Putting on Spiritual Clothes
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 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. 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. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 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. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 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. 19 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, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
At the end of the letter to the Ephesians, we face one big question:
What is the way to defeat evil?
Not defeat armies. Not defeat Rome. Not defeat governors or tax collectors or robbers or murderers. Not defeat flesh and blood. But to defeat the powers of evil behind all of it. To defeat that which causes all hurt and sin, destruction and brokenness.
For us in our 21st Century context, upon first hearing this is an odd passage. As we are so focused on the material, on goods that we own, on items we can touch, on power and wealth we can see, this passage tells us that there is more in this world. It reminds us that there is a spiritual dimension, that there is a spiritual realm alive in everything here on earth, including us.
And at first, we may cast that off as old mythology, as hocus pocus, as the ways that foolish people used to think in olden times. But when we look around our lives and our communities and our world, we know that there are powers of evil still at work today. We still know powers of addiction, powers of depression, powers of racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry and prejudice. We still know powers of greed, lust, and corruption. We know there are powers out there that destroy human value and make us treat one another in horrible ways. And as many wars as we have won, as many scientific breakthroughs as we have found, as much money as we can print, cars we can drive, clothes we can wear, homes we can buy, we still have powers of evil alive in our world.
Defeating evil can’t be done solely through killing more people or gaining more money or collecting more power.
Instead, the way to battle and defeat evil is through the slow, loving way of Jesus. The way to victory is through sacrifice and mercy. It’s through love and healing. It’s through listening to, witnessing, and proclaiming truth and justice.
In my year living in Northern Ireland, I heard many stories about the decades of The Troubles. Both sides, Protestant and Catholic, saw evil on the other side. And for years, the powerful on both sides believed the solution was bombings and shooting, arrests and torture. But these attacks just led to more attacks. The violence just led to more violence. The power one side accumulated just led to more power on another side.
Instead, the real solution, came through everyday people of faith and love. The Troubles didn’t end because of paramilitary groups or armies or guns or tanks. It ended because people of faith, mothers and daughter, fathers and sons, said they had had enough. It ended because they said they didn’t want anyone to suffer and know loss and grief the way they had known it. It ended because people took incredible leaps of faith to go across communities, and listen, talk, pray and love. It was everyday people, young and old, Protestant and Catholic, putting on shoes of peace that led to the Good Friday agreement.
In our own nation, civil rights were fought for with these same shoes of peace and belts of truth and shields of faith. Those who marched and prayed and spoke out weren’t rich. They weren’t powerful. They didn’t have Kevlar vests or helmets or physical armor. They weren’t well connected or had control over armies. They were vulnerable. They were human. They were just like you and me. But they had the armor of God.
They had a spiritual strength. They had love and truth and a knowledge that God was by their side. Even after being arrested for the fifth time or beaten by dogs and batons for the fourth time, even after having their third job taken away for their marching, or reading in the paper once again of a friend killed by people who would never be arrested, even after seeing once again water hoses brought dogs running down their way, even after hearing “moderate voices” tell them again and again that they were the real problem for causing such a scene, they continued on. It would have been so easy to give up. It would have been so easy to stop. To back down. To forfeit the fight.
But somehow there was strength to march again, to register people to vote, to speak in the public square, to pray in front of courthouses. Somehow there was strength to love, and by doing so change the world.
This armor of God is a powerful thing. Because just as spiritual powers of evil are real, so are the spiritual powers of good. And these powers are not only for the rich or high class or the ones seen as mighty by the world, but for all of God’s wonderful children
Paul is writing these words not from a cushy pastor’s office, but from a prison cell in an Empire hostile to him and his message. And he is writing these words to slaves, to children, to women, to outcasts, to foreigners, to Jews and gentiles, rich and poor. And he’s saying wherever you find yourself and whatever evil is alive in this world, you are not powerless. You are full of God’s power. Paul has no physical armor as he writes this. He has whatever old and smelly clothes are on his back that he went into prison with. Anyone next to him would see him as someone forgettable, someone powerless, someone who could never change anything or make a difference.
But Paul looks at his hands and feet, his torso and legs, and sees himself as someone who can fight any power, any adversary, any evil. Not through bloodshed or buying people off or by connections to the rulers of this world. But by trusting in the ways of Christ Jesus. By writing words of encouragement to others. By sharing the stories of grace and mercy he has seen. By telling people that no power can ever separate them from the love of God. By welcoming new people into community. By praying for those he loves. By not giving up on people for the wrongs they have done, but by working to change the powers of evil behind those actions. And he is saying that same power, these same clothes are available for all of us to pick up and wear.
Our question for today is how do we fight and defeat evil. And our answer is to put on this armor and follow in the slow, patient, and loving way of Christ. It isn’t always sexy. It isn’t always glamorous. It isn’t always fast or easy. It doesn’t follow the rules or patterns of this world. But it is the way, and the only way.