Picture above entitled "St. Patrick's Breastplate" lists: Christ be with me, within me, behind me, before me, beside me, to win me, to comfort and restore me, beneath me, above me, in quiet, in danger, in hearts of all that love me, in mouth of friend and stranger.
"A Fitting Conclusion"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
August 26, 2018
Joshua 24:1-6a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20
By now, you probably know that I am an avid science fiction fan. A few years ago, the movie “Avatar” caught my attention and caused some stir in religious circles. Avatar is a Hindu religious term meaning an incarnation in human form, an embodiment of a concept or philosophy often in a person, or a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity, or an electronic image representing and manipulated by a computer user as in a computer game. Some Christians condemned the film as an example of pantheism – the worship of nature spirits. I personally think that is mistaken impression, but besides that, the film is valuable for other reasons.
In the not too distant future, Jake, a paraplegic war veteran, is brought to a moon of Jupiter, Pandora, which is inhabited by the Na'vi, a humanoid race with their own language and culture. (Parenthetically, Navi is also the Hebrew word for “Prophets!”) There Jake naively participates in a military/corporate scheme to drive off the humanoid natives, so they can mine precious mineral deposits beneath their sacred woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake assists the “empire” in gathering “intel” by infiltrating the native people by taking on an “avatar” identity, almost like a suit of armor, meant to disguise his human identity and the humans’ imperial intentions. Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love. Those from Earth find themselves at odds with each other and the local culture. And rather than disguising his intentions, Jake’s wearing of the avatar transforms him and reveals his own inner compassion. Unfortunately, the spiritual forces of evil are at work in this other heavenly place, and violent destruction wins the day.
Being dropped into the world of Ephesians might be both as strange and as familiar to us as being dropped onto twenty-second century Pandora. Let’s consider what life was like in first century Ephesus. It was the most important imperial city between Rome and Antioch. When Augustus became emperor in 27 BCE, he made Ephesus the capital of proconsular Asia, which covered western Asia Minor. Ephesus entered an era of prosperity. It became the seat of the governor, growing into a metropolis and a major center of commerce. It was second in importance and size only to Rome. It had around half a million inhabitants in the year 100, making it the largest city in Roman Asia of the day. It certainly would have been the site of many legions of Roman soldiers, making them a common point of reference. Ephesus was at its peak during the 1st and 2nd century AD. It was also the site of the main temple of the goddess Diana, and thus was a significant focus of fealty to the emperor. Yet despite a cultural environment clearly hostile to the Jesus way, the young church flourished there as the body of Christ – reconciled in love and wearing integrity, justice, tenacious peace, trust, and reconciliation – the way that the centurions – joined together in aggression – wore deception, injustice, violence, distrust, and oppression.
At the time this epistle was written, and for nearly another three centuries, the Christian community was categorically opposed to war in any form. To take up arms was thought to nullify the baptismal covenant. This was especially inconvenient to soldiers and other leaders of the empire. It was not until 312, after Constantine claimed victory under the sign of the cross, leading to his exclusive claim to be the sole emperor of Rome, that war became officially legitimized by the church. Even so, Constantine delayed his own baptism until his deathbed thirteen years later, because to lead the Roman Empire required him to embrace the principalities and powers – deception, injustice, violence, distrust, and oppression.
In the original context of Ephesians, the principalities and powers seemed indistinguishable from the emperor and his armies. And the armies were everywhere. The sight of the Roman centurion would be familiar to every citizen or subject of the empire – anonymous, identical, and unyielding. And yet, Ephesians says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” For these too were beloved children of God, and so deserved to be treated in the Way of Jesus – the way of compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, and charity – instead of the way of the empire – of control, hierarchy, accusation, and privilege.
Surrounded as we are today by images of perfectly outfitted combatants, it’s hard not aspire to the same attire. In our time, the centurions may be professional athletes, media personalities, corporate executives, or those we allow ourselves to consider our “betters” – who are attired in technology, fashion, and privilege – or even literal warriors, attired in Kevlar, highly-trained, helmeted, breast-plated, shod, and armored in ways that we cannot achieve. The effect of our advertising and entertainment is to send this message: “Unless you are outfitted like this, you cannot compete in this world. To be a success, to win, to be worthy, this is the equipment you need. Like the Ephesians, we are at risk of buying into the paradigm of the principalities and powers.
Theologically speaking, our trouble is that we might conclude that we can layer on a winning identity – an identity other than the image of God in which we are made – an identity other than the Christ within us and the Spirit between us. The trouble is hubris – perhaps even idolatry – as we place our faith, our trust, in our avatars, in the things we have wrought, rather than in the sustaining grace of God. And then we proceed to categorize those who do not share our individual perspectives as evil, repugnant, or simply expendable. Most of us do not go through our daily lives aware of spiritual forces of evil on each side. Yet history is replete with good people categorizing others as evil based on difference, misunderstanding, or suspicion. The demonization of Muslims is a prime example. Like the first century audience of Ephesians, the temptation to categorize Muslim people or even Islam itself as evil is itself one of the principalities and powers. In fact, people of all faiths are caught up in this spiritual force of evil. Along with the spiritual powers of idolatry and temptation comes accusation. Even the name we give evil when we allegorize it – Satan – means “accuser.” Idolatry, temptation, and accusation creep into our lives daily, and slowly, over time, establish themselves quietly as normal, and grow, turning us imperceptibly away from God’s desire to reconcile the cosmos.
At first blush Ephesians appears to endorse a militaristic stance in our search to carry out God’s project of reconciling the world – and some have justified militarism based on this passage. After all, most of world of Ephesians was united under the Emperor in Rome. But if we set aside the literal image of the centurion in armor, we find a different kind of avatar – one that fits the follower of Christ much more beautifully and functionally. Remember, Ephesians has referred repeatedly to the image of the body of Christ. It is this body that is outfitted with the panoply – the full armor – of God. To the Ephesians, God issues the belt of truth to bind them up, to hold them together. In ancient times the core of being was thought to be in the abdomen. It was literally the “guts” of the person, and the belt was not merely to hold up one’s kilt, but to protect the innards – the core of the person. When the innards hang together as they were meant, that’s integrity.
God issues the follower of Christ the breastplate of righteousness – also sometimes translated as justice – to sheathe and protect the heart – which is the seat of compassion – and to protect the lungs – which are filled with the breath/wind/spirit that was breathed into humanity at the beginning, imparting us with creativity and a voice – the very image of God. Justice and righteousness play out in relationships with the widow, orphan, and stranger, as well as the emperor and the centurion, who share the sacred breath.
God issues shoes of peace – to guide the steps of those who follow the way. It’s important to know that the shoes of the centurions had spikes on the soles, just like cleats on track, soccer, and football players, so they could gain traction and stand firmly. The implication is that peace is not something that happens through capitulation, but something that requires tenacity and determination. To stand for peace in a culture of deception, injustice, violence, distrust, and captivity requires traction.
God issues shield-like faith. The shield of the time was a tall, curved rectangle, like a portable wall, most effectively deployed in a phalanx, with the entire corps or body of combatants aligned side by side. The faithful have a fellowship, with one another and with God, that repels the attacks of the enemy. It is a plural image – the shields of faith are many, and yet they are deployed in unity against the principalities and powers. They trust each other and their lord. The word for faith here, and in much of the New Testament, really means confidence, reliability, and trust. It does not refer to doctrines or dogmas. It is the trust we have in God, through one another, as members of the body of Christ.
And finally, God covers the head with salvation. Think of the kippah worn then and now by faithful Jews. One of its most significant meanings is that it covers the sin of the wearer – allowing God to overlook the inherent shortcomings of even the most faithful, and thus extend the blessings of salvation – forgiveness and reconciliation – to the wearer.
Imagine this outfit then. The church is to be garbed in integrity, justice, tenacious peace, trust, and reconciliation. This armor, or avatar, fits the follower of the Jesus Way – of compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, and charity – like a glove.
It would be easy to vilify the modern-day centurions or their emperors. And certainly, there are those who seem to revel in their villainy. However, Ephesians says that they are not the enemy. Instead, there are principalities and powers that lie behind them that are the true enemies – the principalities and powers of control, hierarchy, accusation, and privilege.
It’s curious to me that the author of this letter would spend the bulk of it carefully laying out the assertion that we are truly beloved children of God, worthy because God loves each and every one of us best, and that the fulfillment of that love is our reconciliation into one body. Our identity is what’s revealed when we stand naked before God – not what we wear! And then in the concluding chapter, the author designs a wardrobe for spiritual warfare to cover up the true source of our strength – our identity as the embodiment of love and shalom. But perhaps the armor of integrity, justice, tenacious peace, trust, and reconciliation is all we can wear without suppressing our true identity. This armor is lightweight, portable, stain resistant, and form-fitting. We cannot see it, but we can see its effect – which is to thwart evil.
This full armor of God does not render us invincible to the gritty realities of life. It would not turn aside the bullets of a disgruntled former employee in New York City who releases his rage on innocent bystanders. It does not prevent the entry into our bodies of toxins that lead to disease, nor does it adjust our body chemistry to avert a bout with cancer. It does not heal all our relationships, perfect our families, restore our dreams, or break down the barriers to communication that come with being flesh and blood. So, what does the full armor of God do? What does Ephesians promise? What is the good news of this encouraging message to first century Christians and twenty-first century Christians alike?
Simply put, grace makes it possible for us to pray and to speak, to care and console, and to encourage others to do the same. Having been clad and shod in the full armor of God, the activities we are to pursue are not to lunge and to thrust, to charge and to slash. This armor is not suitable for such an activity. Instead, the firm stand we are to take is to carry and to care, to mind and to mend. The good news is that in simply wearing the full armor of God, we reveal our genuine identity and achieve a victory that fits. May it be so with us in our time and our place.