We knew when we started Ephesians that it was only going to be 4 weeks and even if we did a whole chapter at a time… we were going to miss some things. We strategically dodged the 5th Chapter of this letter: and its interpretation issues and landed right into a war metaphor. And I know, the armor of God is a favorite set of verses, it’s hard to spend your whole adult life with a nation at war, albeit often ignored, and to watch military forces be unleashed on protesters–around the world, and to have culture wars used by Christians and then have it turn into actual violence against medical professionals or people of different faiths or or.. and then remember it’s happened throughout time… it’s hard to land here.
I do want to give a passing comment to what you would find at the end of chapter 5 before we move on from this letter for a long while: In chapter 5 and the start of 6 we have the household codes–how to live as followers of Christ in a way that exemplifies the being followers of Christ. Some might suggest that these are the codes for Christian living throughout all of time and in every place! It is in these verses that we find the letter writer telling women, children, and slaves to submit to their husbands/fathers/masters, which, I’m pretty certain doesn’t sound like Jesus and certainly doesn’t sound like authentic Paul in Galatians where he says there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but we are made a new creation in Christ. So why?
A couple of things–1:Letters respond to the world around them, when they were written, in a time and place. They were responding to Roman household codes where women, children, and slaves were all property and didn’t even have the consideration of having free will, choice, the ability to make a decision. 2: The letter offers a shift by addressing women, children, and slaves as if they are capable of choice, as if they matter, and names them as part of the body of Christ, alongside the men. 3: The men in these discussions are called to love their wives, agape love, a sacrificial love, a kind of relationship that wasn’t expected from the Roman household codes. 4: They seem to be nudging a change in society, slowly, a little at a time, toward the egalitarian kin-dom that Jesus was calling them to.
Which is part of what makes dropping into war metaphors a little jarring, and makes a lot of sense. Suiting up in military wear doesn’t seem like nudging change. But, it is what they were seeing in the world around them. Rome was the power, was the force, had just destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. When Paul, or the letter writer in Paul’s name, write about powers and principalities, rulers and authorities, they are often talking about Rome, the Caesar, the military, and their system of Pax Romana–peace by the might of the blade. In the ancient world, there was this understanding that political leaders were anointed by God and if they weren’t unjust, they were defying the God who placed them on their throne. These were wrapped up together and, sometimes remains so today. So, the kings of Israel past that defied the call of God, that failed to care for the vulnerable or worshiped other God were called evil.
For the letter writer, there were systems in place, there was a power structure in place, there was a might in place that was opposed to the full humanity of the people forced to live beneath it.
We are a tradition that takes the Bible seriously, but not literally, and we do that because we believe that there are truths found within the stories and the writing. The first truth is that systems, powers, principalities, authorities didn’t go away with Rome. There are systems and powers and principalities and authorities that are filled with evil and their purpose is to keep creation from living into the full and abundant living that God intends for all. It’s throughout history, even recent-ish history: it’s Racism–redlining, tearing down black neighborhoods for a highway, Jim Crow laws, and longer prison sentences for blacks than for their white counterparts for the same crime; it’s homophobia and transphobia the criminalization of LGBT people–their bars, their homes, their sports; it’s sexism that doesn’t believe women when they speak of assault, ridicules them they make decisions their health, being over-sexualized–at young ages and then shamed for it’ it’s denying resources, denying one’s full humanity.
It’s not about people, it’s about systems, about the fear that sets at the heart of all it–fear of losing, missing out, of scarcity of resources or power or love.
In response, we put on the Armor of God.
The belt was to keep the clothing close. It would allow you to be agile, moveable, allow change and growth and adjustments. The belt was a sign of rank and office and statue. Isaiah 11:5 “Righteousness shall be the belt around the Messiah’s waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” The belt is a mark of the Messiah who defended the poor, meek, and vulnerable; who brought justice. That is the truth of the God who came to earth to live among, who lived and taught and revealed Godself as love. By putting on that belt, you carry that truth with you, it marks yours your office as one who is of the work of the Messiah–defend the poor, meek, and vulnerable.
The Breastplate protects the front–the vital organs, the heart, the gut. It is righteousness, it is the new creation that we have been made into, that we are called to be a part of, the new humanity that is the work and the world of the Messiah.
The Shoes are not to be forgotten because who of us hasn’t gone for a walk or a hike only to realize what you thought were great shoes for your adventure are not? Or, you meet a friend after work at their house and they say, let’s just walk over the restaurant, it’s not far; and you’re still in your work shoes and she gets lost and it’s 3 miles later and you fear you might never walk again, but you’ll still have to walk back her house! hypothetically speaking.
The prophet Isaiah wrote: “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’” Isa. 52:7. This is what we bring: reconciliation, peace with justice and compassion, peace that asks for forgiveness and offers forgiveness, that seek restoration and new life. That which carries you through the world is God’s peace.
The most well known shield of the Roman empire is the large one, that covers the whole person and if you line up, it creates a solid barrier–they are designed for community. It is our faith. It unites us with each other, with all Christians throughout time, with Christ–with the death and resurrection that brings new life out of what was past.
The helmet protects the head but it really projected power, it made a statement. It is salvation, it’s liberation. It is our being saved from what is trying to bring us down, keep us believing we aren’t enough, we aren’t worthy, that we are our worst mistakes. We are set free. But it’s not ours alone, we offer liberation–freedom from captivity, advocating, standing up for others to participate in abundant and whole and holy living.
The Sword is the hard one. It’s the piece of the armor that can hurt another. But the letter writer calls it the sword of the spirit, the word of God. Our offensive weapon is Spirit and language. God’s words called to Elijah in his sleep to set him on a mission as a prophet to the powerful, proclaiming to them God’s words of justice, liberation, compassion–looking out for the vulnerable. God’s words call creation into existence–rivers and stars, land and birds, crawling creatures and human creatures. God’s word lived among us, taught us about love and justice and compassion and new life. This is the world of God still speaking through those who are speaking truth and justice, peace and faith, love and liberation.
So we put on the whole armor of God, not because we are going into battle, not because we are going on the aggressive, but because, as the letter writer seems to understand, changing a tide, a culture is hard. It requires preparation; the ability to move, change be agile and adjust; and openness to all the possibilities of new creation; a good foundation for this is ministry of kin-dom building is a marathon; a community–we are not alone, we need not be alone, we are better when we are in this together; the promise of liberation, knowledge of who is still held captive, the belief we can be part of abundant living; and the word of God, who set the captives free, recovery of health to those who were sick, food for those who were hungry, clothing for those without, that the time had come for life and life abundant for all of God’s good creation; and we are called to be part of it. Clothed, given everything we need.
So put on the whole armor of God, our struggles are against these forces that keep us from God, that keep us down, that keep us separated from other people, from the God creation that God has made, that keep us and others from abundant living and beloved community. We put on the armor of God for ourselves and for others, for new creation and new life, for the kin-dom of God on earth.