A final sermon in a series in Ephesians. Hat tips to MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s conversations about Wonder Woman and the gospel on the Blue Room Blog and Teri Peterson‘s description of the Roman soldiers’ shield and her listing of the church’s calls to action.
From about the mid-point of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul has been talking about what it looks like to live a life that is “worthy of the calling to which we are called.” How to live in a way that honors our adoption into the family of God and builds up the community of saints, all so that we might be part of God’s work of reconciling all people and all of creation.
In this discussion, he moves from a reminder of our unity being an outflow of our shared identity in Christ to some more specific guidelines for this new way of being God’s people, of being church. But instead of pointing to the myriad rules and rituals of the law, the law that he had once pursued as a Jew, Paul keeps it simple.
You’ve been made into new people… Live like it!
Speak truthfully… you can’t be connected if you can’t trust each other.
It’s fine to get angry, but don’t hold onto that anger – not even overnight.
Our words should build each other up and offer each other grace.
I love the bit about thieves no longer stealing. It’s not just about honesty for Paul…
he says… let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. (4:28) Which tells those of us who would not be considered thieves that a portion of our work and resources ought to be shared, as well.
Basically, he says, we are to be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:1-2)
In addition to these instructions for us as a church, members together in the Body of Christ, Paul makes clear that the same ideas apply within our own households. The mutual love and respect, care and love, the mutual sharing of grace and building each other up that reflects God’s triune nature in a healthy church…
All of that ought to be on display at home, too.
That goes for Parents and children, husbands and wives, slaves and masters (let’s translate to bosses and employees)… And Paul could easily have included teachers and students, officers and enlisted soldiers, leaders of all sorts and their committees or teams.
Our work lives, our home lives, our religious and recreational lives… no matter what aspect of our day to day living you can think of… all of it should reflect our call- our identity in Christ – before any other label we might claim. Because every facet of our daily lives is a portion of our calling- loving people into relationship with God and one another. Assuring that all people experience the salvation they need… here and now.
And then, before signing off, Paul has one last set of instructions.
Listen for the Word of God from Ephesians 6:10-20
It probably won’t surprise many of you that I went to see Wonder Woman the first opportunity I had. I’ve been a fan of most of the comic book movies released in the last several years. But this one was special. It wasn’t until Wonder Woman that a woman superhero was the lead character.
It was amazing to see this character on the big screen, especially how long it’s been since she was featured in the TV series starring Lynda Carter. Or the Justice League cartoon that I grew up watching.
I promise, this isn’t just about comic book stuff… I’m coming back to Paul’s instructions to us. But before we go there, I want to give those of you who aren’t familiar just a bit of Wonder Woman’s backstory… At least the movie’s version.
Wonder Woman begins her story as Diana, a princess raised by a tribe of Amazons on the island of Themyscira. She is taught that their mission is to fight on behalf of humanity. In fact, the Amazons believe that Ares, the god of war, has ensnared humankind in endless conflict, and that when Ares is defeated once and for all, an era of peace will reign. And that defeat will happen at the hands of an Amazon.
Fate brings Steve Trevor, an American soldier who’s been spying on the Germans during World War I, to the shores of Themyscira, as well as a few of the Germans who were trying to kill him. After he is rescued then captured by the Amazons, he is questioned. About his identity and the war.
When Steve describes the conflict as “the war to end all wars,” that’s all the invitation Diana needs to leave the safety of her island and take on Ares— and thus, she believes, to defeat war itself.
And maybe it’s an occupational hazard, but this pastor couldn’t help but think about this passage from Ephesians as our heroine gathered the various tools she would need as she left her home to live into her calling.
See, even great warriors like the Amazons need more than a mission and determination. Diana’s warrior armor includes has a breastplate and belt, a shield, some serious combat boots, bracelets that are indestructible, the lasso of truth and a sword that is sharp enough to cut even atomic particles into smaller pieces.
Paul and the Gentile readers of his letter to the Ephesians would have been really familiar with the armor worn by Roman soldiers. After all, as newly welcomed members of a minority sect of Judaism, they were a minority among minorities in the Roman empire. And because they were now living in the way of Jesus, their choices were counter-cultural enough to be obvious. And, as you may recall from Paul’s own pre-conversion story, some Jews were willing to persecute members of the early church. Sometimes by turning them over to the Romans.
So, when Paul begins to describe armor… the full armor of God as he calls it, they know exactly what he is describing and why a soldier would need each piece.
The belt holds up the toga so the soldier can move unencumbered by cloth.
The breastplate covers the core of the body.
Shoes provide more protection from weapons and terrain than the sandals typically worn
The shield is defense against flaming arrows.
And then, of course, the helmet to protect the head. But is also provides an easy way to identify a soldier’s rank, function and unit.
Outfitted in armor like that, the Gentiles would be armed and ready for most any kind of battle. But as people who are resurrection people… people who are empowered by a Spirit of love and called to a life of reconciliation in the service of God…Paul wants them and us to be ready for a different sort of battle.
We’re not talking about a war against flesh and blood warriors…
We are talking about a war against the principalities and powers that keep this world from being as it should be.
We’re talking about the forces of sin, the reality of our separation from the Holy One.
We’re talking about our own desires for what does not feed or nourish God’s creation, including our own well-being.
There might well be times we are fighting for our lives, but the battle Paul envisions is the battle for our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength.
We’re talking about fighting against those things that cause division and pain and sorrow within the body. As well as those wounds that the Body of Christ inflicts upon the world beyond our walls
The enemy Paul describes in verse 12 as “the rulers… the authorities… the cosmic powers of this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” That enemy threatens from within and outside of ourselves.
Just imagine taking on and defeating that enemy!
If we can be prepared for war with that enemy… then we would be set for the daily battle against all that opposes God’s desire that “the mystery of the gospel” give joy on Earth.
We would be fighting on the side of God’s will being done… On earth as it is in Heaven.
Now we’re talking about a war to end all wars.
When Diana first meets Steve Trevor, he explains why he is fighting: “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”
That seems like a throw-away line. A cliche way to keep a character from sounding too noble.
But then Diana and Steve head toward Europe and the front lines of the war. Along the way, they come to a village being held captive. Everyone is suffering, including the women and children. Diana desperately wants to help, but it appears hopeless.
The space between the German and the British soldiers has become a No Man’s Land… a battle-scarred stretch of land between long trenches filled with men shooting cannons, rifles and machine guns at the other side. It was too dangerous to try to cross, but the land was too valuable for either side to abandon.
They were in a stalemate.
Steve and the others in their team tell Diana that they must keep moving. After all, they have a mission to pursue, a specific and important contribution to make to the war effort. And she was looking for Ares.
“Let’s stay focused” they say. “We can’t save everyone.”
But Diana refuses. She can either do nothing (even if just for the moment).
Or she can do something.
And so she steps out of that trench and steps into her own power. No longer wearing the cape that has covered her armor, Diana becomes Wonder Woman— she becomes worthy of the calling to which she has been called.
Bearing only her armor and shield, she steps out onto the field. She draws all kinds of enemy fire. But her armor can withstand it. And as she stands firm in the middle of the field, putting herself on the line, the others behind her take heart. First Steve and their team follow her and begin to fight. Then the other soldiers finally see there REALLY IS HOPE. And they storm the field. Soon they are able to claim No Man’s Land and retake the village, extending that hope to the civilians.
Diana had the courage to stand firm behind the armor she had been provided.
This selfless act was enough to turn the tide.
It’s interesting that the armor Paul describes is designed to help regular folk like us to stand firm. It’s not armor for aggressive action.
In fact, coming right after those household codes calling for mutual care and love, it should be clear that standing firm does not require a person to hurt a neighbor – or a sibling in Christ – in any way.
The armor is meant to empower believers to withstand (stand firm against) the evils surrounding and threatening us. And to stand firm against the presence of sin and evil that we carry within us. It empowers us by providing coverage.
Its very nature is defensive. Believers are girded in truth, faith and peace, the Spirit through the word, and finally in prayer for their defence and strength.
While none of us are superheroes or demigods from mystical islands, we all have access to the greatest power in all creation:
The Power of the Creator.
The Power of the Savior
The Power of the Holy Spirit.
As we persevere in prayer, we are connected to God’s resurrection power.
You might have noticed I’ve used a lot of WE language here. That’s because Paul’s words calling upon believers to stand firm… they are plural. All of y’all… stand firm.
Unlike Wonder Woman taking on the whole line of Germans in No Man’s Land, or Don Quixote tilting at all of his windmills… we do not take our sword and shield out into the world alone.
Paul’s original readers would have known something about those Roman shields that I didn’t know until recently. The shields of the Roman army were one-and-a-half people wide. So when the army stood together there was no break in the line, because each person was holding a shield that covered themselves and their neighbor. And together, they become impenetrable.
As long as the whole body stands fast and holds the line together, all of us are shielded by the faith of others, as well as our own.
Did you notice that there was no armor for the back or sides… just the breast plate? That’s because turning back is not an option, the only option to stand firm.
And that is not the same thing as doing nothing.
It is the big picture version of turning the other cheek, which was a nonviolent way of resisting the powers that be, by forcing them to back down or to acknowledge your equality and treat you accordingly.
We wear these gifts together. We “stand therefore” shoulder to shoulder as Roman soldiers would do, or as today’s riot police do: an impenetrable wall of strength.
And stand firm we must.
When the powers call for violence, the church must stand together for peace.
When the powers call for silence, the church must stand together and speak for those who are voiceless.
When the powers call for ignoring the plight of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, the church must stand firm for justice.
When the powers call for going along to get along, for endless expansion at the expense of creation, for using people for our own profits, the church must stand firm against them and insist on a more excellent way.
Together. As a body.
I don’t know if you saw the story in the news about a month ago…it happened at Panama City Beach
Six members of the same family, including a grandmother who had a heart attack, were rescued after getting caught in a riptide. Three other people who had attempted to help were saved as well.
They weren’t saved by one heroic person.
Or even by a couple of super-skilled lifeguards.
Dozens of people on the beach created a human chain… linking arms and holding tight… so that they could reach almost 100 yards into the surf in the Gulf of Mexico.
Here’s how the Guardian reported the incident:
Derek Simmons, an Alabama native who recently moved to PCB, quickly organised the chain and swam with his wife Jessica to rescue the stranded group. Simmons said he was enjoying a family picnic on the beach when they noticed people in a group on the sand close to the pier, some pointing into the water.
“We thought it was a shark; we have a ton of those,” said Simmons.
“We walked down to see what was going on and I asked the guy furthest out if everything was OK. He said: ‘No, those people out there are drowning, I can’t get to them because the current’s too strong.’
“I said to the guy: ‘Let’s try to get as many people as we can to form a human chain.’ If you know about ants, you know when one’s in trouble they form a chain to help it. My theory was, let’s get enough people, we’ll get out there and pull them in and everybody can finish having a good rest of the evening.”
At first, he said, people appeared reluctant, fearing they would be caught in the same riptide.
“We were yelling at the beach, we need more people,” he said.
Then more beachgoers raced to join the chain, allowing Simmons, 26, and his 29-year-old wife to swim further out on their body boards and reach the group, which included a young family with two small boys and the grandmother, who were attempting to keep afloat but gulping in seawater.
The couple first handed the children, Stephen Ursrey, 8, and his 11-year-old brother Noah, to the end of the chain, which by then had grown to about 80 people, and returned to help their mother Roberta, 34.
“She looked the most in trouble when we first got there,” Simmons said. “So that was the third one in, then the fourth and fifth.”
After about an hour in the water, he said, they were exhausted but able to rescue the last of the group, a nephew of the Ursrey family and an unidentified couple.
And do you know what Mr. Simmons said afterward?
“It was a wave of humanity that brings some things back into focus, that maybe we haven’t lost all hope in this world,”
Faith, hope and love abide. And were on beautiful display that day.
Over 80 people, most of them strangers… standing in the waves.
If any one of them had decided to do nothing… or just quit at any point during that hour or so it took to bring those people back to shore… Things might have turned out differently.
I’d be willing to bet almost all of them were praying in some fashion or other… sending out thoughts of encouragement and hope.
This passage about armor – all of Ephesians really – is a call to prayer – shared, corporate prayer that is passionate and articulate in its desire to see the world transformed
To see lives saved.
To experience hope.
And this letter is a call for embodied, corporate resistance to evil whenever and wherever it is revealed.
This letter is a call calls for us to be church… to be the Body of Christ
This letter is a call to be ready for the power of God to be unleashed, and to be the hands, feet, voice, face and heart of Christ…
in a world that is drowning.
In a world that hungers and thirsts for the love and grace we are called to proclaim.
May we answer that call on this day.
And every day.
Armed and ready.