DR. COURTNEY COWART:
Today, in this collaborative sermon that I will be sharing with a very gifted Episcopal seminarian, Salmoon Bashir, my contribution will focus on our Epistle, that famous and oh-so-familiar passage from the 6th chapter of Ephesians where St. Paul exhorts all the people of God to put on the whole armor of God.
I have always been drawn to this passage. There is something riveting about the imagery and Paul’s clarion call to action. Paul is winding up this letter, making an artful rhetorical turn to drive home his culminating point, and it’s electrifying.
“Finally,” Paul begins, “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.”
In the Greek this is a big, pre-battle exhortation in the Roman style, meant to help us adopt the consciousness needed for the battle ahead. It is a huge collective call - expressed as an imperative.
Strengthen yourselves! All of you. The entire Body of Christ. Clothe yourselves! Prepare. We the Church have an urgent, challenging, and holy mission that requires all of us to take a stand. For this effort to be transformational, salvific on a massive scale, we absolutely must take this stand together. And every single member of the Body of Christ has a role and a part to play.
But this battle is not just about the end. It’s not about winning by any means. It is also entirely about the means we use to reach this holy end. In fact, this end - Christ’s absolute total victory - and these means - how we are now to gather up the whole of creation into that victory - these are totally and completely inseparable.
Because this battle is a struggle for the universal spiritual liberation of every single soul that was ever created and ever will be created, it can only be accomplished through clothing ourselves in the power of God’s own love. That is the entire armor of God. God’s love in its many facets and dimensions is the means, and it is the end. It is the way and it is the destination.
This struggle and this victory are the very purpose of the Christian life. Now we are told by Paul, the community of the faithful, you and I, have been baptized and deputized to carry on where Jesus Christ left off, conducting ourselves collectively in ways that are not our ways but God’s ways, thereby drawing everything into relationship with God who is gathering all things in Christ.
The “powers” Paul references stand in direct opposition to this mission. And we - all Christians - are to name evil on all levels: great and small, personal and impersonal, individual and systemic, identifying all that resists the saving activity of God among humanity in ourselves as well as in the world around us, and expel it by the means of Christ. Even the Church has to get converted - to clothe ourselves in the whole armor of God - in order to really become ourselves.
I could not help, as I pondered this part of Paul’s message, but think of that famous biblical explanation of Martin Luther King Jr. of God’s justice, God’s righteousness, _dikaisune in the Greek - the very quality Paul says that is to be the “breastplate” of the Christian warrior. King says that God’s justice, God’s righteousness, is “Love correcting all that is not love.”
And when you really examine each of these means for this end, what are all the pieces of God’s own armor Paul exhorts us to put on really about? They are nothing less than the weapons of un-defended love.
The belt of Truth. The Truth is Jesus, who has acted in the world and shown us through his example how we are to relate to God and one another. I think of the great Christological hymn that Paul so beautifully composes in Philippians: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God… _emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness… _humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Jesus’ own capacity to give his entire being for others, Jesus’ own humility, the depth of his capacity to serve the will of his father - we are given this love to undergird us.
The shield of Faithfulness - God’s faithfulness - pistis in the Greek. I think of that adamantine love of God Paul describes in his letter to the Romans. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. That faithfulness - God’s faithfulness, not ours - is our shield.
The helmet of Salvation - soterion in the Greek. A metaphor for God’s own liberative power, God’s driving desire and purpose - out of unfathomable love for his creation - to set all the captives free. That loving, liberating, life-giving passion of God’s for the salvation of all of us is our crown.
And the sword of the Spirit - the ability of God to communicate through us in word and deed under the mighty power and influence of the Holy Spirit in ways that are so incisively loving, morally and spiritually, that they cut to the quick of our souls and accomplish extraordinary conversions of heart, life-changing purifications of mind and soul.
In a sermon delivered in Detroit in March of 1961, Dr. King meditated on the power of love in the face of the evil systemic powers of racism in America - asking us all, the whole church gathered, to take a stand for love, equipping ourselves with the power of God’s own love.
Dr. King instructs that we will know when it’s God’s love that is at work against the Powers by the outcomes.
…The Powers serve to destroy. But Love serves to build up.
…The Powers seek destructive ends. Love seeks constructive ends.
…The Powers seek to annihilate. Love seeks to convert.
…The Powers seek to live in monologue. Love seeks to live in dialogue.
And for these reasons, Dr. King asserts that it is only through love that we are able to redeem and transform what he called the “enemy neighbor.”
And so, when Paul says, “Put on the whole armor of God,” he’s saying in different words what Jesus said when he said, “love the enemy,” because “there is something about love that can transform, that can change, that can arouse the conscience of the enemy.”
Surely Dr. King had indeed clothed himself in the whole armor of God when he said to those who were beating and killing members of the Freedom Movement in the early 1960s, “We will meet your physical force with soul force.”
In Dr. King’s words:
We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with the good. _And so, put us in jail, and we will go in with humble smiles on our faces, still loving you. _Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we will still love you. _Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit morally, culturally, and otherwise for integration, and we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours, and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you.
But be assured that we will wear you down _(yes indeed) by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom, but not only will we win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process. And so, our victory will be a double victory.
This seems to me the only answer and the only way to make our nation a new nation, and our world a new world. Love is the absolute power.
And that is the meaning of love. As we watch Jesus the Christ and see him as he starts out, standing amid the intricate and fascinating military machinery of the Roman Empire, it seems that we can hear him saying (with Paul in Ephesians 6), “I will not use these methods. Instead, I will use God’s methods.”
And this was what he did.
Thank you, Dr. Cowart, for such a powerful sermon reminding us about the absolute power of God’s love. Scripture from Ephesians 6 is a wonderful guide on how to stand firmly against evil forces of this world by putting on the whole armor of God. And the last part of the passage highlights one of the most important weapons for fighting “against the wiles of the devil,” and that is prayer.
One of my very good friends is a medical doctor from India with whom I, a Pakistani, have built quite a strong friendship. Irrespective of what is happening on the borders of our countries, you can imagine the current political situation, we love each other like brothers. One thing I adore about him is that in any situation or circumstances his first response after listening to me is, “Brother Salmoon, let’s pray for this matter, let’s bring this before God.” And I am always amazed by his faith and belief in the power of prayer.
That is what I see in the last few verses, 18-20, from Ephesians 6. St. Paul, even at the time when he was imprisoned with his body in chains, is encouraging the people of God to stand firm and pray, recommending us probably the most important strategy to fight against the forces of evil, “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication” - meaning all kinds of prayers and at any time, every occasion.
There is no prayer big or small, look at Psalms filled with prayers, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of lamentation, and also prayers of praise. Prayers make us bold to proclaim the mystery of the gospel. Archbishop Justin Welby once said that prayer is not sending request to the sky, it is about allowing God to make us more like Jesus Christ.
Now the question is, what is the mystery of the gospel and what it means to pray to be like Christ? How can we proclaim the mystery of the gospel? Well, the mystery of the gospel is to love one another, love our neighbors, love our enemies, and that’s how the world will know that you and we are wearing the armor of God.
My dear friends, today I invite you all, with all the armor of God, to stand firm against the evil forces, to pray that we can see the end of injustice, the end of the sin of racism, the end of the sin of white supremacy. Pray that the spirit of the living God falls afresh on this nation so we may stand firm against evil and love one another. Pray that the power of love overflows over this nation and all over the world. Pray for all the saints among us who are doing the work of racial justice, so that we can all become the beloved community of God. Pray that we can proclaim the mystery of the gospel and become like Christ by loving one another.
Because love is the only way forward. Love is the only way to break the chains of hatred, racism, and classism. Radical love is the only way to bring the prisoners out of the dungeons of evil. Love is the only way to show the light to those who are in darkness.