Ephesians 6: 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.12 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. 13 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. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.18 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.19 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, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
What looks like an insignificant little wall in this picture is actually a very important place in American history. It’s what’s left of the wall running along the top of Cemetery Ridge near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On July 3, 1863, thousands of Union and Confederate Army soldiers fought and died for control of this wall.
I took this picture on a field trip during the Mennonite World Conference this summer in Pennsylvania, which was led by a Brethren In Christ pastor. He told us not only about the armies and the events of Gettysburg, but about the experiences of pacifist Anabaptist Christians throughout the American Civil War.
This trip to Gettysburg only reinforced my commitment to the pacifist Anabaptist vision of the gospel of peace. Still, I could not help but acknowledge the courage of those who willingly faced death there. Nor could I help but be touched by the flowers, notes and other mementos that the descendants of the fallen soldiers of both armies are still leaving on that wall, and on the monuments nearby, four or five generations later.
Could I ask those “honored dead” on that “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg what they found worth the risk of their own lives, they might mention country, or a cause, such as ending slavery, or saving The Union, states’ rights, or honor, personal honor, or the honor of the regiment. But most of them would probably say, “My brothers in the regiment, or the man right next to me, risking his life for mine.” For such self-sacrificial love of brother I wondered if those two armies on that battlefield had not out-churched the church.
But then I remembered that slavery and racism, our country’s original sins, had pushed these courageous and self-sacrificial brothers into the crazy-making self-contradiction of killing other equally courageous and self-sacrificial brothers for being so courageous and self-sacrificial. I thought also of all the grieving widows and sweethearts that this slaughter over a wall produced, plus the grieving mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, the fatherless and orphaned sons and daughters, and the sense of trauma and loss that continue even to our generation.
Yet something about human nature is always spoiling for a fight. Something about us likes to have the blood boil and the adrenaline rush over a grievance and a righteous cause. We want our lives to mean something more than filling our bellies and entertaining our minds. Deep down in our bones we know that if there is nothing worth dying for, then there’s nothing worth living for, either. We were created by a God who, as the Psalm says, “trains my hands for war, and my fingers to fight,” a God whom the Bible calls a warrior, a fighter. That’s why conflict and great causes are the theme of most movies, novels, TV and talk radio. And we get to feel bad about somebody else’s faults and failures, for a change.
A few hours after I took this picture, I was back at the Mennonite World Conference Assembly. There I heard the stories of pacifist Anabaptist Christians engaged in other kinds of combat, fighting for the gospel, fighting for justice and peace in their own communities, fighting even just to stay alive in the drug war zones of Central America and Mexico, the war zones in Eastern Congo and Ukraine, and the more subtle war of state-sponsored corruption and cruelty in Eritrea and Zimbabwe. But their fight is not only outward. Inwardly they also struggle with their own fear, with the temptation to go along just to get along, with the numbing effects of poverty, trauma and grief, hatred, resentment and the desire for revenge, and the allure of corruption and cutting corners.
In contrast to such as these are we of the powerful, privileged and prosperous parts of the world, who are tempted by our own wealth, and by our valuable education, techniques and technologies, to worship and serve false gods of pleasure, power, prestige, possessions and success. I am hard pressed to say which Christians, the impoverished and persecuted ones, or the powerful and prosperous ones, are most in danger of losing our souls. We are all in the fight of our lives. But the wars we fight with bullets, bombs and bayonets never really get at the right war against the right enemy, who, if anything, enjoys stirring up the wrong wars with the wrong weapons against the wrong enemies.
The combat we are in goes something more like this short drama that I lifted and edited a bit from the 16th Century Christian classic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. In his autobiography, “Grace Shown to the Chief of Sinners,” Bunyan wrote honestly about his own knock-down, drag-out fights with fear, temptation, depression and persecution, all of which are reflected in this drama:
A few things strike me from today’s passage and Bunyan’s drama. One is that all Christians must face conflict and combat such as what both Ephesians 6 and John Bunyan described. Because we all have a mortal enemy. We don’t have to go looking for this enemy; he comes looking for us. Don’t expect him to fight fair either; often he shows up at our times of greatest weakness, like he did to Jesus, fasting 40 days in the desert. That’s one reason why we need each other.
But our fight as Christians is not against human enemies, but against enmity. It’s not over who owns what side of which wall, but against that dividing wall of hostility between people of which Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians. That’s the background to today’s passage, that “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.”
That also fits with Jesus and his ministry. For all the conflict swirling around him, for all that he suffered at human hands, Jesus only spoke of defeating and driving out the devil from this world, and not any people. In the words of Pastor Greg Boyd, of Woodland Hills Church, “If it has flesh and blood, it’s not our enemy.” Some people may count themselves our enemies, but we must not so count them. We are in the fight of our lives against a spiritual enemy so subtle that he can even take advantage of our strengths, as well as our weaknesses.
A second point about this war and our weapons: In Paul’s list of spiritual armor, “the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, the helmet of salvation, shoes of readiness to share the gospel of peace, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, there’s no armor nor weaponry for our backside. That makes fleeing the field of battle not an option, but a fatal mistake. The only way to win is to resist our fears; stand our ground, face up to the struggle, and face down the Evil One and his lies. My second point again: denial equals defeat, flight equals failure, because there’s no armor for our backsides.
Which explains my third point: that all but one of the weapons in this passage are defensive, not offensive weapons. Even the sword of the Spirit-the scriptures– is only the long dagger that soldiers carried, both as a symbol of authority and for close up self-defense. Offensive weapons at the time of Paul’s writing included the broadsword, the spear, or the bow and arrow. But they get no press in this passage. The nature of our spiritual warfare has nothing to do then with attacking other people. Any time we have to face up to some beliefs and misconduct, it’s for the sake of other people, not against them. In the right war, with the right weapons, God does the fighting; our role is to hold on to what God has already conquered and given us, that Satan wants to steal or destroy.
That accords with the ideal of warfare in the Old Testament. When the Israelites left Egypt, Plan A was for God to do the fighting. He would drive out Israel’s enemies by means of the holy fear he would strike in their hearts, while they came in and took possession. The Canaanites could either convert and join the Israelites, like Rahab the harlot did, in Jericho, or they would have to flee. But when the Israelites caved in to fear at the fearful report of the ten spies, and turned tail toward Egypt, they exposed their backs to the conflict. That showed the Canaanites that they were at least as afraid as they. Israel then had to deal with much more resistance.
But under Jesus, the Second Joshua, we are called in this passage to, “having done all, to stand,” even “to stand firm,” to occupy and hold onto what God has already fought for and conquered, at the cross and the empty tomb, and has given to us, by way of justice, peace, eternal life, and the assurance of God’s love.
The only offensive weapon listed in this passage is “Prayer in the Spirit.” And that’s my fourth point: prayer is our long-distance weapon. But we are not called in this combat to assault other persons with words or weapons. If anything, we assault the throne of grace with prayer. We assault our own faults and fears, like Paul, who asked in this passage for prayer that he might have courage to testify boldly, truthfully.
And we do so with “prayer in the Spirit.” By which I think he means prayer such as what Jesus, our High Priest and Intercessor before God the Father, is ever and always praying for us. I think that “prayer in the Spirit,” means that we join that current of love between the Father and the Son through the Spirit, and stay with the flow of that divine river of grace, the healing, renewing and releasing love of God overflowing to us. It is prayer according to the will and the Word of God, by which we submit to God, agree with God, and call upon God to do what God has promised to do, and has purchased, by rights as our Creator and Redeemer.
Still, I confess that, in Jesus’ School of Prayer, I’m in the elementary grades. But it’s why I’d like to see us here at Zion have some sort of monthly or weekly prayer gathering by which we pray as this passage says, for the things this passage mentions: for courage, conversion and the advance of God’s kingdom, beginning with ourselves, because we are the battlefield. And if you’re not part of any regular Christian Education class on Sunday mornings, consider joining the prayer group that meets during that hour.
All this is not say that there’s a demon behind every door, and that everything is the devil’s fault. I don’t want people to come away from this message paranoid or terrified. But these words do challenge at least two articles of naïve and idolatrous faith in today’s world. One is the idea that we modern people are on some triumphant march of guaranteed automatic moral and spiritual progress called “history,” and that we’re just on the verge of the right technique and the right technology, the right ideology and finally, the right social and political organization, that will banish forever evil, injustice and inequality of power, dignity and security.
We have made much progress in things like medicine and communication, thank God. But if those men in blue and grey fighting over that wall near Gettysburg over 150 years ago, could see how greatly our country is polarized even now, how widespread slavery is yet today, in the form of human trafficking and the exploitation of labor, and how little Black Americans feel yet like citizens safe and secure in a country to which their ancestors came well before many of ours did, what would they think? The ways in which the same old evils can be driven out in one place only to change shape and appear in another should temper our naïve faith in “progress,” so-called.
The other naïve and idolatrous faith that today’s passage challenges is the idea somebody else is always the cause of our problems. What a wonderful world it would be, so we hear, were it not for those conservatives, or those progressives, those Democrats or those Republicans, those religious people or those godless secularists, those immigrants, or those haters.
But we are not arrayed on some moral or political battlefield against other people. Again: we ARE the battlefield. And so we always have much more in common with those who differ with us, than we don’t. Just how much of the polarization and the antagonism in our society is really about distracting ourselves from the combat we fear to face within ourselves?
Finally, today’s passage also gives us a word of hope: whenever there are problems, Our Adversary, the Accuser, likes to tell us that they, those people, are the problem. When that wears thin, then he tells us that we are the problem. Both lies are equally as depressing, divisive and destructive. People have problems, but people are not the problem. Evil and the Evil One are the problem, and they have already been humiliatingly exposed for the liars they are on a cross, and for what losers they are, in an empty tomb. The power that did that is always on call for us.
Which brings me to my last point about the right war, with the right weapons, from the words with which Paul begins this passage: “Be strong in the Lord, and in his mighty power.” On our own, we are no match for evil nor the Evil One. But Someone has overcome him, and all his diabolical distractions, distortions and discouragement, his accusations and insinuations: Jesus the Holy One, the Only One who has ever fought the Evil One without doing evil. It is by him and for him that we have been given the ways and the will to fight the right war, with the right weapons, against the right enemy.