Perhaps you remember singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” as a child. Or maybe you have some vague recollection of the terms “church militant” or the “church triumphant” from a church liturgy in a Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, or other setting. Or maybe you remember learning in some long-ago bible study how Paul addressed some of his fellow workers and ministry peers as my “fellow soldiers.”
Given that the Christian faith grew during a period of Roman occupation and suffered in times of Imperial powers, there is no shortage of military metaphors and images in the Christian tradition, and yes, in our New Testament, some of which we see today. Yet, contrary to misinterpretation and misuse by the church in various times and places (which is significant—see anytime after 325 AD, after Christianity became legalized), the Apostle Paul uses military metaphor to stress that we are in a spiritual battle and that our enemies are not of flesh and blood, but the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” We have seen how this idea of spiritual warfare through corruption and thru the passage of time got mixed up with physical warfare and oppression with tragic, horrific results (see Crusades, imperial colonization, witch trials, and the like). Yet, the early Christians of Ephesus were pacifist and a persecuted minority—that is, before Christianity became fused with Empire. It is interesting, isn’t it, that followers of the Prince of Peace—Paul included– would use Roman military terms in a subversive way to help listeners initially hear and then follow the gospel?
So today– in Ephesians 6, Paul urges us to put on the “whole armor of God.” We may bristle at the language, but let’s deal with it as we can. That adjective, “whole,” is repeated twice, as if Paul knows that we tend to clothe ourselves with Christ only partially, as if we would put on a helmet to protect our head, but forget our shin-guards or our cleats when heading out for encounter with our adversary who is keen to kick us where it will hurt.
Or, if the military paraphernalia doesn’t work for you, perhaps you might substitute the personal protective equipment that so many of us are familiar with: the masks, the gloves, the plastic face-shields, the ubiquitous hand-sanitizer, and the vaccines that help to protect our vulnerable bodies against the spread and damage of the ever-present Covid virus. Paul might say that some of us need to remember to use all of it: we can’t use gloves but forget to wash our hands, or wear a mask, but forget to cover our nose.
For Paul, the “whole” armor of God is necessary in order to stand firm in our faith—to stand in such a way that we can “hold the line” against the powers that would destroy and create chaos. The whole armor of God is necessary so that we don’t become prey to the spiritual forces of evil and the cosmic powers of this present time of hurt and pain. For Paul, “this present darkness” includes powers and principalities, authorities and rulers, that can wreak havoc with God’s kin-dom building and which cause God’s people to spiritually as well as physically suffer.
We might note that Paul’s “whole armor of God” is more defensive rather than offensive. It is pacifist in that regard: a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes that lead to peace, faith that is a shield, and salvation’s healing helmet. The only “sword” that we are to wield, in Paul’s language, is the Word of God, and it is only to help us to withstand the “wiles of the devil” or those things that would break our resolve to live out God’s message of life and hope.
In any case, we might think of Paul’s military clothing as protective gear, similar to what a doctor, fireman, or athlete might wear so that the chances of one suffering from infection, burns, hurt, and pain are lowered, if not eliminated.
So, what is this protective gear? What does it mean to put on Christ in such a way that we can withstand spiritual trials? In Paul’s eyes, truth holds us together like a belt, and our hearts (and vital organs) are protected by righteousness, which means being in “right relations” with each other.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber writes, “we all need something to protect those vital organs, so that we don’t get hit in the gut, so that we don’t suffer from a wounded heart. …we try to be righteous and keep faithful in all our relationships. …we work to keep faith between husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, neighbors, brothers and sisters, and all. We wear our righteousness like a chest protector so that we avoid the sinking feeling in our gut when we have broken faith with a loved one, so that we avoid receiving a broken heart.”
I’ve had that broken heart and sinking feeling in life, haven’t you? The feeling that something isn’t quite right between myself and my friend, or myself and my family member, or myself and my child. It’s a way to know that repairs are necessary and a priority if I want the relationship to thrive. To maintain right relationships with God and each other is to put on the breastplate, the heart protection of God. It is to honor the truth and put on shoes of peace.
One of my colleagues noted that the armor that Paul depicts isn’t some kind of Renaissance fair knight armor that is bright, shiny, and polished. No, this protective gear is rusted, beat up, dented, and worn. It is used and used well. We don’t just take out truth, right relationship, peace, faith, healing, and God’s good word when it is convenient, or when we want to win a ribbon at the local fair. We use these things on a regular basis; it is our everyday wear, our Christian uniform, so to speak. It is a bit like my oven mitts at home: scorched around the edges, with splatters of whatever we last had for dinner, and in need of mending and washing from time to time, but used every single day lest I want to have burned hands.
And what about that shield of faith? What does Paul mean when he says that we, when we take up the shield of faith, will “be able to quench the flaming arrows of the evil one”? There are days when I leave the house and forget my keys. There are times when I forget my umbrella for the rainy day ahead or to wear waterproof shoes. Paul wants me to remember my shield of faith; don’t leave home without it.
There were three kinds of ancient Roman shields, but one of the most well-known was something called a scutum. A scutum was tall, concave, rectangular or oval, and used by foot soldiers. When scutum were used by footsoldiers in the front, they would form an unbroken line. Soldiers in the back could lift them above their heads forming a kind of protective “roof” or dome to shield from attacks from above and to the side simultaneously. The point being that everyone had to use their scutum, their shield, together. If one person moved forward or stepped away, the line would be broken and all would become vulnerable.
Similarly, our faith is not simply an individual matter, but a collective thing that helps us to weather storms and trials. We rely on each other to help us “keep on keeping the faith” and to hold the line against injustice, against greed of all kinds, against destructive racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and xenophobia. These enemies of our faith are too big for any one of us to encounter or muster a protracted defense alone. We need each other to strengthen our resolve, to hold our faith above, below, and to the sides of us. We need each other to maintain our hope for the future while training our eyes on living in this present moment. Does that mean that our faith never wavers? I remember someone telling me that she would help me keep the faith when I had little faith, little reserve to go on. Even then, we were in the struggle together and not apart.
The other day, my little boy found a purple, Ravens football helmet in his grandparents’ basement and wanted to know if he could bring it home. For the apostle Paul, we should put on the helmet of salvation which is another way of describing the helmet of healing that Christ provides for individuals and for communities. This is not something to leave buried in our parents’ or grandparents’ basement, but a kind of healing and wholeness that we need to experience for ourselves. Traditions have value but only if we can embody and discover that tradition for ourselves. Only then can we receive its healing benefits in the midst of our own trials and difficulties.
Whether you think of the whole armor of God as Paul writes, or consider God’s PPE, or some other protective clothing metaphor, we are to be clothed with Christ, and not with some other idol of our own making. We might consider that the wearing of this personal protective equipment actually changes how we move, how we think, and changes where we might go. In other words, employing truth, having right relations, walking in the shoes of peace, holding the shield of faith, taking the helmet of salvation and healing “home” with us, and leaning on scripture our defense may bring about different questions and different outcomes than anticipated or sought. We may find ourselves asking how our actions protect or fail to protect others. We may find ourselves investing differently as a Christian, with an eye to a different kind of growth. We may find ourselves pursuing truth from multiple angles including the prophets’ timeless wisdom, or we may find ourselves open to the healing that comes when communal needs are given preference to, or in tension with, individual needs and desires.
In a modern-day version of the Ephesians’ text, Rev. Maren Tirabassi writes:
… Paul’s metaphors still speak to every Ephesus, even in 2021
(Ephesians 6: 13-18)
Therefore put on the sunscreen of God,
for there is no armor, money, last minute plan,
to assure wealthy nations
they will withstand the evil of global warming,
but do everything to ease the burning,
for you have skin in the game
and they are called – children.
Fasten the belt of vaccination
around the world,
and wear the mask of compassion
wherever you go …
did I already mention children?
The shoes on your feet may look
Jimmy Choo, Sketcher or
Momo Baby Leah and Hunter,
but it surely is not boots on the ground
that spread peace.
Remember faith is not a “shield”
but a yield, a healed,
an open door for Afghans and Haitians,
and the remarkable gifts of people
from around the world,
and let no one complain of burkas
in other places,
who puts mortar board helmets
on the rich and privileged
but limits any opportunities
for others because of race, ethnicity,
ability, economic status.
The Spirit is not a sword but an empty hand,
a mind open to the justice of God,
a heart that prays all the names of God,
and the One who calls us to give Breath
to everyone, especially the children.
Friends, may you discern what “putting on Christ” means for you this day and may you wear always this PPE for good.
 attributed to Rev. Dr. Derek Weber
 revgalpals website discussion, week of Aug 16, 2021.
 Rev. Maren Tirabassi, https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/