Saturday, August 25, 2012

Pentecost 13B

One well-known hymn from my childhood that I wasn't sorry to see didn't make it into the new hymn book is 'Onward Christian Soldiers'.  Maybe I'm showing my age here, but one of my very earliest memories of church is being made to sing this in Sunday School – marching on the spot, our little chests puffed out with pride.  None of us were very clear what it was about, but soldiers we were and Satan had better watch out!

So, what's with the military language in this very last instalment from the letter to the Ephesians?  After a particularly bloody twentieth century, and an appalling start to the present one, it might be fair to say that most thoughtful Christians are a bit suspicious about language that seems to draw a parallel between following Jesus' way of forgiveness and love, and the institutionalised violence and blurred morality of modern warfare.  Sure, as individual Christians and as a Church in an increasingly secular and occasionally aggressively atheistic society we can sometimes feel a bit defensive and embattled – it can be a struggle to live an authentically Christian life in a me-first world – but it's an uneasy image, the kindly face and undeniable Christian witness of the Salvos notwithstanding. 

The military metaphor is not only uneasy, but it can also be dangerous when it inspires Christians to a paranoid belief that they are engaged in battle with shadowy enemies – it can become a way of dividing the world into friend and foe, discriminating on the basis of religion and ethnicity – and oh, before we know it lapsing into the very sort of behaviour that Ephesians has been arguing against for the last five chapters.  Sadly, this very passage can – and does – also lead many Christians to a paranoid belief that the world we live in is superimposed by an unseen world of hostile spiritual forces with which we are engaged in constant spiritual warfare.  Contradicting both our own experience and the Bible's affirmation that creation is good, and filled with the holy and life-giving spirit of God, this image leads many Christians to live in a way that is fearful and mistrustful.

So how can we read Ephesians' compelling but disturbing military metaphor?  For a start we need to notice that Ephesians isn't inventing the military language, Isaiah and the Wisdom of Solomon contain descriptions of God as an armour-wearing warrior, and Ephesians borrows some of its language and phrases from here. [1] But where Isaiah and Wisdom speak of the strength of God, Ephesians draws on the same picture to remind us that as people who now live 'in Christ' the task of living courageously, with perseverance and discrimination, belongs to us.

The second thing is that the military metaphor doesn't stand alone, it comes at the end of a letter that is all about reconciliation and wholeness.  Ephesians isn't interested in conquest, or in living in a state of paranoid fear, or dividing people into those to be loved and those to be hated.  After five chapters we've got that point!  But it does identify the need for discernment and resistance.  Ephesians has been telling us how living in relation to Christ empowers us as Christians and as a Christian community – and that's the key. What is the sort of power that Ephesians is on about?  Reading back through the letter the only possible answer is that it's the power of reconciliation and love, the overcoming of barriers, both religious and cultural, and empowering people to live together in peace.

Ephesians has an obvious agenda, a Christ-centred agenda for Christian living, and it's that agenda that controls how we read the image in the final chapter, not the other way around.  Telling us that we have a fight on our hands but that it isn't a fight against flesh and blood, Ephesians is telling us, certainly, that the task of Christian living needs to be undertaken with vigour and courage.  It's not a way of life for the faint-hearted!  But the message is utterly consistent with what's gone before – living as Jesus lived means letting go of competitiveness and selfishness, noticing the needs of others and reaching out to others not to oppose or push down, but to restore dignity and hope.  To fill the world with the love of God by living in a way that imitates the love of God.  When you think about it, to live like Jesus in praying for those who hate you, turning the other cheek, forgiving without limitation – is to live courageously.  It is a struggle to live like that, and yes, there is opposition.

And there's another key to understanding the armour of God, because Ephesians is doing what we so often see Jesus doing in the Gospels, and that is to use the language and symbols of Empire in a way that says – 'that's not where the real power lies'.  It's a subversive strategy.  Jesus does it, for example, when he uses the language of kingdom, when he rides into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey in a deliberate parody of the military procession happening on the other side of town at the same time, where the Roman governor is entering the city on his warhorse surrounded by troops. [2] That's not where the real power lies.  The real power isn't with kings and military equipment and repressive political apparatus and big money.  The real power – relational power – the power to transform human life – is with God.  The metaphor of the armour of God in Ephesians describes exactly the equipment of a Roman infantryman, the most effective force of political repression and naked power the world had ever seen, as a way of saying, 'the brute power of Rome doesn't get the last word. The power of oppressors is nothing compared to the power of love, which is God's power.' A modern equivalent is perhaps the enduring image of a young American woman sticking a flower into the barrel of a rifle held by a National Guardsman.  The young man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.  Ephesians, like Jesus, names the oppressive forces that limit and diminish human life, and says, 'that's not where real power lies'.

To live 'in Christ' is to live courageously, to name and to resist the forces that diminish human life.  This is big-picture stuff, which is more or less what Ephesians means when it talks about the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  There is a global, indeed a cosmic dimension to the life of faith, and the opposition is spiritual quite as much as it is political, because it hinges on a contested vision of what human life means, and what it is worth.  The life of faith is pitted against the demonic implication of worldly – military and economic - power that human life is a commodity – that the living systems of the planet have a dollar value that can be traded off.  The life of faith is not just about personal spirituality, quiet withdrawal from the political marketplace, but about fearless engagement.

And so the armour itself?  The armour of God, as Ephesians describes it, disassembles piece by piece the destructive dynamics that threaten not only human life, but the life of the whole planet in a way that Ephesians could never have anticipated.  The utility belt that holds the whole equipment of the infantryman together – is truth, which in the demonic schema is the first casualty.  Next comes righteousness and justice, protecting the heart, without which nothing else can function.  The feet of the warrior of God do not march to war but like the prophetic figure in Isaiah carry the good news of peace – 'how beautiful are the feet of those who bring the gospel of peace'. [3]  The shield of faith – whenever in any of the Pauline letters we read the word faith we need to think not so much about belief in a creed as about faithfulness – the way of life that grows from relationship with God in Christ – which basically means integrity, actions that match what we profess to believe. [4]  Salvation has a strong sense of security and hope, the basis of trust.  And the sword as the word of God contains the sense of cutting through the undergrowth of lies and self-interest, not an instrument of hate, but the active element of discernment.  The warriors of God are called not just to endure and resist, but also to engage in challenging the structures of injustice, the barriers that divide by the word of the good news, which is about love and hope.

Ephesians, then, is telling us not to be na├»ve about the world we live in, to recognise the powerful forces that divide and diminish human life, and to resist the temptations either of paranoia or withdrawal.  Instead we are challenged to trust in the relational power of God to transform not just our own lives but the unjust structures of our world, and to commit ourselves to working for change in our own corner of it.  And the whole thing, finally, is based in prayer – a prayer that takes seriously the life and leading of God's Holy Spirit, as well as the realities of a broken and vulnerable world.  It is only with a commitment to the life of prayer that as Christians we are actually able to recognise and align ourselves with the agenda of Christ, rather than the self-serving agenda we are daily bombarded with, an agenda that blinds us to the world's injustices and the needs of others. Pray, says Ephesians, pray for the hagios – you know, now, who they are supposed to be – and pray also for me, that I may continue to proclaim the word in whatever circumstances I find myself.

And the letter to the Ephesians ends: 'Peace be to you all, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ'. [5]


[1] Isa 59.15ff, Wis Sol 5.17-23

[2] See Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperCollins, 2007).

[3] Isa 52.7

[4] The word, pistis, can be translated either as faith or faithfulness, and can refer in the Pauline texts either to our own faithfulness or the faithfulness of Christ.

[5] Eph 6.23-24.