Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Armor of God

I preached this sermon this morning. The text is Ephesians 6:10-20.

When I first chose this text to preach on today, like many times when I choose a text—or it chooses me—I thought I already had it figured out. As a young friend of mine used to say, “easy peezy, lemon squeezy.” Well, elements of those early thoughts certainly stayed with me and made it into today’s sermon, but the process of getting there ended up being more “squeezy” than easy.

When I first read this text, a couple things came to mind. The first was the concept of being “soldiers for Christ,” or “warriors for Jesus.” These are terms often used by some Evangelical groups, much of the time with their children and youth ministries, to try and create “God’s army,” to go out and save the world from sin. They often use just this passage as their starting point. In the film, “Jesus Camp,” about an Evangelical summer camp, they often mention joining this army.

Another movie came to mind after reading this Scripture lesson, although it is far less serious and far more entertaining than “Jesus Camp.” The movie, “Saved!” is a comedic and irreverent depiction of some students at an Evangelical Christian high school. Let me try to describe to you the scene that flashed in my head when I read these words from Ephesians.

Mary, the appropriately named main character, has gotten pregnant and is going through a crisis of faith. The principal of the school, Pastor Skip, not knowing about the pregnancy but seeing a change in Mary’s behavior, calls on Hilary, the Jesus-loving, saintly-appearing popular girl and her two friends to help her out. “I’m going to need you to be a warrior on the front lines for Jesus,” he tells them. One of Hilary’s sidekicks responds, “You mean like shoot her.”

The principal laughs nervously and says, “No, I was thinking of something a little less gangsta.” (He is constantly using slang to appeal to his young students).“I need someone who’s spiritually armed to help guide her back to her faith, the love and care that only Jesus can supply. You down with that?”

We hear these last couple phrases as a voiceover as the camera shows Mary walking and reading a book. “Yeah, I’m down with that,” we hear Hilary say. “She’s pretty vulnerable right now,” says Pastor Skip, “so I’m going to need you to be extra gentle.” His words still hanging in the air, a van screeches up behind Mary and the girls jump out and grab her, pulling her inside as Hilary attempts to perform an exorcism.

Mary struggles and escapes, and the girls begin to argue. The girls in the “posse” angrily throw phrases at her, like “Christ died for your sins,” “You are backsliding into the flames of Hell,” and “You’ve become a magnet for sin.” Mary tries to leave and Hilary pushes her, making her turn back around. “Mary,” Hilary says, “turn away from Satan. Jesus—he loves you!”

“You don’t know the first thing about love,” replies Mary, turning once again to leave.

Suddenly (and this might be my favorite part of the whole movie) Hilary throws her Bible, hitting Mary in the back, as she yells, “I am FILLED with Christ’s love!” As Mary turns around to face her Hilary says, “You are just jealous of my success in the Lord.”

Mary picks up the Bible, holds it up to Hilary and says, “This is not a weapon.”

This is not a weapon. God’s word is not a weapon. Of course not. And yet in this passage, Paul writes, “take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

What else is a sword but a weapon?

The more I read this passage, the more uncomfortable I got with the militaristic language. I kept thinking of kids dressed in camouflage shouting scripture passages and phrases like Hilary’s posse did, phrases about sin and hell and being saved. I struggled with Jesus’ good news being put into phrases like this.

Really? Are we really being told to be warriors? Perhaps it is just my liberal upbringing, the continual reminder to “be nice,” the question, “can’t we all just get along?” I’ve been laying some criticism on the conservative side, now here’s critique for some liberal Christians, who often would really like it if we just all held hands and sang “Kumbaya,” who hem and haw over the definition of “right” and “wrong” in the name of relativism. I’m certainly guilty of these sorts of things. So could that be it? Is that what makes this imagery so disconcerting, just that we didn’t want to hear we have to fight against something?

Well, yes and no. What I realized is that a lot of what made this passage so difficult is not what it says, but how those words have been used. Unfortunately, this happens fairly frequently, where a Bible passage is mis-read or taken out of context and used to support or oppose a particular viewpoint. The section just before this in Ephesians is a great example of that—it’s often called the “household codes,” and includes the decrees about wives obeying their husbands and slaves obeying their masters. The lectionary conveniently skips over those verses because of the damage that’s been done—and is still being done today—with how they’re used.

But back to this section, where Paul is wrapping up his letter.

Those images that first came to mind when I read this—the scene from “Saved!” and kids like those in “Jesus Camp”—those are really what I was struggling with. I’ve never felt those Soldiers for Christ programs were getting it right, and I agreed with the character Mary that the Bible is not a weapon, but it seemed like that’s what Paul was saying here.

Upon closer look though, we can see a couple things wrong with that idea.

First of all, there is a risk here of creating an “us vs. them” dynamic, and I think this is where many interpretations falter. We must be careful not to create a dichotomy in which there are friends and enemies. Paul says right in the beginning, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” This struggle against evil is not against individuals, but institutions, authorities, societal structures that perpetuate evil. It is against the spiritual forces of darkness—whatever drains our spiritual health: things like depression, greed, envy, addiction, you name it. I’ll get back to that notion of evil in a moment.

If we look at the rest of Ephesians, Paul focuses on breaking down barriers between people, about reconciling, maintaining unity, putting away malice and being kind. Reading this passage as drawing lines between each other just doesn’t fit. We are not to be at war with each other.

But we are called to be at war. Remember I said that maybe my discomfort could be with that notion? Well I just told you the “no, it was something else” part, so now here’s the “yes, could be it” part.

Many of us in the liberal church don’t like to think about evil, we don’t like to admit it really exists. But let me tell you, it does exist, and it is powerful. I’m not saying there’s a guy with red skin and horns running around making trouble. Evil today manifests itself in oppression, hunger, despair, injustice. When children die because they don’t have health insurance, there’s evil. When people who work hard can’t make enough to live on, there’s evil. When creation is destroyed for our convenience, there’s evil.

I may not agree with all of his theology, but there is one kid in “Jesus Camp,” Levi, who is just one of those kids with a spiritual wisdom way beyond his 12 years. He just loves God. At one point in the film, he’s preparing to preach to the campers, and he says, “We can’t just sit around on the couch all day. The Devil’s not just sitting around, neither can we.”

He’s right. Evil will not go away by ignoring it. It won’t disappear if we put our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not there. Evil is acting in this world every day, and here Paul is telling us that God has given us armor to defend ourselves, to defend the Church, to defend the world. Paul uses the image of the Roman soldier’s armor, with which the Ephesians would be very familiar, and basically says, this is what they use to prove themselves strong, to decide who wins or loses in the world. Here’s how it looks for God, in God’s world. God gives us the strength to resist the powers of evil, to endure in the times of darkness. God gives us truth, and righteousness; the gospel of peace, and faith; the promise of salvation, and prayer. And that sword—the sword of the Spirit (that’s Spirit with a capital S) which is the word of God.

Yes, the word of God can be a weapon—but not against each other. Not to pull passages out of the Bible to tell people they’re evil or sinners or going to hell. NO!

The sword means taking action. Have you heard the quote—and I apologize, I don’t know who said it or the exact wording—that those who fail to act or take sides in the face of evil or oppression are actually taking the side of the oppressor?

Listen to what theology professor William Loader of New Zealand has to say about the sword: “Christians are called not just to endure and resist, but also to engage in challenging the structures of injustice, the barriers that divide by the word of the good news, which is love and hope.”

This is God’s armor, which we as a Christian community are to put on. Parts of this armor are mentioned another place in the Bible—in Isaiah 59. But God’s going it alone in that passage. No one is stepping up to end the injustice, so God puts on God’s armor and does it. But here Paul is calling on us to take a role in that.

Putting on the full armor of God means fighting hate…with love. It means fighting violence…with compassion. It means fighting injustice and oppression…with truth and righteousness. The image that comes to my mind? Twenty years ago this June, in Tiananmen Square, China, a man stood in front of a tank. That is putting on the armor of God. There are many other examples, small and large, of big social movements and small, intimate actions.

Originally, my title for this sermon had a second part. It was “The Armor of God: Are We Called to be Warriors?” And my initial thought was to use that as a tease, in order to answer, “no, we’re not.”

But I’ve changed my mind.

Yes, we are called to be warriors in the fight against oppression, injustice, hate, violence, indifference, and all the other forms evil takes in our world. We cannot do it alone, but if we put on all of God’s armor, and stand in the strength of God’s power, we shall stand firm.

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  1. This is an awesome post. And I am sure I would have loved your sermon.

    I often have struggled with the concept of "evil," largely because of the judgemental connotations associated with the word. Recently, I have come to recognize it as simply a word, like any other, intended to symbolize a concept (as opposed to a stereotype). I came to many of the same conclusions as you: that evil is oppression, injustice, and any death-dealing (as opposed to life-giving) actions and systems. These are what Christians are called to struggle against. What interesting timing that I would come across your post now.

    Also, I am happy to see you describe yourself as an ecofeminist. We have that in common. Blessings on your ministry.


  2. I'm wrestling with using this text THIS Sunday. It has such great depth and power, and yet to explain how the militiarism of the passage is actually a counter against militiarism is difficult to do when we are also handing out third grade bibles and honoring 50+ year members.

    I especially liked "Putting on the full armor of God means fighting hate…with love. It means fighting violence…with compassion. It means fighting injustice and oppression…with truth and righteousness."