Be strong in the Lord. Put on the whole armor of God. (Eph 6:10-20)
This is a familiar passage and it brings to mind many of the old fantastic hymns like “Onward Christian Soldier.” Many of those hymns have been left behind because they tended to romanticize and/or encourage an overly simplistic view of the world. I bring this up not to defend or criticize the church for leaving behind some of these hymns, but rather I bring this up because it points to the key tension we have in approaching this text in Ephesians: when we speak of the armor of God, what are we preparing to fight? Frequently, the Christian community has fought in the Lord’s name, in a way that we do not believe fits with what God asks of us. When we bring the possibility of violence into the subject of religion (and let’s be honest, few topics ignite so much anger and hot discussion as religion), we are treading on thin ice. It is much too easy to use righteous indignation as a spark for action, only to find that in doing so we have sunk into the very evils we are trying to resist.
The example that most readily comes to mind is in the Middle Ages where the Crusades and the Holy Wars complete with the Inquisitions was seen as a method for converting others to the true faith … creating a more perfect and pure world. Participants in these violent acts were seen as being faithful. These kinds of acts would be unthinkable after the Geneva Convention set out rules for just warfare.
Powers and Principalities: Given the human tendency to violence, why in the world would Paul use this example of armor for the church of Ephesus? Evil is a reality in the world. Whether we like it or not, we do live in a world that is frequently violent. To ignore or deny that is foolish and simply not helpful to our faith. This section in Ephesians urges believers to be prepared for the realities of the world. Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the 20th century urged pastors to preach “with the gospel in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Paul, I think, would agree with Barth as he urges the church to “do everything to stand firm.” Every generation of Christian believers must decide how their faith relates to their contemporary circumstances of the day.
In the first century, early Christian martyrs stood strong in their faith even risking death simply for the right to believe in their savior, Jesus. They were urged to remain true to their faith in spite of living in a secular, pagan world. This sounds like a fairly unified Christian witness, however just a generation or two later when Christianity became legalized under Alexander the Great, Christians began persecuting other Christians, making decisions about who were the true believers or who had the correct, most orthodox view of God and Jesus.
This is closer to our reality today than we often admit. The truth is, more and more, we live in a post-Christian world. No longer is it assumed that everyone attends one of the mainline churches found in town. Many belong to other religions, while still many others say they are spiritual but not religious. In this setting, it often becomes uncomfortable to proclaim oneself a Christian. Even if a family member or friend is also a Christian, we often have such different ideas as to what that means that conversation becomes stilted and awkward.
What does Paul claim makes up the armor of God? Picture these
- the belt of truth (sincerity of heart)
- the breastplate of righteousness (finding the strength to make right decisions)
- whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace (evangelism, sharing)
- the shield of faith (first line of defense)
- the helmet of salvation (the knowledge and understanding of God’s grace)
- sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God
All of these pieces of armor are defensive, except for the sword. Except for the sword/word of God, all of them are aspects of a person’s character or faith. And like we decided with the youth, these aspects of a person can help us make good decisions and make us stronger. They give us the ability to withstand the temptation to sin and follow routes of self-destruction. More than being defensive weapons, these parts of your armor become a part of how you live your life.
Le Chambon sur Lignon is a community in France that has become known for its work as a community to shelter close to 5,000 Jews during World War II. The community housed Jews in their homes and in some of the public institutions and when the Gestapo came searching for Jews, they were hidden out in the country. One of the protestant pastors, Pastor Andre helped the community to make the decision to be active in the resistance. He was arrested by the Gestapo for his aid:
“When the police came to take Pastor Andre away, his wife Magda offered them dinner. Her friends would say, How could you bring yourself to sit down with these men who are taking your husband away, perhaps to his death?” Magda’s answer was that it was dinnertime, everyone was hungry, and the food was ready. Magda was not the only citizen of Le Chambon who scoffed at words that expressed moral praise. All of the Chambonnais would always say, ‘What do you mean ‘goodness’? We were doing what had to be done…it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people” (“Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There” by Philip Hallie).
This was a community that was strong in the Lord. They put on the armor of God and the answered the call to live as Christians working for Christ’s kingdom in the here and now.
Paul ends his message in this passage with the strong charge to pray always in the spirit. The Prayer of St. Patrick is a prayer of spiritual preparedness and it echoes a lot of what Paul says to Ephesus in this passage. It was found on a breastplate of armor from a knight centuries ago, and I believe it sums up what it means to put on the whole armor of God. I’d like to close with part of that prayer. Let us pray:
Protect me, Christ, till thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
This sense that Christ is surrounding us, filling us, guiding us, this is what we pursue when we are strong in the Lord.
Lord Jesus Christ surround us with your presence, fill us with your love. Help us to submit to your guidance and find strength in kindness. Show us how to put on the full armor of God so that we may be a faithful witness to you in this, your world. AMEN.