by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: Ephesians 6
When you were younger, who represented the epitome of power in your mind? Was it a teacher, a parent, a grumpy neighbor warning you to get off his lawn?
One of the powerful people of my youth was the principal of my elementary school.
In my five-year-old eyes, he was a giant.
Easily eight or nine feet tall with a voice that could bend the trees on the playground, he could snatch a line jumper from the lunch line without looking up from his Salisbury steak.
And he was mean—at least that’s what my older brothers and their friends on the bus wanted me to believe.
“Get him angry and he’ll go all “Incredible Hulk” on you,” they said.
And then there was the paddle—the Hammer of Thor of grade school justice. It hung on a nail behind his desk—perfectly placed so that any visitor to the office could see it hanging there, waiting, condemning, judging.
Legend had it that the principal had the paddle customized to maximize its speed and clout, and you couldn’t help but to feel pity for even the biggest bully who felt its sting.
That was power!
Perhaps you have a vivid memory of an early encounter with power, too.
And what about now?
Who holds the cards of power in your life today?
Your boss? Your parents? Your significant other? A former significant other? “The Media”, “Wall Street”, “The Man”?
What about the power of diseases like cancer and HIV?
The power of ignorance?
The power of hate?
While we know that there are forces for good at work in the world, it’s examples of powers like these that remind us of our weakness. Abuses of power, power unleashed destructively—sometimes the first blow from forces like these not only knocks us to the ground, but also convinces us that we’re destined for certain defeat.
History has seen many more tyrants than revolutions, in part, because it’s easier to be convinced that one is powerless rather than to identify the power one has to bring about change.
Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians aims to help believers recognize that God endows them with a power greater than that which is in the world—and that was a tough row to hoe in Ephesus, a city in which the world’s power was on full display.
Ephesus was a city in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, that rose to great heights in the Roman Era as the region’s First City. Almost half a million people called Ephesus home, and its commercial and religious points of interest insured a steady stream of immigrants and pilgrims, too.
One of the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World was there—the Temple to the Goddess Artemis—which could hold 25, 000 worshipers.
There was also a great theater in the city where classic works of drama were staged and gladiatorial death matches fought. In fact, the theater is still standing. I have a DVD of Elton John playing a concert there, which is a bit insane when you stop to think about it.
As a prominent city, Ephesus also had a prominent church. The Church in Ephesus had ties to several New Testament books and to sainted luminaries like the Apostles Paul and John, and Mary the Mother of Jesus.
Given the presence of so many Christians in this center of Rome’s power, it shouldn’t surprise us that our faithful ancestors experienced a great deal of tension and uncertainty in Ephesus.
Christians needed to know if there were Roman systems and institutions in Ephesus in which they could participate with a clean conscience? Were their others that should be avoided at all cost? And how could one discern the difference between the two?
These were pressing ethical, theological, and social questions for our ancestors, who desperately needed to know what to do when keeping Rome happy and keeping faith with God were incompatible with one another.
Questions like these placed members of the Church on the front line of the battle for their hearts and minds.
And when you’re staring across the battle lines at Rome’s might and influence even the prayers of the righteous can seem puny and ineffective.
In Ephesians chapter 6, though, Paul turns that reality upside town, invoking the very symbol of Rome’s power—the Roman solider—to write a parable about the provisions God offered the faithful to withstand any attack on their souls, the Parable of the Whole Armor of God.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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. 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.
“Look, people of Ephesus,” Paul seemed to say, “you know how Rome’s soldiers are prepared and provisioned for battle, how they train to overcome every foe. You must train your souls for battle, too, but not with weapons. Your greatest foes are the unseen forces at work in this world, forces that God will give you exactly what you need to overcome.”
What comes next is Paul’s famous line item inventory of the blessings with which God blessed the Church.
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 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. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
When the Empire tempted the faithful to acknowledge its power as the greatest force in town, the Apostle pointed them in a new direction.
Compelled to bend their knee and give their heart to those who would reign with violence and intimidation, Paul called the Church to find itself in God’s promise to provide grace for the journey and strength to achieve their God-given purpose.
Truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the word of God, whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace—God would give the faithful these gifts, and they would not be disappointed.
The Church in Ephesus drew strength from Paul’s teaching, finding in these words wisdom and power. Other Christians found strength here, too. That’s why the letter came to be part of the New Testament and how it is that we who have only seen Roman soldiers in movies can still hear God’s voice speaking through the text.
Haven’t we all seen power used in ways that intimidate, oppress, belittle, and frighten?
We’ve seen it happen in homes, offices, halls of government, and in the board rooms of business.
We’ve all seen power abused and sometimes it makes us feel powerless to do anything about it.
Of course, there are also moments when we’re tempted to grab power for ourselves and turn the screws on someone else.
In every time and place, however, the message to the Ephesians charts another course, steering us back to Christ, back to the essence of Paul’s great parable.
Truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the word of God, whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace—the heart that knows these will not be overcome.
The heart that knows these belongs to Christ.
And that is why we call Paul’s words about the Whole Armor of God Good New for all people.
Thanks be to God. Amen