Armor? Breastplate and shield? Helmet and sword? Is Paul serious? Is Paul being just a little too dramatic? After all, we’re talking about the Christian life, right? I don’t know about you, but when I think of the Christian life, I tend to summon bucolic images of pastures and sheep, kindness and love, the gentle strumming of harps and a community of people whose lives are devoted to God and one another.
John Edgerton and I are in the midst of a series of Connections Classes ... classes for those who are new to Old South Church, some of whom are new to Christianity, and most of whom are interested in, or at least curious about, “owning the covenant” with this Church. We haven’t mentioned to these potential new recruits word one about the wiles of the devil, flaming arrows or the powers and principalities of this world. We have not issued breastplates, shields, helmets or swords.
Perhaps we should have. Perhaps we have been remiss. Or, perhaps not. You see, we started where Paul starts. Paul starts with doxology.
His letter to the Ephesians opens with doxology. Before Paul gets around to the flaming arrows, wickedness and evil ... before he gets to the peril of the battlefield ... before he gets to the cost of discipleship, he begins with its joys.
Paul begins with doxology. He is giddy with excitement. He is smitten with Jesus and the Christian life. He is fairly bursting with the good news and it spills out of him in song.
In Christ, Paul sings, God’s grace has broken down the barriers of race and culture, of social status and privilege, of nation and station. In Christ, he shouts, there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Gentile. In Christ, he insists, we are a new creation. Moreover, he shouts, we are one new Creation. All the old divisions are gone!
Paul is beside himself. Paul is positively giddy with this marvelous news.
Good news, right? Not, it turns out, to everyone. While the followers of Jesus thrilled to this news ... while they caught the vision of the beloved community, not everyone did. To those deeply invested in hierarchies of power and privilege; to those deeply invested in, and benefiting from, the indignities of class and caste, this news was disaster … to them, these were fighting words.
And so it was that the Christian life, from its earliest days, has come up hard against the powers and principalities of this world. And, in truth, the Church has been engaged in warfare, skirmishes and conflict from day one. Perhaps you can see why John and I did not start here. Perhaps you can understand why, like Paul, we too started with doxology ... with what we know of God’s love, with the ways God and Jesus have stolen our hearts and captured our moral imaginations.
David Hollinger is an historian specializing in American intellectual history.1 His source book, The American Intellectual Tradition, is amongst the most widely used textbooks in college courses focusing on American intellectual history. He is, at the moment, president-elect of the Organization of American Historians. David Hollinger is not a Christian, not a person of faith. He describes himself as a secularist.
And yet, in recent articles and books, Hollinger has been increasingly making the case that churches like this church—progressive, Protestant churches—have been on the front lines of this world’s and this nation’s most dangerous, challenging and influential contests with the powers and principalities of this world.
Hollinger makes the case that Progressive Protestants deserve more credit than they, or we, have been assigned for shaping the moral progress of this nation and world.
This secular historian observes that Progressive Protestants have stood strong, have held their ground, on the Gospel of love ... and from that high hill, we have challenged and resisted, occasionally even defeated, however briefly, the powers and principalities of this world: from Freedom schooner Amistad to Abolition, from civil rights to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from the empowerment of women to equal marriage, from affordable housing to prison reform. Standing on the high ground of the Gospel of Love, Mainline Protestants have fought, for God’s sake, on the front lines.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has been described as a Christian manifesto, a call to arms. (I hope you will take time to read it. It is just six chapters of some the finest, most stirring writing the world has ever seen.) The author invites and challenges us to engage the world at its worst, its most evil, its cruelest and crudest. There’s a daunting prospect: to engage the world at its worst.
In a world rife with the evils of injustice and inequality ... in a world where might makes right ... and white is right in a world where imperialism is the hope of world leaders ... in a world at once abundant with resources and at the same time infested with most the desperate poverty ... it is to this world, to just such places that the letter to the Ephesians coaches and challenges us to bring Christ, to speak Christ ... to render love.
Engaging the world at its absolute worst is not without cost.
Paul says it is it a lot like war, like close engagement, hand-to-hand combat. You will not, you cannot emerge unscathed. He summons the odors and grit of battle. He summons the whine of an arrow piercing the air ... the thud and force of it when it strikes your shield. Don’t even think of going into battle against the powers and principalities, he says, without arming and equipping yourself for combat.
But once equipped, by all means do battle, Christian, with the forces of evil, with the pernicious and mighty forces of hate, of racism, of discrimination, of poverty and want. Do battle, Christian, with the forces of injustice and violence.
But before you head to the front lines with your doctor’s stethoscope, and your professorial Power Point … before you head to the front lines with your nurse’s scrubs and your Charlie Card ... before you check the pressure on your tires and buckle your seat belt ... before you recharge your laptop and slip your phone into your pocket … before you go visiting in prisons and nursing homes … before you write to your senator or challenge your neighbor’s bigotry ... before you head to the voting booth or the soup kitchen, to the classroom or the laboratory or office or kitchen ... before you enter into the chaos and violence … before you wade into the thick despair and the caustic cynicism of this world ... before you enter to do battle with evil and injustice, do this, Christian: prepare yourself. Gird yourself with God’s truth. Put on the breastplate of righteousness to protect your breaking heart. Slip your bare wriggling toes deep into the soft and supple Gospel of Peace. Take with you the shield of faith. Put on the helmet of salvation because no matter what happens to you, no matter what, God’s got your back. And, not least, carry with you the sword of God’s Spirit, which is the Word of God.
And, this ... not least this: pray. Pray. Pray. Pray at all times.
As you go forth to do battle with the worst the world has to offer, here is God’s promise to you, Christian. You will not be alone out there on the field. You are no army of one. You are an infinitesimal part of great and mighty force. The hosts of heaven are supporting you. The angels and apostles, the prophets and patriarchs are at your side. Moses and Elijah, Peter and James and John, Martha and the Mary’s, St. Michael and the angels are there. Phillis and Martin, Samuel and Benjamin are there. And our own beloved saints, so new to heaven, they are there as well: Duane and Dorothy, Barbara and Sandra, Vasiliki and Alice, Mochinobu and Ron, Bruce and Marcus and Ruby. The whole host of heaven and earth is with you. That is God’s promise.
Stand, Christian! Stand your ground, Christian! Stand on the mighty Gospel of Love!
1David Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His specialty is in American intellectual history. His source book, The American Intellectual Tradition, is amongst the most widely used textbooks in college undergraduate courses focusing on American intellectual history since the Civil War. He is also a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, attaining his Ph.D. in 1970. Hollinger is currently president-elect of the Organization of American Historians. He is also on the editorial board of the two of the most recognized academic journals of intellectual history: Modern Intellectual History and The Journal of the History of Ideas.