In England, the Church of England is called the Established Church. The meaning of this is that the church and the civil authorities sit very closely together.
The Head of State is also the Head of the Church. Bishops in England have seats in the House of Lords – that might also explain why in olden times people addressed their Bishop as “My Lord.”
What this also means is that people of power and influence in society very often exercise positions of power and influence in the Church.
And this is still very much the case for the Anglican Church in Australia, even though the Church is disestablished here – there is a complete separation of church and state.
Because this is our “normal” so to speak, we sometimes do not notice the subversive themes in the Early Christian writings. Much of the teaching of Jesus was a direct challenge to the Powers that Be of his day. The designation of Jesus as “Son of God” was not just a theological statement. It was a direct challenge to the Emperor who styled himself “Son of God” on Roman coinage.
We are not used to seeing the church as a small marginalised group of society that refuses to collude with the powers of the Empire. As a result we often miss some of the meaning implicit in Biblical metaphors such as we read from Ephesians (6:10-20) today.
When you live in a situation of occupation or dominion by a foreign power it is very tempting to keep a low profile and be as compliant as possible so as to survive, and maybe even get on well.
Rome held onto its position of power by military force. What Pilate was most afraid of at Easter time was a riot that he would have to quell with disproportionate force – many would die. But he would do it.
The political and religious aristocracy of Jesus day collaborated with the Romans and so relied on the same military force to keep their positions of influence. But Jesus and the early Christian leaders pointed to another way.
So, when Paul raises in our minds this metaphor of the Armour of God, he is not just saying here’s a good metaphor for teaching something important. He is saying to the Ephesians, and all others who have read it since, that we have a higher power that protects us – we do not need Roman forces.
By using this image of the protective armour of a Roman Soldier, Paul is saying quite unambiguously that we should not put our confidence in that armour – rather we should rely on the WHOLE ARMOUR OF GOD. And the reason is clear – and simple.
Our real enemies, against whom we need protection, are not flesh and blood, as in other human beings. The powers that range themselves against the Kingdom of God are described here as what we might call “METAHUMAN” – they may be embodied in human beings but they are best described as “the authorities” or “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” or “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. With these images we get a sense that that battle is with more than just human beings but with God as well.
Against these forces, we human beings must be prepared to defend ourselves. And I must say that the meaning of each item of the armour leaves us with something pretty flimsy against the cosmic powers that seem to be in control of the universe. What have we got?
The Spirit, and
The Word of God
These hardly seem to be the kinds of things that could win a cosmic battle. Well, in truth, they do not need to be.
With the exception of the Sword of the spirit, all other items mentioned are defensive or protective. We are not asked to take up weapons that will vanquish the foe.
We are asked simply to take up this armour so that we will be able to withstand our opponents. The task of believers is to defend themselves and the faith against the enemies of God, speaking boldly about the Gospel whenever an opportunity arises. The battle itself is left to God.
Let us praise God for the confidence we have in him and pray daily for the courage to face whatever forces are railed against us and our faith confident in the Whole Armour of God with which we dress ourselves each morning.