As many of you know, thanks to Facebook and Yovanny’s announcement last Sunday, my birthday was this past week. And as some of you know, but some of you probably don’t know, every year, for as long as I can remember, I’ve gotten a specific chocolate cake on my birthday. It’s simply called, according to the recipe, “The perfect chocolate cake.”
As a kid, my mom would make this cake for me, my sister, and my dad on each of our birthdays. On the day of our birthday party we would share with all our guests, but after the party the rest of the cake was ours, and ours alone. My mom would put it in the freezer, and every night for about a week after our birthday, we would get a big ol’ slice of chocolate cake.
When Brie and I got married, this was the one tradition I asked that she carry on. What I didn’t realize was what a huge ask this actually was. I didn’t know that the cake takes two days to make, because it’s a three layer cake and you have to bake the three layers separately the night before and let them cool overnight. Then you have to stack them on top of each other, applying homemade whip cream frosting in between each layer before finally covering the whole thing in a thick layer of the most delicious chocolate frosting you’ve ever tasted. The chocolate frosting has to be whipped in a bowl that’s in a bigger bowl full of ice cubes, otherwise it will melt.
The first time Brie tried to make it, we were living in a dinky little apartment not too far from here and it was hot because my birthday’s in August, and we didn’t have any AC. The whip cream frosting was melting, so the layers were sliding all over the place. Frosting the outside of the cake while they were sliding everywhere was almost impossible. Brie was almost in tears and at one point exclaimed, “I’m never making this again!”
The next year Brie decided, despite her declaration that she wouldn’t, that she would try again. This time, the individual layers stuck to the insides of the pans, and she had to start all over. This, incidentally, happened again this year.
For the most part, Brie’s become a pro at making the cake, though. She knows what it requires. She knows how much time it takes. She didn’t even freak out (too much) when the cake stuck to the pans this year, because she knew she could still make the cake in time for my birthday.
In other words, every year, when August 23rd rolls around, Brie is prepared to make “the perfect chocolate cake.” Thanks be to God.
So much of our life is spent preparing. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes not, but it almost always requires work. Farmers prepare their fields, musicians prepare for their recitals, teachers prepare lesson plans, athletes prepare for games, and pastors prepare sermons. While we may love the end to which we are striving, and we may even enjoy parts of the preparation, there are inevitably other parts that we don’t enjoy so much.
Overall, I loved soccer practice growing up. I got to see my friends, develop as a player, and play the sport that I loved. But I was always notoriously out of shape at the beginning of every season (probably because soccer started right after my birthday and I’d basically eaten a whole 3-layer chocolate cake on my own in the week leading up to practice).
At the first day of practice my senior year in high school, the team had circled up and our coach, Mike Maini, gave us his opening speech while we stretched. At the end of the talk he asked if there were any questions or comments. I raised my hand and said, “You know how every year I’m out of shape at the beginning of the season?” “Yeah,” Mike said. “Well, this is an exceptionally bad year,” I said. I got some laughs and everyone thought it was funny until we had to do extra sprints at the end of practice and Mike said everyone could thank “Jeremy and his honesty” for the extra work.
While playing soccer was fun, and hanging out with my friends was fun, doing extra sprints was not fun, but it was part of the necessary preparation for games. I needed to get in shape if I was going to perform well.
Sometimes we prepare for an event that we know will happen at a set day and a set time – like a piano recital or a sermon on a Sunday morning – but sometimes we prepare for what might happen, or what will happen, but we just don’t know when. McCall, Idaho, where Brie and I are from, is home to one of only 9 smokejumper bases in the United States. Smokejumpers are wildfire fighters who jump out of airplanes. They have to be in incredible shape, because they get dropped into extremely remote areas, areas that can only be reached by plane, and after battling the fire for days or weeks, they have to be able to hike out with all their gear. So, every summer in McCall, you can see extremely fit men and women running around town exercising, preparing for the day when they will be called out to a fire, though they don’t know when that day will be. They know that at some point they will be called out, because wildfires always happen, but they don’t know exactly when or where.
The apostle Paul has been around long enough to know that all of us will face evil throughout our lives, we just don’t always know when and where. There are quite a few things you could accuse Paul of, but wearing rose-colored glasses isn’t one of them. He knows that evil influences all kinds of people, institutions, ideologies, and power structures. Paul tells the Ephesians that their battle is not against flesh and blood – it’s not against humans – it’s against the spiritual forces that influence and deceive them. To illustrate the multitude of avenues evil can coopt, Paul gives us a decent list. He says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Evil influences individuals, yes, but it also influences corporation, movements, and governments. The way to battle the evil we see in the world, Paul says, is not to focus in on the people, but on the demons that influence them. As we’ve talked about before, some of us may think the devil and demons are actual, sentient beings, and others of us may think they represent evil, that they stand in as a kind of personification of evil. I don’t think we need to figure the details out. The point, Paul says, is that we need to understand where the fight is. We should demonize the demons, not the people. Our fight is against the power, be it a demon or an ideology or whatever it is that has deceived them. (To make things easier, I’m just going to call these forces “the powers and principalities”).
But the first step in fighting the powers and principalities is to recognize that we are as susceptible to them as anyone else. The Ephesians certainly were. Remember from a few weeks ago, Paul tells them to put away “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice” (4:31). The Ephesians are wrestling with their own demons. They are struggling with division, presumably based on race, gender, and class, and Paul is writing to remind them that they are one in Christ.
We are also susceptible to these things, and we could probably add a few more, right? We could add to the list impatience, envy, judgement, selfishness, hard-heartedness, greed…the list goes on. We, like the Ephesians, are vulnerable to all kinds of sins.
The powers and principalities that Paul warns us about don’t only influence the way we treat others, but also the way we view ourselves. We must also be on the alert against self-hatred, despair, and insecurity. It’s easy to see how the media can be coopted by the principalities and the powers. How much insecurity and self-hatred is born out of not being able to live up to society’s beauty standards, for example?
While the world is full of great wonder and joy and goodness, I think Paul is right to point out the potential for evil that is always present. And so, Paul says, prepare – like a smokejumper or a soccer player or Brie on August 22nd. But how do we prepare?
Paul uses an example that everyone in Ephesus would have understood: a Roman soldier’s armor. But in doing so, he subverts the idea of what it means to fight evil. For Rome, any uprising was stomped out violently. That’s the same today, right? The U.S. spends more money than any other country on defense. We, at #1, spend more than #2-8 (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the UK, India, France, and Japan) combined. In other words, most people, at least in the U.S., would say that wars are very much against “flesh and blood,” but Paul says that that is not where our battle lies. Our battle is, once again, “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And so, in place of the armor of the Roman state, we are to put on the armor of God – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. We are to put it all on – the whole armor of God, Paul says – we need it all.
This armor, as the name implies, is first and foremost given to us by God; it is the armor of God. Once again, we see the interplay between God’s actions and our own, something we’ve been talking about in the past few weeks. Each piece of armor is a gift from God, and yet we must choose to put them on. Last week we talked about how the way of wisdom is made up of many choices – seemingly mundane, everyday choices we make, often without knowing. Just as we must consistently choose the way of wisdom, so also we must consistently, daily, take up the armor of God.
Paul begins with the belt of truth. This seems a fitting place to begin because the primary role of the powers and principalities is to deceive – to convince you not to trust people who are not like you, to convince you that you’re not worthy of love, to convince you that greed is better than generosity, cynicism is better than hope, and self-interest is better than compassion. In John 8:44 Jesus calls the devil “the father of lies.” So, the first thing we must put on in order to “stand against the wiles of the devil,” is the belt of truth.
Next, Paul says we must put on the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness refers not only to moral living, but also to justice. Righteousness has to do with how we treat our fellow human beings. The righteous life is a life marked by love. It deals rightly with others, values them, and stands up for those who are being overlooked or pushed to the margins.
Next, Paul says to put on shoes that “will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Paul has already said, earlier in this letter to the Ephesians, that Christ is our peace, and that Jesus “came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (2:17). The way of Jesus is the way of peace. It’s much easier, when life isn’t going our way, to rage against those who have hurt us, those who have turned their back on us, or those who don’t think like us – those we consider our enemies. But that is not the way of the Gospel. The way of the Gospel is the way of peace.
The shoes of peace keep the other pieces of armor in check. They prevent our truth from becoming arrogance, our righteousness from becoming self-righteousness, our faith from becoming rigid dogma, and our sword of the Spirit from becoming a weapon used against others. It isn’t about being right, it’s about being peacemakers. As we pursue truth in the face of so many lies, and righteousness in the face of so much corruption, our means and our end must both be peace. Peace is the Gospel in a nutshell.
Next, Paul tells us to pick up the “shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” We need faith because it’s often so hard to believe in the Gospel of peace. How ridiculous is it that I’m standing up here telling you to trust in the armor of God instead of real, tangible armor? Trust in truth and righteousness and peace and faith? We are daily tempted to give up our faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to trust, instead, another way – to trust in violence instead of peace. But we follow a crucified Christ. We believe the world will be redeemed – is being redeemed – by a poor Jew from Nazareth who couldn’t even get himself out of a crucifixion 2,000 years ago? How’s he supposed to get us out of this mess? It’s hard to maintain faith in such a preposterous story as the Gospel, and yet here we are on a Sunday morning.
With the shield of faith, we can deflect the arrows of cynicism, hopelessness, and despair. We can stay the course with the Gospel of peace leading the way.
So, we’ve got our belt, our breastplate, our shoes, and our shield. Now it’s time for our helmet – the helmet of salvation. Salvation is assurance of the outcome, that God has saved and will save. With the helmet of salvation, we recognize that we are not the saviors, we are the saved. It’s like the opposite of the phrase “you may have won the battle, but we’ll win the war,” Christians proclaim, “God has already won the war, but we’re still fighting battles.” We know that life will triumph over death because, in the resurrection of Jesus, life already has triumphed over death. We wear the helmet of salvation which we received from Jesus Christ, who God has already seated high above the powers and the principalities. That’s what Paul told the Ephesians way back in chapter 1. He says, “[God] raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And [God] has put all things under his feet…” (1:20-21).
Lastly, we are to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. While this certainly refers to Scripture, which is our written revelation of God’s working in the world, this Word is not limited only to the Bible. As one commentary puts it, “The Spirit’s sword is not simply identical with Scripture…It is rather the powerful and creative Word of God. It is the word that said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. It is the word that called Jesus from the tomb. It is the word of salvation that does not return void to God. It is the word that makes the ‘peace’ that it proclaims.” It’s the Word that the Word testifies to. It’s the Word that keeps creating, keeps moving, keeps speaking. It’s Christ’s creative presence in and among us, working out the redemption of God in the world we inhabit today.
Our passage ends with a paragraph on prayer, and it begins, “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” But really, in the original manuscripts, this isn’t a new paragraph. In fact, it isn’t even a new sentence. To wield the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, we must pray in the Spirit. In fact, prayer is the only way we will be able to put on all this armor. Prayer is the way we prepare. It’s the key to this whole passage. It is through prayer that we discern the truth, take in the truth, and wrap ourselves in truth. It is through prayer that we dawn the breastplate of righteousness, strap the shoes of peace to our feet, lift the shield of faith in the face of adversity, place the helmet of salvation on our heads, and wield the sword of the Spirit.
We put on all this armor before the battle gets to us. It’s preparation, so we’re ready when we need to be. Some of it is enjoyable – sometimes we are filled with the Holy Spirit and we are seized by a sense of excitement – and sometimes it’s work. Sometimes we feel like we’re praying to empty skies. Sometimes it seems like Christ never defeated the powers and the principalities, and actually they’re winning.
These are the times we need to take up the armor of God. We need to persevere, put on our spiritual running shoes, run extra sprints…or maybe we need to stop and bake a cake, and celebrate what we know to be true – that the battle is God’s, and God will see it through. That we will continue to fight battles, but God in Christ has already won the war.
Either way, we must be prepared.
 Verhey and Harvard, Ephesians, 255.