August 22, 2021
Sermon begins at 24:30
A sermon on Ephesians 6:10-20 given on August 22, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church.
(Opened with a live, interactive demonstration based on the Stroop test)
The thing about the Stroop test that is helpful for understanding this passage is how it describes the sets of stimuli. Researchers break them up into three categories: neutral, congruent and incongruent. A neutral stimulus is when the word appears in a “neutral” black font. A congruentstimulus occurs when the word “blue” appears in a blue font. An example of an incongruentstimulus is when the word blue is presented in a red font.
Now hang on to that word “incongruent.” (slide down) I think this is incredibly helpful language as we look at today’s passage. For many of us, we’ve heard this Armor of God metaphor dozens, if not, hundreds of times. It’s super popular for kids and summer camps and Sunday school lessons. Because of its familiarity and our distance from the actual circumstances of this community, its easy to see this passage as a congruent set of stimuli.
Armor, strength, God, powers, stand, resist. These images don’t raise any alarm bells even when paired with truth, peace, righteousness, and faith. Its as if those two sets of words are virtually synonymous and in our 21st century American minds, and we don’t recognize the dissonance between the two.
But what if this text isn’t congruent? What if there is a deep incongruity at the heart of this passage and the armor metaphor is uses? What if the irony of these two contrasting sets of images is the point?
Several years ago, my wife April and I were in Atlanta for a youth worker conference. The conference happened to be next door to the Atlanta Falcons stadium and in the most fortunate of coincidences, the Cleveland Browns were in town that weekend for a Sunday afternoon game. For those of you who don’t know my sports allegiances lie with the 216, not the 215.
This was the definition of a “can’t miss” opportunity. So we went to the game and they WON, which was a miracle for that era of Browns teams. And after the game, decked out in my Browns gear, high on the sweet drug of victory, we passed a man coming the opposite way wearing his Browns gear and he let out a “here we go Brownies, here we go…” and we both launched into the customary barking that ensues after that greeting. (bark) It is a sort of liturgy for Browns fans that binds us together in a shared, albeit fairly odd, ritual. I promise, it’s the only time I’ve ever barked at another human being.
And why did I bark at a perfect stranger? Because I was swept up in being on Team Cleveland. I was no longer calm, cool, collected, rational Eric. I was part of the Dawg Pound. “Here we go Brownies!”
Interestingly enough, I think we see this same dynamic at play with our readings of Scripture. Being “team-anything” tends to limit our ability to be thoughtful and reflective and sweeps us up into the fervor of fandom. A “Team Jesus” mentality makes us feel like anything that says “Christian” or is from the Bible or has a cross symbol on it is automatically good and we need to accept it, without question.
But that is not what a life of faith is all about. Christianity is not a sports team that is trying to claim our allegiance. Jesus is not a dictator or celebrity vying for our obedience or fan club membership. Theologian James Cone called these “team Jesus” Christians who have this attitude “religionists.” Religionists turn the life and teachings of Jesus into set of rules to follow, a set of words to use, and a set of ideas that remain unquestionable, in fact, ordained by God.
If we allow ourselves to be swept up in “Team Jesus” and to baptize everything that we see in scripture, we set ourselves up for some intensely harmful ways of being and acting in the world.
My wife and I were watching a show a few weeks ago called The Underground Railroad which is on Amazon Prime. The show centers around a young woman named Cora who flees her slave master’s Georgia plantation following in the footsteps of her mother. A slave catcher is quickly hired to track her down and to return Cora to the man who claims ownership of her. In the show, the Railroad is actually an underground track with operating steam engines that run from station to elaborate station. It isn’t meant as a pure historical representation but as a dramatization aimed at highlighting the horrors of the practice of slavery and both the highs and lows of life on the run.
I bring up this show because there is one scene that will never leave me. A black man has been captured and returned after his own runaway attempt at freedom. The white master and a slavecatcher and other members of the household are seated enjoying a picnic. Just behind this summer lunch a sort of gallows is being built. Once the gallows is complete, the master calls the picnic to attention and orders the black man to be hung by his wrists, and a fire is built around his feet.
The master then orders the man’s fellow slaves, called to witness the example of this man, to light the fire. Seeing no other way out and under threat of their own lives, they begin to light the pile of wood stacked around the man’s feet. As the man is burning alive, crying out in agony, the white master then pulls out a small leather book and glancing at the other slaves and members of his household begins to read. It’s a passage from the Bible. 1 Timothy 6:1-2 reads like this, “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. These are the things you are to teach and insist on.”
I think our modern sensibilities recognize how deeply troubling this scene is. Yet, so often we approach and interpret scripture without recognizing the incongruities that exist in its pages and the possibilities for great evil and harm that are embedded in its interpretation. This is why we can’t bring a “Team Jesus” approach to scripture. This is why a careless reading of the Bible just doesn’t cut it.
So how might we approach the militaristic, domination-infused images that we find in our text this morning?
ARMOR OF GOD
The Armor of God comes at the end of the book of Ephesians and is positioned as a sort of call to arms, a summing up the author’s message from the first 5 chapters. Throughout the book, we’ve been reminded of Christ’s life and the mystery of the gospel; we’ve been implored to unity and love and peace. Here, in the closing verses, the writer drums up a war chant and uses this particular motif as they conclude their remarks with a flourish.
While I think I understand what the writer is trying to do, I’m not sure it doesn’t/ we don’t often miss the point. Buried in this war metaphor is a vision of a different kind of life. Inside the images of swords and shields is this invitation to a world that doesn’t yet exist. Surrounded by combat and violence and a social order that enacts and protects a strict hierarchy, there exists a call, sometimes faint, but ever present. The whisper of God flows between the cracks of the armor, it seeps through the holes in the chainmail. And it invites us to dream, to work, and to pray for God’s reign to come on earth as in heaven.
And I think that if we don’t assume this posture of domination, but instead read this text against itself, it can be vehicle for the call of God, not a prescription or a model for us to follow, but an invitation.
Given our social and cultural positioning here in an American church in 2021, the deep incongruity in our reading is difficult for us to pick up on. The people hearing this letter would have indeed been familiar with armor and its uses in their 1st Century world. This church in Ephesus wouldn’t have been the bearers or the wearers of armor. Armor would have been used by the Roman soldiers, the authorities of the day, to enforce their will and assert their control over this very community. The writer of Ephesians even claims at numerous points in the letter to be Paul, from prison, writing to these Ephesian Christians. These people are not the beneficiaries of armor. They are not wielding swords, they stand with at the point end of Roman weaponry.
Are you starting to see the irony of this situation? A marginalized religious community in the Roman empire is being encouraged to take up the “armor of God.” It is doubtful that the writer is encouraging armed resistance. The war metaphors and the images of domination and control are highly incongruent to this community’s lived experience. This text starts to read more like the word blue written in red ink. And yet, I’ll reiterate, a 21st Century American Team Jesus reading tends to celebrate the imagery and not what the imagery is supposed to be pointing to!
We dress up our kids as knights and give them swords and lean heavily into the POWER of God. We emphasize standing in the strength of God and highlight the struggle against the cosmic powers as if we’re supposed to envision ourselves as warriors or the warlords.
What we find when we read our passage a bit more critically is there are two distinct imaginative systems at work: There’s the armor metaphor and then there’s the point of the metaphor. There is a system that seeks order and control and security and domination and uses force and weapons and there is a community called to love and justice and peace and they use prayer and faith.
This ironic positioning of these two systems would not have been lost on the Ephesian church. They would sense deep in their bones the incongruity, the satire, the dissonance that exists in this metaphor. They would have recognized immediately that there were systems and structures that didn’t want the world to change. In fact, the armor and weaponry protected that status quo. The world as it was worked pretty well for the ones dressed up in metal body suits.
JAMES CONE & BLACK POWER
James Cone, was a Black liberation Theologian doing something very similar to what the writer of Ephesians is doing in this Armor of God passage. Writing in 1970, Cone wrote a book called “Black Theology and Black Power.” In it he takes aim at the racism present in American society. Powerfully, he states that Black Power is precisely “Christ’s central message to twentieth-century America.” Cone adopted the language of Black Power not as a statement of Black superiority but as a radical affirmation of Black dignity and freedom and self-determination.
Understanding both the letter to the Ephesian church and Cone’s use of Black Power is tied to the recognition of the power dynamics at play in their respective cultural and societal milieus.
Just as it was incongruent to call for first century Ephesian Christians to take up the armor of God, Cone’s expression of Black Power was almost satirical because Black men and women didn’t have the power in American society. This recognition is precisely where the writer of Ephesians and Dr. Cone “make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”
The good news is not that Jesus sanctifies the present order. God does not ordain the status quo. When Jesus was asked about how to live, he said, “love your neighbor.” When people around asked him to define what he meant by “neighbor,” he told them a story about a man on the side of the road. Not an honorable man, not man in ceasar’s palace, not a man who had life figured out and under control.A man society forgot. A man who respectable people were too busy to notice. A man left for dead.
When Jesus first announced what he was up to in the world in Luke 4, he said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
Every time Jesus was asked who he was for, he pointed to the outcast, the sick, the forgotten, the sinners. The mystery of the gospel is that Jesus came to seek and save the lost. So often we spiritualize that phrase and make it about some kind of heavenly transaction, but Jesus, the writer of Ephesians, and James Cone insist that the gospel is for the those on the bottom of THIS world. God and God’s people are in a struggle against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, as Ephesians puts it.
So how do we do that? How do we embody the gospel of peace? What does it look like to stand in righteousness, truth, and faith against the powers that oppress and the culture that marginalizes and condemns those “on the side of the road?”
The reformer Martin Luther draws the distinction between a “theology of glory” and a “theology of the cross.” This helps illuminate the incongruities in this morning’s text. A theology of glory leans into the armor and the warfare and defending and security and celebrates about the God of power and control.
A theology of the cross speaks to what Alfred North Whitehead calls the way of the little Galilean. It speaks of Philippians 2 where Christ is said to “give himself up.” The cross was where Jesus stood not with sword in hand, but at the point of one. The cross was where Christ identified with the criminals, the outcast, those who found themselves at odds with the society of the armor bearing Roman empire and the power wielding religious authorities of the day.
The modern Christian mystic Cynthia Bourgeualt has a practice she encourages to help us learn in our minds, but also in our bodies, the difference between this theology of glory and a theology of the cross. It is the simple gesture of release. We breathe in, and practice just closing our hand as if we’re holding on to something. And then, as we breathe out, we imagine whatever we were holding onto, falling to the ground. If you do this, often you can physically sense the distinction between a posture of assertion and dominion and one of release, of peace, a posture of the cross.
Today the invitation is not to grasp swords and put on a breastplate and “seize the day,” and somehow defend the faith. The invitation is to look closely at the world around us, to take your time, and to discern where swords are being wielded and to seek out those at the point of the swords of our day.
Jesus was radically for the marginalized. He was killed as a criminal. He was the crucified God.
So this morning, I’m not leaving you with marching orders or pep talk or a “let’s go get ‘em,” but simply with a question, maybe even a gospel mystery.
What kind of armor is worn by a crucified king?