Subversive Revolutionaries

July 30, 2017
Reverend Sarah Brouwer

Joshua 24:1-2a; Ephesians 6:10-20

Ephesians 6:10-20

10 Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. 11 Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. 12 We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. 13 Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. 14 So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, 15 and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. 16 Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. 18 Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. 19 As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. 20 I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.

—Common English Bible

I owe a great deal of debt to Rev. Sarah Wiles, who is in my preaching group, and from whose paper I gleaned much about this text from Ephesians 6.

A text with militaristic language and cosmic forces of evil. I know what you’re thinking- thanks, Sarah, for this light text on a lovely summer Sunday! Spiritual warfare is very important in many Christian churches, but as Presbyterians, we tend not to be charismatic spiritual warriors. We use our intellect to dig into the text; we are more at ease with reasonable discussion, and usually not the biggest fans of violent imagery. So, doing battle with the wiles of the devil? Even that kind of conflict can be dealt with decently and in order, right?

I am as far removed from Roman-controlled late first century Asia minor as I am from the war torn places of our world- and even the violent parts of our city. But, I do read about war and violence in the news, and it disturbs me. And, the worry most on my mind nowadays is that there seems to be more and more license to threaten individual lives and bodies, especially those who fall outside norms, and land in the margins. So, to equate the Christian life with putting on armor not only falls outside of my comfort zone, it seems counterintuitive, even dangerous.

But, I also have to wonder if… maybe that’s the point.

I was recently reminded of a story I read awhile back- you’ve probably heard of Father Greg Boyle, or even met him in person at the Town Hall Forum a few years ago. Greg is a Jesuit Priest who runs a non-profit called Homeboy Industries that works with gang members in Los Angeles. He wrote a book called Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Greg has a theory about violence that makes a lot of sense to me, and I think applies to more than just gangs. He explains that he is not a peacemaker with gang members, because peacemaking requires conflict. And, there is no conflict between gangs. When they fight they aren’t fighting about anything, because, really, the fight is with themselves; they are running from something and seeking kinship with others; fighting and violence is a learned way of bonding because most of their experiences in close relationships have involved being harmed.

Father Greg Boyle has taken a different, and successful approach to show these, mostly young men, that they are known and valued, that there is hope for the future, and other ways of being in community, and even other ways of showing strength and having power. Greg didn’t get to this place by simply dismissing, or dealing with the violence. Because he saw the violence as the logical symptom of people who had been hurt, marginalized and demonized, he decided to meet them where they were. Not as a peacemaker; not as the one with all the solutions coming in arbitrarily to solve all the problems. He works in much the same way Jesus did, to generate a new way of being for everyone, by standing with, and alongside. He writes, “Kinship [is] not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that… The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”

In the letter to the Ephesians there is no explicit mention of violence outside of the notion of putting on armor, but, the author does talk about standing firm, even as we struggle with cosmic forces of evil. And evil is really the root of violence- not quite the same thing, but certainly related. What’s important, though, is that the writer of this letter actually takes images that are familiar to these early Christians- people who would have seen powerful, intimidatingly dressed, sometimes violent Roman soldiers, walking the streets every day- and then subverts them, takes them out of context and changes the metaphor. The image of armor ends up undermining itself, revealing its emptiness.

Like Greg Boyle, the author of Ephesians seeks to build community by coming alongside it, knowing it, and reframing what appears to be true. For the gang members what appears to be true is that violence is what you do to have a place in the world. For the Christians in Ephesus, it meant they had to shake off the illusions of the powers of the world and put on the armor of God. They had to learn that the body of Christ is a ‘heavenly’ reality, full of righteousness and truth, and it is in no way determined by violent ways or the abusive habits of those who claim power.

Although I can certainly appreciate what the author of Ephesians is doing here, it still makes me uncomfortable. Things have not gone well when Christians have put on armor. This text has been misread many times and used in defense of violence, even though I am abundantly sure that was not the intent. As a friend of mine writes, “spiritual growth usually feels more like laying down defenses, shedding layers, allowing more of my unprotected self to see the light of day.” Even putting on the armor of God, which is a subversive, totally different way of garnering strength, just doesn’t sit well.

But, here’s what I do like about what’s going on in Ephesians. Ephesians doesn’t mess around with the idea that there is evil. Conflict is implied, but not necessarily conflict with others. The story of Greg Boyle is lovely and redeeming, but living that story was much more difficult than we can probably imagine- for those gang members, but also, certainly, for Greg and all of the biases and inner conflict about them he had to overcome. Evil is real, but we like to talk about it as though it is part of these systems of injustice, so we can easily remove ourselves from the equation. A friend of mine says it this way, We tend to make evil bureaucratic, so we can engage in problem solving and policy-making. “And while those ways of dealing with injustice are productive in some ways, they fail to adequately grapple with the reality of evil, and the way that it works within and among us, spreading like a virus (Wiles).” Jesus knew that evil didn’t just exist among the Roman authorities. If he did, he would have spent all his time with them. Instead, he taught the disciples, he healed the sick, he gave to the poor, he spent time with sinners. Jesus knew that violence, even the violence that killed him, was just a symptom of inner conflict. And who among us can’t understand this? Even if we don’t have urges toward violence, we all have deep-seated pain, discomfort, grief, loss, loneliness, anxiety, shame and self-doubt that we are battling internally on a daily basis. And maybe we don’t put on physical armor to cover it up, but we certainly manage to bury evil that eats away at us, covering it up with illusions of personal success and power, or whatever other things we do that don’t really protect us from the world or our own hurt. You might have noticed, but Ephesians never mentions battling enemies, because there are none. Our so-called enemies are always just as imprisoned as we are.

Rev. Matt Fitzgerald wrote a piece for the Christian Century on this passage, and on this particular point he said this, “The breastplate of ministerial self-righteousness will not protect me. I have learned over the years that a helmet made of bourbon and a sword forged from cynicism are also insufficient, as are prosperity, religious zeal, fitness and even family. None of these are strong enough to hold back ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness’ (Eph. 6:12). None can thwart the forces of chaos and disorder that upend even the most righteous of lives. Yet we are tempted to try to master the tragedy of existence by ‘living well.’ Perhaps this is why the writer of Ephesians makes a distinction between ‘the whole armor of God’ and our efforts to become godly. The shield is God’s, not ours.”

When I think of someone who has explored the cosmic forces of evil within and sought to overcome them, the person who comes to mind is Jean Vanier. Vanier is the founder of the well known L’arche Movement, which consists of 135 communities around the world where people of varying physical and mental abilities live together as equals. Vanier once wrote, “We human beings have a great facility for living illusions, for protecting our self-image with power, for justifying it all by thinking we are the favored ones of God… But I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”

If we put on armor, let it be subversive armor. Let us wrap truth around our waist like a belt, and let it be the kind of truth that Jean Vanier talks about. We might wonder uncomfortably, “And what good will truth do in the end?” You might consider asking someone who has revealed the truth about their sexuality, told the truth about who they truly are, deep down, exposed their true identity to a shaming and dangerous world, but whose life was saved as a result. You could ask someone who has admitted they were powerless to addiction, who finally said, “I need help. This is unmanageable.” That kind of truth is strong, it has a story, and it not only has the power to nourish others and change lives, “it is strong enough to bring forth life from the grave (Wiles)”.

When I was growing up there was a man who went to my church in IL. John O’Melia has since died, but his life and story- and larger than life height of six and a half feet tall- lives on for many of us who knew him. John was the grandfather of one of my classmates, part of the WWII generation. I knew him as a gentle giant, a man who worshipped weekly and sat with his children and grandchildren in the pew. His height became a burden later in life, and even though he stooped over a bit, his faith was always strong. Many before me knew him as Army Sergeant John Coleman O’Melia Jr. He was just 22 years old when his unit, the 20th armored division, liberated the prisoners at the Dauchau Concentration Camp. He knocked on prisoners’ doors to let them know the Americans had arrived. Although he was able to free them from certain death that day, the prisoners asked for the Americans’ guns, and John remembered thinking, “what could we do? say no?” During the horror of that day John recalled crouching in the camp and praying, promising God from then on he would work to create a better world.

John O’Melia met one of the greatest evils the world has ever known. And in meeting it he also came face to face with an internal battle. Faced with an impossible decision he made the best choice he could at the time, but instead of allowing this first-hand experience with evil to fade into the past, he turned to God for strength, and God called him to put on a different kind of armor. John went on to work for the YMCA for almost 45 years as the Director of their International Division. He gave hundreds of business executives the opportunity to travel to Eastern Europe. Time after time he returned to that place to confront that evil, bringing powerful people with him, and re-telling the story so, hopefully, they could learn from what had happened there, and choose a different kind of armor for themselves.

The writer of Ephesians says, “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.”

The Gospel is the world of opposites, where engaging real evil and conflict actually means putting your defenses down. It seems very vulnerable, to march into combat armed only in the Spirit; even precarious and costly, to hold faith as your shield. It feels like you might lose everything on that path to battle. As my friend Sarah writes, “Frankly, it all resembles foolishness. It’s as foolish as God Almighty showing up as a baby. Babies literally can’t do anything. They’re just really needy, and they call forth love and compassion. That’s all. But this is the shape of our God. This is our confession about power. This is the nature of our strength—a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit. This is the only armor there is. And it’s no kind of armor at all.” Except, if we remember the promise. That if we put on this subversive armor, God’s armor, evil and violence will not win in the end, and self-destruction and self-righteousness do not have to be our last resort. If we are willing to put on this strange promise, to wear it, to stand firm in it, and to be advocates for it, it will save us, and others.

So, while I still don’t like the idea of armor, I believe in it. I have to. And I pray you will join me, as we “dare to lay down all our other weapons, and put on, piece by piece, only this, the armor of God.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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