Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God…
-from Ephesians 6
One of the pieces of advice commonly given to public speakers separates the work of public speaking into three sections. Orators are advised to tell their audiences what we’re about to say, then actually say it, then remind you what we just said.
Usually, I think that makes for a boring ten minutes or so. For this Sunday, though, I’m making an exception. Here are the three things that I’m going to tell you in this sermon:
Number 1: We have real battles to fight.
Number 2: None of those battles are against people.
Number 3: We’re going to win.
So. This passage gives us a twofer of awkwardness. First, we get the stuff about the devil and the spiritual forces of evil and so on, and then before we’ve managed to digest that, we get all the warrior imagery. I’ve worshipped at Quaker meetings of various sorts, but never at one that talked regularly about spiritual warfare and suiting up for battle. This isn’t our natural bent.
I think we should consider, for this Sunday at least, changing that trend. I think these are metaphors that we need.
I mean, look: there’s no escaping the realness of the battles that we fight. Don’t call them battles if you don’t want to, I guess, but I don’t know what the point is in mincing words. We might not all agree on the particulars regarding what the world should look like, but I think we all agree that the world outside these doors isn’t really it. I see you folks struggling to make this world better, and I think you all are warriors.
We have real battles to fight, Friends. Let me name a couple of those battles, while making no claim to have named them all.
Here’s one: we fight for people, including ourselves, to be seen as fully human. We do this in families, as we recognize the unique way in which every irritating and ultimately loveable person we call one of our own bears the image of God. We do this in schools, with anti-bullying efforts aimed at promoting empathy. We do this in workplaces, as we try to replace social stereotypes of all sorts with fair and standard evaluations. In all of these cases, our efforts are met with resistance- to be fully human and to see others as fully human is not an easy task.
Here’s another: we fight to pass on something that better than what we received. This fight is most explicit in the environmentalist movement, in which one often hears the goal of passing on a better world to the children. It’s a pretty common sentiment though, right? We do this on a national level, on a community level, and even in our own families. We take what we’re given and then we start tinkering, changing out some dysfunctional gears, installing a new set of whatsits, hoping to make it run just a little better before passing it along.
You all are fighters. Maybe the language of spiritual warfare isn’t what you’re used to. I’m sorry if it seems harsh.
But what metaphor would you rather use? I’ve talked to enough of you to know that you come home from the work to which you are called sometimes like an extra in a Mel Gibson movie: dust caked, wounded, and exhausted. You are, as Paul phrases it, taking your stand against the devil’s schemes. You bear on your souls the marks of so many combats.
I think the battle metaphors matter because they accurately capture the work that you’re doing, even though that work isn’t meant to hurt a soul. You’re fighting hard. The battles that you’re fighting are real.
Here’s the second thing, though, that we hear in today’s passage: none of the battles that we face, rightly understood, are battles against other people.
Listen again: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God…
Paul’s call to arms is not directed against other people. It’s not directed against non-Christians, or against Christians of other types. However one understands the powers of this dark world, what stands out to me is that it cannot possibly refer to anyone made of flesh and blood.
Paul is explicit about this- before he will describe you in your warrior garb, he has to remind you that you don’t get this armor so that you can go fight other people. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. If you find a person who isn’t made up of flesh and blood, then you can go ahead and fight them- but until our would-be robot conquerors arrive, I think you’re stuck.
None of the battles that we fight as Christians are against other people. We fight against the dehumanizing power of injustice. We fight against the small-heartedness of greed. We fight against all that which says that people should live burdened by guilt and shame. We fight against forces of violence in our families, in our schools, in our nation.
We do not fight against flesh and blood.
Ok, so I assume you get that we don’t fight against other people, in the physical sense. You might still feel compelled at some point to land a punch on another person, but you’d identify that as being a bad Quaker. (And, just to be clear: Bad Quakers are more than welcome here.)
It’s harder, though, to remember this in the thick of a fight. This is true in our families. We disagree, deeply and painfully sometimes, with those to whom we are closest. Those disagreements do not mean, though, that we have leave to treat one another as adversaries. It’s the endpoint, really, of being called to bless those who persecute us, because that calling requires us to recognize those who persecute us as the recipients of God’s good will.
We fight against dehumanization, and lust, and violence, and selfishness: these are forces of evil. With other people, though, we are called to be gentle, to be gracious, to be kind. We do not fight against flesh and blood.
This is true, too, on a political level. Here’s a revolutionary thought, as we enter yet another campaign season: none of those campaigners are our adversaries. Here’s a revolutionary challenge: pick the candidate who challenges you the most, the one who most seems like your enemy, and pray for them every day.
However much you might disagree with that person and all the people who might vote for them, they are not your enemy. Their supporters are not your enemy. We do not fight against flesh and blood.
And, since this sermon wraps up a series in which I’ve been talking about how we bear the traditional Quaker testimonies in the life of our meeting… this is a congregation of people who sometimes deeply disagree with one another. On the one hand, this makes us like every congregation of believers that has ever existed; it’s not like church conflict is something particular to this group. On the other hand, this meeting has intentionally cultivated diversity. That’s a good and beautiful thing, but it also means that when we settle down in worship to do business together, the differences between individual members can be exposed in painful ways.
Think about the people who worship in this room, though. The person with whom you most deeply disagree is made of flesh and blood, just like you. We do not fight against flesh and blood. That is not what our armor is for. That’s not what this fight is about.
Listen again, Friends, to Paul describing the armor that you’ve been given: Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish 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.
We could go through this armor piece by piece, but I’d rather just point out the obvious: if this is the armor you’re wearing, then you are profoundly vulnerable. Doing the right thing is all that’s protecting your precious heart? Salvation is the only thing between your brain and an enemy’s attack? Something is shooting flaming arrows, and you plan to extinguish them by faith?
If you show up to a fight with truth buckled around your waist, then I can only conclude that you do not intend to fight using traditional methods. If your only weapon is the sword of the Spirit, then you have not come to this fight prepared to hurt another human being.
There’s the heart of the Peace Testimony, Friends. It’s not that there are no monsters to kill. It’s that people are not monsters- that the anger we feel toward the evil powers of this world should never be directed as violence toward those who bear the image of God.
Ok, so I told you at the beginning of this sermon that I planned to tell you three things. Here’s the first thing: we have real battles to fight. When you flop on your couch at night feeling weary and wounded, that’s because you are a warrior and you have been fighting.
Here’s the second thing: none of those battles are against people. That’s easy to lose sight of, in the day-to-day, because people are visible when the powers of this dark world are not. We face threats from both within and without ourselves, but neither we nor the people who surround us are the enemy. We do not fight against flesh and blood.
Here’s the third thing: we’re going to win.
Look. Christians don’t believe in peace, in our families, in our churches, in our communities, in our nation, or on a global scale, because it’s easy or obvious. Christians think that peace is a real possibility because on Easter Sunday, death was proved a loser. Christians are called to work for peace, not by a sense of naive idealism, but by the Spirit of Christ real and present among us.
We’re people who have seen the heavenly city coming down to earth. That’s the vision in Revelation- not that we’ll be swept away to a magical kingdom when we die, but that a city so bright that it makes the sun irrelevant is invading our deep darkness. We’re people who expect a crystal clear river of life to quench our thirsty, grasping ways, who are waiting for a tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations.
We may not know how all of that will work itself out, but we have confidence (however shaky) that it will.
We’re going to win, warriors. Not against people, but against the powers of this dark world. Not against flesh and blood, but against all that which would hold us back from being fully human, all that which would prevent all people from fully showcasing the image of God.
We’re going to win that fight. I think you should be convinced, in the end, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing can separate any one of us from the supporting and enfolding and enlivening love of God. Love always wins.
So. As a good orator, I told you what I was about to say, and then I said it. Here, to fulfill the third part of my task, is the part in which I tell you what I just said:
Number 1: We have real battles to fight. Friends, we have work to do. Don’t think that our commitment to peace releases us from engaging in the fight against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Number 2: We do not fight against flesh and blood. The armor we’ve been given is worthless, if we want to fight other people. We are given the gift, instead, of recognizing that other people are not our enemies.
Number 3: We’re going to win. Paul says that if we wear the armor that we’ve been given – peace, righteousness, faith, and so on – that we will be able to stand our ground.
When we must fight, warrior Friends:
may we go into battle with discernment
so that we can identify the battles that are ours to fight,
and with compassion
so that we can never fight against flesh and blood,
and with confidence
so that we can know that kindness and justice and mercy will always win in the end.