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 final words of St Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus.
‘Be strong in the Lord’ he urges them, knowing that the task ahead of them as Christian people is not going to be an easy one. They have keep the faith, maintain their integrity, build their community, and shine out like beacons of light in their sick and struggling society. In other words, it’s going to be a war!
And this indeed is life as we experience it. It’s a war. It’s certainly how the last week has felt to me, at any rate. It’s been a war!
Perhaps I’ve just had a particularly bad week this last week but I can tell you that I regularly turn up for church here on a Sunday morning feeling exhausted! It’s been a variety of things for me this last week but they really culminated for me on Friday with the controversy about the Al Quds Day rally.
For those who know nothing about Al Quds Day (and I confess that I didn’t know much myself until very recently) it’s a day that is set aside each year by Muslim people in particular as a day for remembering oppressed people around the world and the oppressed people of Palestine in particular.
And I was asked by the organisers of the Sydney Al Quds rally to say a few words of support for the suffering people of Palestine, which I was naturally keen to do. And then on Thursday, the day before the rally, I found myself being bombarded on Twitter about an article that was published in The Australian on that day – an article that mentioned me by name as someone who was going to speak at a hate rally, calling for the destruction of the State of Israel!
This article led to some rapid attempts at investigative work by me, trying to work out exactly what I had got myself into, and I was directed to the Al-Quds website, which unfortunately is entirely in Arabic!
I did eventually find other material in English that gave me some background to what Al Quds Day is about, but not enough to give me any real clarity, so in the end I withdrew my involvement, even though I knew that the persons who were organising the rally were excellent people who weren’t working for the destruction of anything.
And this has left me feeling rather sick in the stomach as I feel like I’ve let down my Palestinian sisters and brothers for whom I pray daily (for indeed I don’t think any other group of people in the world has been treated so brutally and so consistently, for more than a generation now). At the same time though I couldn’t bring myself to participate in the rally if doing so compromised my commitment to my Jewish sisters and brothers, whom I also love, and I just wasn’t sure at the time. I needed more time and I didn’t have more time so I made the decision I did (rightly or wrongly).
I appreciate that any number of people listening might be thinking, ‘He calls that a hard week? I’ll tell him what a hard week is’, and I appreciate that everyone here has their own struggles, and no doubt mine pale in comparison to some of yours.
I pick up enough of what’s going on around me from the pastoral work I do – people who are struggling financial hardship, mental illness, single mums who just can’t manage their children any more, women and men who are being abused by their partners – physically, sexually and legally!
It’s a war, and the temptation is to think that it’s just the fault of one or two particularly bad people. ‘I just have rotten children’ or ‘I have the boss from hell’ or ‘I have the world’s most evil ex’, but it’s always really more complicated than that.
I like to say that every complex problem always has a simple answer and it’s always the wrong answer, and that’s true enough, but in this case the answer is not just complex it’s not even human! That is, the war we are in is not simply a battle of flesh and blood, and St Paul puts his finger on it here:
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. (Ephesians 6:12)
And we don’t like to accept that. We like to think that bad things happen because there are bad people making them happen and that if we can get rid of the bad people we’ll stop all the badness, but it just doesn’t work that way!
The media always depict things this way. It tells you that the problem with Syria is that Bashar Al-Assad is a bad man and that if you get rid of him and replace him with a lovely rebel leader everything will be lovely and peaceful (just as it is now in Libya and Iraq, where we solved all their problems by getting rid of the bad men there)!
For our battle is not just against flesh and blood. There are insidious forces at work, within us and around us – working through our governments, working through corporations, infesting our legal system and spreading virally everywhere!
I often say that even if I somehow stopped believing in God, I’d still believe in the devil! And it’s true! When I look at the way our world works, and I look at the way that governments and media work to twist and distort the truth, and when there’s no isolated individuals you can point to who are causing the problems, but when it’s just ‘the system’, and when those who try to expose the system – people like Morde Vanunu and Bradley Manning – get imprisoned and tortured while the criminals they expose get rewarded, I recognise that there are dark forces at work in our world!
And so St Paul says that if we are going to contest this enemy, we are going to have to prepare ourselves properly and put on our armour like regulation soldiers!
Some people think it odd that Paul used the example of a Roman legionary as an image of Christian discipleship, as the Roman soldier would not have been an endearing image for Paul. And it would not have been because he romanticised the life of the Roman legionary, in the way in which we might be tempted to do today. No. There could only have been one reason for choosing the figure of the Roman soldier, and that’s because the Roman legionary, like no one else Paul knew, knew how to fight!
My favourite quote, and a most revealing one, commenting on the style of the Roman soldier, comes from that famous early Jewish writer, Josephus.
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)
There they are: the Roman army – brutal in their efficiency, highly disciplined in their drills, always ready for action, hard and merciless in battle. And that terrible concluding thought of Josephus’ – that the only difference between the drills and the real thing was that there was a bit more blood in the real thing!
Now, mind you, I can’t read this passage about the way the Roman army trained without being reminded of the way some of our boxers train!
We’ve had two serious fights we’ve been involved in over the last two months and I’ve had the privilege of watching Lovemore and Sol Egberime do a lot of sparring, and the parallels with the sort of training Josephus was talking about have not been lost on me!
I watched our boys pound each other, round after round, sometimes without even taking the required one-minute break between rounds!
I remember one night when the two boys did 12 hard rounds like this and at the end of them Lovemore said “let’s do one more”, and so they did one more! And at the end of that round Solomon (not to be outdone) said “one more”! And at the end of that one I think they both said in unison “one more”!
As with the Roman army, so it is with our lads!
“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”
We take our training seriously around here! And we put on our armour:
- The headgear of righteousness
- The gloves of the Spirit (nb. handwraps of truth normally go under the gloves)
- The mouthguard of prayer
- The groin-guard of salvation
And before I remove the boxing armour, let me draw attention to the key point of commonality between the boxer and the Roman soldier: the inventory, in both cases, is 100% defensive!
Everything is designed to protect the fighter from getting hurt – the headgear, the mouthguard, the helmet, the breastplate, the gloves, the shield and the buckle! Even the ‘sword’ mentioned by Paul is not the broadsword, used by the Roman soldier as he forged ahead in attack, but the shorter defensive dagger, used for in-close work. The standard weapons of attack – the broadsword and the javelin – are not mentioned at all. Arrows are mentioned, but only as part of the enemy’s arsenal, not as part of the Christian’s kit.
In other words, what Paul is making clear in his detailing of the armour, as in the passage as a whole, is that the battle is a defensive one. There is no vision here of the church on a crusade, belting it’s way victoriously through the forces of darkness, overturning cultures and values and long-held traditions. All Paul asks of the Christian here is that we ‘stand’.
“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.”
The word ‘stand’ is mentioned three times in two verses here. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about taking your stand and holding it.
That was my great hope, some may remember, when I originally challenged Anthony Mundine to a fight all those years ago. I had no expectation of knocking him out. I didn’t really expect to even score many points on him. My goal was simply to remain on my feet in the hope that, when the final bell rung, I might still be standing!
Don’t underestimate how hard this is – and I don’t mean just in the ring either – I’m talking about the real life battle against the principalities and powers and the unseen forces of darkness that operate from the heavenly places.
It’s a war, and if we’re going to survive this war and win this battle we’re going to have to take our training seriously and don every piece of armour that the Lord supplies. And I know that reading your Bible can get monotonous, and I know that there never seems to be enough time in the day to pray, and I know that you’ve got a million reasons why you can’t get to church regularly and I know that when you do get there that (God forgive us) it’s often boring, but if we are going to survive this battle, we are going to have to do whatever it takes to prepare ourselves properly!
We need the gloves and the headgear and the mouth-guard and the groin-guard and the sword and the shield and breastplate and helmet. And we need one other thing as well that isn’t explicitly mentioned: 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, as the corner team are 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 (‘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 these 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.
Fighting, for the Roman soldier, was always a community experience, 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 it’s an image of a regiment of troops holding the line together against oncoming forces.
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 at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on August 19, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.