Our lives are constantly lived out in this battle between that which is good and that which is evil. It is this notion that our society come to define as spiritual warfare. Paul gives a little insight in what it means for us to struggle with the notion in our passage today. For Paul most of this letter is about our new life in Christ. It is about how we are different from our past life and how we are supposed to conduct ourselves. In our passage today Paul seeks to tackle our response to systemic evils, our response when things are unjust. This understanding of how do we stand fast when things are unjust.
Paul writes, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Eph. 6:10-11)
If we are to interpret this as a passage of encouragement in hard times then we must examine Paul’s words as those that can build us up not words that can be used to tear a person down. Paul uses phrases like “be strong” and “stand against.” These phrases setting up a defensive mindset for relying on God. This understanding of “standing firm” is carried through the rest of the passage that we may resolute in the face of evil.
However, what does evil look like?
Paul gives a brief idea of what evil is that we can build on as we seek to know what it is that we come up against in our lives. Paul begins there in verse 11 by identifying the devil. However, Paul wants to make sure we are a bit clearer on this matter. Paul writes,
“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.” (Eph. 6:12)
What is Paul saying here?
Well let me come at it from this direction. We have all heard of comic book superheroes. Im sure we have all heard of the marvel superheroes in the latest Avengers movies, or Superman or Batman through their respective movie and TV franchises.
So within these comic books there is this understanding of a hero and a villain. This dichotomy of good versus evil. Now in these examples this evil is often personified, but these villains often represent a non-personified evil in our world. The battles between these heroes and villains often are metaphors for the struggle we have with the non-personified attribute of the villain. We struggle because we can recognize attributes of the villain in our own world.
These non-personified attributes are what Paul talks about when Paul talks of evil. Paul says these “enemies” are “not flesh and blood” they are not people. Therefore, as we begin to understand this idea of evil in the world we cannot look towards people for conceptions of evil. Therefore, we see that evil is not personified. Evil is not a person but rather a trait, an attribute.
Our argument is against the systems. It is against the things we cannot often see. It is against greed, complacency, judgement, or any number of these ideas that we as humans try to use. The thing about those super-villains is that they are personified and so we ourselves try to attack the personified person and we don’t think about the unjust system. We don’t often think of the non-personified evil that lies under.
Christopher Morse, Theologian at Union Seminary in New York, writes,
“What in the New Testament terms are spoken as ‘the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and forces of evil in high places’ that require faith to wrestle with more than just ‘enemies of the flesh’ (Eph. 6:12) are more generally referred to today as ‘systemic evils.’ Systemic evils are institutionalized structures of dehumanization. They are ‘the course of this world’ insofar as its inhabitants are ensnared into a crowd mentality of complicity with the infliction of destruction and death (Eph. 2:2).” (Morse pg. 242)
Therefore, we explain the evil in this world as a notation not of human beings themselves, but of the systematic injustices that plague our world. It is systemic racism, sexism, the underlying approval of dangerous systems, it is turning your back when bad things are happening, it is ignoring those needing help. These are the evils Paul seeks to address in this passage. Those are the evil inclinations in our world, and this is what we must be on guard against. This is what Paul concludes we should be taking a stand against. It is those thoughts that draw us away from our faithful love for God, and our called love for our neighbor.
So what do we do to prevent being overcome with this systemic evil and injustices? How to we prevent the from becoming part of our lives?
We do it by standing fast in who God is and how God reaches out to us. Paul calls us to stand fast in our faith. Paul says in verse 13, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” (Eph. 6:13) We must not only stand fast but we must take up the armor of God. Paul reaches for this metaphor of the armor of God to let us know what we carry with us in our lives. As Paul envisions steadfastness he is reminded of the guard who stood watch over him while he was imprisoned. He remembered the belt, the breastplate, the shoes, the shield, the helmet, and even the sword. He imagined these not as aggressive tools, but as defensive measures to help that guard stand fast against whatever may try to come against him. These were not tools to harm, but tools to protect.
In Paul’s mind and in his metaphor none of these are even used to cause harm to a person. They are used to help remind us the faith that we stand firm in. They are used to help the reader recognize the promises of God that we carry with us to help us remember that even in the midst of darkness God is there to light the way and help us. They are there to help protect us and keep the darkness from trying to overpower. Evil cannot be a crutch that keeps us from fully submitting to God. Rather we should allow God to be our strength. To cloth us in glory and to watch over and protect us.
Sarah Henrich, in a commentary I read in preparing this sermon, writes, “Dark powers adapt readily, eager to draw believers from a life of faithful love. God’s armor empowers believers through the millennia to grasp and resist such manipulation.” (Henrich)
We must be on guard against these systemic injustices because they seek to harm the relationship that we have with God and even more so that we have with our neighbors. They seek to fracture that relationship and build up an ideology that God only loves us if we are perfect.
“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.” (Eph. 6:14-17)
This is what Paul uses to show how we stand fast. He uses this idea of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Spirit. Notice even the defensive nature of each of these items. The only one that is remotely related to aggression is the sword, and in the way Paul uses it he does not seek for people to use it aggressively. Each of these are used to help us to stand fast with God. To stand against the evils. Not to harm a person. Even in terms of the sword of the Spirit, which Paul refers to as the word of God and we refer to as Scripture, is not meant to be something that causes harm against others. We should not use it to break others down and tell them how they are wrong. Rather we use it to encourage ourselves and encourage others. We use it to show God’s love and God’s care for all of creation.
Sarah Henrich continued on saying, “Note that the armor is designed to help folks stand fast: it is not armor for aggressive action. Standing fast does not require a person to hurt a neighbor in any way. The ‘standing fast,’ from histemi [greek word for stand] is repeated in Ephesians 6:11, 13, 14, clearly a very significant thread in this passage. Anthistemi [greek word for withstand] also appears in v. 13. Withstanding is necessary for standing. The armor is to empower believers to withstand the evils that surround and threaten them.” (Henrich)
This is a message of survival. It answers the question what do we do in the face of systemic evil? We stand fast. We follow the role of God and we keep encouraged that God is guiding us, God is working within us. These systemic evils are not about attacking anybody, but dealing the underlying systematic injustices that lie beneath the surface. It is about standing fast in our beliefs of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Spirit. It is about recognizing the systemic evils and not feeding into them. It is about ceasing being part of the problem and instead working to change the mindsets by showing a new mindset that is of God. It is about showing that mindset of God. That all persons are loved and all persons deserve to be treated as such.
As Paul wraps up his teaching here he wraps up with our greatest tool. He wraps up with the power of prayer. Our greatest tool is the power of Prayer. Pray does not need a piece of armor. Prayer just needs to be identified.
“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.” (Eph 6:18-20)
Prayer then is the tool we use to call upon God’s presence in our lives, to call upon God’s word to come upon us to speak his words. It is to this end that we are reminded of the armor of God. The truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Spirit that we carry with us.
The armor helps us to stand fast against evil and the power of prayer that Paul calls us then is the strength to go out and to share who it is that is protecting us. To share that the God of truth, peace, love, and grace is watching over us and calls us to treat with justice all persons.
You carry this armor too. I am sure if yours is like mine it is pretty beat up, but it is still there. Hopefully you are still steadfast with God. Know that this armor that Paul talks of is God’s promise for us to overcome this evil. That we not let this evil become a part of our lives, but that we rise above it and seek to change the way in which we treat our fellow brothers and sisters.
We are all responsible for this change. The reason systemic evil is so bad is because it has worked its way so deep into our daily lives that we don’t even recognize it. It is that inkling to treat someone differently because of what they look like or their beliefs.
Allow God to be your compass and stand fast in the truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Spirit of God. Carrying these with you always and keeping God close through prayer as to discern the voice of God you are called to preach.
1.) Henrich, Susan. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2600
2.) Morse, Christopher. Not Every Spirit.
3.) NRSV Bible Ephesians 6:10-20