The Armor of God: Weapons of Mass Transformation Ephesians 6:10-20; Proper15/B
By the Rev. Karen F. Siegfriedt; Trinity Episcopal Church, Sutter Creek, CA 8/23/15
Khaled Asaad was a Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra. This city of Palmyra is in the Syrian Desert, northeast of Damascus, and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Khaled Assad was a highly respected scholar engaged in many excavations, working alongside of Americans and Europeans on archaeological missions. He was fluent in Aramaic (the speaking language of Jesus) and became an expert with antiquities and museums. He was a gentle soul, very knowledgeable, and the father of eleven children.
Unlike many others, Khaled had rejected several opportunities to flee after the Islamic State takeover of Palmyra in May of 2015. Perhaps he thought that his reputation and his advanced age of 81 might shield him from the militants’ wrath. Unfortunately, he guessed wrong. Last week, jihadists dragged him to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd. They then suspended his blood-soaked body from a traffic light.
We have all heard about the depraved nature of the Islamic State, militants who think nothing of crucifixions, beheadings, gruesome killings of the elderly, and sexual enslavement of young women. In response to these killings, there is a coalition of countries trying to stop and eliminate these terrorists who are bent on destroying those who do not support their ideology. This coalition (who opposes the Islamic State) is currently focused on warfare, including airstrikes, shelling, and boots on the ground. It is believed that if we kill them all off, there will be peace in the region. But life is not that simple. Underneath the concrete, hostile acts of these terrorists, emanates a larger, darker, evil force. Some of this darkness arises from within the militants’ souls & minds while the forces of darkness have infected their society. Military agression against the enemy is only a temporary solution. Standing up against the powers of the world that corrupt and destroy the creature of God and holding firm in our conviction of goodness, is the only permanent way to end the cycle of violence that has dominated society.
In today’s reading, Paul tells the Ephesians: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil…” It sounds a bit ethereal. How could Paul say that the enemy is not blood and flesh when he himself has been imprisoned by soldiers, the flesh and blood of the Roman Empire? I think his point is this: While violence is carried out by real people, real flesh and blood, the underlying motives that push such people to carry out unspeakable acts are spiritual forces of evil that come from within and permeate a wounded society. And even if we were to kill off all of those people who commit acts of evil, unless we deal with the forces and passions that motivate them to commit such acts, history will continue to repeat itself.
Paul uses theological language to speak about these forces and passions that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; images such as darkness, spiritual forces of evil, and cosmic powers. When I think of these destructive forces within people and within society, I think of things like fear, hatred, anger, ignorance, prejudice, greed, wanton destruction, self-centered privilege, distorted ideologies, violence, and the total disregard for human life. I think of psychological forces like automatic negative thoughts, post-traumatic stress, paranoia, resentment, and obsessive thinking. All these forces infect people and motivate them to hurt others, hurt themselves, and damage relationships. And while we have the military means to kill off the flesh and blood soldiers who perpetrate violent acts, unless we address the spiritual forces of evil that infect our world, our minds, and our individual lives, we will remain stuck in continual cycle of war, conflict, and broken relationships.
It is with this insight in mind, that Paul advises the Church in Ephesus to use the tools that God can provide in order to stand firm against these spiritual forces that are causing them so much fear and anxiety. He says: “Put on the full armor of God, so that you may be able to stand firm on that evil day.” Let’s take a closer look at this spiritual insight and see if it might help us to stand firm as we ourselves are assaulted by the slings and arrows of life.
This letter to the Church in Ephesus was written for people who were being discriminated against for their allegiance to Christ. The city itself received some special favors from the Roman Empire and so its citizens wanted to make sure everyone gave their allegiance to the emperor first and foremost. The Christians refused to do this and for that reason, they were pushed to the margins of society. Looking at what happened back in the 1st C is not too different from what is happening today in Syria with opposing groups. There is a mind set that “if you are not with us, then you are against us,” and so you must be eliminated from the equation. How should we respond to this kind of thinking? How can we stand firm for goodness and truth and compassion in the face of such ignorance? What kind of protection can we equip ourselves with so that we do not get sucked into a cloud of fear? Paul suggests a wardrobe of divine armor.
Paul tells the church in Ephesus: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power.” What exactly does that mean? Is being strong in the Lord different from being a strong human being? I think so. People often associate being strong with having power, getting one’s way, imposing one’s will, beating the opponent, not buckling under pressure, being tough and aggressive. But Paul was not interested in this kind of power. He did not see strength in domination or high status or outsmarting one’s opponent. Being imprisoned himself for spreading the gospel, he saw his true strength in humility, obedience to the good news in Christ, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, self-denial, and speaking the truth. When faced with the forces of evil, he did not recommend weapons of mass destruction. Instead, he recommended weapons of mass transformation, the armor of God, in order to withstand being pulled into the darkness.
Note that God’s armor is designed to help folks stand fast. It is not armor for aggressive action. Standing fast does not require a person to hurt a neighbor in any way, nor does it require the use of violence to fight violence. The armor of God is to empower believers to withstand the evils that surround and threaten them. The nature of this armor is specifically defensive. The only equipment of attack is the sword, which is the word of God. And with this spiritual sword, we are to boldly witness to what is true, honorable, just, pure, and good. Believers are to be girded in truth, righteousness, faith, peace, and proclamation, immersing themselves in prayer at all times for their defense and strength.
I have to be honest with you. I am not a pacifist! The presence of ISIS, terrorists, and those big corporations who are truly running the world, really frighten me. Deep down inside, I would like to wave a magic wand and get rid of the whole lot. But I also know that this would be a temporary solution that would do little to prevent another generation from rising up in the future. The wounded condition of the world is a spiritual issue that requires a spiritual solution. And that is what today’s reading is all about. For instance, there is not much truth telling going on today. On the one hand, there are the big lies that nations, greedy corporations, and unworthy media outlets feed us. But on the other hand, we too are part and parcel of this power of deceit when we speak half-truths, tell white lies, break commitments, and engage in fantasy thinking. And so we have to fasten the belt of truth around our own waist to breakdown the power of deceit, at least on a local level.
There are many structures and institutions in society that do not fully care about the common good, resulting in an unjust economy and the denial of human rights. And so we have to put on the breastplate of righteousness and strive for justice and the dignity of every human being. That is why it is so important for us to study the issues and examine our conscience before going to the voting booth.
And when it comes to peace, there still remain many conflicts between nations today. But there is also a spiritual force of fear and resentment within people’s hearts, which cause them to strike out with anger and injure their personal relationships. I know for myself that when someone hurts me or I see acts of destruction, my first impulse is to want to eliminate or punish the perpetrator. But if I truly desire peace among nations, then I need to cultivate peace in my own heart. Paul says: “As for shoes on your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
In closing, I want to reflect on the life of Jimmy Carter who is now facing end of life issues. During his presidency, he made some strategic errors and failed in a military attempt to rescue the American hostages being held captive in Iran. This lost him a second term as president. But what people all over the world will remember him for is not for his military prowess but rather his spiritual wardrobe, the armor of God: truth, righteousness, peace, and proclamation.
Since leaving the White House, he has put his faith into action in ways that have transformed the world. Putting on the breastplate of righteousness, he set up the Carter Center in 1982 as a base for advancing human rights. He has spent his time, talent, and treasure to advance disease prevention and eradication in developing nations. With the shoes of peace, he has traveled extensively to conduct peace negotiations and observe elections. With the sword of the word of God, he has boldly spoken out against exorbitant campaign spending, saying that America is "no longer a functioning democracy" and now has a system of "unlimited political bribery." He has maintained his courage and perseverance in the face of so many obstacles by immersing himself in prayer. One man, one faith, one baptism, and our world has become a better place because of him. Just dare to imagine what we could do if we were to put on this same armor of God. That would be good news for all of us!