Monday, August 27, 2012

The Whole Armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-20
August 26, 2012

            When I was a little girl in Sunday School we would often sing that old favorite hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers. 
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!
Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.
            We sang it with gusto.  I think our teachers would even have us march while we sang, so we really got into the spirit of the song.  I loved it as a child.  It was fun to sing, fast-paced and any song that a teacher would actually let us march around to was a hit in my book.  But as I grew older, I grew uncomfortable with the imagery that the hymn conveyed.  I’m uneasy, to say the least, with the war and battle pictures that the hymn paints.
            I’m not the only one.  This is one hymn that is not found in our blue hymnal.  It won’t be featured in the new hymnal that will be coming out next year either.  Our denomination isn’t the only one that’s let this hymn go.  The United Church of Christ has a hymn that uses the same tune as Onward Christian Soldiers, but not Onward Christian Soldiers itself.  I’m not sure about the hymnals in other denominations such as the Lutherans and the Episcopalians, but I do know that this is a hymn that has fallen out of favor.
            Yet the sentiments of Onward Christian Soldiers have been around for a long time.  My parents and their siblings tell stories of their childhoods, and how they were encouraged to consider themselves as soldiers for Jesus and warriors of the cross. 
            But those images of Christianity don’t fly so well anymore.  Too many bloody crusades in God’s name – including the actual crusades – have caused so much destruction throughout the world that it is understandable that a hymn like Onward Christian Soldiers would be rejected. 
            The word that my dad used when he spoke about being a Soldier for Jesus was conquered.  The world was to be conquered for Christ.  And I think it’s the idea of conquering that sticks in my throat.  To me it implies oppressor and oppressed, victor and defeated. 
            This is the essential problem for me when I read these words from Ephesians.  To my understanding this militant, warlike language has been used as a justification for a mindset that has done incredible harm in our missions, in our relations to other faith groups, and with other Christians. 
            I think of James Michener’s novel, Hawaii, and the attitudes the first missionaries brought with them to the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands.  Those missionaries wanted to conquer the people of Hawaii for Christ.  They had to be conquered in their thinking, their beliefs, their practices, their cultural ways.  In every aspect of their lives, they were to be conquered so that Christ could reign.  It wasn’t pretty. 
            But I realize that to see these verses from Ephesians only through my particular cultural and contextual bias does not do justice or give the full picture of  what the author wanted them to convey.  This is not where the story of these verses in Ephesians ends. 
Most likely the letter that we read as being addressed to the church in Ephesus was actually an encyclical.  This meant that Paul wrote it to be read at a variety of churches in different places.  I assume from this that each church hearing these words was facing the similar struggle of being believers in a world that was hostile to them. 
            I can imagine that being a follower of Jesus in that time and context must have felt like living in a war zone.  Your beliefs would be considered anti-government, anti-empire, anti-social norms, anti-everything.  Just professing your faith would have set you up for persecution.  I suspect that being a follower was to be embattled.  So Paul uses this.  He uses imagery and ideas that would have meant something to a people being constantly battered for their faith. 
And as Paul often does in his rhetoric, he uses an idea, and then redefines it.  This is clearly evident in this passage.  He redefines the uniform of a Roman soldier.  It would have been a familiar sight to the common folk at that time.  As I learned from Glenn Sanders this week, the Roman soldier was as much a police officer, as he was a member of the armed forces.  So as we see police officers and police cars on a regular basis, doing their job at keeping order, the people of Ephesus and in other places would have seen Roman soldiers.  The uniform of a Roman soldier was well known.
But instead of a belt that would be used to secure a uniform of war, this belt that believers are encouraged to put on is the belt of truth.  The breastplate, that metal piece which would have covered a soldier’s toga protecting the chest, is the breastplate of righteousness.  Shoes would have been worn for protection as the soldiers marched.  Paul doesn’t describe what the shoes should look like, only that whatever shoes are worn they should make the follower “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  The shield a soldier carried, as I understand it, would have covered not only the soldier carrying it, but about 2/3’s of the soldier next to him.  Think of pictures you’ve seen of riot police and the shields they carry when they’re facing a hostile situation.  The believer also must carry a shield, but this shield will be the shield of faith.  The helmet, the head covering, will be the helmet of salvation.  And the one weapon the soldier of God is to carry is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
And all of this is carried, all of this is used, not to defeat people, “enemies of blood and flesh,” but to stand firm “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” 
If the kingdom is in our midst, right now, right here, then there are also forces of evil working against it.  Those of us who believe, who have felt the power of Christ, have to fight against those forces that threaten the kingdom.  Paul puts it on a cosmic scale.  This isn’t about neighbors who don’t like us or governments who want to shut us down.  This is about the evil one who wants to infiltrate and destroy God’s goodness.  The evil one may be working through the neighbors and the governments, the hate groups, the factions and radical splinter groups, but it is a cosmic battle just the same. 
I think that there is a lot of evidence in the world to see this as true.  You can’t watch the news or read the paper or surf the net and not see indications of the prevalence of evil.  But you know, I think the real battle that is being fought is within.  Within me.  When the shooting happened in the theater in Aurora, Colorado, I was as devastated by this as anyone.  It was all over the news, all over social media.  People were praying and grieving and shocked and disheartened. 
Then the terrible shooting happened at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  It was horrible.  People were shocked and appalled.  I was too.  But it seemed like my response, my shock, my horror was a little dimmed.  It was one more act of violence and hatred. 
Then just a couple of days ago, a shooting happened outside the Empire State Building.  I was still shocked and saddened and horrified, but it seemed as if all of my responses were muted.  Another shooting.  Another round of unceasing violence.  I’m weary of shootings.  I’m weary of violence.  I’m weary of people thinking the only response is to pick up a gun and take your grievance out through a bullet.  But what can I do?  What can any of us do?
Seems to me that’s the real battle that needs to be fought.  That attitude of feeling powerless, of feeling useless.  What can I do?  Nothing?  Oh well.  That’s the evil one infiltrating my mind and my heart and my soul.  Yet that goes against what Paul is encouraging the church in Ephesus and so many other churches to think.  In all of the pieces of armor that Paul describes there’s no wristlet of apathy, no amulet of indifference.  They have no place in the whole armor of God.
If we’re really going to take this passage from Ephesians seriously, and put on the whole armor of God. If we’re going to see ourselves as fighting a spiritual battle and being the warriors for the peace of God, then we can’t just throw up our hands at one more shooting and say, “This is terrible but what can anyone do?  The world is going to hell in a handbasket.  But I don’t see how it’s going to change anytime soon.”  I’ve heard these words from others.  I’ve spoken them myself.  I’ve claimed defeat before I’ve even gone to war. 
It’s easy, too easy, to stop caring, to become numb to the evil in the world, to become immune to the powers and principalities that work to destroy God’s kingdom in our presence.  And when I take that easy way, I think that evil wins just a little more ground.  The real battle is not letting that happen. 
When I think of the whole armor of God I think of civil rights protestors facing guns and dogs and high powered hoses with nothing more than their faith and the hymns they refused to stop singing. 
I think of relief workers who drop everything in their own lives and show up at a disaster scene offering assistance and comfort.  Their lives are as much at risk as they ones they seek to help, but they wear no protection other than their faith.
I think of the people everywhere, everyday, who refuse to stop hoping.  It’s not just about optimism that everything is going to be nifty.  It’s about being hopeful even when the worst happens, because they believe that in the beginning and in the end, and in all the good and bad in between there is God.  That’s why they hope.  That’s what makes all the difference. 
All of these people, and so many more, wear the whole armor of God.  They step into the world, ready to do battle, not with guns or bullets, but with love, with peace, with truth, with righteousness, with faith.  They are armed with their hope.  They are armed with their trust.  And they do indeed conquer.  They conquer their own fear, and trust that God and the kingdom reign.  So let us do the kind of battle Paul wrote of.  Let us march into a broken world bringing the love of God, the peace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Believe me, I never thought I'd say this, onward Christian soldiers.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

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