Military language of battle and war to describe the Christian life isn’t exactly in vogue these days, not just because of our seemingly endless wars in the Middle East but also because we continue to witness the effects of war on those who wage it, win or lose. What’s more, as Christians we’re committed to loving God above all and our neighbors, including our enemies as much as we love ourselves.
So what do we do with St. Paul’s image of putting on the warrior garb of Roman soldiers? Or as he calls it, the full of armor of God. Do Christians really need a soldier’s uniform? Well of course not literally, but I would argue that the image serves to make a good point-there is a struggle going on and Christians need to stand our ground, strengthen our resolve, remain vigilant and use the tools (the armor) that we have been given by God.
As Paul writes to the embattled early Christian community in Ephesus (modern day Turkey), he explains to them first of all that this struggle is not against flesh and blood. Not against our fellow human beings. Then and today the struggle is not against people we don’t like, against those who have different belief systems than we do. It’s not a struggle opposing non-Christians or even our own petty attitudes. No matter how hard it is for me to admit it, the New York Yankees are not the evil empire.
No, Paul tells the Ephesians that the whole armor of God is needed so that they will be strong against “the wiles of the devil”, “against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” These forces threaten to mitigate, or even destroy the good news of what he calls the “mystery of the Gospel,” in other words, as we say in our weekly Eucharist, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. You see the forces of evil that put Jesus on the cross have been seriously upset by the victory of the resurrection. They are horrified at the thought that the message of this Jesus is challenging their power and authority, and that communities loyal to Christ are springing up, bringing people together in a new humanity, that shows evidence of the creator’s sovereign power and hence their own eventual demise. The forces of evil are doing their best to oppose this Gospel, to distract crucial Kingdom work and depress and divide those who would engage in it; in Ephesus then and here among us now.
Sometime this attack will take the frontal form of persecution or intimidation. More often it will take the more oblique form of persuading Christians to invest time and energy in irrelevant side issues or become fascinated by false, distorted teaching. The evil one loves it when we lie or are tempted to anger. Sometimes it will be the age old temptations of money, sex and power. Whatever the form of attack, individuals and Christian communities must know that they are coming. This was made all too clear on September 11, 2001 when the whole world looked into evil’s face. We must remain strong against evil’s thrusts, avoiding the traps of denial on the one hand and obsession on the other as C.S. Lewis reminded us in The Screwtape Letters-his wonderful book about the reality of evil and its subversive ways.
We can strengthen ourselves by using the parts of the armor listed in Paul’s writing. The belt holds up the toga so the soldier can move unencumbered by cloth. The belt of truth fixes what is necessary in such a way that leaves the church free and flexible, able to walk, or run loosed from from what constrains or trips up the wearer. The breastplate covers the core of the body. Righteousness protects the heart and lifeblood from cosmic evil. Shoes are for readiness to stand for, and to speak peace. The shield is defense against flaming arrows. Roman shields were leather, wetted against incoming fire and large enough to cover the one who carried it and one-third of the person beside him. The shields were linked so that we can see the Church armed with faith, facing assaults from those who would try to undermine it. The helmet of salvation reminds us of our baptism, the indelible cross on our foreheads. The Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. Proclaiming the mystery of the Gospel both cuts and saves. Conviction and love at the same time. This is good news because the very nature of the Spirit is to bring life.
Today we gather to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection whereby God’s mighty power has looked sin and evil in the eye and put them to flight; but like a defeated army that has not yet surrendered, evil can still pack a punch as we know all too well. It is like a wounded, cornered animal, who can and will lash out and inflict much damage. Its days are numbered but watch out for now.
May we continue to be a people who are vigilant against evil’s rages and continue to put our trust in the One who has and will deliver us from evil. Let’s be a people who stand up against it.