August 26, 2018 – Pastor Debbie Allen
This passage from the letter to the Ephesians is challenging, not because it makes reference to the forces of cosmic darkness. That in itself is a daunting concept when taken seriously. But the bigger problem is the way in which this passage has been interpreted throughout history and used to justify actions that are anything but the intention of the author of Ephesians. Taken out of context, putting on the armor of God to fight evil can be seen as sanctioning whatever we don’t understand or feel threatened by – mainly people of different religious, cultural, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Taken out of context, these words become a self-serving attempt to allay our fears, and are no longer part of the gospel of love.
The author, writing in the name of Paul (who had probably died by the time this letter was written), has already encouraged us to live as people worthy of the call we have received from God – to conduct ourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience and to accept each other with love. The author of this letter is concerned about the unity of the Spirit that unites us in peace. So why, in the conclusion of the letter, does he focus so specifically on our need for protection from the spiritual powers of evil?
The Roman Empire was the context in which every book and letter in the New Testament was written. It was a militaristic, violent society that fought to maintain power and exerted enormous control over its inhabitants. The early churches lived in conflict with this oppressive power and, as we see in the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul was imprisoned by the Romans, and tradition tells us that he was a martyr for the faith. The early followers of Jesus were a persecuted minority in a vast system that, until Constantine’s conversion, sought to suppress, if not annihilate them.
The author of Ephesians, however, is not talking about the enemy we can see. He isn’t pointing the finger at this group or that group of people. His portrayal of evil is much more pervasive, embedded, and far more dangerous. It is a systemic evil that can easily masquerade as necessary and acceptable. It has the power to blind and deceive us and to play on our anxieties and insecurities, unless we are firmly grounded in the love of Jesus Christ. In today’s world, I would suggest that these spiritual powers of evil are at work in all the forces that set people against each other, that create barriers, discriminate, and demean – and that includes racism and white supremacy, sexism, human trafficking, addiction, economic disparity, sexual abuse, antisemitism, terrorism, and the list goes on.
As Christians, we should feel embattled. We should be at odds with much that is happening in our world. The impulse to ignore the harm that is being done right under our noses, that is often the result of our own complacency, is strong in us. I certainly recognize it in myself. God’s goodness, and the goodness in every human being created in the image of God, must be actively proclaimed in the world. But doing so will bring us into conflict with those who do not want things to change and who wish to control through fear.
What, then, is this letter calling us to? Australian theologian, William Loader, says that Ephesians identifies the need, not only for resistance, but for challenging the structures of injustice and spreading the good news of God’s love and hope. It is a call, he says, for people to abandon a Christian naiveté that fails to recognize the potent forces that bring destruction and division in the world and to embrace Christ’s agenda of truth, love, reconciliation, and peace.
Loader notes that the use of the military imagery of armor to describe what gives us strength and protection is subversive because it turns upside down the language that is usually used by the oppressor. In Ephesians, this imagery represents what is life-giving rather than what is destructive. But wearing this armor does not protect us in the usual sense. Instead of reinforcing our self-reliance, it requires an admission of our weakness and our utter dependence on God.
One of the most powerful and moving examples of resistance and challenge to the forces of evil took place almost 100 years ago on a high plateau in south central France in the small rural village of Le Chambon. It was there that the entire town and surrounding villages committed themselves to becoming a refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Reports tell us that the lives of 5,000 Jews, many of them children, were saved during Germany’s occupation of France. Not one instance of someone denouncing a neighbor’s involvement has ever been reported. This is how it came about.
In 1940, France fell to the Nazis and the northern half of the country was occupied by the Germans. The southern half, known as the Free or Unoccupied Zone, was governed from the city of Vichy by Marshal Petain, who signed an armistice and agreed to hand over all the Jewish refugees the German government asked for.
The residents of Le Chambon were subject to the laws of the Vichy government. Most were Huguenot Protestants, but there were also some Catholics and other small Christian sects. The Huguenot heritage of the village is significant because these Protestants were harshly persecuted by the Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries and have always been a minority. Many of them fled to other countries, but some stayed in the rugged mountains of southern France and fought to defend their faith.
Like the churches to whom the letter to the Ephesians was addressed, the Huguenot faith was profoundly shaped by the persecution they endured. One might think that their hardship would cause them to become bitter and defeated, but instead, at least in Le Chambon, it became a source of strength and compassion for all human beings, whatever their religion or background, especially those who also endured persecution. Over the door of the Protestant stone church in Le Chambon, are inscribed the simple words, “Love One Another.”
It was in this church, one day after the signing of the armistice with Germany, that the pastor, Andre Trocme, gave a powerful sermon which began the resistance operation in Le Chambon. These are his words:
Tremendous pressure will be put on us to submit passively to a totalitarian ideology. The duty of Christians is to use the weapons of the Spirit to oppose the violence that they will try to put on [our] consciences. Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty. Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly. We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel. We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate.
Trocme’s words inspired and empowered not only his congregation, but the entire town to heed a simple call of duty as Christians to help fellow humans in need. He recognized that the weapons of the Spirit were needed in order to respond to the evil that was unfolding, and that those weapons should be used to oppose, rather than incite, violence. For Trocme, resistance was far from passive. Hiding Jews and helping them to escape to Switzerland, was the necessary path of action.
The people of Le Chambon have always shunned attempts to describe them as heroes. Years later, Pierre Sauvage, who was born to Jewish refugees in Le Chambon during WWII , went back to the town to ask those who had sheltered Jews why they risked their lives to save them. [If anyone is interested in watching the film he made about his return to Le Chambon, I have a copy and can show that sometime.] The reply to his question was invariably, “I helped because these people needed to be helped. The Bible says to feed the hungry and visit the sick.” Recently, I learned that the people of Le Chambon continue to this day to open their hearts and their homes to displaced people from all over the world – Congo, Kosovo, Libya, Rwanda, and South Sudan. Their welcome to those who have fled from misery and violence is ingrained in their spirit.
We do not live in a time of world wars, but the cosmic forces that were at work during the first half of the 20th century continue to divide and disrupt. Just as the people of Le Chambon were able to stand steadfastly in their faith, empowered by the weapons of the Spirit, so can we find the strength we need in the full armor of God – truth, justice, the good news of peace, faith, salvation, and God’s word.
The final request made in the letter to the Ephesians is for the offering of prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Paul beseeches the congregations to pray for all believers and for him, an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel, that he will be able to speak what needs to be said with confidence.
Prayer is the core spiritual discipline that connects us with God, with each other, and with our own hearts and minds. Each Sunday and throughout the week, we hold in prayer those who are in need. Each day, we ask for wisdom, guidance, and forgiveness. In times of crisis, when words are difficult to find, the Spirit prays within us and for us.
Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered the power of prayer in the face of evil on the night of January 27, 1956. He was 27 years old and the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. During the previous month, King’s decision to lead the Montgomery bus boycott had resulted in a series of death threats delivered via phone and mail to his residence. Calls often came in the middle of the night.
On the night of January 27th, as his wife and 10-year-old daughter slept in the nearby bedroom, an anonymous caller threatened to blow up his house and kill him and his family if he didn’t leave town. In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, King writes:
I was ready to give up… In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment, writes King, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once, King says, my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
I can imagine Paul speaking similar words from his prison cell. Prayer has the power to transform our fears, to open our hearts, and to empower us to be messengers of the gospel of love.
Our next hymn, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, is the prayer of St. Francis. Let us sing this hymn as a prayer for ourselves, our families, our church, and for the world. Amen.