Love Parries Evil – August 22
A sermon based on Ephesians 6:10-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 22, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Although I mostly direct plays nowadays, I spent a good part of my earlier days in theatre training to be an actor. That training included things you’d probably guess, like speech and dance and singing. But I thought the coolest training was fencing. By that I do not mean building wooden or wire enclosures on real estate, I mean sword play. As an actor I gained a level of fencing skills that I am confident would still allow me to defend myself against . . . Captain Hook should I ever get to Neverland.
In fencing the only real armor you have is a mask so most defense comes from moving out of the way or blocking a sword coming your way. Blocking the sword is done with a sword, it’s called a parry. For me the most important part of fencing is the ability to parry. To parry well is to do well, to survive actually.
Which brings me to the Lectionary reading from Ephesians which is supposed to be about parrying evil with the tools of love that lead to peace. I have not preached on this text before, I’ve just sort of moved out of its way when it comes up in the Lectionary. It’s often misused to justify gearing up to war with those we don’t like or deem evil. Martial themed theological advice and actions run directly counter to Jesus’ teachings – most especially his commandment in the Sermon on the Plain to love our enemies. So, to my way of thinking, where cultural impulses tend to be “gird up and take down” those we deem evil and enemies, it can be risky to turn to Ephesians 6:10-20. Some find it justifies violence in word or deed. Consequently, until now, I’ve left this Lectionary text alone on Sundays. Instead of moving out of the way today, I decided to parry the sword play it’s been used for.
My first parry is to point out what will soon seem obvious (if it is not already) that this is a love text never intended to justify violence, most especially a call to arms against others. It’s meant to lead to peace. Actually, to hear it as a call to arms to justify violence toward others is to not really hear it at all. To begin, the text is about standing against what the author calls the devil. And the author goes out of the way to make it clear his words are not about battling humans. He literally points out the “struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh . . . but against cosmic powers . . . . spiritual forces of evil . . .” So, no matter how we have heard it used in the past the scripture before us this morning cannot rationally be understood as advocating Christians to pick up weapons of war to use against the flesh and blood of humans. The text literally states it’s not for that purpose.
Its purpose is a lesson on how to peace-fully stand up to evil forces we encounter, not people . . . forces. And not violently, peace-fully. That is why “the whole armor of God” is NOT made up of actual weapons or arms, the armor is cleverly comprised of the things of peace, of non-violence! With word play the author fashions a Roman soldier’s tools of war into Jesus’ tools of peace. Swords are metaphorically beaten into plowshares to make the landscape for the battle with evil a fertile place for peace.
The writer starts by calling all of the accouterments “armor” which are defensive protections, not offensive weapons. This is a call to armor not a call to arms! The armor we are called to put on is for us to stand firm in– to stand firm as we withstand and fend off and parry evil. Each part of that armor is a loving device on Jesus’ Way to peace. Not one bit of it has violent or warlike purposes. We are to put on the belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; shoes to preach the gospel of peace in; the helmet of salvation; and we are to hold the shield of faith; and to parry we have the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.
See this is a lesson to be as prepared – to be as a fully armored– as a Roman soldier, with loving peace tools, so that we can stand fast in our frays with evil. The war is not with flesh and blood enemies, but that which is evil. Paradoxically in that war our posture is peace our tools are for the well-being of all, they are loving not warring tools. Our armor is not made Rome’s way but God’s way. God’s way leads to Shalom, peace always. I cannot emphasize it enough; today’s reading is about peace.
Professor Haruko Ward in The Feasting on the Word commentary puts it like this:
“The message to the Ephesians is clear that in the middle of our fierce fighting, Christians bring the gospel of peace and “the whole armor of God” is only for their protection. The only offensive gear is the “sword of the Spirit” which is the word of God. The writer transforms the common idioms of military warfare into new Christian terms of Spiritual warfare.”
Professor Ward adds,
“Confident in the great power of God giving up weapons of destruction , Christians are to move forward in whatever good shoes they have in proclaiming the gospel of peace.” 1
Basically, we are told to go to war with evil using only the tools of peace. Which sounds like an oxymoron and impossible, but actually makes sense. Think about the non-violent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 20th Century. Like Jesus they stood firm against violence wearing only the armor of non-violence, of love. They used the tools of peace to defeat the evil forces of oppression. And actually, last spring there were even more modern examples right here in Mount Vernon as hundreds of people peacefully gathered and marched– not once, but twice– to protest the evil forces of systemic racism and violence that cruelly led to the death of George Floyd and others.
Evil was peacefully opposed by the Mount Vernon marchers, and Martin Luther King Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus. They used in one form or another truth; righteousness; the gospel of peace; the salvation of humanity through love; faith in that love and/or the word of God who is Love. When Christians fence with evil we are to use that armor, and we are to parry with the word of God . . . which can and does stop evil’s advance.
Jesus first summed all of this up in the Sermon on the Plain when he said
“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Love leads to peace. Love is the theme of Jesus. Love is the theme of our lesson. Love needs to be the theme of our opposition to evil. Love needs to be the theme of our lives. Love parries evil. It leads to peace. AMEN.
- Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 3, p 378
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