Precisely a week ago we were on a plane returning from a week in Disney World with Jenn’s family. They had traveled south to Florida from a not nearly as hot Canada to celebrate our nephew’s 10th birthday. In addition to a keen enthusiasm for sugar and bright song filled environs, Disney World also featured many space themed rides and activities. There was a decided interest in the cosmic—things beyond what we can see. We rode the classic Space Mountain—a roller coaster traveling like roller coasters do but in a building and in the dark. There were small star lights and sci-fi inflected lights to indicate take off, speed, and space travel. There was also Star Tours which was apparently based to some degree off Star Wars—it’s hard for me to really know since I, and I recognize this will probably be offensive to some of you, don’t know the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Tours with a combination of 3-D glasses, a shaking and lurching enclosed car, and a screen made us feel as though we were hurtling through space at interstellar speeds. Having experienced this week—which was a great deal different than my family’s camping trip earlier in the summer—I should have been well prepared to take on preaching a passage that includes cosmic powers.
The passage begins with two commands to action. “Be strong in the Lord” and “Put on the whole, or full, armor of God. And then continues by asserting that our struggle is not against flesh and blood. The armor is put on to defend against the “wiles of the devil” and then the struggle is against the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of this “present darkness.”
There are two primary ways that biblical scholars understand these cosmic powers which oppose us and against which we struggle. Some see the powers and Satan as spiritual beings that function autonomously. They do stuff. Tempt Jesus for example. Another stream of thought sees the principalities and cosmic powers as nonmaterial evil forces. In the world of my work with the Office of Public Witness we talk of “systems” or systemic this or that. Perhaps systemic racism or militarism. In this the systems are nonmaterial powers which shape the world. In these discussions the systemic issue is often some sort of evil. A particular stream of scholarship connects the writers “principalities and powers” to this sort of systemic evil. The Apostle Paul living under the occupation of Roman Empire with the cosmology of that era likely had some of both of these in mind.
While this could be an interesting subject I am not going to get into this more deeply. One commentator writing on several passages in Paul’s letters that refer to similar language of principalities and powers or some other variation of this notes that these powers are not the “normative” part of the passages. While the existence of the cosmic powers shapes our response there are two things more normative—more central—namely God whom we worship and our spiritual “weapons” such as the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. While the cosmic powers matter, our lives are oriented toward God and determined by the work of God and the presence of God.
“13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these,[b] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench 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.”
Put on the “whole armor of God.” This language of armor is metaphorical and as such there are limits to how much we should extrapolate or read into this. When we read this we think of the armor going on a body. I remember one of my Sunday School teachers getting dressed up in ice hockey equipment to illustrate a particular point about this passage.
It’s interesting that one of the pieces of the battle gear is foot gear to proclaim the Gospel of Peace. The imagery of battle gear and a gospel—that is, good news of peace—is somewhat unexpected, perhaps confusing. It is also a different construction than the other pieces of armor. Whereas righteousness is a breastplate and salvation is a helmet there is no named footwear. In this case it is associated with the function which is the proclamation of the Gospel of Peace. The “Gospel of Peace” is a specific phrase not often used. There are certainly many ways in which “the Gospel” is the Gospel defined by peace but this phrase is a little unusual. Earlier in Ephesians we read that “Christ is our peace” and that through him the “wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles is broken down. So calling the Gospel that brings peace and reconciliation between God and people and between people makes sense to be called the Gospel of Peace.
But as I continued to think about this phrase—while preparing supper or while sitting in the back garden doing reading for school I felt less certain about precisely what this meant, particularly the shoes and readiness. Generally it felt clear as part of the passage but thinking more closely felt like it wasn’t clarifying. So when I came inside from school studying to switch to sermon studying and to continue writing I started reading several different translations.
So the New Revised Standard Version (which is what your pew Bible is) reads– “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” NRSV
While the New International Version reads: “and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” NIV
And the New Living Translation: “For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.”
In all there is the idea of shoes, preparation (which is not specified), and the Gospel of Peace—with “gospel” the Greek word euanggeliou kept as a proper name translated as “gospel” or defined as “good news.” The big variations are if the “gospel of peace” is said to be the “shoe”—which would mimic the linguistic construction of the other piece of God’s armor (salvation is a helmet, faith is a shield)—or if there is some other preparation or preparedness that is worn as a shoe for the task of proclaiming the gospel of peace or the good news of peace.
There are two things which we need to define. The “Gospel of Peace” and why shoes? Two other passages give a hint at this. In 2 Corinthians 5—Ambassadors of reconciliation—an ambassador has a going as part of the role. And this reconciliation with God and people through Christ is a simple definition of the Gospel of Peace.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;[b] even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,[c] we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,[d] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
And then a second passage where go-ing is part of the ongoing ministry left by Jesus.
Matthew 28:16-20 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[
So I am going to define the “Gospel of Peace” not as peace in broad general sense but as the peace defined in Jesus. That is that through Christ we have peace with God and with one another. And that a central vocation of the follower of Jesus is to go proclaiming this Gospel. This going is integral to the proclamation—hence the image of the shoes.
But what does it mean to put on readiness or preparedness or “whatever will make you ready”? We all know that different shoes make us ready for different things. I have been in meetings with my work here in advocacy in which women colleagues have come prepared with two sets of shoes. One pair is for “looking professional” or taller (and thus because of outmoded social conventions) more authoritative and one pair for walking between meetings. Most days when I run I wear a particular pair of shoes made for running—but running on the street. Yesterday we went trail running, those shoes are also made for running but with heavy tread and tougher soles to protect against sharp rocks and not slip. Similarly readiness and preparedness to proclaim the Gospel of Peace will vary by person and situation.
We discover this through prayer and being alert. The passage continues.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,[c] 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
So while Disney may rightly have fascination with all things cosmic our lives are not determined by the Cosmic Powers but by the presence of God. There are times, perhaps often, when we see the powers, cosmic or otherwise, and we feel that surely evil will prevail. We experience violence and evil in our streets, internationally, internally, in our or our friend’s homes and we just might despair. We are in a struggle. We are in a struggle but this struggle is not with the military equipment that this country is so enamored with but with the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, of righteousness and faith. We are in a struggle but this struggle is not to vanquish our enemies, crush the competition, get ahead. Our struggle is to put on the shoes of readiness to preach the gospel of peace. We are called to go into the fray but not with the weapons of the world. My friends let us go—let us go into the struggle following the Jesus who did not turn back in the storm, who did not turn back in fear. Let us go forward praying in the Spirit—clad in the whole armor of God.