Preacher: Nolan McBride
Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20
I confess to almighty God
and to you my siblings in Christ
that I have not historically been a big fan
of today’s reading from Ephesians.
I was raised in a devout Church of the Brethren family
that took our peace tradition seriously.
My mother’s father and stepfather
both performed alternative service
as conscientious objectors
during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
I started at Bethany Seminary to peruse a
Graduate Certificate in Just Peace and Conflict Transformation.
Now as a MA student I am working on a thesis contrasting
the Church of the Brethren and the Episcopal Church’s
historical approaches to peace witness.
I have never been particularly comfortable
with using armor or weapons
as a metaphors for our relationship with God.
Last August when I had the opportunity
to preach at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, IN
and looked at that Sunday’s lectionary readings
I fully planned to quietly ignore this Epistle
and focus on the Gospel.
The Gospel reading for that Sunday
was from John 6,
the last of a month spent focusing
on the bread of life discourse.
This being an Episcopal parish,
all four lectionary options
are read in worship each Sunday.
I planned to preach on Communion,
abiding in Christ,
and Peter’s proclamation
“Lord, to whom can we go?
You have the words of eternal life.”
But when I tried to write that sermon
It would not come.
It seemed that God had other plans,
and I found myself looking
at the Ephesians passage again.
And this time something caught my eye.
In verse fifteen Paul tells us
that part of putting on the armor of God
is being ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
If we keep this in mind,
how does it shape the way
we understand the rest of the passage?
Paul is explicit that
when putting on the armor of God
we are not preparing for a physical battle
against “enemies of blood and flesh.”
We are preparing for a spiritual battle
not against human opponents
but against the demonic forces of evil in the world
and the oppressive systems they maintain and sustain.
For Paul and the early Christians
this meant living under the domination
of the Roman Empire.
Though the Roman Empire is long fallen,
I do not think I need to tell you
that this fight is just as relevant now,
if not even more so.
In the face of these powers
Jesus calls us to another way,
his way of love
rooted in the gospel of peace.
The belt of truth,
the breastplate of righteousness,
the shield of faith,
the helmet of salvation,
the sword of the Spirit,
which is the word of God.
These are not weapons for attacking others
(though they can be abused to do so)
but a call to root ourselves
and our lives in Christ.
In her book See No Stranger,
activist and author Valarie Kaur
writes about her own reclamation
of the warrior tradition
in her Sikh faith.
“I assumed that being part
of the antiwar movement
meant that I had to be ashamed
of this martial history.
I saw all violence as reactive,
no matter its justification.
Nonviolence was thoughtful,
I knew which side I wanted to be on,
so I had thrown war metaphors
out of my vocabulary
and downplayed my heritage.
But this denied me the ability
to draw upon the strength
and wisdom of my ancestors.
The fight impulse is ancient and fundamental.
These ancestors fought
with swords and shields,
bows and arrows,
because they had no choice.
They did not have a sophisticated matrix
of legal and political avenues
to defend civil and human rights,
nor international law
to mediate conflicts between nations.
We have these avenues today.
We no longer need literal weapons
like our ancestors.
But we could still learn
from how they marshaled
the fighting impulse
on the battlefield.”
Though a different faith,
Kaur’s approach to interpreting
her religion’s warrior tradition
can serve as a model
for how we can understand
the call to put on the armor of God.
Thankfully, we do not have to take up
the armor of God alone.
Paul describes taking up the shield of faith
“with which you will be able to quench
the flaming arrows of the evil one.”
One formation used by Roman legions
was the testudo or tortoise formation.
The legionnaires would link their shields,
with those in front creating a wall,
and those behind them holding
their shields over their heads.
It was slow moving
but offered protection
against arrows and other projectile weapons.
By working together,
the legionaries protected each other
in a way none could do on their own.
Likewise, extending Paul’s metaphor a bit,
when we gather together as the church
we can find depths of faith
we never would have reached by ourselves.
Our Brethren heritage
reminds us of the importance
of community in the life of faith.
We strive to continue the work of Jesus
“peacefully, simply, and together.”
The instructions to put on the armor of God
end with a reminder to
“pray in the Spirit at all times”
and especially to
“persevere in supplication for all the saints.”
I don’t know about you,
but with the continuing realities of COVID,
national and international tensions,
and recent events in my personal life
this hit me particularly hard.
We are not to be separate from each other’s burdens,
but to carry them together
and hold them before God.
Christianity is a team sport.
It is not just me and Jesus,
but each of us supporting each other
in prayer and action.
Paul ends by asking the Ephesians to pray for him
that he will be able to proclaim the gospel.
May we also pray for each other
to share the good news in word and deed,
and especially for those facing persecution
because of their faith.
At this point it is extremely trite
to say we are living in uncertain times.
I for one would really like to go back
to living in certain times.
But were the times ever really certain?
Ephesians shows us that the struggle against injustice
has always been something Christians can expect to face.
It is not a physical battle against a human foe,
but a spiritual one that Jesus calls us to.
Valarie Kaur shows one model
for how we can interpret the call to arms
in our life of faith.
Our allegiance as soldiers of Christ
is above any in this world
and guides how we are to act
when confronted with evil.
But we are not alone in the fight.
As the Church we are called
to support each other
in prayer and action.
The Summer I served as the Youth Peace Advocate
one of the daily themes in that year’s camp curriculums was
the concept of Ubuntu,
I am because you are.
In taking up the armor of God
we are bound together
with one another
and with our siblings in Christ
around the world.
Be it new variants of COVID,
or the oppressive systems of this world,
or the chaos we see in the news
we will face it together.
Strengthened by our faith,
we can work together
to face what comes next.
May we together,
as the chorus of number 226
in the blue hymnal states,
“Bring forth the kingdom of mercy,
bring forth the kingdom of peace.
Bring forth the kingdom of justice,
bring forth the city of God.”