Sword of the Spirit
Recently, we’ve been thinking about Paul’s image of the Whole Armour of God, from Ephesians 6: 10-18—the tools we have at our disposal to stand against the spiritual realities working against God’s good will and purposes for our lives, and for the world.
So far, we’ve considered the Belt of Truth, and the Breastplate of Righteousness, the Shoes of Peace, the Shield of Faith, and the Helmet of Salvation. We are all dressed for what’s ahead. And today we take on the last piece of our Armour: the Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Like the Helmet of Salvation, we take this piece of armour. It’s given, as a gift. Not snatched, and not forced on us, but given for us to actively receive.
When we talk about the Word of God, we’re usually talking about Scripture—the long and multi-voiced witness to the story of God with this world. The writer of Hebrews says that the Word of God is sharper than a double-edged sword. It’s meant to penetrate, separate, protect and sometimes attack.
Though, I have to admit, I don’t really like the image of Scripture as a weapon. I have too many friends who have suffered violent use of Scripture. I know people who have been deeply wounded by someone’s careless use of Scripture to deny their dignity, to dehumanize and shame. I’ve known people to go out of their way to find ways to use Scripture to create division, set up rigid rules and boundaries, and condemn those who are on the, so-called, “wrong side” of things. This can’t be what Paul is talking about.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that in this passage, Paul is talking about Spiritual battles and spiritual enemies. This sword is not meant to hack at our neighbours; it’s meant to protect us from, and destroy the ways and means of evil and death. This sword protects us from condemnation, temptation, the accusations and lies which are flaming arrows of the evil one, as Paul puts it. While there’s all sorts of writing in the scriptures—stories, history, poems, prayers, letters—ultimately, these sacred texts tell us who and whose we are: beloved creatures, children of our Divine parent. They tell us what we’re meant to be about: love of God and neighbour.
As with the Shield of Faith, it’s instructive to look back at the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, particularly chapter 4 in both Matthew and Luke. When Jesus needs a defence against the tempter, he turns to Scripture. It flows naturally from his lips, because he is steeped in it. Jesus quoted scripture all the time, to help make sense of his life and ministry—even of his death and resurrection. When he’s raised from the dead, and shows up to his terrified and despondent disciples, the first thing he does is open up their minds to understand the Scriptures.
Of course, in the temptation story it’s worth noting that the tempter can quote Scripture too. Just knowing the Scriptures doesn’t mean that we’re living in line with them. Or that we’re necessarily hearing them well. Just because someone has a sword, doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing with it.
That’s part of the reason that we are meant to read and study, discuss and debate the Scriptures as a community. When what we now know as the Bible was written and compiled, nobody had their own copies that they could take into a corner and read by themselves. Hearing God’s word was a communal event. It required the interpretation and discernment of multiple hearts and minds. It still does, even though it’s easy to get our hands on our own copy. And since it requires a community to interpret it, it also requires a community to live it out. We need good and faithful companions on the way.
There’s more to be said about this—next episode will consider what it means to hear God’s voice, God’s word in prayer—but it’s worth ending here with this fact: for Christians, the ultimate Word of God is Jesus himself. The Word that was with God and was God became flesh and moved in among us, St. John’s gospel tells us. Jesus is the way that God will ultimately defeat evil and death; his life is the life that protects ours. His is the love that sends the demons shuddering.
And in the end, that should tell us that the point of Scripture, of God’s Word, is to make us more like Jesus. More in love with God, more able to love what God loves—the whole God-beloved world.
May it be so.