rooted in love: strength

We finished with Ephesians last week, in chapter 6, looking at a classic passage about putting on the whole armor of God. It’s a passage that terrifies some and comforts other, and we spent some time wrestling with what kind of strength are we asked to have as Christians. Is it an invincible-action-hero kind of strength? Or something else? Thoughts after the jump.

This passage makes me think of action movies—it’s probably all the macho language.

I love action movies. Love them. When I’m at wits end—sad or stressed or angry or exhausted—I can always count on an action movie to lift me out of that funk. I don’t have particularly high brow taste, either—Die Hard will do just fine, thank you.

There are a couple of things that make action movies therapeutic. They’re distracting and escapist.

More than that, though, there’s a cathartic, fantasy-fulfillment piece. I may be overwhelmed. I may feel like I’m not strong enough or tough enough to handle whatever’s thrown my way, but James Bond has things under control. John McClane is tough enough. I come out of the movie, blinking in the sunlight, and for a few minutes completely believe that I, just like Jason Bourne, can handle whatever the world throws my way.

Action movies play on that desire to be strong. And that need for strength is what Ephesians is getting at here, too. Life’s hard. We need strength.

We have a cultural myth that says ease is proof of success. There are whole industries built around making us believe life—marriage, weight-loss, even grief—don’t have to be hard. They can be easier, if we’d do them right.

Ephesians, however, tells the truth. Life is going to be hard. This passage assumes there will be struggle. And so we need strength.

We need strength not just to face the daily grind of life, but also to face what this letter calls the cosmic powers of darkness.

The Ephesians had a world view that included spirits hovering in the air between earth and heaven. You needed to align with the good spirits and do battle with the evil ones. That is not how most of us understand the world anymore, but I think, even though that is not an image that works for us on a literal level, we get this on a gut-level. There are forces beyond our control that work against life.

We might think about the ever-present drive to accumulate more and more stuff. That combination of greed and boredom and envy that leads us to always want just a little bit more, a little bit nicer, a little bit better—even though we know that consumption at this pace is unsustainable, is dependent on the poverty of others, and that it will never, ever fill the void inside. We know all that, but there’s still the pull, the lure, the desire. It’s the air we breathe. It might seem a little over the top to call this a cosmic power of darkness, but that at least acknowledges the power that this habit of consumption has over us.

Or for another example, we might think about the kind of anxiety that has no source and no solution, that seeps in and seems like it will never leave, and that leads us to do all kinds of neurotic, damaging things. Or we could think of how illness, like cancer, can walk in one day and reshape our entire world.

These kinds of forces, whether they are mostly interior or exterior, whether they are “man-made” or “natural,” they are way, way beyond our control.

We need strength to live faithfully in the presence of these forces. The question is, what kind of strength?

Do we need strength like the Terminator? Invincible and equipped with explosives? This passage seems initially to call for that kind of action-movie strength. It reads like a training montage: cut from images of enemies to our hero putting on his armor.

But if we look closer, this is all the wrong kind of armor. Truth, righteousness, peace… those are lovely, but they’re no match for steel, kevlar, and bullets. This stuff in Ephesians doesn’t sound like armor or strength at all.

It sounds like vulnerability, to go wading into combat clothed only in the Spirit. Sounds like a sure path to losing, to hold faith as your shield.

It sounds like foolishness. And it is. It is the foolishness that is at the heart of the Christian path.

We do not put our trust in guns and power, and might, and stuff. We trust in the one who was crucified, and so our image of strength is different. Our armor takes a different shape.

We fasten a belt of truth around our waist. What good can that do? Ask an addict whose life is no longer captive to the addiction, because at long last she dared to speak the truth. My life has become unmanageable. I need help. That kind of truth is strong—stronger than the death-force of addiction, strong enough to create new life.

This week was the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death. Emmett Till was a 14 year old black boy from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Some say he winked at a white woman. For this, they tortured, mutilated, and killed him. When his body was recovered, his mother insisted upon an open casket. She knew her battle was not with flesh and blood. She fastened on that belt of truth and told the world what hate looked like. Her son’s death became a galvanizing force in the nascent civil rights movement, because she dared to put on the armor of God.

As for your shoes, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Just like the belt, our shoes are not one size fits all. Wearing this armor requires discernment. We are called to be peacemakers. The form that takes, varies. Some days we might need to go barefoot, remembering that from dust we came and to dust we shall return. Making peace is hard spiritual work, and it helps to remember that we’re all just mortal creatures, doing the best we can. Other days we might need our sturdiest work boots, shoes that are up to the task of building homes, feeding the hungry, tending the sick. Peace is not separate from our bodily needs, and easing poverty goes a long way toward creating peace. Other days we need our nicest dress shoes, shined, and ready to go toe to toe with the powerful. I just love how practical this verse is, and how simple. What shoes do we wear? Whatever will make us ready to be peacemakers. Maybe each morning as we get dressed we could ask, how will these shoes make me ready to proclaim peace?

We carry a shield of faith. This, on the other hand, does not seem practical. It seems foolish. Shields are supposed to be impenetrable. And faith is so invisible. How can it possibly shield us? It can’t, of course. Not the faith of Jesus, anyway. The kind of faith we see in Jesus doesn’t put up a hard shield of protection, trying to keep the world out. This kind of faith is supple, strong enough to have its heart broken, trusting that beyond death lies life, and that the only thing that will quench those flaming arrows of hate is love.

And finally we wield the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. This line has been used to justify saying horrible, harmful things to people—the Bible is our sword after all. That understanding of this text is incorrect. This passage emphasizes that we are not in a literal fight with other people. Our struggle ultimately is against all those things that seek to defeat life—fear and hopelessness and a culture of hate and violence. When we struggle with that stuff the Spirit and the word of God is an essential ally.

When we wonder what to do in a given situation, Micah tells us: what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

When we don’t know where we fit, or if we belong at all, Isaiah reminds us of the truth: God says Fear not. I have claimed you. You are mine. I have called you by name.

When we are at wit’s end and can’t manage for ourselves, we can trust in this: the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And when the love of God seems impossibly far off, when all is dark, and we have lost faith, we lean into Paul’s words to the Romans: I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This, friends, is the kind of strength we need. It’s the only kind of strength there really is. All the rest is illusion and passing away. But the love and light that dwell in the heart of God are what brought this world into being, they are the forces of redemption and salvation. And though love, and light, and life, can seem awfully slight next to all the worldly forms of strength, it is ultimately only light that can break the darkness, and only love that can quench hate, and only life that can endure beyond death. This is the nature of our strength—a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit. May we, bit by bit, dare to lay down all our other weapons, and put on, piece by piece, the armor of God. Amen.

by Sarah W. Wiles
September 2, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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