Over the past several weeks we’ve been working our way through parts of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. We began (starting in the first episode of this season, called All Saints) with the soaring opening verses in which Paul points to, tells about, and draws us towards the extravagant wonder of God with us and for us.
Then we jumped to the great prayer at the centre of the letter, where Paul doesn’t leave us with good theological information, but prays us into the height and depth, the length and width of the love of God for us in Christ. Prayer is the way that we move what we know of God from our heads to our hearts, and then out through our lives.
Today we’re jumping again, this time to the end of the letter, beginning at chapter 6:10. We’re going to spend the next few days considering what Paul calls “the whole armour of God.”
But before we get there, I want to mention what happens just after the prayer in chapter 3. In the first verse of chapter 4 Paul says this: “I…beg you to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” That word “worthy” in Greek (the language that Paul wrote in) calls to mind the image of a balance scale. The word is axios.
It’s as if Paul has spent the first half of the letter piling on the goodness and grace of God, the wonder and lavishness of God, the marvellous things God has done for us and for this world on one half of the scale, and then in the second half invites us to respond—to pile our lives on the other side. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can ever match God’s love for us, or God’s goodness to us. But when we’ve experienced that, it’s impossible for it to not affect our lives. And not just parts of us, but our whole selves. We’re called to live lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called. And Jesus and Paul both seem to think that’s possible.
But of course, we don’t always live lives worthy of our calling. And if you’re anything like me, sometimes the more you try the worse it gets. I know exactly what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans when he says things like: “the things I want to do, I don’t do; and the things I don’t want to do, I do.” And “whenever I want to do good, it seems like evil is lurking around the corner.”
I don’t know anyone who has tried to follow Jesus, who has tried to live in God’s goodness with everything they’ve got, who has not also dramatically failed to do so at some point, if not many points every day. It’s as if there’s something working against us.
And we might have different ways of describing what that “something” is. But Paul has a particular way. This is how he starts the ending of this letter: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power (good start. Reminds us of the opening verses). Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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.
Oof. There’s a lot in there. And there’s some of it that may seem a little bit weird, or off-putting. Especially if you’re part of a faith tradition like mine, the idea of demonic powers may be awkward or unfamiliar. We tend to be ok with the idea of good spiritual forces, but less comfortable talking about evil ones. When someone says they are “spiritual but not religious,” (which I hear all the time) I don’t think they’re generally talking about a spirituality that entertains the cosmic powers of this present darkness.
And yet, I think that if we pushed a bit, most of us would agree that there seems to be more than just good spiritual forces at work in the world. I do believe it’s possible to be too obsessed with rooting out demonic influences—we can give too much attention, and too much credit to evil. And I struggle with personifying evil. If Jesus is The Life, then whatever is contrary to him and his will and way cannot be said to be living or lively.
Even so, Paul’s words here point to a reality that seems to me to be true. There seems to be something at work in and around me that opposes me living a life worthy of the calling to which I am called—and it’s more than just my fickleness and faithlessness. When we think about the state of the world, there is much that is deeply wrong, that’s also hard to pin on one person or people (we’re not up against flesh and blood, which I think is hopeful, good news). It’s as if there’s something working against the flourishing for which God made this world—and to which God has promised to restore this world.
“The wiles (or methods—the Greek is methodias) of the devil” is an evocative phrase. There is something strategically working against us. When I want to do good, evil seems to lurk around the corner. Jesus tells us to pray against evil, in the Lord’s Prayer—which is the same word that Paul uses when he talks about the spiritual forces of evil.
There are two responses to all this. One is to get worked up about demons and the devil, to go hunting evil in every little thing. It’s the way of a kind of spiritual paranoia.
But that’s not the way of Jesus (in him we were not given a spirit of fear), or of Paul. Eugene Peterson points out, in his wonderful book Practice Resurrection, which is an extended reflection on this letter, that there is no anxiety in Paul’s words. He’s not panicked. And he’s not trying to whip the Ephesian church, or us, into a fearful frenzy. He just names the reality of evil, and calmly lets us know what to do about it.
We’ll explore that over the next several episodes—what it means to put on the whole armour of God, so that we can stand against the wiles of the devil. But for today, perhaps it’s enough to hear Paul’s measured voice, as he reminds us first and foremost that evil is ultimately powerless, because in Christ we can be strong in the Lord and in the strength, not of our own but of his power.
That’s the power that will get the last word on us and on this world.
It’s good news.
May it be so.