The Armor of God
When I was a student in the seminary learning to preach, I was shown that some of the passages on any given Sunday are hard ones: either they don’t make sense or they talk of something that the preacher doesn’t want to talk about. I was taught that those are the passages to use – if they are hard, there’s something going on that needs to be revealed. And this passage from Ephesians is one of them.
So what on earth is Ephesians getting to in this passage? Who or what are the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places? This list is often called in the Bible, the powers and principalities. When the Bible speaks of them, it is speaking of spiritual forces that deeply influence our individual lives and our corporate lives. Indeed, when the Bible speaks of this, it makes little distinction between us as individuals and us as a community. And the Bible is very serious about the need to confront these powers and principalities. Indeed, if we do not comfort them then all of our faithful effort to make a better world will ultimately fail.
So who or what are the powers and principalities?
Walter Wink is a theologian who has made a thorough study of what the Bible means by the powers and principalities. Wink teaches that the powers are the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life. They are the ‘corporate personality’ or ethos of an institution or historical age. Fundamentally they are the soul of institutions and nations. For example, when we speak about the “-isms” such as racism, sexism, materialism, consumerism, militarism, nationalism, patriotism, we are talking about the spiritual power of a certain way of behaving and acting in our society.
The powers are not necessarily evil. This “ethos” or “soul” of an institution, system, nation or historic age can influence us positively or negatively. It can motivate us to extraordinary unselfishness and service for good or it can be manipulated in the service of evil.
In nations, this spirit or power is generally called “nationalism” or “patriotism.” Think about Nazi Germany before and during World War II. Its spirit was undeniably evil. Think about the United States during World War II. Most would feel that the spirit or soul of America was heroic, patriotic and freedom-loving. But what about the United States immediately after 9/11? Does the soul of America soar in freedom and creativity? Or has it become frightened and suspicious?
It is these forces with which Ephesians are concerned. Jesus and the generations of Christians in the New Testament lived in the ancient Roman Empire. It was a corrupt, greedy, and unequal society. The Christians were always suspect by the authorities. Bribery was common in the government. The Empire was violent and militaristic. There wasn’t a country or culture that Rome didn’t want to garble up. Soldiers were simultaneously esteemed and feared for the violence and destruction they could cause. Great families jockeyed for power in Rome. People who couldn’t pay their debts became slaves.
The Christians were trying to live the life that Jesus taught them – a life of honesty, truth, compassion, love among all the classes and ethnic groups. The Romans constantly harassed and threaten them; at times persecuting them and executing them. The soul of Rome was dark and oppressive. No matter who ruled whether philosopher or soldier, no matter whether well-meaning or power grabbing, they always succumbed to the dark and oppressive soul of Rome. Christians were constantly tempted to succumb to the power and the principality of Rome and become as corrupt and dishonest as the empire around them. It is this struggle to stay true to their beliefs that Ephesians addresses.
But the principalities and powers were not unique to the Roman Empire. They were and are common throughout the world. Nations today have a spirit or soul. And often they have multiple ones in political parties and giant corporations.
Consider how over the past 30 years or so, the soul of the United States has succumbed to the tyranny of money. The rich as a class strive for more riches, consuming the resources of the nation and leaving the least among us with even less than they have had. The politicians cry out that the national and state deficits must be eliminated as they give more and more to the top 1% … and still prepare for war with great expenditures. And to do all of this they raid the poorest among us and now they are raiding the middle class.
The soul of America has fallen so far into the Money addiction that the powers believe it is moral and good to take from the power and the middle class so to horde the riches of this land in the hands of the few. And even people who suffer from this raid on their resources is justified and moral. The soul of American is becoming dark, isolated, and alienated.
So it is this cosmic power of this present darkness, and its spiritual force of evil that Ephesians calls us to put on spiritual armor to resist it.
The first bit of spiritual armor is defending truth. We are to be truth sayers and truth seekers. We are not to take at face value the claims made by the powers whether political authorities or the media. We are called to discern truth from misleading statements or out and out lies. We are to be a people well informed and ready to accept the truth about the acts of the powers and their consequences.
Secondly we are to be advocates and makers of righteousness which is justice for everyone. We are to expect from our authorities and leaders that they act justly and humanely. And when they do not, we are called to call them to account and demand recompense and reconciliation.
Thirdly whatever we do we must do it with peace – resorting always to non-violent methods no matter how violent the powers may be whether violence of the body or of the heart and soul. We are to stand against guns, lies, and torture speaking truth to power in peace.
Fourthly we rely on our faith to challenge the powers, knowing that God is there with us always. And when what we need to do seems overwhelming and impossible, with patience and faith and determination, God will lead us to victory.
Fifthly, we are to seek salvation, i.e. liberation from the strangle hold that the powers have over us: the consumer greed, the suspicion of our immigrants, the reliance on domestic and military violence to make things right, and the dehumanizing of people to turn one group against another. We are to seek our liberation, but most importantly the liberation of the least among us.
And finally, we must always and forever remain in the Spirit of Christ as we are God’s agents to bring about the Kingdom of God for everyone. And this does not mean converting everyone to Christianity, but to make a place for all the diverse beliefs, ethnic groups and cultures in a world of justice, peace, and freedom.
And this last proclaims to us that we need to go beyond this reading from Ephesians and see beyond the powers and principalities to a better world, a world founded in the Kingdom of God. The vision of a generous, compassionate and liberated world has been squashed over the past few decades. We have had no creditable leaders with the courage to challenge the powers with policies and plans that are people-centered, rather than money and business centered.
God calls all of us to live, as best we can, as if the Kingdom of God is among us. The Kingdom of God isn’t the afterlife nor is it some impossible utopia. It is for real. It is the world God wanted when God set the creation in motion. God has been waiting for us to step up and work with the Divine to bring it about once and for all.
The Kingdom of God is our call to help build and to contribute to a society that is centered on God’s children, not on profit and money. Society should be structured to provide every human being with the necessities of life, and above and beyond that with the opportunities to live a prosperous life full of love and joy.
God gave us this beautiful planet not to have a small group of money-makers snap up most of its resources or use its resources to accumulate money. Rather God gave us this creation as a garden for us to tend and partake of its fruits. No group of people should lay claim to so much that someone goes needlessly without the necessities of life.
And this is no utopian vision. It is a realistic and sturdy vision. The empty “vision” – if we can call it that – of greed is unrealistic. Ultimately it will and must fail and when it does its ramifications will stretch through the whole of the human and natural creation.
Indeed, no economic or political structure can be better than what God through Jesus taught us. We can, you and I, demand and pressure those who seek powerful and authoritative office to turn from the broken, selfish and cynical spirit that roams our society. We can demand that they seek ways and means to nurture and heal the bright and beautiful spirit that embraces everyone in our country as a child of God and a participant in our society. It is a spirit that leaves no one behind, no one forgotten, no one oppressed. It is a spirit that that moves our politicians and captains of the economy not to seek power, but to serve the people.
And if we push them – probably kicking and screaming – onto this path, they – we – will find ways to lift up all of the despairing, hopeless people that reside in our country. We can have a nation where there are jobs for all who can work, where there is good health care for one and all, where there is a home and food for all, and where all have the opportunity to pursue the talents that God gave them.
It can be done. And it can be done today.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …