Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2018 — Preaching Notes
MOVE ...In Love Worship Series, week 4
August 26, 2018
The end of summer is for many of us—in our families, our schools, and our churches—a time of preparation as we get ready for the start of a new year (despite the fact the neither the calendar year nor the liturgical year begins in September!). Like the end of summer, this week’s passage marks an important conclusion and a call to preparation: as a rhetorical peroration, it serves as both the concluding summary of the author’s argument and a rousing call to action.
We are roused to action by the call to put on the whole armor of God (vv. 14–17). That donning armor was preparatory for going into battle notwithstanding, the very way in which this armor is described indicates that it is to prepare us for the work to which we have been called. For example, a soldier was able to secure the loose fabric of his tunic with his belt so that it would not become a hindrance or danger in battle, so the donning of a belt was a signal that one was ready to enter battle. And the shoes with which we are instructed to put on our feet are shoes for mission, for going out. Even the breastplate of righteousness draws on a reference from Isaiah 59:17 in which, after observing grave injustice among the people and seeing that no one else is responding, God prepares to respond by donning the breastplate of righteousness. And standing itself—mentioned four times in this short passage—isn’t passive, but rather signals the resolve to stay in battle rather than to flee in a Greek military context and the readying of a phalanx of soldiers in a Roman military context.
We have already, in the passage from our first week of this series (4:1–16), discussed the need to read critically against the historical structures, culture, and language of the Roman Empire. Evoking this language can be dangerous, as it has been used for centuries to justify oppression of—and aggression toward—the “other.” Military imagery, consecrated by the “Holy” Roman Empire and grounded in the concept of the Pax Romana, has been used to rationalize countless atrocities and wars. It is important, therefore, to hold this language carefully and to consciously and intentionally destabilize it, and our author gives us several handholds with which to do so.
First, the imperial stance of the soldier is literally undermined by feet shod for the gospel of peace—a peace which the author makes very clear has been brought about in a very different way from the Pax Romana. This is not a soldier standing ready for military battle, but standing ready to go out to preach the gospel.
Second, the passage from Isaiah 59, which serves as one of the primary sources for this imagery, includes references to God putting on garments of vengeance and fury as a mantle (59:17), images that are omitted in Ephesians. Even in appropriating the biblical imagery, the author is “rewriting the grammar” of the “whole” armor of God by these omissions.
Third, the language of “putting on” the armor of God evokes the baptismal language (again!) of putting on the new self (there is a direct textual link in the Greek to 4:24), a self which is created in the likeness of God and marked by love and unity. Thus, the language of “all,” which could be conflated with the oppressive and coercive “all” of the Pax Romana, is balanced with gentleness, patience, and forbearance, the marks of the non-coercive ethic of Ephesians.
Even in terms of summarizing the epistle’s argument, the author uses the passage to undermine this imagery. The whole armor of God is put on in this case, not for protection as in 4:31 (recall the second week’s notes), but rather for good communication! Almost every element of the armor is geared toward communication: truth, righteousness (right relationship), proclamation, faith (kerygma), word. The whole metaphor of armor is inverted. Instead of something that is designed to protect the bearer, the armor of God is something that is designed to engage the bearer with the one he/she encounters. In fact, the reference to the gospel of peace (v. 15) draws on Isaiah 52:7, in which the one who bears the gospel of peace is a messenger.
Moreover, the whole movement of the description of the armor of God (vv. 14–17) points toward embodiment in joint prayer (v. 18). The structure of the passage, in fact, could suggest that we are to put on the armor with prayer; or, more intriguingly, that it’s plausible to consider prayer as another piece of the armor, as grammatically the “prayer and supplication” of v. 18 could relate back to the “stand firm” of v. 14. Either way, the passage ends with a petition that the community pray for Paul so that he might communicate well, and the instruction to pray at all times in the Spirit resonates not only with much earlier passages (cf. 2:18–22) but also with 4:4 and 5:18, which, in turn, links this passage to the practice of singing addressed in last week’s passage.
In the end, we are reminded that all this is in preparation for and in service to proclaiming the mystery of the gospel, a mystery we have already been told is the unity of the body, a new humanity in which all things are coming together under Christ as its head (3:4–6; 5:32). Even the phrase “strength of his power” with which the passage opens is the same phrase used in 1:19–23 in which that great unity is first described. And to be empowered in the Lord, recall from the first week’s passage, means to be filled with gifts of love that Christ himself has bestowed upon us for the building up of the body (4:7–10). So, even as the author evokes an image of strength from Roman military culture, the image is rewritten in order to serve the main argument of the epistle, that we are called to live and move in an economy marked by healthy communication that is the embodiment of love and that fosters unity.
We are also reminded that the stakes are high, for the battle is against cosmic powers. It is easy in the face of the language of cosmic powers to frame the author’s rousing conclusion in terms of the spiritualization of the political and use this passage as a justification to withdraw from the world. Our concern is not with this world, but with the spiritual forces of wickedness. And ultimately, that may be true. But for marginalized voices, it’s important to see this as a politicization of the spiritual. The powers and principalities of which the passage speaks exert their power through systems and institutions of domination and oppression that affect real lives lived out in the here and now. Furthermore, the whole course of the letter has been cosmic in scope (ch. 1–3) but social and political in its implications (ch. 4–6).
It can also be tempting in the face of a culture consumed with contentious, divisive discourse to either give up all together or to find justification in this passage for engagement in just such a culture on those very terms. And here a couple notes of clarification are helpful in steering us away from either path.
First, while one could argue that the word of God is described in terms of an offensive weapon, a sword, it is important to remember that we have already been reminded that Christ, the one, true Word of God, is love. We must also speak the truth in love, and for any who claims to “know” the only true path (recall the second week’s notes), the love of Christ surpasses knowledge (3:19).
Second, even standing firm implies engagement—listening, considering, discussing, debating—rather than stubbornness, which is rigid and not other-oriented. Much of what passes in our culture for discussion or debate under the guise of “communicating” is grounded in an unbending, stiff stubbornness and, in fact, embodies the very characteristics we are instructed to put away: bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice (4:31). Standing in the full stature of Christ (4:13), however, is marked by peace, gentleness, reconciliation, forbearance, and respectful communication and requires of us that we be prepared to walk and move in love.
Rev. Geoffrey C. Moore, OSL (M.M., M.Div.), is an elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church currently serving as the senior pastor for St. Stephen UMC in Mesquite, Texas. For the past two years, he has served as the Creative Director of A Ministry of Congregational Singing & Worship, an extension ministry in the North Texas Conference devoted to helping congregations strengthen their voice and deepen their worship life. He has previously served on the staff of churches large and small in Dallas, Texas, including Highland Park UMC, Lovers Lane UMC, and Walnut Hill UMC. Rev. Moore is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Systematic Theology at Southern Methodist University and currently serves as the President of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and as a member of the United Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee.