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A picture says a thousand words. This picture which was shared on many news feeds in 2016 came to mind as I was contemplating on this Ephesians text. It is a stark contrast between two types of armor. One of this world and one of the heavenly realm.
This is a picture of what Paul speaks of in the letter to believers in Ephesus. A picture familiar to his audience and us both. Physical armor used by the ruling Romans was heavy and used for protection in active battle. The police in this photo are dawned with protective gear from head to toe and shield in between.
The recipients of this letter were a minority group and would have looked upon the Romans with fear. The “you” spoken here was also written in the plural form, meaning it was written to the Christian community in Ephesus, not an individual.
Although this picture shows Leshia standing alone, we know it is a part of a bigger protest in which she was accompanied by others, standing firm with feet of peace.
The rulers, authorities, systems, and cultures have power that can’t be met by an individual. It can only be met by a community that stands firm in God’s love, peace, and pursuit of justice.
Paul speaks of this battle as being beyond the physical world. Thus, the armor matches it’s intended battle, speaking of ways of being vs. physical pieces. Paul’s picture of armor was a way to empower them to survive in a hostile world through their faith.
Quite mysterious really. How does one do battle with the powers that are not physical in flesh and blood?
In the late ‘80s Frank Peretti attempted to imagine what a battle might be like in his two books, This present darkness and Piercing the Darkness. He tried to make sense of Paul’s words.
However, I think Peretti highlights temptations of viewing this passage as
justifying a battle of “us” against “them;”
of an individual battle we must fight on our own;
a mark of one’s faith;
or justification of actual force, pitting truths against one another, demonizing whoever the other may be.
We live with many messages, practices, and powers within systems and structures that surround us. I want to offer 5 powers that I see at work in our lives today. These are in no particular order and I name these as a way to prime your thinking about what others you may add.
1. We live with a silent caste system in our country where races are treated differently. This began from the beginning, when those exploring intended to claim land, killing or enslaving indigenous people, dehumanizing them. Not only that, Africans were kidnapped for slave labor, a system of dehumanization and economic oppression. Although there have been movements to rectify this system, we are realizing that racism is a deeply embedded power that continues to permeate our society today.
2. Monetary wealth is valued over all other forms of resources. In our structure, wealth is passed from one generation to the next. Therefore, those who have wealth seem to accumulate more and those that don’t, have a hard time doing so.
3. Success is often seen in educational degrees accumulated, possessions obtained, and ability to live and retire when you desire.
4. Individualism values accomplishing one’s goals on one’s own and fulfilling one’s wants, even at the expense of others.
5. Fear is a motivating force that feeds insecurity, resulting in boundary making and division. It creates an “us” and “them” which allows battle lines to be drawn.
This list is not exhaustive, may be debated, but is meant to be added to. What are the ways of thinking, believing, and knowing that we take for granted and veil us from seeing how it shapes us?
Why did I name these 5? They are ones that have shaped me and give me power. I have light colored skin. We own our home and have a savings account. I have several diplomas. I am confident enough in my own individuality and how I understand the world around me, which tempts me to look down on anyone who sees life differently.
Paul’s armor described here speaks of a power that is rather disarming to those with power. Standing firm in God asks for a surrendering of one’s own power and influence, placing trust in God’s righteousness, way of peace, love, and pursuit of justice for the vulnerable and powerless. Security is given in God’s saving grace, not in reliance on our own physical strength.
This may be disarming to my earthly power, but it is a kind of armor that empowers the vulnerable. Those with no power are given armor that they can wear. This picture exemplifies this power. They step into confidence instead of fear, love instead of hate, and trust instead of suspicion. It humanizes those often dehumanized.
A temptation for everyone is to see the evil and dark power “out there” when, in actuality, it can be deceptively present in here, as an individual and church.
I don’t know of a denomination yet that hasn’t dealt with a split. Somehow we have come to believe that in our search for truth we need to purge ourselves of who we see as heretical.
I have observed that we seem to be able to accept differences with another denomination better than we can accept differences within our own denomination. It is so easy to divide rather than in God’s love and curiosity about the difference.
Virginia Mennonite Conference of whom Park View is a part of, released 3 congregations of their request, a couple of weeks ago at our summer assembly, due to theological differences. I don’t highlight that to point fingers, only to say we continue to find it challenging to know how to structurally hold our differences.
At the same time, earlier this year, the conference commissioned a Racial Justice Task Force to address racism in our conference structure. The task force is already addressing some structural dynamics.
Caleb Schrock Hurst who is riding across the country with Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions will begin the part time staff position at the conference as Racial Justice and Equity Leader, to work with the task force at furthering this work of anti-racism in the conference and congregations. We are addressing the church’s complicity in racism which has gone on for far too long.
When we find our identity wrapped in God’s armor, we stand secure in God’s saving grace. We live with hearts of love for the other, different as each may be. We move with peace in every step, engaging with one another with curiosity and care, recognizing the complexity and mystery of the earthly and heavenly realms.
We have work to do my friends. Some of that work is to face into the dark places while standing in God’s presence. And so we do just that as we enter into this time of confession.
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