness wasn’t overbearing … it was quiet and kind … but it was powerful. It didn’t immediately change laws, but it changed Thomas Woodward and the lives of a houseful of slaves. There was power in his faithful living.
God is up to something big. God is bringing all things together in Christ. The good news is that the struggle, the conflict, is not yours alone … In Christ, God’s will will be done … we can trust God for that … yet, what you do in faithfulness makes a difference … there is power in faithful living!