When you're a preacher, you never know what in your environment will spark your next idea. With me it is often pop culture, like TV and movies, but sometimes it comes from my various careers, and rarely from my family. For which my family is grateful. Nobody likes embarrassing moments from their childhood used as fodder for a sermon. A few weeks ago, prompted by a slip from our sermon suggestion box, the homily revolved around my work as chaplain at the local jail. It's become the second most popular post on my blog. But today we get a sermon from a prisoner. Paul was writing his letter to the Ephesian church while a prisoner of the Emperor. And for our current passage he probably got his inspiration from something he saw everyday: the armor of the Roman soldier to whom he was chained.
The most anxious time for an inmate, I've found, is the period leading up to one's trial. The next most anxious time is that leading up to one's sentencing. The reason for this is obvious: you don't know how things are going to turn out come those dates. In the first case, you may be acquitted or you may be convicted. In the second, you have been convicted but you don't know the sentence. It could be probation, it could be months in jail or years in prison. One inmate I visit is facing either life in prison or the death penalty.
That was Paul's predicament. Would the Emperor dismiss the charges Paul's enemies made against him? Would he have Paul imprisoned further? Or would he have him executed? We know from Philippians that Paul was prepared to die for the gospel. As he put it, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." But he also realized he would be leaving behind these churches he had planted. He wanted to leave them some last advice and encouragement. And as he dictated the last part of his letter to the church at Ephesus, his eyes lighted on his Roman guard. The man was in state-of-the-art body armor for that time. Paul thought, "I don't want to leave these Christians feeling defenseless." And taking some imagery from Isaiah chapters 11, 52 and 59, plus his guard, he wrote of how God equips his followers to face what threatens their spiritual lives.
"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power." Unlike the world, we are not stuck with whatever personal physical power we happen to have. Our strength comes from our union with God. We derive our power from his boundless might. Whenever we are defeated by the troubles of this world, it is probably because we were trusting in our own strength instead of his. We are not superheroes. But that doesn't mean we are undefended.
"Put on the full armor of God so that your may be able to stand up against the stratagems of the devil." As a geek, I can't think of armor these days without thinking of Batman. The recent movies have transformed his fanciful costume into very cunning body armor, including his cape which allows him to hang-glide. But Batman doesn't rely on any one piece of his arsenal exclusively. Different situations call for different defenses and each of his "wonderful toys," as the Joker calls them, comes into play as needed. Paul, looking at his guard, realized that each piece of his equipment had its function. As Christians, we can't afford to be one-trick ponies. So Paul urges us to arm ourselves with the whole panoply. (That English word comes from the Greek one used here.) Because our adversary will use a range of methods (which derives from the Greek word usually translated "wiles" here) we need to be prepared for all of them.
"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." We cannot emphasize enough that Christians do not physically fight other people. When an ordinary warrior is finished, he hopes to be surrounded by the enemy's dead. At the end of our wrestling with darkness, we hope to be surrounded by former enemies made alive in Christ. As the U.S. has discovered in our two most recent wars, you need to win the hearts and minds of others if you really want to end a conflict. Jesus knew that. That's why he rebuked Peter when he drew his sword to fend off those arresting Jesus. That's why he reattached the severed ear of the man Peter struck. Jesus didn't harm people; he healed them. He knew the battle was spiritual, as Paul tells us here.
How do we protect ourselves against the hateful ideas and the twisted thinking that prevails in this darkened age, against the worship of power and the philosophies that hold sway in this world? Paul once again emphasizes taking 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." Notice that Paul is not emphasizing advancing into enemy territory or any aggressive action. He is concerned that the church not lose ground. We are to resist and withstand the assault of evil. We are to make sure that we are still standing after evil has done its worst. We are to hold our ground, the solid rock of Jesus' words on which wise men build.
"Stand, therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist." We use belts to hold up pants but people didn't wear pants then; they wore tunics. The reason for a belt was to make sure such a loose garment didn't get in the way or get snagged. You don't want to give the enemy anything to grab. It made you more mobile, which, for a soldier, is important. And being girded with truth makes a Christian more nimble. Lies trip people up. They give your enemy something to latch onto. Don't give up the advantage of basing your defense of the faith on truth. Don't use pseudo-science or dubious history or sophistry to defend Jesus. Belts also give you something to hang other things onto, like your sword. Everything should hang on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us.
"…and put on the breastplate of righteousness." Righteousness has gotten a bad name because people confuse it with self-righteousness, an attitude based on justifying yourself. But Christians are justified by God's grace through faith in Jesus, who expects us to be righteous, unimpeachable in our behavior. A lot of high profile Christians have been taken down when it turned out their behavior was anything but righteous. The soldier's breastplate kept his torso and vital organs safe. You could survive superficial wounds, but not a stab to the heart or a gut wound. Righteousness protects your core. So don't give the enemy any ammunition. Don't be a hypocrite. Keep your life clean. Be honest, faithful, trustworthy. Confess your sins to God and ask for his aid in overcoming them, even if it means getting professional help or joining a support group. Protect the vitality of your ministry with righteousness.
"As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace." Once I tried to take my morning walk while still wearing the slip-on sandals I wear at home. They were not designed for a 2-mile hike and my feet made their displeasure known even after I put on my shoes. Bad footwear will hobble you, with blisters or insufficient support. Smart soldiers make sure they have firm yet comfortable boots on, which will not hinder them in doing their duty. Paul probably saw his jailor checking out and repairing his sandals scrupulously. So he translated this into the preparation and readiness a Christians needs if he or she is going to proclaim the gospel. Can she define what she means when she says Jesus is the Christ, God's Messiah? Can he answer the most common objections critics use to discredit Christianity or made it look ridiculous? Can she relate the good news of Jesus to a friend or acquaintance who comes to her seeking a spiritual solution to a personal problem? We need to be ready to present the gospel to those who need the peace it gives. And notice that it is the "gospel of peace." It is about peace with God and peace with other people, not strife.
"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." The Greek word Paul uses for shield is not that of a small round shield, but the 4-foot long rectangular leather-covered wooden shield that Roman soldiers carried. They soaked the leather in water to quench the burning arrows of the enemy. And it worked especially well when in formation. The front-line soldiers would overlap their shields to present the enemy with a solid wall, while the soldiers behind would hold theirs over the head. This turtle-shell of shields made it hard to get Roman soldiers to flee under a barrage of arrows. Just so, a strong faith will protect the Christian from inflammatory attacks by the enemy. It's better to face such fiery rhetoric with a cool calm that comes from a substantial trust in God's love and goodness. And a united front of faith works best.
"Take the helmet of salvation…" Along with your torso, your head is a crucial area to protect. I have probably told you how my father, as part of the Marines' 3rd Division, helped take the island of Bougainville from the Japanese in the 2nd World War. A sniper in a tree fired 2 shots at him. One was stopped by a can of beans in his pack. The other was stopped by his helmet. The other Marines were amazed and told him he should see the impact. My dad, however, wouldn't take his helmet off till nightfall and only when he felt safe did he remove his headgear and pull out the bullet. He kept his head because he kept his head and kept his helmet on it.
A headshot is bad news outside physical warfare as well. So are psy-ops, psychological warfare meant to mess with the minds of enemy soldiers. And it looks like some diabolic mind games have been used to disorient and distract Christians from their primary mission. As medicine is about restoring people to physical health, Christianity is about our salvation by Jesus Christ. If you want to neutralize the church, taking its mind off this, its top priority, is the best way to do it. Like getting Christians to go on crusades over things that are not part of the gospel. The actual Crusades were about taking control of the land where Jesus was born from the Muslims. Not a lot of evangelization took place at that time, except at the point of a sword. Hardly the gospel of peace and not what Jesus meant when he gave us the Great Commission. Jesus wanted us to go out into the world and bring people into the Kingdom of God, not conquer bits of real estate.
In the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, witch trials were the obsession of the church. Today it's evolution, abortion and homosexuality. None of these are things Jesus talked about, nor are they at the center of the gospel. When they dominate our thinking, they crowd out what's essential and distort the way we express the gospel. The message of Christ is about salvation by grace through faith; when we keep that in mind, we approach people differently. They are not seen as enemies of ourselves or of God but as people like us, in need of Christ's love. That helps us stand firm, at our post, rather than deserting on quixotic quests.
Paul next tells us to take up "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." Notice that this is the only offensive weapon Paul mentions. The word he uses is that of the short, 2-foot sword that Roman soldiers carried on their belt. Why does Paul, in this grand metaphor, make Scripture a sword? Not because it is for wounding but, as it says in Hebrews, "the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow." This makes it sound more like a surgeon's scalpel. If our enemies are not flesh and blood but spiritual, then the sword is not to bisect people but to dissect ideas that twist and distort the truth, splitting what is true from the half-truths, errors and outright falsehoods. I recently watched a sensationalistic documentary that, by picking and choosing various verses and presenting them out of context, made Jesus and John the Baptist say things contrary to what they meant. It made them out to be political revolutionaries. On the other hand, a letter to NPR was read on air by hosts of Planet Money correcting their common misquote that "money is the root of all evil." I was glad to hear the correct translation that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils." The sharp distinctions of Scripture's truth were restored.
A study done a few years ago, revealed that most Christians don't know their Bible very well. Much was made about the fact that atheists did better at the quiz. But it turned out that Christians who regularly attended church and read the Bible regularly knew more than either atheists or the average self-identified Christians. Duh! Sadly, most people who call themselves Christians don't make knowing the very book from which they derive their faith a high priority. It's not like this is the Middle Ages, where the general populace can't read, and the only local copy of the Bible is chained to the pulpit of the church! Most churches will give you a free Bible; there are dozens online and there are at least 25 free Bible apps available for smartphones. There are hundreds of translations in English alone. Therefore we must conclude that the only reason more people haven't read the Bible is that they don't want to. Whereas I know several inmates who have read it cover to cover. They realize how vital it is. They are living on the front lines of the battle between good and evil.
So once we are equipped like this, what are our rules of engagement, as one commentator puts it? "Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication." Keep your lines of communications open. Keep connected with command, which in this case is God. And we are to pray in the Spirit. Paul says in Romans 8 that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings." People often tell me, "I want to pray but I don't know how." I give them a simple structure but remind them that they needn't worry about how they say it. God knows what is on their hearts. He is so close to us that he can, like a close friend, complete our sentences for us. The Spirit, who dwells in all who accept Christ, can communicate with our Heavenly Father when words fail us. He knows what we need and will supply us. To that end Paul reminds us to remember the needs and supplications of others when we pray. If you notice that a fellow Christian is missing a piece of his armor, ask God to supply it.
Finally, Paul reminds us to be alert. The word is the same that Jesus used when he told his disciples to keep watch. We need to be awake and aware so that subtle attacks don't get past us or harm a fellow Christian. And we need to be alert for the opportunity to use that readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace. Jesus interrupted a synagogue service to heal a man. He was ever alert for the opportunity to heal, forgive and help anyone who needed it and thus glorify God. Remember our struggle is not against flesh and blood. We are called to eliminate our enemies by loving them and turning them into allies of the Prince of Peace, who shed his blood so we need not shed each other's.