Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
I’m afraid I have to start with something of a disclaimer this morning, which is to say that this morning’s lectionary text from Ephesians has never been one of my favorite passages.To begin with, the language can seem archaic to our 21st century ears, with all its references to devils and cosmic forces of evil.It sort of harkens back to a time when people took for granted the existence of things like angels, demons, and devils.But for most people living in this postmodern age, that kind of language can sound somewhat superstitious—even if we would very much concede that real evil does still exist in the world.But that’s not really my biggest complaint about this text.The bigger problem for me is all the militaristic language in this passage. Historically,this kind of language has been much abused—often with deadly consequences. In my view, the church has too often aligned itself with various empires and military forces, and I would argue we continue to do so.Church history contains way too many examples of the blessing of armies and weapons intended to annihilate other members of God’s creation. And so a text like this one, one that seems to blend the church’s faith with military force, can feel quite dangerous—both spiritually and politically.
For that reason, before we go any further with this passage, I think it’s important to remember the kind of community that Paul was originally addressing with this letter.The church as it exists today, and as it has existed for most of its history at this point, bears little to no resemblance to the community Paul was writing to.The early Christian community was not a powerful entity—at least not by the standards of this world.They had no cathedrals or temples, no stained glass sanctuaries, no endowments, no impressive pipe organs or high powered worship bands. They held no influence in the halls of power, rather, they met in secret,trying to stay under the radar of an oppressive Roman government.The sight of Roman soldiers patrolling the streets of Ephesus would have been a familiar sight to the Christians there, and it was likely a sight that would have elicited a fearful reaction,given the often violent persecutions they faced. Yet despite this brutal treatment by the powers that be,the early church was a decidedly peaceful community,and did not respond to their persecution with violence or force.
Paul was obviously aware of all of this,and so it’s pretty clear,at least to me,that his intent in this letterwas not about encouraging the Ephesians to take up literal arms against their oppressors. Rather, I think this is Paul getting a little bit subversive—he’s taking the language and the tools of the oppressorand turning it all upside down. He’s telling the struggling and beleaguered community in Ephesusthat Rome might have powerful weapons of iron and steel,but those who follow Christ have the even more powerful tools of truth, faith, righteousness and the Spirit of God. He’s telling them that their best defense, in the face of great persecution,and in the presence of great evil,is the great and all-powerful love of God.
So, that was then.And here we are now.Christianity is now a world-wide religion with billions of believers, and who knows how many billions of dollars in real estate,endowments,and investments.Christians have risen to the highest levels of powerin government and business all over the world.It would seem, on the surface of things,that much has changedsince Paul first wrote this letter to the early church.It would seem that Christians can now claim victoryover the forces that once oppressed and persecuted them. Except…while it’s true that there are some places in the world where Christians still face persecution, in many other places, the shoe is now on the other foot, and it’s Christians in positions of power who are now doing the persecuting. Whether it’s sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, the oppression of women in some evangelical communities, the marginalization of LGBTQ folks, or the claims of white nationalists who say that they are the true face of Christian America—the Christian Church has proven, many times over, that access to worldly power does not necessarily give us the right to claim victory over the forces of evil and oppression in this world.And as it turns out, this is exactly the larger point that Paul was trying to make.He writes that it’s not the enemies of blood and flesh that our real struggle is with.Regardless of who holds worldly power at any given point in time, there are other forces at work which are far more dangerous to the human soul and to the realization of beloved community.I might not use the same language as Paul when it comes to what those forces are.I don’t really believe in a literal devil, and I don’t imagine there to be some sort of cosmic war being waged between angels and demons or any other supernatural beings.I do think, however, that we have to find some way to talk about the problem of evil in our world today, and we absolutely still need tools and strategies to contend with the effects of evil—both in our world and within our own hearts.
This where I think Paul’s words,despite any problems we may have with his archaic language or chosen metaphor,can be very helpful and relevant for us today.In particular,there is one item in Paul’s inventory of spiritual armor that I think is especially pertinent for the times in which we live, and that item is the first item on his list—the belt of truth.Cathy said it a few weeks ago and I’ll say it again this morning—truth is under siege. And I know sometimes it seems difficultto discern what’s true and what’s not.Every day we are presented with conflicting versions of what is true.The phrases alternative facts and fake news are now part of our accepted daily vernacular.Truth is under siege. But perhaps in one way or another, this has always been the case.And perhaps that’s why Paul lists the belt of truth as the very first item in his armory—as a reminder that before anything else, we must first be intentional about seeking after genuine truth.If we simply accept what is given to us without question, or let others distract us with half-truths or propaganda, even if we let our own inner demons deceive us with some half-truths about ourselves--then we have already opened ourselves up to the forces Paul is warning against.
So what is truth?How do we know it when we see it?With so many disparate claims out there,is it even possible to discern real truth anymore?
As I pondered these questions this week,I was reminded of a wonderful children’s story by Douglas Wood, entitled ‘Old Turtle and The Broken Truth.’The premise of the story,for those who don’t know it,is that long ago, Truth fell from the sky.But as it fell through the atmosphere,part of the Truth broke off,and only a portion of it landed below.A number of animals happened upon it,but they could see it was brokenand so they left it behind.Eventually, howevera human stumbled upon the broken truthand was delighted by it,for on this piece of broken truth were the words,“You are Loved.”
The human picked up the broken truth and shared it with others who looked like him.At first the broken truth was comforting to them, but eventually they became fearful—fearful of others who didn’t look like them, fearful that others might try and steal the broken truth for themselves.This leads to suspicion and mistrust amongst humans, often resulting in violence and war.The broken truth is won and lost, won and lost, in an endless cycle that seems destined to continue forever. Until one day,when a little girl who is tired of all the fightinggoes on a quest to see Old Turtle—the oldest and wisest of all earth’s creatures—to seek advice on how to end all the violence plaguing the human race.Old Turtle reveals to the little girlthe part of the Truth that had broken off—turns out Old Turtle had it all along.Old Turtle gives the second piece of broken truth to the girlso she can bring it back to her people.When she arrives at home,the humans put the two pieces togetherand finally the whole Truth is revealed—"You are loved,”it says,“and so are they.”
Maybe it seems like I’ve gotten off track, but I kind of think this is where we have to start—that the most important Truth—Truth with a capital T—is God’s radical and abundant love for all the world.This is the Truth that supersedes all other truths.And so when it comes to discerning truth amidst all the conflicting claims and ideologies out there, we have to first put on what Paul calls the belt of Truth.We clothe ourselves with that Truth.And if the claims of others don’t hold up to the one Truth of God’s radical love for all the world, then we allow them to have no claim over us.If one person’s claim of truth requires us to judge others, or shame others, or see others as anything less than beautiful and beloved children of God, then it’s not real Truth and it has no claim over us.By the way, this also applies to the half-truths we tell ourselves.If the narratives in our heads are narratives of judgment or shame, if the narratives in our heads require us to see ourselves as anything less than beautiful and beloved children of God, those narratives are also not real Truth and they have no claim over us.
Maybe I’m naive, but I wonder what could happen if more of us starting living our lives according to that Truth—the truth of God’s divine love for all the world—rather than the half truths and even false truths we so often hear on TV or read on the internet.Imagine if we were all to strap on the belt of Truth—imagine how much stronger we would be against the forces that would seek to lead us astray.Forces that seek to sow seeds of hate or division would hold no power in the face of that Truth.Evil cannot survive in the presence of love.Love, as it turns out, is our best defense against the powers of evil and corruption.And so, when it comes to all the conflicts and divisions we currently face, and indeed there are many, maybe the best place to start is by putting on the belt of Truth, and by clothing ourselves with God’s love.There are other tools at our disposal, of course—according to Paul there’s also the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit.Unfortunately we don’t have time to explore all of them today. Ultimately though,I think it all comes down to this—God’s love is our best defense. And perhaps it is here where Paul’s metaphor ultimately breaks down.Because obviously God’s love is not a weapon.It’s not even a tool—it’s not something we can use or manipulate in order to get what we want.It’s just a gift.And it’s for everyone.And that, my friends, is the whole truth, nothing but the truth, and it is our best defense. Amen.