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.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Afghanistan is reeling from decades of warfare and American occupation. Palestine is occupied and faces community demolition from the American-backed Israeli military. Protestors in the streets asking for their lives to matter are met with riot gear, tanks, and tear gas. When I think about putting on the armor of Christ, I wonder about my role in warfare and violence. Is Jesus leading us into battle? Are we supposed to be singing “onward Christian soldier” as we violently disrupt other countries or peoples? Whenever I think about the violent imagery of warfare as an example for spirituality and faith it really troubles me.
But since it came up in our lectionary for today’s service, I wanted to give it an honest look. Paul or someone imitating Paul’s writing is sending this letter to the church of Ephesus. Paul is not writing as a conquering champion, a victor at arms, or even a particularly strong person. Instead he is writing as one who has been beaten, embattled, and imprisoned. He is not writing from a place of strength as we might expect or as some interpreters might take this passage. Paul is writing in the same vein as Jesus, one who did not meet violence with violence. One who did not gather armies to take over and force his message of grace upon people. One who chose to die rather than use violence to free himself.
We see people living out similar values today as they are beaten and imprisoned for their beliefs. Protestors have flooded our streets for the last year asking for their lives to matter, asking for justice for murders, asking to be treated fairly. And instead of responding to those calls for justice, the state through the police responded with violence. They brought in tanks and tear gas and riot gear.
In so many ways, this imagery of war and armor that is used by Paul is actually challenging the cultural norms of violence. If we look closely at this armor, it does not seem designed to be offensive. It is to help repel evil when it strikes. It is not used to kill or maim or strike down our enemies. The armor is the language of protection and preparation needed when confronting the evil systems and cultures of our world that seek to hurt and destroy. The armor is faith. The armor is peace. The armor is truth. The armor is righteousness. And the sword, the most violent image in here, is the word of God, which is Jesus. The author of Ephesians is using the normal violent conquering language of warfare and flipping it on its head and taking away its sting. It is turning the proverbial sword into plowshares.
I believe these modern day Paul’s and Jesus’s, i.e. the protestors, can teach us a thing or two about what putting on the armor of Christ really means. Author and Pastor Elle Dowd talks about her experience of the Ferguson Uprisings in 2015 and 2016. When confronted with violence, the protestors put on the helmet of tear gas masks to protect themselves. They came prepared with clothes of righteousness that they could move freely in, in case they were chased and shot with rubber bullets. When confronted with riot police beating them back, they held arms and sang songs of resistance, rooted in the gospel of peace. (Elle Dowd, Baptized in Tear Gas: From White Moderate to Abolitionist. Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021)
This imagery is designed to prepare us and protect us because when we take up this liberative and radical gospel action, when we share the good news by feeding the hungry and housing the unhoused, when we challenge the systems of empire that try and keep people down, when we stand against oppressive systems like white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, we will be in danger. The rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers, and the spiritual forces of death and oppression do not like to be challenged. Wealth and power do not like to be challenged. Jesus knew it. Paul knew it. The protestors in the streets know it. Do we? Does our gospel support overthrowing the oppressive systems in our world or does it uphold them? Are we armed with peace, faith, truth, and righteousness or are we armed with guns and kevlar and police?
The Jesus way that we are called to is not one of war or violence. But it is not passive either. It is bravely standing up for what is right and working with others to create the kingdom of heaven on earth. When we stand up for what is right, when we challenge systems that hurt and oppress, we will face challenge and possible violence. Which is why we need to be prepared. It is why Paul tells us to put on this proverbial armor of faith and peace and truth and righteousness.
What systems of violence do you feel called to stand against? What spiritual powers like scarcity or white supremacy would you like to work to end? And when you are ready to stand with Jesus against these violent systems, prepare yourself. Cover yourself in truth and righteousness. Prepare your heart and mind with faith and peace. Because we know that these systems will not go quietly into the night. But we also know that when we are armed with God’s truth and peace and faith and righteousness that we will be able to withstand anything that comes against us. Amen? Amen.