I feel very uncomfortable with this Ephesians passage. About as uncomfortable as when I read the earlier parts of Joshua where the Israelites destroy all the people in Canaan, the Promised Land. And about as uncomfortable as when I read parts of Ezekiel—the violent, explicit bits where God doesn’t come off so well. It’s not like war or violence have no precedent in history or scripture—it’s just that they seem so over-the-top and so…predictable.
Jesus himself was prone to dramatic, violent gestures—he overturned tables and screamed at vendors in the Temple, maybe even whipped them, according to some; he cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit when he knew full well that it wasn’t fig season. Yet we all know Jesus’ words and life to be overflowing with love and compassion, at odds with his zeal. So battle-ready images seem out of place, especially in church, am I right? Let’s hold hands and sing “Seek Ye First” and eat cookies and coffee instead.
Yet it is a struggle, this faith we claim. For some more than others, but a struggle all the same. Maybe we don’t like the language of war or maybe we’re too comfortable with it, but either way, it’s a constant in our lives. Instead of ignoring it, can we coopt it for our spiritual lives? Become Prayer Warriors? I think Jesus might have liked that term, because at its base, it doesn’t make sense. Instead of cherry-picking the parts of Scripture we like, can we struggle with this passage for a moment, dwell in that place of discomfort to see if maybe God has something to say to us?
Consider what the writer of the letter to the Ephesians says we’re going to face: rulers, authorities, and powers of this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil. All called in theological shorthand “powers and principalities”—what’s this about?
The text says it’s the spiritual forces of evil that we fight, not the flesh and blood ones—which is odd, because I could have sworn that war has a physical toll. I would have thought Jesus’ words about justice for the dispossessed and captives meant some sort of call to earthly justice. But Ephesians insists on the spiritual aspect of warfare, the principalities and powers which rule in our hearts instead of God. What are these principalities and powers now? I suppose one obvious answer might be politicians and the political system—massaging the message to mean what they need it to mean—but also might mean corporate greed or indifference. Those who work for corporations sometimes pushed to make the unethical choice and those who buy the products encouraged not to think about where those products come from. Powers and principalities might be greed, or accumulation—our houses cease being homes and become receptacles to keep our stuff safe. Or distance created by technology meant to help but which can create yet another barrier, another shield. Maybe it’s fear—of being alone, of having nothing, of seeing ourselves clearly. The powers and principalities you have to fight will be different than mine and one another’s—but seeing them clearly ought to be the first step—what is taking the place of God in your heart?
Now, consider what we’re supposed to do about it: put on the armor of God—what’s that? When I go to work as a campus minister at University of Cincinnati, I wear armor. Not literally, of course, that’d be weird. But I do wear the Converse All-Stars of self-expression, the laptop bag of welcome, and the clergy shirt of tradition. It’s armor of a sort, preparing me for the complex conversations I’ll have, for the battles I fight each day.
This passage is not about sitting passively—armor is not for just sitting still on your horse in an empty field. But neither is it about forcing conversions at the end of a sword. Certainly God does the heavy lifting—but we have to get ready. I wonder if we’re talking less of war imagery and more of preparedness, of transformation. At the time the letter was written, much of the Near East was under the heel of Rome, occupied by foreigners, invaded. Those invaders were, for all intents and purposes, in control. I wonder if the writer of Ephesians chose the look of a Roman soldier, not only because folk would recognize it, but also as a subtle transformation of who was in charge. Their armor is just metal, but ours is made of Justice, Truth, Righteousness, and the Word of God! Transformation from one thing to another is not just living our normal, comfortable lives with a little Jesus thrown in here and there but a soul-deep understanding of God’s love and our thanksgiving for it. To truly change your heart and mind away from an attitude of apathy or entitlement and towards one of compassion and sacrifice requires a huge change—we must be transformed in our preparation for battle. Consider what you wore to worship today, or how you dress for school or work: the two-piece suit of action, the necktie of willingness to talk to strangers about the weather, the backpack of compassion, the iPod of delight in others’ accomplishments, the earrings of really listening…
I mentioned my discomfort about this scripture passage on my Facebook status. A friend commented that the part of the passage that had always struck him was the bit about putting on your feet “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace”. What makes you ready to live the life you’re called to? What makes you ready to take on even a corner of the powers and principalities of the world you live in? What makes you ready to speak about your faith or about the joy you find in this place?
In the end, it’s about trust—trust in one another in community, trust in God—the armor we put on is not about offense or defense but about putting on God like a garment. God, who loved the world so much that God gave us God’s only son—God, who wanted us so much that God created the world in the first place—God is already out on the field of your battle, waiting for you. God is already in your math class and your 8am conference call and your marriage and your next-door neighbor’s house. God forged the iron of your breastplate of righteousness, wove the poly-cotton blend of your dress shirt of patience, knitted your socks of humility. So go out after our holy lunch here, filled and prepared to do something and trust that God will be with you.