Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20
It all started in February of 1937. That is when Lee Falk’s first daily newspaper strip for the Phantom was published. The trend that the Phantom started was costumed super heroes. Older heroes like Zorro or the Shadow wore regular clothes with an added mask perhaps. The Phantom though wore a black mask that whited out his eyes and a skin tight purple costume. This outlandish and exotic costume set what would become the standard and what followed was the age of costumed super heroes. I am generally a big fan of super heroes, but I do have to admit the costumes can be a bit silly. They tend to be overly bright and overly flamboyant. They also are not terribly practical, as this clip from the Incredibles illustrates:
In addition to showing why capes are a terrible idea no matter how cool they look, this also captures how important costumes are to superheroes, they are part of the genre. Without the cowls and capes super heroes just are not super heroes. The characters may have powers, they may be driven to do good, but it is not until they suit up that they become proper heroes. Perhaps that is the message of this morning’s scripture as well. As follows of Jesus we can have faith, we can have a drive to be more Christ like, but we need to suit up to be proper disciples capable of changing the world.
This morning’s scripture is very dramatic. It uses strong action oriented language and it calls forth evocative imagery like standing against the devil’s schemes, struggling against the powers of this dark world, and brandishing the word of God like a sword. Because this morning’s scripture is so dramatic it is also a bit problematic. There is a phrase that is not found anywhere in the Bible that’s origins and traditions relies heavily on this passage. That phrase is spiritual warfare. Typically, this is not a phrase commonly found in Methodist circles, but there are other branches of Christianity who really run with this idea. There are hundreds of books that have been written on this topic, and there are a lot of them that fall into an odd little sub-genre. The 2005 book by David Humphry Sr. called The Warrior’s Agenda: Combat Study Guide is a perfect representation of this grouping. The back of the book describes it as such, “ The British has the S.A.S, the Navy as the SEALS, the Army has the Green Berets, and he Kingdom of God has you! The first of it’s kind book on Tactical Spiritual warfare, for the true spiritual warrior. God has begun his mop-up campaign and . . . he is looking for volunteers as He prepares to shatter Satan’s hold on the lives of millions.”
This book presents and ultra-militrisitc, John Wayne, cowboy up, kick down the door, and take names attitude to faith. Given that there are a lot of books that present that attitude, this imagery appeals to certain people. I imagine the idea of being some sort of elite commando unit, that God sends on missions to fight the devil is very appealing to some people. I can kind of get it. It is flashy and feel heroic, a lot like a cape does. However, like a cape can be dangerous for a hero a militaristic faith can be dangerous because that image more or less misses the entire point of this scripture.
To be very clear, I am not against the concept of spiritual warfare, I am critical of how it is often presented. I do believe there are spiritual forces of evil. One of the membership vows to join the United Methodist Church is to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, and reject the evil powers of this world. Then the second membership vow is to resist, evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Rejecting spiritual evil and resisting injustice and oppression is what spiritual warfare should be all about. This is where I think books like Humphry’s warrior agenda get it completely wrong. He compared being a Christian to the S.A.S., the Navy Seals, and the Green Berets. Those are all elite units that tend to function as the “tip of the spear” in offensive combat operations. They are highly trained specialists who are the first to attack. Again, this morning’s scripture is the basis for spiritual warfare imagery, and it says nothing about attacking. Instead it is just the opposite. Ephesians 6:11 tells us to put on the full armor of God so that we can take a stand, later on in verse 13 the scripture reiterates, “put on the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand.”
This scripture is not about attacking with righteous fury it is about having a faith that stands firm. It is about having a faith that does not move with the crowd, a faith that does not make way for injustice, and does not bend to appease evil. It is about having a faith that renounces wickedness, rejects evil and resists oppression. The first century church that this scripture was written to needed to hear that message. The Greco-Roman culture of the time was pagan and pluralistic. The Christian faith stood in stark contrast to that. Just like today, it proclaimed there is but one God and the way, the only way, to God the Father is through Jesus the son- the way, the truth, and the life. To have faith in the risen savior would have put the first Christians at odds with all of their non-converted family and friends. It also put them outside of the cultural norms and set them on the fringe of their society. There must have been an enormous societal, emotional, mental, and spiritual pressure on these early believers to fall back into line. They must have faced temptation to retreat from their newly found faith and fall back into line with the culture around them. This scripture was a reminder to those Christians to stand their ground to renounce, reject, and resist. For us today it continues to be a reminder and a call to stand our ground as we actively make disciples and transform the world, and then after we have done everything to stand.
Just like the first century believers, we need to hear this message because we too face the temptation to retreat. The powers of this dark world manifest themselves differently than they did in the first century and our struggles are not quite the same. Yet we do face pressures that seek to get us to fall into line and retreat from the truth of the gospel. Daily we are bombarded with messages that run contrary to the faith we seek to root ourselves in. We live in a culture that elevates wealth above all else in a way that states “greed is good.” We hear talking heads on the TV say “truth isn’t truth”, and what the bible lifts up as wrong a majority of people polled say “it’s right.” When confronted with wickedness it can be easy to ignore. When we see evil it is simpler to be quiet than it is to reject it, and it feels more comfortable to retreat than it is to resist oppression. Yet this morning’s scripture is clear we are to stand our ground.
In order to properly do this we need to be properly equipped, which is what this morning’s scripture is about. To describe the tools in faith we need to stand he used the analogy of armor. The description Paul gives is based off of the Roman legion. In his analogy, Paul described all of the armor of the roman legion. It is worth noting that in going through the armament, with the exception of a single sword left out all of the weaponry. Again, this is intentional because in this warfare analogy our goal is not to attack but to stand firm. If we list out the pieces of armor and then take away the physical component, such as the breastplate we are left with righteousness. If we do that with all of the pieces we have an impressive list of virtues: truth, righteousness, gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God. The armor of God represents our connection to God. Righteousness is a churchy word for how good of a job we are doing living out our faith. We are righteous when how we live matches up with what we say is right. Faith, truth, and salvation are the ways that we have an assurance that we are connected to God. The analogy of armor works really, because armor is something we clothe ourselves in. It covers us and what we are clothed in is the first part of us that we present to the world. When we put on the armor of faith, it means that we are suiting up as Christians. It means that our faith is not some small part of our life. It is what we are clothed in, it is our life. It surrounds us, molds us, shapes us, and completely covers or defines who we are. When our faith has this level of importance in our lives then we are ready to stand against evil, and there are two ways we can go about doing this.
First we personally stand our ground. In the Methodist tradition there is a great emphasis on personal holiness. Personal holiness is a fancy way of saying we act like Jesus, even when known one else is watching. We stand firm when we do tolerate wickedness, evil, or oppressive attitudes in our own lives. This is what discipleship is all about, this our goal as followers of Christ. We seek to get to a place like Jesus where we love God with all of being, have compassion for other people, and we do not willfully sin. This is our goal in faith, and getting to this point is what this morning’s scripture meant when it stated “and after you have done everything to stand.”
The second way we stand is that we do not abide evil. When we see evil in the world, when we see the fruit of the devil growing wild, we call it out. We stand in its way. We plant ourselves by the river of Truth and we say to the evil in the world, “No you move.” Evil is like darkness, it only exist in the absence of light. The devil can only truly flourish where the light of Christ is not present. When we seek to follow Jesus’ example, to live righteously and let our faith define our lives, then we shine. We show up, we stand firm, hold the line of truth, and wickedness will flee.
Finally, brothers and sisters in Christ, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Take courage and stand your ground. We will all be faced with the temptation to not be concerned, to be silent, or to even retreat. May we not do that. For those of you who have taken the step in faith to join this church then may you recommit to your membership vows to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I sincerely believe the world needs us to stand, to stand for what is right, to stand for love, to stand for those who cannot stand for themselves. “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand.” It’s time to suit up.