We come to the end of our look at the book of Ephesians with this well known metaphor of putting on “the full armor of God.”
Somehow this image “rings” with us.
Maybe you, (like me) remember a Sunday School lesson where the craft activity was a cut out paper doll and we got to put the “armor” on the Christian.
Here is the Belt of Truth.
The Breastplate of Righteousness.
The Shoes of Peace.
The Shield of Faith.
The Helmet of Salvation.
And lastly, (but by no means least!) tentatively picking up that Sword of the Spirit and being reminded that it is the only offensive weapon here, and it is under God’s control. The Spirit is given at God’s direction, and Jesus’ promise. You can’t take that weapon up on your own, it comes to you at the right time and at the right moment when it is needed.
I remember looking at my outfitted little Christian paper doll warrior and thinking how good it would be to be outfitted like that, shielded and protected from all the threats of the world.
I looked at that, and wonder why I can’t feel that way.
“Armor of God? What armor?”
I confess that all too often in the midst of this world I feel exposed, unprotected and far too weak to face what life throws at me.
How about you?
As it turns out, the problem is how little I knew about battle, or armor, or the true nature of the strength that the author of Ephesians understood and to which the author referred.
You see, when I think of the “Armor of God” I think of the individual, all decked out, and ready to tackle anything all on their own, equipped by God for the battle. I picture a solitary person in their suit of armor ready to stand the assault.
I’ve watched one too many old “sword and sorcery” B grade movies, where the knight in the shining armor is protected from all harm.
I’ve seen too many “RoboCop” reruns. I look at this metaphor and think that the suit is meant to make you invincible.
I’ve seen too many “Marvel” movies, where “Iron Man” suits up and withstands whatever the bad guys throw at him.
But for the author of Ephesians, this metaphor had a very different meaning. One that was consistent with what he has been talking about all along, which is the importance of the community.
“For OUR struggle…. The author says.
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of this present darkness…”
The person writing this would have known, (and would assume that we know) that the strength of the metaphor is found not in the individual “suiting up” but rather in the community “suiting up and standing together.”
The strength of the Roman Army was not found in the individual. It was rather found in the formation, and in the connections of citizen soldiers who stood side by side and in formation.
The Phalanx of the Greek and Macedonian armies (from which the Romans took their initial tactics) were close knit interwoven armored warriors. It wasn’t your suit of armor that you trusted in, or that made you powerful, it was your neighbor’s armor, and how those who stood with you suited up and made ready for battle.
It was how you stood and worked together.
Your shield was of limited use by itself, but linked together with that of your neighbor, it offered protection that was multiplied and formidable against outside attacks.
When the author talks about taking up the “Shield of faith,” it isn’t your stand-alone faith that is important. It is the “faith” of your neighbor and how it is joined to yours, and how yours is interlocked with those around you — that is its strength!
This is what quenches the flaming arrows that are thrown your way, the shield of faith as it is connected to the faith of one another.
It wasn’t the Helmet of your personal salvation that gave you any kind of assurance.
You can’t see your own helmet after all, it was rather your neighbor’s helmet that gave you confidence. They had their brain bucket on, which in turn reminded you that your own head was protected, your own Salvation is external to yourself.
“The breastplate of righteousness” is not about basking in your own self-righteousness. It is rather depending upon the righteous actions of your fellow members of the Body of Christ.
My own “righteousness” is of little value, but when you, –and you, — and you, –and you act in a righteous and forthright manner, when you attend to being just and honorable and stand with me, then we are all strengthened with mutual trust in one another to withstand the lies and false dealings of this present age.
My righteousness is nothing if it is not accompanied by others who are trustworthy and who act in a forthright manner. When that happens then all the powers and principalities out there who seek to do us wrong or to take advantage of us have no opportunity to do so.
I depend upon the righteous activity of those around me, and together we move as one against the threats that are much bigger than any one of us.
We get this illustration, this metaphor all wrong if we think of it as simply suiting up to be self-sufficient, or to be able to stand alone against outside threats or powers conspiring.
It was suiting up to stand together that gave the Roman army the advantage on the battlefield.
It is suiting up to stand together that will give the community in Ephesus the ability to stand against whatever is amassing against them.
Prayer becomes the essential activity. Why? Because prayer communicates concern, and connection with one another and with that God who equips you.
From time to time we wonder, “what good does it do to pray?”
If you understand prayer as simply your one-to-one time with God (which it certainly can be) then it’s hard to see how it does much good. We reduce the ability of God to respond to a single action….God will grant something to me or not.
But if you understand prayer to be the way in which the community works together, holds itself together, communicates its ability to respond together, then prayer becomes a powerful force for maneuvering in this world together.
“I’ll pray for you.”
“I’ll pray with you.”
“Pray with me..”
“Let us pray together..”
This becomes the power holding the unit together, allowing it to move in agile and powerful ways, to cover one another, to protect one another, to work toward a common goal or direction together.
Prayer becomes a means through which, (when equipped with the sword of the Spirit) God can direct us all together, and can put the enemy to flight.
This is the image that the author of Ephesians wants us to capture, to understand.
This is not about you suiting up to do battle on your own.
This is about joining together with those around you to become a force to be reckoned with in a dark and dangerous world.
As I thought about the author of Ephesians use of this militaristic metaphor, (as unlikely as it may at first seem for peaceful Christians), I found my mind wandering back to the Gospel, and to Jesus, and curiously to those places where Jesus seemed “saddest.”
Jesus would not use the metaphor of militarism, not in the face of the Roman occupation.
But Jesus did seem to be most sad when his call for people to join together was met with individualistic rejection.
Think for instance, of the rich young man, who has kept all the commandments is told by Jesus that he lacks only one thing.
“Sell your positions, give alms to the poor, and come follow me.” Jesus says to him.
And the sadness of the moment when rich young man turns and walks away from Jesus because he had many possessions. He could not leave them to join Jesus and the disciples.
It is a sad moment, not just because he couldn’t give up “things,” but because he could not join! He decides to “go it alone” again.
Giving alms to the poor would have been an acknowledgement that the needs of others were as important as his own needs.
Giving generously would have opened him up to all those opportunities to depend upon one another instead of just relying on his own resources or abilities.
It is a sad moment because he misses the power of being joined with Jesus, yes, but also joined with his neighbors.
Think of all the sad moments, all the times when Jesus made an invitation for people to join with him and to join with one another, and for a variety of reasons, they could not or would not.
Those are the moments when the powers of darkness seem most able to break in and create mayhem.
Those are the moments when we sense that what would make for the Kingdom of God to be visible is somehow obscured. The promised Kingdom cannot be seen because we can’t envision being together on this, coming together on this, or on anything.
And when you think in that way, you begin to see the power of the Cross, which is the only place where Jesus could gather all together. Some to scoff, some to weep, some to marvel, but together, and in that moment a glimpse of what could be.
I can tell you that the most heartbreaking moments of being a pastor are when you have a sense that the congregation is not joined as one and will not standing together.
Those are the moments when darkness tends to finds opportunity.
Those are the times when you cannot overcome the forces mounted against you, (whatever they happen to be) because you really cannot equip yourself to just stand alone.
The Sword of the Spirit only comes when the community is joined in such a way that it can be summoned and put to its intended use.
And so it is that at such times when unity and coming together seems difficult or impossible, we pray.
We Pray as Jesus did in Gethsemane, hoping others will join us, pray with us.
Pray as Jesus did, that we might be one.
We pray as the author of Ephesians directs us to, that we might be able to stand together.
The author of Ephesians wants us to see, and to know, what Jesus knew and came to show us.
The powers of darkness cannot take the field when the people of God come together and are joined as one.