Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
These are the concluding words of St Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus, and it never ceases to amaze me that, in a letter so full of flowery language and exotic imagery about unity and community and love and harmony, Paul finishes his exhortations by encouraging the flock to be like soldiers!
I don’t mean to disrespect soldiers, but one thing I’ve gained from my numerous trips to Syria over the last three years, I think, is a more realistic appreciation of the horrors of war. I’m not suggesting that I had a particularly romantic concept of war before that, but after going through the beautiful village of Maaloula earlier this year and seeing the destruction, the blood still fresh in some places, and the graffiti on the walls that translated “we grow closer to God by cutting off heads” I’ve seen what soldiers do and I appreciate more fully General Sherman’s aphorism – that war is hell, and hardly an obvious source for spiritual imagery!
Of course Jesus did compare our Heavenly Father to a cat-burglar (‘the day of the Lord cometh like a thief in the night!’) and likewise encouraged His followers to become like little children (not older, responsible children but crazy and irresponsible little children) so bizarre use of metaphor and analogy is nothing new to the New Testament. Even so, to a first century Jew like St Paul, a fully-armoured Roman legionary would have been a symbol of both violence and oppression, and would have been about as endearing a figure as a flag-waving, machine-gun carrying jihadist would be to his 21st century counterpart!
The success of the Roman army – unparalleled in human history really – reinforces to me a truth I first heard put forward by Noam Chomsky some time ago. Responding to those who suggested that the historical dominance of the European peoples over the various continents of the earth demonstrated the superiority of these races in their ingenuity and technological brilliance, Chomsky suggests that historically the only distinguishing characteristic of European people has been their unparalleled brutality in warfare!
The Roman army certainly exemplified brutality. The Romans, as I understand it, showed no originality in their philosophy or politics or art or religion. They stood out from their peers as innovators and experts in only one field! They were absolutely brilliant in the art of killing people! Indeed, the solider Paul depicts, geared up with his helmet, his breast-place, boots and sword, was the perfect killing machine!
It is possible that Paul was chained to a Roman soldier when he wrote this letter? We can be confident, either way, that Paul had no idealistic or romantic associations with the life or character of the Roman legionary. He would have respected him, as all people subjugated by the Romans respected their army. Indeed, my favourite quote regarding the nature of the Roman army comes from another similarly subjugated Jewish writer – Josephus – who writes in his ‘Jewish Wars’.
Anyone who will take a look at the organization of their army in general will recognize that they hold their wide-flung empire as the prize of valour, not the gift of fortune. They do not wait for war to begin before handling their arms, nor do they sit idle in peacetime and take action only when the emergency comes – but as if born ready armed they never have a truce from training or wait for war to be declared. Their battle-drills are no different from the real thing; every man works as hard at his daily training as if he was on active service. That is why they stand up so easily to the strain of battle: no indiscipline dislodges them from their regular formation, no panic incapacitates them, no toil wears them out; so victory over men not so trained follows as a matter of course. It would not be far from the truth to call their drills bloodless battles, their battles bloody drills. (Josephus’ Jewish Wars III, 60)
The Roman army – brutal in their efficiency, highly disciplined in their drills, always ready for action, hard and merciless in battle. The concluding thought of Josephus sums it up very well, I think – that the only difference between their drills and the real thing was that there was a bit more blood in the real thing!
I’m not sure if people would say the same thing about my Fight Club, though I suppose they would be paying us a compliment if they did. Certainly we train hard. Certainly we recognise the important of discipline, and certainly we get into it when we spar. Indeed it could be said that the only difference between one of our sparring sessions and a full-on competitive boxing match is that there is generally a little more blood spilt in the latter. Again, it’s rather brutal imagery and such brutal imagery may have a place in a boxing club as it certainly makes sense in the context of the Roman army but it seems radically out of place when we’re discussing the church!
Mark Twain said of the church that it was a place ‘where nice, respectable people go to listen to a nice, respectable man tell them how they can be nicer and more respectable’, and that may be a pretty accurate description of the church of his time, and it may be a pretty accurate description of any number of churches today. Either way though, it reflects a very different sort of spirituality to the one Paul is speaking of which, far from being nice and respectable, seems to be drenched in blood!
There are those who think that good Christians should be nice and respectable and uphold the establishment. There are others amongst us who think that the very concept of the Kingdom of God is one that challenges the establishment.
During my life I’ve had a privilege of meeting a number of soldiers. I’ve met quite a few in Syria, of course, where almost every young man in the country seems to be involved in the army either part-time or full-time. One young dad I met last month impressed me particularly. He had a beautiful baby daughter that he loved bouncing on his knee. He said “I’m finished with the army now. I’ve done my bit. I think I must have killed about 1,500 people.” I found that very difficult to comprehend. Even if he was exaggerating ten-fold, I wondered how this young man slept at night!
I’ve also met many warriors who I suspect sleep much more peaceably at night – men who are fighters in the true sense of the word but who have never held a gun: men like Mordechai Vanunu and Julian Assange. There are some other great warriors in this world that I am still hoping to meet one day, though I realise I’m running out of time with at least one of those great fighters (Jimmy Carter).
It did occur to me as I pondered again Paul’s depiction of the spiritual warrior that all the fighters I most admire in this world share one key characteristic with Paul’s soldierly archetype – namely, they are all fighting on the defense! None of them are crusaders – out to convert the world and force everybody to think exactly the same way they do! Instead they are on the defense – trying to protect their own people from violence coming either from outside or from their own government!
This is exactly the battle as Paul envisages it, and hence his repeated use of the Greek verb ‘histemi’ – to stand. ‘Stand firm’ says Paul, and this exhortation to stand occurs three times in this short passage. Paul isn’t envisaging any glorious missionary enterprise with the Christian community launching out aggressively into the pagan world. His exhortation is simply to hold the line! And that’s why Paul’s military inventory is made up of defensive armor rather than offensive weaponry.
We have the helmet, the breastplate and the shield. There is no mention of the javelin that’s used when you’re on the attack. There is a mention of arrows, but they are being fired by the enemy. There is also mention of the sword, of course, but it’s not the great broad-sword that you use to slash your way through the enemy’s ranks but rather the short dagger, used for close-in defensive work!
I can’t read Paul’s inventory, of course, without thinking of my own suit of armor. It’s not as heavy as that worn by a legionary and it can’t extinguish arrows. Even so …
* The headgear of righteousness
* The mouthguard of truth
* The groin-guard of salvation
* The gloves of the spirit
As with the legionary’s armor, the boxer’s gear is all designed for defense – to soften the blows and to help you stay on your feet! And it’s not easy to stay on your feet – it’s not easy in the ring and it’s not easy in all of life, for we are under unrelenting attack as we are constantly being lied to by the principalities and powers!
Some of these lies are quite obvious and easy to uncover, such as the lies that have been told about Syria over the last four years! It’s rather painful for me to admit that since Professor Anderson I got back from Syria a couple of weeks ago we’ve been trying to get a jointly-written article published about what’s really going on over there, and none of the major papers wants to touch it! Apparently they are very nervous at the moment with regards to publishing anything that doesn’t support the party line! The problem with the party line, in my opinion, is that it’s designed to drag us into another war that could cost the lives of countless more people!
Perhaps the most corrosive lies though are not these sorts of explicit lies but rather the unspoken lies that have become so embedded in the framework that the principalities and powers operate in that we barely notice them!
* The lie that success can be evaluated in monetary terms!
* The lie that beauty requires us to be of a particular shape and colour
* And the lie that all of life should be devoted to pursuing success and beauty!
These are the deep lies that permeate to the very core of our culture and we’re not sure who is behind these lies and we can’t point to anyone who taught them to us because “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)
And so we need all the armour that God supplies – the buckle and the breastplate and the shield and the sword, and we need one other thing as well that isn’t explicitly mentioned in Paul’s inventory: we will need each other!
This is where the boxing analogy breaks down a bit. It’s not that boxing isn’t a team experience. The corner team is fundamental to every boxer‘s success. Even so, in the end, the boxer stands in the ring alone. In Roman warfare though, as St. Paul had witnessed it, everybody gets into the ring together!
If you’ve seen Roman armour, you may know that the Roman shield (the ‘scutum’) was designed so that when the troops formed a line the shield would protect not only the person holding it but would lock in to protect the persons on either side as well.
If you’ve ever seen how the Roman soldiers used to form ‘turtles’ you’ll know how they arranged their shields to protect each other from missiles coming in from above as well. Fighting, for the Roman soldier, was always a ‘team’ experience. They didn’t just fight as individuals side by side. Their whole style of fighting was dependant on the presence of their comrades.
This is the only way it can work for us as a Christian community. It is simply too tough to be a counter-culture on your own, and Paul’s image of the Christian at battle is likewise not one of the individual warrior maintaining his or her spiritual integrity in the face of overwhelming odds, but rather of a squad holding the line together.
I appreciate that we are talking in metaphor today, but I do envisage that much of this could take quite literal form in the days to come. Today many of us are going to join the local Islamic community in another fellowship event, and I fear that the day may soon come when some of us will be called upon to stand alongside these people to endure a barrage of abuse at least (if not more physically damaging projectiles). It’s impossible to know, of course, what form exactly the attack will take but we know that the enemy is still there and so the attacks will surely continue to come in one form or another.
Holding the line is not easy. We need to be tough! We need to take hold of every weapon that God supplies. And we need each other. Will you stand with me? I can’t do it on my own. It’s just too exhausting! I can’t do it on my own and neither can you! But together, with our shields locked in and our armour on, we can make a stand!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 23rd of August, 2015.