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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before August 23, 2015

Ephesians 6:10-20

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For 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. 13Therefore 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. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray 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.

19Pray 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, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

What I Am Learning:

Okay, I think I can probably predict what you are thinking? Why are we focusing on this text this week?  This text seems like a one-way ticket to crazy town. Yea, I know.

Several reasons:

  1. I like taking on the hard ones
  2. I am done with the bread of life theme which is one primary reason why pastors take August off each year
  3. Because this text is actually a first-century way to talk about some dynamics that are important to talk about

If you search the net for "spiritual warfare" you will inevitably see this passage referenced. These sites interpret this passage to mean that Satan and his minions (Obama!, the liberals, the Supreme Court and the GLBTQ folks and the like) are actively oppressing the true Christians who need to fight back with prayer and the whole armor of God. Satan's powers are blamed for every setback that these folks experience.

There is a kind of paranoia as well as a kind of earth abandoning attitude in these Christians who see themselves as holding firm until Jesus beams them up.

My home church's pastor used to read these words every single Sunday as a part of a prayer. That was boring. It was also used by him to protect himself from accusations that his ministry was not going well. When people disagreed with him they, too, became a part of the forces of Satan arrayed against the righteous of God. This passage can create a kind of self-righteousness and self-protectiveness that insulates some Christians from all-to-different others.

Sad.

Sad for them, for the other humans that they project their fears on and never really know and sad for this strange little passage that could help us see some dynamics that do in fact affect us.

What is that dynamic?

Walter Wink in his book The Powers That Be and in other books in The Powers series taught that this passage and others were a way that first century Christians discussed the influence of social forces and larger cultures upon human beings.

Western people tend to think of human beings are individual actors in a basically neutral environment. These individual actors can make the best or worst of their opprotunities and its all up to each of us.

When some thing goes wrong, say after the torture scandal of Abu Ghraib in the last decade, it was a "few bad apples" that caused all the problems. Certainly individuals were responsible for their actions. But many point out that the overall social contexts powerfully influence the individuals in it – in other words, the apple barrel puts pressure on the apples who then go bad.

There have been many experiments that show the relationship between the social context and the behavior of human beings. The famous Milgram experiments in which people applied shocks other people to teach them to learn showed that about 65% of people will go along with an authority figure for the benefit of science even when it subjects another human to pain.

The Stanford Prison experiment created a kind of Lord of the Flies situation in a mock prison with a group of otherwise normal twenty-somethings. The context and expectations of a prison turned people into sadistic guards, abusive prison mates and submissive inmates. See more here: http://www.prisonexp.org/

The Psychologist who ran the experiment, Philip Zimbardo, even was impacted by the situation as he found himself being so taken by the undertow of being the prison warden that he forgot his basic responsibility to not do damage to those in the study. Only and outsider and friend was able to help him stop the experiment. He calls the influence of social contexts on human beings "the Lucifer effect."  We can sort of forget who we are and what we value as we do what is expected in a social context.

I believe that this passage from Ephesians is describing the influence of the domination/submission culture of the Roman Empire on human beings. The reason for the cosmic language is that the Roman Empire claimed divine origin and mandate for its whole way of being. If the god's made the world this way then who are we to argue?

The writer of Ephesians suggests that in order to resist the influence of dehumanizing social settings and worldviews is to engage in spiritual practices, the critique of cultures in Bible study and theological reflection, and to engage in nonviolent public leadership. Here is where  I see that:

  1. Spiritual Practices: Verse 18: (18Pray 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.) This verse seems to say that only constant prayer and meditation on God's way of mutuality (the reign of God) can help us resist dehumanizing cultures and social settings. There is a relational aspect of this as the prayers remember not only God but others who are a part of Christ's alternative vision.
  2. Critique of  Culture: Verse 14  (14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.) We are encouraged to stand (not bow down to Caesar and his culture of death) and to see and speak the truth about the lies that are being told and the truth about the belovedness of all human beings and the created world.
  3. Nonviolent Public Leadership: Verses 15-17   (15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.) Our calling is not a private me and Jesus sort of faith, but we are called to engage in public leadership so that others may sense, in our freedom and belovedness, their God-given freedom and worth.

Two more things. The writer reminds us that it is not against human beings that we fight, but against the influence of domination/submission culture and its influence to dehumanize and devalue people. This means that we are invited to remember that even those who actively promote a bullying culture are not the enemy, but caught up in social forces that overwhelm and dehumanize them.

The writer of Ephesians used the words "satan" (the secret government agent) and the "devil" (the accuser). The writer may have believed in them as non-corporeal beings.

But we don't have to.

All we have to do is look at the power of ISIS, North Korea, The KKK, The Nazi Regime, the power of marketing and media, the impact of corporate culture on their workers (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html?_r=0 ) to see the power of the apple barrel on the apples, to see the power of social forces on human beings.

The writer was trying to help them name the power of social forces and cultural systems on human beings. He (probably) did this to state that these powers were not ultimate and that in Jesus Christ they were made citizens of another country, another culture. This other country is the reign of God. They were no longer bound by the laws of the Roman bullying culture and were invited to the joy of life as God envisions it.

This passage can help us us to recognize the power of dehumanizing social forces upon us and to see our freedom in Christ to live and feel differently and how through spiritual practices, critique of culture and nonviolent public leadership to actively resist domination and see a world of beauty full of God's beloved children.


For more on the meaning of the various images of armor in this passage see:

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1380