From First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary
The final segment of Ephesians is a mini-sermon in itself, employing the tradition of Isaiah 59:17 and Wisdom 5:17-18, which speak of God’s armor. One response to military might in a world held in check by Rome’s might was to make it a metaphor for one’s own potential strength. The tradition is, of course, much older. In what ways is God like a soldier? In what ways are Christians like soldiers? Both Isaiah and Wisdom use the imagery to portray God in strength. Here in Ephesians the focus is the believer.
What are these Christian soldiers meant to be doing? Centuries of fascination with power and of Christian engagement with rulers and their armies suggest images of conquest, marching against the foe. At worst it inspires zealous militarism which has as its goal the defeat of the evil empires. Killing is bad enough, but if people can kill in the name of their God, somehow the whole achievement can be seen as something good and worthwhile. The image doubtless inspires some in our own age to the confidence that they act for God in seeking to rid the world of its enemies, usually defined as those who call their lifestyle into question. By association the desire to define people as friends or enemies sets up barriers of discrimination and hate across the whole world. So the imagery is quite dangerous and can easily get way out of hand in the minds both of ordinary people and of “Christian” leaders.
Ephesians is apparently not interested in conquest. Nor does it appear to be dividing people into those to be loved and those to hated – now or in the future. Rather it identifies the need for resistance. Before turning to military imagery it talks about personal empowerment in relation to Christ. That sets the focus. What is that power about? Looking back through Ephesians we see that it is about reconciliation and love, the overcoming of barriers, religious and otherwise. In fact it celebrates the overcoming of powers at the point where barriers (including Biblically warranted ones) are dismantled and people come together in peace and hope. The Christ agenda controls the imagery, rather than the imagery controlling the Christian agenda.
When the author declares that our fight is not against flesh and blood, at one level that is simply being consistent with what has gone before: standing in Christ’s shoes, as it were, we reach out to people not to strike them or push them away, but to bring them the fullness of God’s goodness, which the author sees as God’s great plan: filling the world with love. At another level, the author is saying that there are forces at work which stand in direct opposition to this good news which are bigger than simply what individual human beings do. Employing the language and concepts of his time the author speaks of a warfare with the devil and with powers which transcend individuals.
The notions are vague, but they express the sense of vulnerability of human beings to forces far beyond their control. In the ancient world such experiences usually merged the world of spirits and the world of political or military powers which they were believed to control. Each ruler was said to have its Heavenly angels or spirit. The author has already effectively defined their role in the preceding chapters. It is the counter-role to Christ. These, then, are the forces that divide, that create barriers, that discriminate, that set people against each other. We fail to appreciate the radical nature of these assertions if we reduce Ephesians here simply to worry about evil spirits and dark forces in the spirit world, unrelated to every day life. Nor should we simply read our different understandings of such powers back into the text. We can identify with the vulnerability which their demonology expressed while articulating it in our different terms. We might speak of dynamics of power, systems at work through vested interests and political powers, destructive forces at work in humanity without needing to embrace a demonology.
Seen in this light, the author employs the imagery which usually decorates the oppressors to speak of the need for believers to approach life with the maturity that will never be satisfied with reducing the gospel to being good in a very personal and private way. We are just as much engaged in issues where human beings, communities and nations, indeed the planet, are vulnerable as was the author of Ephesians – indeed, on a global scale far beyond that author’s imagining. This global context of the competing values of love and hate is the arena of our being human and being Christian today.
Notice how the armor is in a sense disarming of the destructive dynamics which threaten humanity. Truth is one of the first casualties of hate. Righteousness / goodness / justice is the centerpiece, close to the heart. The feet move not to march in war but to bear the good news of peace, like the prophetic figure of Isaiah 52:7 – how beautiful, indeed, are those feet. Faith here is as much about faithfulness and trust as it is about belief. Salvation here probably has a strong sense of security and hope, the basis for the trust. These are all traditional images which the author is employing. This is true also of the word as a sword. Hebrews 4:12 employs the metaphor – interestingly, not aggressively but as an image of really getting to the truth of things. Here, too, it is not an instrument of hate, but represents the active element of the image. Christians are called not just to endure and resist, but also to engage in challenging the structures of injustice, the barriers that divide by the word of the good news, which is about love and hope.
Ephesians is thus issuing a call for people to abandon a Christian naiveté that fails to recognize the potent forces that bring destruction and division in our world. For some in our age that will mean facing up to the fact that Christians have been far too easily sucked into the power games of destructive forces – in politics and economics. The final call to serious prayer echoes the emphasis with which this segment began: the need to have a grounded and solid spirituality as a basis for living with Christ’s agenda and power in the world rather than with an agenda served up in the media and by those who will not take poverty seriously, but see it only as a threat. Only such spirituality can prevent the image losing its subversive quality and slipping back into the justification for Christian triumphalism and hate. When it is seen as subversive, peace has a chance.
P.S.: In response to a question about what the word as sword means:
It is, of course, not “the Bible,” as sometimes assumed (which didn’t exist), but is an image of God’s direct action which communicates the truth. That can be in love or (and therefore) in judgment, as with the image of light, both enlightening, showing the way and exposing. The military image, using sword, suggests penetration and in the context suggests victory over evil forces, to change the image: exposing and so disempowering them. Love does that because it asks me to see myself as I am, which may be a comfort or a serious challenge which I might fight against if I am hiding and harboring wrong.
Background: Isaiah 11:1, 4 using military metaphor to describe the Messiah anointed by the Spirit. The image of defeating the mythical enemy appears in Revelations 1:16; 2:12;, 16; 19:13, 15, expressing the cosmic hope of victory over evil personified (similarly 2 Thessalonians 2:8). The big picture entails recognizing conflict also with political powers, in those days, Rome; in ours, any regimes which relegate love to second place. As often, early Christian thought also saw the battle as also occurring within people and saw the individual and not just the Messiah as having the power of the word, as here. Hebrews 4:12 emphasizes the penetrating impact.
Love looks carefully enough to be angry at injustice, to identify hurt and pain and attitudes which cause them, and to respond, but not in order to hate, but in order to love and restore.
Associations evoked by the military metaphor can distract from that and turn us away from loving enemies. Understood in the context not of fighting (or hating) people but of loving them, which also confronts corruption and hate, it can be life-giving. We need people who love enough to think and discern and see what is really happening in themselves and their world and to hear what God has to say into our situations, cutting through to what really matters.