Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

With this reading, we come (almost) to the end of Ephesians.

"Wine." Image by Brendan DeBrincat via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

August 26, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20

With this reading, we come (almost) to the end of Ephesians.

Astonishing claims have been made: God unites everything in the universe through Christ (Ephesians 1:10) and has put everything under his authority (1:22). God has created a new humanity out of the old animosities (2:14-16). We, chosen by God before creation (1:4), have not only been raised with Christ but already have been seated with him in the heavenly realms (2:6).

One might conclude from such soaring claims that there is no more struggle against evil, either in the world or within ourselves. Of course, we have ample evidence from daily experience that such is not the case. Even before chapter 6, Ephesians has been clear that evil spiritual forces, though defeated, are still active (1:21, 3:10). God’s victory cannot be snatched away, but the enemies have not surrendered yet. In this text, the church is enlisted and equipped to stand on God’s side in this continuing conflict.

However, this passage contains some potential pitfalls which complicate our ability to hear and to respond faithfully. First of all, there is the militaristic imagery of this text. The language of armor and battle is dangerous in the hands of us humans who have proven ourselves too quick to pick up non-metaphorical weapons of war. The church has too often aligned itself with various empires and military forces. Church history contains too many examples of crusades and of blessing the armies and weapons intended to annihilate other members of God’s creation. A text that seems to blend the church’s faith and military force is a dangerous one, both spiritually and politically.

Despite these dangers, the battle imagery in this passage can helpfully remind us that faith does not mean complacency or ignoring the daily reality of evil. Since we are being enlisted in this battle, it is important that we look to Ephesians itself to understand what sort of action is called for. In Ephesians 6:11 we are told to “put on” the armor of God. That same verb was used in 4:24, where we are told to put on the new self that God created and gave to us in Christ.

The spiritual arming of the church in this text is nothing other than putting into practice the new reality created through Christ that Ephesians has already described. God wins victory in ways that are not our ways, by bringing peace through the violent death of the cross. It is paradoxically crucial that the armor described in our text includes whatever prepares one to proclaim the “gospel of peace” (verse 15). The imagery used here is armor for violent battle; however, the strength advocated is not the might of armies, but the world-reconciling power of God embodied in the cross of Christ.

Another danger with this text’s description of dressing ourselves in God’s armor is that we may automatically imagine an individual preparing for solitary combat. However, the verbs and pronouns in this passage are “you” plural, and that is a helpful reminder that evil is resisted by the church’s life together. The church stands “against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11) by its love and reconciliation, by the peace and righteousness for which it longs and works in the world and within its own fellowship, and by its mutual prayer and proclamation. Furthermore, the opening instruction in verse 10 to “be strong” is a passive verb, a reminder that we are to “be strengthened” by God in all the communal dimensions already described by Ephesians: living with love and peace toward one another, singing hymns to God, speaking truth and forgiving one another, reflecting Christ in our homes and closest relationships.

This “standing firm” (verse 13) is not something that we can do by ourselves, but only as a community. The instruction to “be strengthened” in verse 10 is also a present tense verb which emphasizes the continuing nature of this strengthening. It is not experienced all at once, but is part of the ongoing life of the church together. We might render verse 10’s overarching instruction as “all of you together, keep on being strengthened by the Lord.” It is something with which we are never finished, but which points to the life-long habit of trusting God and finding life, love, and strength there.

A final danger to be aware of in this text is its insistence that the church, in its efforts and witness, does not simply find itself confronting people but demonic forces. We find it too easy to label those with whom we disagree as evil, and so we self-righteously dehumanize those we find on other points of the political, social, or religious spectrum. Another problem is that to some it may seem superstitious to imagine a wily devil. However, Ephesians 6:11 warns about “schemes” rather than frontal assaults, and it is helpful to remember that evil often comes in deceptively attractive forms rather than in the obviously repulsive.

The latter does happen, of course, for example in genocidal violence. But more often evil lurks beneath the camouflage of cultural common sense, compromise in the name of being reasonable, and unacknowledged personal benefit from unjust systems. Despite the ways such language gets abused, this text’s call to “spiritual warfare” can remind us that we are called into a struggle deeper than private temptations, and that we often fail to recognize the true enemy.

Only God can and will finally defeat all the forces of evil. However, the church is already the sign and the promise of what God will do for the world through Christ. We have been enlisted into this mission, and we can respond boldly only because God has already won the war and set us free. Therefore, there is no need for fear in the face of whatever challenges confront the church in our times and places. We have been given all that we need to stand strong against the losing efforts of anything that opposes God’s peace.