A Different Kind of Armor

[A sermon preached on Ephesians 6:10-20 and John 6:56-69 at Berwyn Presbyterian Church.]

To be honest with you, I never thought I’d preach on this chapter from Ephesians. Not only is it the chapter where Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters – that alone is enough to make us want to close the book in stunned disbelief – but this morning’s reading is also chocked full of militaristic language, with references to helmets and armor, swords and arrows, enemies, darkness, and evil. Suffice it to say, this isn’t the friendliest passage in the Pauline canon.

As I read about women submitting to their husbands, children minding their parents, slaves obeying their masters, and Christians putting on righteous armor, I’d start to get a little nervous about this seemingly aggressive worldview that Paul outlines toward the end of the letter. This sort of Christian community just didn’t square with the God I’d come to believe in.

The God who I’d come to know and love wasn’t a God of rigid hierarchies and moral battlefields. The God I worshiped talked about an upside-down, topsy-turvy kingdom in which the last are first, our weaknesses disclose God’s strength, and wisdom is revealed in the folly of the cross. I’d heard it called the peaceable kingdom, the beloved community, and I’d come to associate it with the stories of the Civil Rights Movement and the power of nonviolent civil disobedience. In light of the peaceful, justice-seeking God I’d come to know, Paul’s militaristic metaphors just didn’t make any sense to me. My thoughts echoed the exclamation of the disciples in our Gospel reading this morning: “This teaching is difficult! Who can accept it?”

The Kingdom of God is supposed to look different than this, I thought.

  • The prophet Isaiah tells us that in the Kingdom of God, people will transform their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war” (Isa. 2:4).
  • Jesus himself tells the crowds, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9) and he instructs his disciples to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), to love their enemies, and to pray for those who persecute them (Matt. 5:44).
  • Even on the night of his arrest, when he was betrayed into the hands of his adversaries, Jesus told one of his followers to put down his sword (Matt. 26:52). Even in this moment of extreme vulnerability, even when his life was in peril, Jesus chose nonviolence.

So, what gives? Has Paul just completely missed the point here? How are we to make sense of this passage? Why read this letter at all? What on earth could it possibly have to say to us today?

Well, we have to remember Paul’s Greco-Roman context. Paul was familiar with military imagery because Paul’s faith took shape in the context of Roman imperialism. Like many of us, he felt that the ideology of empire posed a threat to Christian faith and practice, and he was deeply concerned about the clash between the authority of Rome and the power of the Gospel.

According to New Testament scholar Warren Carter, “by the first century, an important set of theological ideas was at work that expressed and legitimated Rome’s empire and power.”

The story went like this:

  • The gods have chosen Rome.
  • Rome and its emperor are agents of the gods’ rule, will, and presence among human beings.
  • And Rome manifests the gods’ blessings – security, peace, justice, faithfulness, and fertility – among those that submit to Rome’s rule.

The empire actively promoted these claims and attributed its dominant place in the world to the will of the gods. Carter explains that “These [theological] ideas justified efforts to force people into submission to Rome. They justified the empire’s hierarchical society, the elite’s self-enriching rule, and its privileged existence. They also promoted ‘appropriate’ ways of living for inhabitants of the empire, notably submission and cooperation. To submit to Rome was to submit to the will of the gods.”[1]

The Roman elites, whom Paul refers to as the “rulers and authorities,” or in other translations, the “principalities and powers,” broadcast this theo-political worldview everywhere (Eph. 6:12). Coins, which Carter calls the “handheld billboards of the empire,” proclaimed this message in every marketplace with images of imperial figures alongside those of gods and goddesses. Statues of imperial figures and festivals in honor of military victories all served as propaganda promoting the idea that imperial and military personnel were agents of the gods’ will in a divinely-sanctioned empire.[2]

Rome’s imperial, militaristic claims posed a big problem for the early Christians because the tenets of empire directly conflicted with their understanding of the lordship of Christ. Christians understood only Jesus to be Lord. They believed that only Jesus manifested the kingdom or reign or empire of God. No leader or empire could claim such divine authority. No ruler could exercise greater sovereignty that the one, true King.

This was a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, and a dangerous one at that. No one had to remind the early Christians that ideas like this could get folks killed. Becoming a follower of someone deemed an enemy of the state, someone condemned and executed for blasphemy and sedition isn’t exactly the safest proposition.

But despite these dangers, Paul isn’t an isolationist. He doesn’t urge Christians to remove themselves from their cities or avoid civic affairs. He doesn’t advocate escape from or dismissal of the challenges of empire. That being said, Paul also isn’t a revolutionary or a usurper. He doesn’t urge Christians to employ violent tactics to overthrow the empire. Rather, he helps them negotiate these civic settings and imperial claims so as to remain faithful to God’s purposes for the world.[3] He tells them that they’re to be in the world but not of the world, inhabitants of a particular land, residents of a certain community, but ultimately citizens of God’s Kingdom.

This sort of dual citizenship, Paul explains, is going to require a special skillset. While empires and their armies exert their power and authority through the use of weapons and warfare, God’s covenant community draws upon a different set of tools. Elsewhere Paul writes that God’s power is not made perfect in military strength, but in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). He explains that the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

The tools that God’s people use to establish God’s Kingdom seem ordinary, almost laughable in their apparent ineffectiveness. Truth and peace, faith and righteousness, salvation and Scripture? These are my combat boots? My flak jacket? My semi-automatic assault rifle? Are you kidding me?

Can you imagine how controversial this must have been? Many had hoped that God’s long-awaited Messiah would come with a vengeance to overthrow their Roman oppressors. What a different vision of God’s kingdom this must have been for them! How were these seemingly absurd tools supposed to usher in God’s reign?

I remember feeling this same sort of ineffectiveness when I was a young seminarian doing some of my very first hospital visits. Walking back to the parking garage one evening after a long day visiting patients on my units, I lamented that doctors have medications to prescribe and tests to run, nurses have pain scales to monitor and vitals to check, physical therapists have strengthening and stretching exercises to employ, social workers have community resources to suggest and coping skills to teach – what did I have to offer? A word of comfort? A prayer? My presence? It hardly seemed like enough.

But the longer I do this work the more I come to understand that God uses humble things for transformative purposes. The Kingdom of God is more focused on loving one’s neighbor than demonstrations of imperial grandeur. It’s more concerned about caring for the least of these than bold displays of martial power. It flourishes not because of military might, but because of small acts of faithfulness offered in response to God’s extravagant love.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, puts it a slightly different way. She writes, “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found out that life handed you these rusty, bent, old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do.’ And mostly, against all odds, they do.”[4]

Friends, sometimes this task – this work of living out our faith – seems daunting. It feels like we’re under-resourced and over-worked, with only rusty, bent, old tools at our disposal. But Paul offers us a word of hope, a promise of Good News. God has not left us ill-equipped. In Christ, we have received the power and the strength to stand firm even in the face of great challenges. Through Christ, we serve as ambassadors for a new kind of kingdom, a kingdom whose hallmarks are truth and peace, faith and righteousness, salvation and Scripture. It’s a different kind of armor, and believe it or not, it’s enough. Amen.

[1] Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament, 83.

[2] Ibid, 84.

[3] Ibid, 86.

[4] Lamott, Anne. Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.