Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is described in The New Oxford Annotated Bible as an “ethical exhortation stress[ing] unity in the church, love as an imitation of God and separation from impurity.” The letter was written to a minority Christian community living in a world that was often hostile to it and filled with evil; evil primarily manifested in those who did not like the church in Ephesus because of its Christian faith. Ephesians is in essence a self-help guide on how to survive in such a milieu: It is a primer on how to live the Christian life under assault. If this letter was to be published today and we were to look for it atBarnes and Noble or on Amazon, it would most likely have the title How to be a Christian in an Evil World for Dummies.
This morning, we have heard the well-known concluding passage about putting on the armor of God as the primary way of living a life of faith that is at conflict with evil. “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil . . . fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness . . . 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.”
A quick survey of the exhibits in the Armor Court at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) reveals no pieces of armor called truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, Spirit, or Word of God. Granted, the CMA display is primarily medieval armor and Paul’s reference point is Roman armor, but the Romans likewise did not refer to their armor with any such terms either.
This passage is a metaphor, and putting on the armor of faith, salvation, truth, etc. is a strategy for persons of faith to respond to a hostile world. It is not a tactic for preparing yourself to engage in aggression and violence. The metaphorical pieces of armor that Paul describes are the essential qualities of how to live the Christian faith in trying times.
Jesus wore this armor in his earthly ministry, especially during his passion and crucifixion. This armor, which comes from God, is used to empower believers to withstand the evils that surround and threaten them.
You will recall in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested by the Temple police, and one of his companions draws his sword, strikes the high priest’s slave and cuts off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus says to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26:52-53)
When he was threatened by evil, Jesus could clearly have resorted to the armor of war, raising sword against sword, resulting in an endless cycle of violence and enmity — but he didn’t. Confronted with his arrest, passion and death, Jesus realized how futile that the armor of war and violence ultimately is. Instead, he chose to put on the whole armor of God.
Jesus understood that faithfulness to God and God’s ways is the only armor that will defeat evil — evil manifest in sin and ignorance that reside in the human heart. His witness shows us that those who are beleaguered by evil must dare to trust that they are protected by God's strength and might. Jesus’ witness to this incarnates verse 10 in today’s passage that encourages us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”
Last week Friday, Anthony and I passed through Keene, New Hampshire on our way from Maine to Williamstown, Massachusetts. Keene is the birthplace of civil rights activist, Episcopal seminarian and martyr,Jonathan Myrick Daniels. That Friday happened to be August 14th, the day Daniels is commemorated in the Episcopal Church calendar. Passing through Keene on Daniels’ feast day gave me much to contemplate on during the long drive back to Cleveland.
OnAugust 14, 1965, Daniels and 27 other civil rights activists were arrested for participating in a voter rights demonstration in Fort Deposit, Alabama, and transferred to the county jail in nearby Hayneville. Five protesters were released the next day; Daniels and the remaining 22 agreed that they would not post bail until ALL could post bail. Six days later, on August 20, shortly after being released, Richard Morrisroe, a [Roman] Catholic priest, and Daniels accompanied two black teenagers, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, to a Hayneville store to buy a soda. They were met on the steps by Tom Coleman, a construction worker and part-time deputy sheriff, who was carrying a shotgun. Coleman aimed his gun at sixteen year old Ruby Sales (then a student at the Tuskeegee Institute); Daniels pushed her to the ground in order to protect her, saving her life. The subsequent shotgun blast killed Daniels instantly; Morrisroe was seriously wounded. When he heard of the tragedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels."
In those moments before his death Jonathan Myrick Daniels put on the armor of God. Maybe better put, the armor of God was what he always wore, a product of his deep and abiding faith. It was the fabric of his life. This armor of faith was manifest in his action to protect Ruby Sales and compelled him to step between her and Tom Coleman. I do not believe that he intended to become a martyr in that moment, although based on his faith in Jesus I suspect Daniels knew that for the faithful death is always a possibility, (a fact we see poignantly incarnated in the Middle East today where the dwindling, beleaguered Christian community is daily persecuted and murdered for their faith.)
I believe Jonathan intended to confront the evil emanating in a racist’s heart - and most likely in the hate spewing from his mouth — with righteousness and truth. His sword to combat the armor of evil, embodied in virulent hate armed with a shotgun, was the word of God, not a shotgun and violence. Jonathan Daniels is a poignant witness to what it means to live as a faithful Christian.
Our world still places much of its faith in the armor of aggression, guns, and violence in both word and deed. These evil powers, wily and seductive, run rampant in the hearts of many. They adapt readily, eager to draw believers from the life of faithful love. We see this every day, in:
- ...the racist-driven violence much of America, in places like St Louis, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina.
- ... the political arena where candidates are willing to say anything about other human beings — our fellow children of God — to appeal to the basest feelings and fears of the electorate so to garner votes.
- ... the media, where character assassination, vilification and what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” trump respect, dignity, substance and facts."
- ...religious extremism - and I don’t just mean ISIS and radical Islam. In Israel there has been a disturbing rise of Jewish terrorism against Muslims and Christians.
- ... Christian religious extremism, which has a long, reprehensible history.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Let it suffice to say that the demonic powers described in Ephesians are still active today, seeking to exercise power over humanity to subvert God’s ways. They do this by deluding us to believe that human armor is mightier that God’s armor.
Sometimes the evil powers' sway over the world seems overwhelming to us. We feel helpless and paralyzed, believing we are powerless to counter it. That is exactly what those powers want us to believe. To do so is to be co-opted by them. They win.
Let me quote Paul in his letter to the Romans: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
Our faith tells us that we have protection from those powers. God's armor — God with us — has empowered believers through the millennia (from Jesus to Jonathan Myrick Daniels and countless others), allowing us to see through the lies of evil’s ways and to resist its manipulation.
That is our faith.
That is our strength.
That is our hope.
As Christians, we are called to put on God's armor whenever we encounter those personal and social forces in our lives that resist being transformed by God’s word of love. By putting on the armor of righteousness, truth, salvation, and the Spirit, we bring the Word of God to life and quench the arrows of the evil one. Never forget: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”