SCRIPTURE- Ephesians 6:10-20
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand 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 realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
The Battle for Peace
Sept. 16, 2012
I love the end of that passage: “As I must speak.” You can hear the compulsion, the conviction in Paul’s voice. He has no choice but to tell the good news, the mystery of the gospel he has embraced. And when he says he’s an ambassador in chains, he’s not just whistling Dixie. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus from a jail cell in Rome, where he was being held for preaching about a resurrected King, which you can imagine didn’t make the Roman emperor too happy. The Romans told him to be quiet, then they told him to shut up or else, then they threw him in jail. Being the social activist that he was, Paul was familiar with these surroundings, so he made good use of his time by writing letters, like this one. In fact, it’s a good bet that his armor imagery came from the fact that he was guarded around the clock by a Roman soldier. He only had to look outside his cell at the soldier guarding him to find a good metaphor for living a life of faith.
Ephesus was also one of Paul’s favorite stops. He spent over three years there helping them establish their church, and not long after, he sent them his valued colleague Timothy as their pastor. Ephesus was a thriving church doing good things, and this letter from Paul is mostly a letter of congratulations and encouragement with an upbeat, “keep the faith” tone, which is amazing when you know from where Paul was writing. In some ways it’s a love letter, as Paul tells the Ephesians how much they mean to him, and even more so how much they mean to God.
But Paul couldn’t leave well enough alone. Can a teacher ever stop teaching? He couldn’t write a letter without at least one word of exhortation, one word of warning for these people he loved so much. Maybe he thought that because they were doing so well, the Ephesians were ripe for a surprise attack from the enemy. Isn’t that how it usually goes? Life is going good, business is booming, and then “WHAM!” you’re on the way to the hospital. “How could this happen?” Paul knew about that. Paul knew about walking down the street one way, then walking back in handcuffs a few minutes later.
Paul tells the Ephesians they need to be on the lookout for the enemy. He tells them to put on the whole armor of God, to suit up for battle, to get ready to move to the front lines. There’s not a more powerful statement in his letter than the first verse of our passage: “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” Strong, mighty, power. The Greek word is the same for all three, and can be translated this way: “Be a dynamo in the Lord and use his dynamic dynamite.” Now, what enemy is so powerful to draw out such explosive language?
Paul tells the Ephesians, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand 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 realms.” How do those words strike you? They could sound archaic, superstitious, even paranoid. In our world of high-tech sophistication, super-sensitive security systems and billion-dollar defense budgets, are we really scared by a threat of “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”? In Paul’s time, folks strongly believed in the presence of evil spirits, which filled the air and did people harm. But in our day of real-life monsters whose faces fill up the evening news, Paul sounds like he’s warning us against something quaint like the Boogeyman or the Wicked Witch of the West. In one translation Paul calls this evil presence “the diabolical one.” I can just see the devil twisting his handlebar mustache and letting out an evil laugh.
Are there supernatural forces working against us? This question made its way into two of my lunch conversations this past week. Does some external source of evil exist, or is evil simply the manifestation of the dark side of human nature? Try tackling that one over a salad at Rafferty’s! The Bible is clear that evil forces exist in the spiritual realm and have a substantial impact on the world and human events. Does this mean there’s a red devil with horns running around secretly poking people in the rear with his pitchfork? I don’t believe so. I think we talk about a “devil” as a way to personify this evil, to give it a face so that we can better understand it. But I believe there’s something out there at work in the world that goes beyond the mere sinfulness of humanity. I believe that faith in God expands our capacity to do good, makes us more than who we are. On the flipside, we can become susceptible to influence of evil, which expands our capacity to do bad, which makes us less than who we are. I believe there is something at work in this world that seeks to separate us from God, that seeks to disrupt our relationship with Christ, that seeks to destroy the peace we are called to pray and work for.
These forces not only work on a global scale, like the Holocaust or slavery, but also work on us in small ways, as well. Every day we face decisions between right and wrong. Someone once wrote, “In the war of right and wrong, we can’t afford to be neutral.” And so we are forced to choose, to take sides. Do we expand our capacity to do good? Or are we tempted to choose things that bring pleasure, or wealth, or convenience, at the expense of our righteousness? One little lie won’t hurt, will it? These numbers don’t have to add up exactly, do they? This rumor is too juicy not to pass on, isn’t it? My company won’t miss a few of these, will they? And we choose. And another battle is lost. That may seem like small potatoes, but every decision counts, because every time we choose to expand our capacity for evil, every time we side with the “evil forces of the spiritual realm,” we choose to separate ourselves further from God.
That’s sin: anything that separates us from God. God wants nothing more than to be close to us, and sin is what keeps us apart from God. That’s what these evil forces want. They want us to move further and further away from God, one step at a time, because the further we are from God, the less loved we feel, the less important our faith is to us, the less worthy we believe we are, and the more vulnerable we become. And the less peace we have in our lives and in our world.
Does this talk of “evil forces” sound a little strange to you? It does to me. I’m practical at heart; I struggle at times to come to grips with the idea of a “spiritual realm” where evil is working against us believers But when I hear the earnestness in Paul’s writing (“I must speak”), when I see that he chose a battle metaphor in addressing our plight, I have to take notice. The truth is the death and resurrection of Jesus doesn’t usher the church into some utopian state, but thrusts us right into the middle of the struggle between good and evil, justice and injustice, freedom and oppression, peace and conflict. Paul says we are all called to join the battle for peace. He’s saying we’re all vulnerable to the influence of evil around us, and that we have to protect ourselves, to prepare to enter the fray. We put alarms in our cars and security systems in our houses; what do we have to protect our souls?
Paul says we have what God has given us, God’s dynamic dynamite. And it is up to us to use it. We are called to act, because the battle for peace isn’t passive. We can’t just sit back and not do bad things and think we’ve contributed something. We have to be intentional about doing good things, about living out our faith in ways that make God’s peace real here on earth. Peace isn’t just going to come to us if we remain neutral. We have to fight for it, to expand our capacity for God by surrounding ourselves with God’s grace and choosing to live peacefully in a conflicted and confrontational world.
Notice that Paul mentions six weapons, but only one of them is an offensive weapon: the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. The other five are for defense only. It’s like the movie “The Karate Kid,” when Daniel tells Mr. Miagi that he wants to learn karate so that he can get revenge against the Cobra Kai. But Mr. Miagi teaches Daniel-son things like how to “wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence” and “side to side,” only later to show Daniel-son how such simple moves become powerful defensive weapons against an attack. The fight we are fighting does not call for acts of aggression, but acts of resistance.
Paul tells us that such simple things as telling the truth and speaking up for justice and being peaceful can be powerful weapons of defense against the dark forces of the spiritual realm. Mr. Miagi doesn’t teach Daniel-son to karate chop his way through life, but he prepares him to defend himself when the time comes. Four times in this passage Paul tells us the same thing. “Stand firm.” The original Greek is actually a military term, probably referring to the defensive fighting positions of the Roman legions. Stand firm.
Stand firm when the forces of evil are at work in your life. Stand firm when you are tempted to do something you know you shouldn’t. Stand firm when choosing between the easy way and the right way. Stand firm when telling the truth will cause you more pain than telling lie. Stand firm when acknowledging your faith will be more embarrassing than hiding it. Stand firm when fighting for peace is more costly than staying on the sidelines. Stand firm against anything that will separate you from God. The battle for peace is continues. The diabolical one is at work all around us. We can’t win this by ourselves. We need the dynamic power of God, we need to fight from our knees, praying for the Prince of Peace to reign in our hearts and in our world. We need to stand firm. It starts right here, right now, and continues through every decision we make. This world needs peace. This world needs us. This world needs God. Stand firm.