This week in the lectionary we deal with one of the most familiar and visually descriptive metaphors to be found in the New Testament letters. The writer of Ephesians offers us this:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. –Ephesians 6:10-20 NRSV
Of course, it’s hard not to read these words without hearing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” playing as background music. Countless sermons have been preached using the various components of a Roman soldier’s body armor. We’ve all heard that sermon (and, don’t get me wrong, a powerful, often effective sermon it can be!). I’ll attempt to focus my attention a bit differently. In particular, let’s look at this excerpt:
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
How does one fight against the “spiritual forces of evil,” whether they be “in the heavenly places” or right here among us? It’s perhaps impossible here in the United States in the middle of another nasty political campaign to avoid dealing with some candidates and their supporters who mingle radical theological fears with socio-political goals. Hey, I’m from Missouri, the state that’s remembered for offering voters as its most recent Republican senate candidate, Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. Need I say more?
Elsewhere in the epistle section of the New Testament Apostle Paul writes of living a life of Christian discipleship in opposition to “principalities and powers.” We can safely assume the writer of Ephesians (and I side with scholars who contend he or she was a disciple of Paul and not the apostle himself) is speaking of just those same cosmic powers. While there are many different expressions of those “powers,” they can all be lumped together in opposition to the kind of abundant life Jesus said he came to offer the world. It’s life that is diminished and fractured and demeaned–wholly other than what God wants for us.
The title of this week’s blog once again restates the recommended worship theme for all congregations in my denomination, Community of Christ: Prepare!. The cosmic principalities and powers are aligned against us in that regard. As I write those words it occurs to me that the previous sentence could lead some to imagine a pitchfork-carrying devil whispering in our ear to distract us–or perhaps poking various body parts with that pitchfork. As comical as that may sound (and we’ve probably all heard that sermon before, too), there’s something far more serious at work.
Living in the midst of a diverse, pluralistic, and increasingly secular culture, you and I no doubt sometimes–or even often–wonder why we even bother with religion and church and spirituality (elaborating how those three items are related but quite distinct is yet another sermon, alas for another time). What good does it do? Do we bother because we hope for some heavenly reward in the next life? For some, that’s what’s it’s about entirely. What I hope, though, is that we can see the ultimate purpose in preparing to connect more completely in this life with its Creator and Sustainer. I think that’s what Jesus and the Ephesian writer had in mind.
*Adapted from a 2012 ForeWords blog