10 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.
Our theme this year in our church community is belonging. We belong to God and from that foundation, we live our lives differently. It makes a difference who we belong to and it is important to identify how belonging to God makes a difference in real life. This passage calls all of us to stand firm, to proclaim the gospel of peace, to pray in the Spirit and to persevere. The Christian faith is serious business and in real life it is hard to follow Jesus. Belonging to God makes living our faith possible.
This passage was written when it was literally dangerous to be a Christian. The ‘authorities’—the Roman empire viewed Christians as outliers if not outlaws. Roman power was maintained through military domination and was rooted in a set of values that said might made right. Self preservation and advancement was the measure of life. If that could be accomplished through cooperation, that was fine. But if it required subjugation and exploitation, that was fine too. These are the values of the ‘world’ and the idea that we should place a priority on the ‘least of these’ was incomprehensible, if not seditious. We need the armour of God in order stand for what we believe—or to use Paul’s phrase—’to stand firm…to proclaim the Gospel of peace.’
In real life, we are constantly challenged to proclaim the gospel of peace in an adversarial world. In Wednesday’s FIRL group, articulating what we stand for took a very practical turn. One of the members asked how the church should ‘stand firm’ on issues of sexuality. (Nothing like picking a hot-button topic.) Whether we are trying to discuss homosexuality, premarital sex or marital sex, it is no longer sufficient to simply announce what we believe is right. Nor will quoting scripture be sufficient. Whatever our beliefs, standing firm requires us to articulate how our position is in the service of love, being willing to listen to other points of view with respect and humility and finally to realize no matter how respectful we are, we may be rejected. This is very different than trying to prove we are right or using scripture to prove other people wrong.
In Monday’s group, we reached the same conclusion via a different issue. Our political discourse is nothing, if not adversarial. Almost everyone complained about the dismissive and self righteous tone on our news broadcasts and on our Facebook feeds. How do we assert our Christian values without becoming what we oppose? Do we block those that oppose us? Do we argue? Do we stay silently indignant?
This a time we need the armour of God. Our visceral reactions reveal the power we give to other people’s opinion of us. Most of us do not tolerate the times other people disagree, or worse, think poorly of us. But Jesus walked to his death as an innocent man. It is hard to realize that Jesus taught when you belong to God, other people always have the right to disagree and outright reject us. That’s how Jesus lived. He never used the ways of the world, self righteousness, coercion and dominance, to proclaim the gospel of peace. He lived a life in which retaliation was not an option. That is a hard act to follow.
It is an uncomfortable truth that being safe with God does not mean we are safe in the world. That is as true today as it was in the first century. We will be challenged, misdirected and tempted as we navigate the call of Jesus to love. But in real life, it is hard proclaim the gospel of peace when we feel threatened. When we feel threatened we are far more likely to become defensive and retaliatory.
Under stress, we regress. It is tempting to prove our point rather than listen. It is tempting to justify doing harm when we have been harmed. And it is tempting to look for ways to avoid the struggles of life rather than engage them. If we stand for love, we must stand against disregard and harm to others. And standing firm for love means we must resist those temptations and trust our lives to God.
It gets even more personal when we look at what this might mean when we are in conflict in our families. We often justify hurtful behavior by listing the ways we were hurt first. I am seeing a middle aged man who works hard at being a good husband and father. His wife has been distant and his pattern of coping has been to do everything he could to accommodate her. Unfortunately he overextends himself and becomes resentful. He has a silent scorecard listing the things he has done for her. Then, there is an inevitable tipping point where he feels that there is no reciprocation. That’s when he loses it. He gets angry, loud and offensive. He says things he would never say otherwise. He is hurtful. Afterwards he is embarrassed and apologetic, but he always says, ‘Yes, but…’ He continues to hold onto his right to retaliate. His anger is understandable. But as a Christian, he does not have permission to retaliate. He has the right to distance or to leave—but not to being hurtful.
His behavior may be the best he can do but his behavior calls for confession, not self justification. We have all been there. We may not use Roman armour to protect ourselves but we use many psychological weapons to secure our safety. Self justification is just one of many.
If we belong to Rome, we need armaments to secure our place in the world—and to secure our sense of safety. If we belong to God, we do not rely upon protections of our own making. We rely upon God’s truth, righteousness, faith, salvation and word—none of which will protect you from a slashing sword—or even an angry spouse. God’s way is not our way. God’s peace is not our peace. As Jesus put it in John 14: “ Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. The mystery of the gospel and the gospel of peace is that vulnerability is required for love and love is what matters. It is counter intuitive and it is dangerous but it is Paul’s call—even as he was in chains. It was Jesus’ call—even on a cross.
It is important to realize that in the Greek the ‘you’ in this passage is plural. This is not a letter about individual conduct, it is a letter to the church. We need each other. We belong to God and we belong to the body of Christ, his church. We all need prayer and we all need to pray for one another. We cannot stand alone and we cannot sustain the vulnerability that love requires unless stand to together as God’s children.
Belonging to God means you wear a different uniform and have a different mission. Follow him. Stand firm in the knowledge that God loves you and proclaim the gospel of peace. Let be so.