Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil (Ephesians 6:10-11).
Throughout his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul has been engaged in the dangerous and glorious work of revealing the mystery of the Gospel now known in Christ. He writes from a Roman jail cell, chained to a soldier of the grand empire so destabilized by his writing and teaching that it will try to silence him through a public beheading. But, far from silencing the apostle and the church His true Lord was building, it is St. Paul’s beloved church which still doggedly stands even after that once seemingly eternal empire has fallen. Tomorrow, of course, is Veteran’s Day, and as we Christians approach our civic holidays we find excellent opportunities for us to meditate on this question: how do we remember and cherish the blessings of our temporary earthly homes while also defiantly standing in the eternal reality our providential earthly homes point us toward, both in their goodness and brokenness?
Right before today’s reading, St. Paul commands the earthly church to honor a code of household conduct designed to keep order in the new family of God. This disciplined domestic peace gives the good news of the Gospel room to flourish and thrive in a fallen world. We see that the apostle is not just concerned with the cosmic forces moving eternity; no, he cares deeply about the day to day lives of those called to be co-heirs with Christ because through those lives, men will hear and see the Gospel, and so be saved. In turn, we can also say, that it is good and right for Christians to celebrate those men and women who have made this country a place wherein the Gospel can be heard and believed; it is good and right for us salute the bravery and self-sacrifice of those who prevented evil forces from controlling or denying our ability to freely stand before our fellow countrymen sharing in word and deed the new reality of Earth after Christ. The new reality, so easily forgotten in our death covered world, of the God/Man who banished death forever. The greatness of a nation is measured by its comfort or hostility to that reality, and we Americans are privileged to live in a land where the penalties for truly following Christ are still comparatively tame.
The hard part for Christians described by St. Peter as “strangers and exiles” is that we can never fall into the trap of confusing the temporary good with the eternal best; we can never confuse the providential inn we stop at for the night for the glorious kingdom which is our destination. Why? Well, as St. Paul makes clear today, the new society God is building through His church will always have enemies scheming to destroy it. These enemies will not dress up in devil costumes so we can pick them out of a crowd; no, they will come to us as convenient allies who corrupt us through compromise and cruel enemies who debase us by making us as evil and unmerciful as they are. God has reconciled humanity to Himself through the Cross, but this cosmic, world-saving peace will be experienced by God’s people on earth in the midst of a relentless and bewildering struggle against evil. It is for this reason that Christians cannot count on anything other than the supernatural strength and protection of the Lord in this conflict no earthly government or political ideology can win.
We see the power of our enemy in the description St. Paul provides today, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). It is these dark forces which twist and bend the good things of this world into the instruments of our destruction. This evil is not limited by our natural weaknesses: it doesn’t get tired; it doesn’t feel a tinge of compassion before bringing down the death blow; evil enjoys pain and jealousy, hatred and hopelessness: it breathes them in like air. The Evil One hates us because we remind him of the God he despises, and so there is no negotiating with a creature who wants nothing less than our complete destruction— a creature who wants to use our pain to hurt the God he detests. Of course, it is a tragedy of the human condition that Satan’s power derives from our choice to join him in rebellion and sin, as Adam did so long ago. It isn’t enough that he hurt us; no, he uses us to hurt ourselves and others who bear the image of God. In this way, we choose destruction over creation, death over life. We implicate ourselves in a world-wide project to madly attack our Creator through His creatures.
Our weakness in the fight against evil is sadly far too easy to exhibit, but it is at its most insidious when our enemy transforms us into the thing we say we hate. We have fewer and fewer of the men who fought Nazism in the last century, but how strange it must be for them to have spent so much of their precious youth fighting that unalloyed evil only to see the county they served adopt the policies of the enemy they defeated. To see, for example, their country accept the logic that the genocide of abortion is a fruitful means of political liberation. General Eisenhower had those same men walk through the death camps so that they might serve as a living memory of humanity’s barbarism unleashed on an industrial scale, so their living memory could give voice to the world’s cry, “Never Again.” But here we are in 2019, and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports China is now operating massive death camps—death camps which are intentionally being ignored by the international community because China is just too big a market to anger, death camps being ignored by our political and economic leaders because there’s just too much money involved. One would almost get the impression the Evil One is rubbing our noses in our powerlessness to stop evil, but in reality, these sad examples are simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to humanity’s self-defeating embrace of sin and death. Given this grim record, our only hope rests in the God who has defeated evil and beckons us to join Him.
As we read in Isaiah chapter 59, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Lord drives. “And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord (Isaiah 59:14-20). This glorious prophecy is God’s promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We are the living witnesses to God’s refusal to let humanity abandon justice and righteousness and salvation; we stand where we are now because God Himself defeated the evil we barely understand by taking its worst in our place. To understand this reality, it would be helpful for us to pretty much jettison the popular conceptions of Jesus which imagine him with the looks of a bearded Brad Pitt and the message of a sanitized Ghandi; no, here in Isaiah’s prophecy we find the accurate picture of the Redeemer who walked among us, absorbing the arrows and missiles of our ignorance and fear, manfully refusing to back down when tortured and murdered. This perfect human exemplified strength even as He sacrificed Himself for his enemies. The armor described above doesn’t fail because Jesus is murdered; no, it is our Lord’s full and complete trust in the love of His Father which empowers Him to fight in a way the world incorrectly perceives as weakness; His strength makes all the strength of the world seem tiny because no matter how hard any man or army rages against evil in this world, we will not defeat death through our own strength. A thousand atomic bombs will not bring one person back from the dead. It is only through Christ, and the armor he provides, that we have any hope of defeating the insidious evil our race finds so vexing.
And so, St. Paul instructs us to put on the armor which bears God’s name, not so that we may defeat evil, but so that we may stand in the victory Christ has already won, so that we too can manfully stand against the pain and suffering no human can avoid. Everyone you know will be assaulted and defeated by the death no human strength can defend against, the death no diet or army can finally keep from breeching our walls. The only solution to this assured defeat is to face death with the armor of the God who is building a new world where sin and selfishness and death are only distant memories. Every Christian, every man, woman, and child here was recruited at their baptism, given this armor by the Holy Spirit, and sent out to die. It is a beautiful and terrible death we all face together; it is our life lived in solidarity with God made man. We are united to God through Christ, and so we can love as He loves; we can love even as that love causes us the pain of being a sacrifice for our families, our country, our world. We wear His armor, so we can carry His cross. Fight on then Christian soldiers; we have only our lives to lose, and eternity is already ours.