by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
If you lived in the middle of a war-torn country, what kind of measures would you take to leave your house each day? Would you send your children off to school the same way that you do here in San Jose? Of course not! You would be exceptionally cautious…and you’d probably begin training up your children in how to use their wits, to survive against the enemy’s attempts to harm them. Saint Paul wants us to realize that we inhabit a spiritually war-torn realm, and we should be concerned with approaching our spiritual lives with that same kind of vigilance, preparing ourselves and our children for regular encounters with such spiritual violence. So, he outfits us with some armor and weaponry.
Here as we prepare for Christ’s birth, this Sunday’s Epistle Reading (Ephesians 6) alerts us to what’s at stake in this fast by reminding us of the invisible, dark, spiritual powers’ constant attempt to consume and lay-waste to our spiritual lives. But, Saint Paul also gives us instruction here on how to defend ourselves against such an enemy.
While sitting in prison in Rome, he writes this letter to the Church in Ephesus. There, he’s been continually guarded by and chained to various Roman soldiers, so he’s become intimately familiar with how they’re outfitted for military service. Thus, Saint Paul is amply inspired to use their armor and weaponry as an illustration for our spiritual life.
Even though he’s suffering under the cruelty of the Roman government, he says something remarkable about who the true enemy is. He wants us to realize that, our actual enemy isn’t against the Romans…the terrorists, the conservatives, the liberals, the communists, the socialists, or any other flesh and blood antagonist we can envision. The real enemy, says Paul, is against the spiritual forces of evil who are now, behind the scenes, influencing everything that goes on here on earth. And so, whether we like it or not, we were each born into a war zone.
Paul starts us off with the Belt of Truth. The Roman military belt was one thing that distinguished him in every crowd. Even when he was off duty, the Roman soldier always had this belt over his tunic, with his side-arm attached. Wearing this belt showed that the soldier was always prepared for the possibility of conflict. Jesus said, “I am the way, the Truth, and the life.” Jesus is the Truth. The Truth of His ways as the way to life is what should surround us like a belt distinguishing us from all others in a crowd. We must fasten around our middle, holding everything together, the Truth of discipleship to our Lord Jesus Christ. Only when we’re held together in unity and obedience to Christ’s truth are we truly ready to hold firm amidst Satan’s lies and deception.
And what protects us from wounds to our vital organs in this battle? Saint Paul tells us to “put on the Breastplate of Righteousness.” This Breastplate will guard our hearts against drifting away from God. A heart filled with the Holy Spirit will bear-forth the fruit of the Spirit…demonstrated in the good deeds we perform. Righteous acts will enhance our relationship with God, protecting our hearts. According to St. Paul, earlier in this same letter, he said that “we are His workmanship in Christ Jesus, created for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). So, God has prepared a ministry of good works for each of us to do. If we ignore and fail to walk in unity with His ministry to the world, then we’ll become incredibly vulnerable to the works of the evil one. So, God calls upon us to these good works to protect our hearts. However, the good works can only be accomplished through God’s grace, by partnering with His energy.
Next Saint Paul says to have our feet set with “preparation of the Gospel of Peace.” Now shoes may not seem like the most exciting piece of military equipment…but anyone who’s ever played football knows that cleats make all-the-difference-in-the-world for a gridiron gladiator. So, the Roman soldiers, for whom this was a matter of life and death, during Paul’s time had an entirely different type of footwear from most people. They wore a type of sandaled-boot with very thick leather soles and spikes sticking out the bottom for traction. These shoes gave their armies a balanced stance, especially when fighting on hills and uneven plains. They walked with a very wide stance…always at the ready, so as not to be knocked off balance and taken advantage of. When Paul uses the word “preparation,” he reminds us that we’re to have a stance of readiness in the Good News of Jesus Christ. When our feet are prepared with the Gospel of peace, we go about the business of God. Like a child walking in his father’s footsteps, we walk in the footsteps of Jesus Himself, who in unconditional, and sacrificial love “walked” down to us from heaven and in order to reconcile us to Himself, granting each one of us the ministry of reconciliation with Him.
Next, Saint Paul instructs us to take up the Shield of Faith. In the past, since soldiers often attacked with flaming arrows, there was the need to deflect those arrows. The Roman soldier's shield was a nearly as tall as him, designed to protect the whole body. Saint Paul uses this piece of protection to emphasize our need to be shielded in faith in order to deflect Satan’s fiery darts of temptations and doubts. But, faith means more than just believing that God exists. It includes a firm belief that everything God instructs is truly for our good…even when it doesn’t feel like it. Faith trusts that we should be united with God in His ministry, even when it feels uncomfortable to us. But the shield of faith isn’t just for personal protection. Roman soldiers in Paul’s day had a strategy of joining their shields together in tight formation to advance against the enemy unharmed. If we join our shields—that is, unite in strengthening each other in our faith, building up and serving as we are able—then we’ll be able to take on any challenge together.
Now Paul brings up our head-gear…our helmet. As Christians, our Helmet of Salvation resides in our continuous repentance toward Christ-likeness, and the constant renewal of our mind. In his letter to the Church in Rome, Paul tells us “not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Our greatest battlefield is our mind. Sin starts within our thoughts. Satan is always after our thoughts; because strategically that’s where he can ruin our salvation. In his 2nd letter to the Church in Corinth, Saint Paul pleads with us to “bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” because He is the cause and reason of our Salvation.
And finally, Paul brings us to our weapon...the Sword of the Spirit. This sword can also help us to conquer all our enemies, including that most difficult one, our entrenched human weaknesses. Saint John Cassian said that the sword is used to cut away evil from ourselves. St. Paul uses this weapon to symbolically represent the Word of God which he describes elsewhere as “the living Logos of God, and the living Energies, sharper than a two-edged sword, passing through, dividing both soul and spirit, joints from marrows, judging the thought and intents of the heart.” The clear implication in the Greek is that the “Logos” is one edge, and God’s “Energy” is the other edge of the sword. Implying quite literally, without this Energy, one is not fully armed. Saint Theodoret of Cyrus says that, “this is the activity of the Spirit…that just as God fashioned the world by the Word, so also, the Holy Spirit effects all that has to do with saving us from the enemy.” He says, “with this sword, the spiritual person rebukes the devil, and the devil flees.” So also, we really should learn to wield this weapon against our own sin, through a study and memorization and obedience to scripture…and we should train up our children in how to use it as well.
Remember, whether we like it or not, we and our children live in the midst of a spiritually violent battlefront. Thankfully, our Lord has provided us with everything we need to stand firm in battle and to save the lives of our children and other loved ones around us. “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4). So, let’s be alert to Satan’s strategies, let’s listen to the call of duty, and since God has not left us defenseless, let’s put on the whole armor of God!