Grace Presbyterian Church
August 22, 2021, Pentecost 13B
On Wednesday, the 11th of August, a Santa Barbara, CA man was charged with “foreign murder of US nationals.” The man, upon admitting to the murders, claimed to have been “enlightened by the extremist group QAnon and the Illuminati.” According to the man, he had received “visions and signs” telling him that his wife “possessed serpent DNA,” and that the same DNA had been passed to their children. He had therefore taken the two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 10-month-old daughter, driven them across the border into Mexico, and shot them in the chest with a spearfishing gun. In doing so, he claimed, he was “saving the world from monsters.”
In a time like this, when such a story with such seemingly fantastical and unbelievable details ends up in the very mainstream Washington Post[i], perhaps we enlightened modern intellectual types should be, perhaps, a little less dismissive when a scripture like today’s reading from Ephesians speaks of standing against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” I have no interest in speaking pro or con on the literal existence of devils, demons, or any other such thing. This scripture’s primary interest is not in reveling or indulging in thoughts about such rulers or cosmic powers or spiritual forces of evil; this scripture’s primary interest is in what follows – being prepared in mind and soul and spirit to withstand the attacks and lies and fears that seek to engage us in deeds of evil, however one defines their sources, and to stand fast in Christ. Thus, we are called to take up “the whole armor of God.”
In and of itself the passage is one of those that really ought to be basic to our understanding of the Christian life. Take another look at the attributes that are celebrated here: truth, righteousness, proclaiming the gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God. How are these bad things? How are these anything but essentials of the Christian life?
In this combination as presented here, these become a kind of discipline or rubric for life. Being grounded in the truth God gives, we live with righteousness among one another, proclaim the good news as God gives opportunity, live in faith and trust in our salvation, all supported and rooted in the word of God. That’s one way to put it; you might express it differently, but the key is to grasp that these are not individual achievements to be checked off some list of virtues; these are woven together as like a fabric, or to use this author’s metaphor, assembled as armor, for our defense in a world that is not welcoming to the gospel.
That last statement, about a world not welcoming the gospel, shouldn’t shock us by now. This is something Jesus told his disciples, more than once. In Matthew 10, Jesus probably shocks those followers with his statement “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” As Jesus explains, those who live into Jesus’s call and become his followers will be estranged from even one’s own family – “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” as Matthew 10:36 puts it. The world will not be sweetness and light for those who truly follow Jesus. Jesus said it himself, and the author of Ephesians knows it, and would encourage the readers of this letter to be prepared for the hostility they would face or maybe were already facing – perhaps knowing that the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” sometimes got help from our friends and family.
With this in mind, our author exhorts his hearers to take up truth, righteousness, proclaiming the gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God as defenses against that in the world which would oppose our discipleship. It’s a list that should be right up there with the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians, or the “think on these things” attributes listed in Philippians. Instead, this has become one of the more abused passages in all the New Testament.
One part of this abuse of scripture hinges around that early language about the “wiles of the devil” and rulers and authorities and cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. Some corners of the church have a bad habit of obsessing over those things. Whether it is in drawing out elaborate cosmologies of darkness or concocting fear fiction such as the Left Behind books – or for that matter the series that was initiated by a novel with the title “This Present Darkness” in a clear nod to this scripture reading – such self-claimed Christians engage little at all in proclaiming good news; rather they become peddlers of fear. And fear is the very stuff of those rulers and authorities and cosmic powers, however you define them. Fear is the opposite of gospel. Fear is the stuff that drives a man to kill his children because some conspiracy theorist has convinced him they’re going to destroy the world.
The other common abuse of this passage is to get obsessed with the armor imagery and forget those attributes to which the armor metaphor points. Such readers get led into reading such a passage as a call to holy war.
It is one of the more curse-worthy tendencies of the church across its history to look for excuses to go on the attack. How many crusades marred the Middle Ages? How much violence marked the Reformation era? And lest we forget, this year practically began with an attack on the US Capitol building populated by way too many self-proclaimed Christians bearing Bibles and crosses and Christian flags; more holy warriors looking for enemies to attack in the name of God.
Indeed, this “warrior mentality” and the invention of a “warrior Christ” to justify it is far more pervasive in many corners of the modern church than it’s comfortable to admit. You can scan years’ worth of Christian book bestseller lists and see books designed to foster exactly this kind of mindset among readers, and some of those authors might turn out to be on your bookshelves. Lest this message get derailed by listing all of those titles, I’ll simply refer you to a different book, by historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University, that lays out in stark detail how the church in this country got ito its current fractious position. While figures such as Oliver North and William Wallace (the figure played by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart) are often promoted as ideals of the “Christian warrior,” Du Mez’s main title gives you a pretty good idea of the “role model” cultivated by the promoters of this “warrior mentality”: the title is Jesus and John Wayne.[ii]
Friends, this armor talk in Ephesians is not about forming “warriors for Christ.” It has one point, spelled out in verse 13: “…so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” When “the sword” comes as Jesus describes back in Matthew 10, our job is … to stand. There’s no plan of attack, no glorious charge, no smiting our foes, none of that. We stand together, in truth and righteousness and gospel and faith and salvation and the word of God; we withstand all the evil that the world (and sometimes our fellow “Christians”) throw at us; and in the end, we stand firm. Conflict will come, indeed, if we’re truly following Jesus and truly proclaiming the gospel as Jesus did. We don’t need to go looking for it.
The final verses of this reading perhaps make the point above more wrenchingly than any amount of exposition can hope. The author, again most likely a follower or assistant of Paul’s seeking to preserve and transmit his mentor’s teaching, appears to have emulated his mentor in at least one way: being imprisoned. That reference has come up a few times in this letter, and here it appears clearly again near the letter’s close as the writer describes himself as “an ambassador in chains.” The indirect call to prayer found in last week’s reading becomes direct here, as the writer urges his readers to pray “at all times” for the Spirit, and “for all the saints,” and especially for himself so that when he speaks, he may be given a message to speak boldly and declare “the mystery of the gospel.” (Yes, I’m presuming the author of this letter is a male. Next week’s message will explain why.) Our author is called to speak, to proclaim. That’s all the “offensive action” that is invoked here.
We’re not here to go to war. We are here to proclaim, and not incidentally to live out what we proclaim. We are given this “whole armor of God” for our defense as we proclaim. We bear this armor to withstand and to stand. In a world of conflict that will inevitably oppose what devoted Christ-followers are bound to say and to do, we are given defensive measures to preserve us so that we may speak boldly, so that we may withstand, and so that, having done all these things, we may stand.
For defensive measures, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #838, Standing on the Promises; #275, A Mighty Fortress is Our God; #307, God of Grace and God of Glory
[i] Jonathan Edwards, “A QAnon-obsessed father thought his kids would destroy the world, so he killed them with a spear gun, FBI says.” Washington Post, 12 August 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/08/12/california-father-killed-children-qanon-illuminati/(accessed 19 August 2021).
[ii]Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York: Liveright, 2020.