Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 22, 2021
Ephesians 6:10-20 Commentary
The past approximately 17 months have taken a heavy toll on many of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers. The pandemic and efforts to mitigate its affects have caused great physical, mental and even spiritual suffering. They’ve left us exhausted. What’s more, just when we seemed to have turned a corner, COVID-19 seems to be coming roaring back, cleverly dressed in new variants.
Most people I know are doing the best they can to live within what is perhaps this “new normal.” We’re finding ways to help children work with different modes of schooling. At least some of us are adjusting to doing some of our daily work from home. We’re trying to love our neighbors by getting vaccinated and wearing masks.
However, the challenges of living within this new normal have not always provoked godly responses. Various forms of media have highlighted some of the venom with which people have attacked each other. Differences of opinion about how to respond to the pandemic as well as address our nations’ various problems have become occasions for some declarations of virtual war.
What’s more, the Church has provided some of the combatants for this warfare. Brothers and sisters in Christ have launched verbal and sometimes even physical attacks on each other. Christ’s Body has, in a real sense, turned against itself, waging war with its various “members.”
To paraphrase Ephesians 6, some Christians have put on not the full armor of God, but the full arsenal of oral assault. Some who call ourselves Jesus’ friends have loaded our verbal Sig Sauers with full round of harsh criticism. We’ve loaded our verbal bombers’ payloads with crude and crass verbiage. Some Christians have felt free to parachute into others’ lives with hateful emails, tweets and Facebook posts. To paraphrase an old cliché, Christians have met the enemy … and think it is us.
No matter when and where Ephesians 6:10-20 proclaimers find ourselves this week, we’re under attack. So Paul summons us to properly arm ourselves for that battle lest we go down to at least temporary defeat in the lengthiest, bloodiest and most important war ever fought.
Of course, Ephesians 6’s military imagery makes some Christians nervous. We after all, continue to witness the affects of war on those who wage, lose and even win it. We’ve also witnessed the abuses of Paul’s imagery that have been misguided wars like the Crusades.
On the other hand, I suspect I’m not alone among 60+ year-old Christians as having thought of “martial” songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” as among my favorite childhood songs. Since our psalters’ editors often loaded our hymnbooks with majestic but sometimes-ponderous melodies, we loved the upbeat tone of that tune.
I sometimes wonder if some of Jesus’ friends haven’t outgrown our love for some of Christianity’s more misguided militaristic themes. Some Christians essentially declare war on other religions as well as other Christians. On top of that, it sometimes feels as if some Christians see spiritual enemies behind nearly every bush that’s a slow driver in front of us, backache or hot and humid day.
Both Christians’ suspicions and love of military imagery are reasons for those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 to carefully identify just who has declared war on Jesus’ followers. “Take your stand,” writes Paul there, “against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm . . . Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (italics added).
In other words, while at no time in human history have God’s people been immune from attack, the apostle insists our attackers don’t look or sound like any soldiers we’ve ever seen or heard about. Those who have declared war on God’s adopted children aren’t, in fact, human. They’re the evil one and his allies.
That’s in some ways even worse news than if God’s people’s enemies were human. People, after all, can sometimes be controlled, defeated or, if necessary, eliminated. The kind of spiritual warriors Paul describes are far more elusive and tenacious. While they’re finite, they’re virtually unbeatable. In fact, only One can defeat Christians’ enemies. That’s the living God in Jesus Christ.
God’s adopted children are sometimes tempted to think of the evil one’s soldiers as people whose political allegiances, economic theories or lifestyles differ from our own. Paul might at least suggest that far more dangerous enemies are Satan’s allies that are systems, structures and habits that are racist, misogynist, hedonist and materialist, to name just a few.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 6 need to be honest about just what’s at stake in this war. While Satan and his henchmen at least strongly suspect they’ve already lost the war to God in Jesus Christ, they’re determined to inflict as many casualties as they can.
In that way, the spiritual warfare Paul describes in the epistle the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday isn’t unlike World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Most of Adolf Hitler’s advisers suspected the war was essentially lost. But Hitler ordered them to launch an attack in the Ardennes in November 1944 in an effort to kill enough Allied soldiers that the Allies would sue for a negotiated peace.
Quite bluntly, Satan and his thugs want nothing more than to drag Ephesians 6’s proclaimers as well as hearers into the eternal destruction those evil ones may at least strongly suspect awaits them. While Paul elsewhere insists nothing can separate God’s chosen people from God’s love, the evil one and his thugs are doing all they can to sever that bond.
So how does Paul summon God’s adopted sons and daughters “arm” ourselves for this pitched battle? By putting on what the apostle calls “the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, [we] may be able to stand [our] ground, and after [we] have done everything, to stand” (13).
Yet while Paul summons God’s people to arm ourselves, in other places he notes that God also arms God’s people. Those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 will want to carefully balance as well as invite our hearers to balance those realities. On the one hand, God both owns and provides our armor. However, the apostle also summons us to “put on the full armor of God” (13) and “take up” various pieces of it. Perhaps Paul’s point is to remind us that we arm ourselves against the devil’s attacks primarily with the armor God furnishes us.
Yet Paul doesn’t call God’s people to arm ourselves so that we can defeat the principalities and powers aligned against us. What’s more, and perhaps even more importantly, we don’t have to win the spiritual war because Christ Jesus has already defeated the evil one. God’s people just have to stand our ground in the war it wages on us.
In order to stand our ground, however, Paul calls us to “arm” ourselves with the kind of armor with which his readers were familiar. Roman soldiers wore things like helmets, breastplates, shields and swords as part of their effort to keep their Empire and its citizens, including Paul and Ephesus’ Christians, under the Caesar’s bloody boot.
Yet Paul doesn’t invite his readers to arm ourselves so that we can terrorize others. God’s adopted sons and daughters arm ourselves in order to defend ourselves against the evil one. In fact, all but one of the armaments the apostle calls Christians to put on are defensive in nature. Even the sword to which he refers in verse 17 was used to ward off attackers as well as launch attacks.
The defensive nature of the armor with which Paul invites his readers to clothe ourselves may offer opportunities for our Epistolary Lesson’s modern proclaimers to think about Ephesians 6’s armaments in new ways. We sometimes think of the “truth” (14), for example, as something with which we can batter those we think of as our enemies. Paul seems to invite us to instead think of “truth” as that by which we defend ourselves against the devil’s attacks.
Paul’s call to put on defensive armaments may also help Ephesians 6:10-20’s proclaimers better apply the passages that surround it. For example, Chapter 6:1-9, but especially verses 5-9, are among the most difficult to understand and especially obey.
We won’t solve some of the hardest questions about Paul’s view of slave-master relationships in this commentary’s few words. Yet we might note that the only way Jesus’ friends can be mutually submissive is with the help of the Holy Spirit who “arms” us for such service. In all of our relationships, including employee-employer ones, we can serve each other wholeheartedly only in the strength “of the Lord and in his mighty power” (10).
At the end of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, Paul at least implies that he was sometimes tempted to stop sharing the gospel, especially in the face of incredible opposition. He, however, longs to “fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel … [and] declare it fearlessly” (20). Yet the apostle realizes he can’t do so unless he’s armed for defense against the evil one and his henchmen’s attacks.
That armament, he insists four times in just three verses, primarily consists of prayer. So Ephesians 6’s proclaimers might consider devoting a substantial part of this week’s worship service or lesson to prayer. Prayer that, among other things, God will help Christians understand just who our true enemy is.
In his Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis talked about the “two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils: One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist and a magician with the same delight.
“This is certainly true about Satan. Some people totally dismiss him as an impersonal force or somebody in a red suit with a pitchfork. On the other end of the spectrum, many people attribute too much power and importance to Lucifer. They feel he is God’s equal.” Paul, comments my colleague Stan Mast, “steers the true course down the middle.” So, we might add, do Ephesians 6:10-20’s wise proclaimers.
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