Strange Soldiers – Ephesians 6:10-20
Saint Patrick’s Breastplate is an old Irish prayer attributed – perhaps as Ephesians is attributed to Paul – to Saint Patrick. It consists of five parts, each beginning, ‘I bind unto myself today…’ followed by a list of sources of strength that the prayer calls upon. It is found, in its full form, in an 11th century collection of hymns – the Liber Hymnorum – and is still sung today! We sang James Quinn’s version this morning and many of you will know C F Alexander’s hymn, ‘I bind unto myself today’. (It is a favourite on ‘Songs of Praise’!) It is classified as a lorica prayer – lorica meaning ‘breastplate’ in Latin – an allusion to our reading this morning and conquers up images of putting on or taking up, “the whole armour of God” (verse 11 and 13 in our passage).
I suspect the images in our minds as we read this passage are these (an image of a knight) – a romantic image to us though less romantic in the 13th to 18th centuries when actual combatants wore such armour! What the writer of Ephesians is drawing on, however, is this (a Roman soldier) – an image we might still find romantic! It is not until we transpose these verses onto the image of a contemporary combat soldier (picture of US soldiers in Afghanistan) that we start to understand the disjunction between the image and the text – the strange world of soldiering for God to which the writer of Ephesians calls us.
Currently, we are grieving and shocked by the news and images coming from Afghanistan. (In our church bulletin is a petition urging the government to welcome a special intake of 20,000 Afghan refugees as well as a link to a Baptist World Aid appeal to assist Afghans who have fled to neighbouring countries. Please read these and respond!) Currently, we are confronted with the deaths of soldiers who were trying to help people reach safety, along with so many other deaths, but we are also left with deep questions about the nature of this withdrawal and the role of Western forces in Afghanistan over the last twenty years; about the nature of war, the complexity of moral decision making, and our role as Christians.
All this, I believe, helps us see this passage afresh, read it as the writer intended, as a rejection of militarism; as an extraordinary transformation of military kit and equipment – belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, and sword – into the kit and equipment of Christian living – truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s word in our lives.
Studying this passage, however, I wondered if another kind of ‘armour’ might be more relevant to us – the armour of full PPE, personal protective equipment, the ‘armour’ worn by health care professions. So, I am going to work through verses 14 to 17 as ‘putting on – ‘donning’ – the full PPE of God’, following the correct sequence. (If you are in healthcare, however, please receive your PPE training from an approved healthcare source!)
However, the first thing we must note – something we miss when we think about putting on equipment – is that we are not called to respond to this challenge alone. The verbs and pronouns in this passage speak of you (plural). Literally the passage says, ‘strengthen yourselves’, ‘clothe yourselves’.
“Standing firm” (verse 13) is not something we do solo, but evil is resisted by the church’s life together. Together (Ephesians 3:20) “by the power at work within us”, we are empowered to stand against evil.
Secondly, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh” (verse 12). This a remarkable teaching to a Christian community who despite being at the mercy of earthly rulers and authorities are told that these people – however merciless – are still people. Our struggle is against spiritual forces, in every form evil was understood then and in every form evil is understood now – yet people are still people. As Professor of New Testament Brian Peterson writes, “We find it too easy to label those with whom we disagree as evil, and so we self-righteously dehumanize those…on other points of the political, social, or religious spectrum.” I am reminded of how quickly our leaders, here in Australia, turned a common struggle against a virus into a contest with each other, and the tragic impact of similar behaviour on vaccine access around our world.
Thirdly, the language here is not a call to attack. We are not called to attack. We are called to stand – to stand our ground. In case we miss this, it is mentioned four times! “Stand against the wiles of the devil (verse 11), take up the whole armour of God so you withstand (verse 13) stand firm (13 again), stand (verse 14).” Just as PPE is about infection control, recognising that infection is present, we are to stand firm against evil – following the example of Jesus who did not destroy us and the evil in our world, who did not choose punishment or retribution, but who stood firm on love, knowing only good can overcome evil.
So, we struggle with others, but not against others and we are not called to attack, and we are issued with unusual equipment. Here is our PPE for the struggle against evil.
First, we need the sanitised hands of truth. Commentators differ on whether this ‘truth’ refers to doctrinal certainty or genuine sincerity. I believe it is the latter. Doctrinal truth is easily turned into a weapon, but to have, “clean hands and a pure heart”, as Psalm 24 says, is to be open, to be prepared to be vulnerable to others, and this is the way of love.
Second, we put on the gown of righteousness from neck to knees, and shoulder to wrist, a gown that must be large enough to allow unrestricted movement. In the same way, we have been made right with God by God’s incredible grace; now we have unrestricted movement in sharing this grace with others. We are (chapter 4, verse 24) clothed, “with the new self” and “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”. This is our new identity. And “as shoes for your feet,” says verse 15, “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” We need shoes we can work in all day, every day. Perhaps disposable shoe covers remind us that wherever we go, we do not want to spread contamination, but instead, bring healing and peace.
The third PPE item is our mask of faith. Faith is our protection (verse 16) from the attacks of the evil one – the temptation to turn from love, to turn from our identity of grace, to turn from our readiness to bring peace. Faith – our response to God – activates the power of God in our lives. Through faith (chapter 3, verse 17) Christ dwells in us.
Then we don the face shield of salvation – for we have this assurance that by grace – out of the great love with which God loved us (chapter 2, verse 4) – we have been saved.
And finally we take up, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. I was tempted to describe this as the injection of God’s word into our lives, but the last piece of PPE is gloves, and perhaps we can think of God’s words as where God touches out lives – and where we find the skill to touch the lives of others.
But there is one more thing to keep in mind, that as we take up the God’s strange equipment, that as we do this together as the church, we join God in God’s struggle against evil and against injustice. Just as the prayer of St Patrick is inspired by this passage, so this passage is inspired by Isaiah 59, and there we find that God wears righteousness like a breastplate, God has a helmet of salvation. However, in Isaiah, God is fighting for justice alone; “there was no one to intervene” (verse 16). Ephesians, however, tells us that God is no longer alone. We, as the church, are joining God in the struggle, and we are following the same strategy God is following – love, using the same equipment God is using – love, grace, peace, faith, salvation. This is our prayer.
And if there is any final reminder needed of how strange the world of soldiering for God is, the writer of Ephesians has this final charge given to us by a narrator in chains.
I am reminded of a story – the story of a man who slips off the edge of a cliff, but manages to catch a branch, and calls out for help. “Help!” And a voice comes from above, “Its OK. Its God here. I am with you. This is what you have to do. You have let go of the branch.” The man was silent for a moment, for a long moment, and then he calls out. “Hello! Is there anyone else up there?”
The prayer of St Patrick is Christian in content, but it shows pre-Christian influences. Its title in Old Irish, is ‘Faeth Fiada’, which most likely means ‘spell of concealment’. And with all that is happening in our world we, too, might reveal pre-Christian influences. We, too, might try spells of concealment; is there something I can do; money I can store up, goods I can buy, toilet paper I can hoard, that will make this storm pass over my head. Or in our humanness we might long to fight the good fight with something, that in our eyes, is more substantial than love.
But nothing is more substantial than love. Nothing is bolder, says the writer of Ephesians, than the mystery of the gospel. The vulnerability of love is our protective equipment, and the vulnerability of love will be our victory. We are called to stand firm in love.