Each of us is called to share the good news in different ways. For queer Christians, and the Church, it begins with putting on the armour of God, the assurance of our faith and salvation, the reality of our unity in Christ and the Church, and the overpowering deluge of God’s goodness and love. If we begin here, and if we pray… then, says Ephesians, God may just do great things through us.
Be Strong in the Lord
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
Throughout this series of commentary posts on Ephesians, we have been struggling with the reality of the challenge which the Gospel presents to us. Unity, costly love, mutual submission and service… all these are hard enough on their own, but how much more so in a world which does not seem to recognise them, and which so often seems to be antagonistic to them. When presented with the panorama of the world’s failings in the face of Christ’s challenge, these are the moments when I can understand those who emphasise the fall narratives. The world seems hopelessly lost, and unity, costly love and mutual submission and service seem very far off.
And into this impending despair, Ephesians speaks: “Finally”, after all the challenge I have laid before you, “be strong in the Lord” (v.10). Ephesians does not pretend that the race laid before us is easy, but rather it requires strength. And this is not our own strength, but is “the strength of his power” (v.10). The challenge is so great that we will not be able to accomplish it of our own abilities, but must rely on the power of God.
How wonderful that this most necessary help is offered to us, as we saw in Ephesians 1:19: “and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Ephesians places all our challenges in the context of the magnitude of God’s work in Christ. And so Ephesians closes its challenge to disciples of Christ with a reminder that if they are to fulfil the richness of the wonder to which they have been called, they will have to do it, not on their own, but in God.
The Need for Armour
11Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For 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. 13Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
Throughout the letter, Ephesians has set the unity which Christ achieves for us within and between us at the centre of its theological vision for the Christian identity and life. And so it acknowledges that the most effective way we can be tempted away from the glory of our vocation is to forget that all things are made one for us in God, and to divide our loyalties with another. “Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v.11).
There is an Asterix book in which Caesar sends a secret agent who sows division amongst the Gaulish village by his remarkable ability to provoke envy, slander and mistrust. It is a ridiculous story, but it is instructive. The Gauls are nearly overcome, distracted from their powerful unity, by the presence of a malevolent and divisive influence amongst them. Now, you may not be convinced that there is such a one as “the devil”. You may not believe that humanity is fallen and broken and in need of correction. But nonetheless there is something within each of us that is always tempted to discord, towards all the things that separate us from one another.
And so Ephesians calls us to “put on the armour of God” (v.10), protecting us from those without who might hurt us, with good intentions or ill. But that armour also cements our identity in God. The soldier is not just protected by a uniform: they are unified with the other soldiers and into something greater, an army. Similarly, Ephesians calls us to powerfully identify ourselves with God, and with each other, the children of God, unified by the armour we put on in God’s name.
But this armour is not earthly armour, concerned necessarily with physical violence, “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” (v.12). Our loyalties, our fellowship, love and integrity, are pulled in so many different directions, by “rulers”, by “authorities”, even by “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces” which we cannot comprehend or anticipate.
It is against all the many forces, which seem geared to dismantle the unity which God has effected in Christ within us and between us, that we are then called again to “take up the whole armour of God” (v.13). All of us, but especially those of us who are queer, can point to moments in our lives which are “that evil day” (v.13), moments when all seemed lost and hopeless. But God’s will for us is that, protected and unified by the armour of God, “you may be able to withstand… to stand firm” (v.13). God who has done such remarkable things for us in Christ does not intend for the evil days to have the last word. He does not intend to let us go, now that he holds us so very tightly and tenderly.
The Armour of God
14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
What then is this armour which God calls us to put on, which is to keep us in unity with him and with each other?
Firstly, before we put on the armour we are called to “Stand therefore” (v.14). Such a teeny phrase, but monumental for queer people. To stand is to make oneself vulnerable, especially in church. It is to be visible, to be public and accountable. It is to present oneself as one really is, appropriately and with integrity. It is precisely the opposite of how many of us have been conditioned to behave by society and even our churches.
And it can be terrifying. It can even be as terrifying as how we are called to “stand” before our Father. We open ourselves up to the deepest scrutiny and judgment. But where we have Christ our advocate to comfort us before the Father’s gaze, where we can be assured always of his love, we cannot always be assured of the wise and just love of our churches, and we can often feel alone. And that is worth noting.
The ways we “stand” before God and the church are different. Standing before society and other Christians is something we need to do carefully. But standing before God is a radical self-giving and honest self-unfolding to the God who formed us in the womb and knew us from the beginning. With Him we can and must be completely open and honest, for it is not us who reveal ourselves to Him: but it is He who reveals the deepest reality of ourselves to us, as we are able to perceive it. Learning to grow into this fact is the root of our integrity.
And standing before God, we can begin to put on the armour: “fasten the belt of truth around your waist” (v.14). Call to mind Pontius Pilate’s response to Jesus’ honesty about His own identity: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Truth, particularly with regard to human beings, is traded so cheaply in a world where the reality of our being and potential is valued less highly than market forces and political control. Well, we are called to be truthful, honest, and people of integrity when we represent ourselves and the Lord who made us. And that might even entail some humility as to what we do not know as well.
For the call to truth is also tempered and coloured by the call to “put on the breastplate of righteousness” (v.14). Righteousness is an odd concept. Christians seem to be more concerned with what is unrighteous than understanding what it might mean to be righteous. Well, for queer people, I think the elements of honesty and humility are particularly important. Queer people are reminded more than most of the limits on our ability to make sweeping statements, our sheer inability to define, categorise and comprehend. And we must apply this to ourselves also. For it is Christ who is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). Whatever points we wish to impress on others, on the churches and society, what matters is that we are able to get out of the way, so that the truth can come to them, and to us… not from us, but from Christ. And that means, as we saw in the post on Queer Ethics, taking our own righteousness seriously, as a gift from God to be preciously kept, not frittered away.
Then, “as shoes for your feet” (v.15), we are called to something remarkably practical: “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (v.15). Though we are one in Christ, the reason this is such a miracle is that we are all different. We all have different needs and ways to share the gift of the gospel. And so we each of us need very particular preparation and support.
One of the joys of being at a theological college with others training for ministry is seeing how everyone is prepared for mission in completely different ways. For some the learning is primarily academic, for others it is social, or wrestling with their past, and for others it is primarily a process of growing into their own selves in a more profound way than they have previously been able.
It is vitally important that queer people find a church community that can support us in this formation and development. That is one of the great pains for many queer people who grow up in the church and end up leaving. There is something profoundly lacking when we go long periods without direction and the healthy jostling and nudging that results from sharing time with our fellow Christians. Many seek a spiritual director or go on guided retreats to be helped in discerning what shoes they need to put on to prepare them for sharing the gospel of peace.
And how wonderful that amongst all this military imagery, Ephesians thinks to emphasise that we are not preparing for a hostile campaign, but rather one “of peace” (v.15).
Faith, Salvation and Spirit
16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And “with all of these” (v.16) we are now on to the finishing touches of the armour of God. The “shield of faith” (v.16), “helmet of salvation” (v.17) and “sword of the Spirit” (v.17) are odd ones to end with. They seem massive, and abstract. But I think they are perhaps, for queer people, the most important.
For queer people, there are so many things that can undermine our faith. At times it can seem that all the forces that should be supporting us and growing our faith are in fact distracting, and detracting from it. The words and actions of those around us can stick in our flesh like “the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v.16), lodging painfully and inflaming us, consuming us if they are not dealt with quickly. And so, the shield of faith is the gift of confidence… not a proud confidence but a healthy, humble and well-placed confidence. It is a confidence that says, ‘I am a child of God, a member of the body of Christ which is the Church. I stand, yes, as a sinner, but a sinner who is utterly and wonderfully loved by God my Father.’ This is a quiet confidence that puts out the flames on those arrows which others fire at us, so that though they may hurt, they will not consume us.
And the “helmet of salvation” and “sword of the Spirit” (v.17) are to remind you that you have received the gift of salvation already. You are not working to be saved. However much the Church excludes you, it is God who by your faith has redeemed you. No one can put that gift in jeopardy, for it is from God. And God has marked you with the seal of the Holy Spirit, filling you with his power, and uniting you to Himself and all other believers. And no one can put that gift in jeopardy either, for it is also from God.
Faith, salvation and sword are a gifts of quiet confidence, and of calm. They remind us as queer Christians that we are called to grow in faith and love and hope, whatever might be thrown at us. And that we have God’s assistance with us always. We are never alone.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
This section is moving. It is heartfelt. Ephesians calls out to us to “pray… pray… pray”. The path which Ephesians lays before us is hard. And so we are called to “Pray in the Spirit” (v.18), not in our own power, but rather the power of God. And this prayer should touch everything that we do or think, for we are called to pray “at all times in every prayer and supplication” (v.18) as we lift up everything that we have and see and are before God.
And this means, though it may be difficult, praying for all those in the Church as well. “To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints” (v.18). We are to “keep alert” (v.18) because the first thing that tends to happen when there is conflict or disagreement in the Church is that we stop praying for each other. And when we do that we are buggered. Not because we are failing in a commandment to pray, but rather because our prayer is the deepest manifestation of our unity. So when we stop praying for one another and with one another, we begin to fragment the unity which we have in Christ’s body. Even with the most difficult of our fellow believers.
And then Ephesians calls to mind the context of persecution, which can at times be so close to the hearts of many queer Christians. I wrote at the beginning of this project about the ascription of this letter to Paul in order to make a strong theological point. And here Paul’s imprisonment is brought up again. What strikes me here is that we are called to pray for those who speak, which is probably most of us, “so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel” (v.19). We must pray fervently for all those who speak out, that it may truly be God speaking out good news through them, and not them speaking out their own fear, excitement or ego. And when we speak out, we can feel secure that others are praying the same thing for us.
Queer speaking out in the church must be prayerful itself, and it must be supported by others’ prayer.
But this speaking out, whether it be vocal or just in the prophetic living out of faithful lives, often comes at a cost, and Ephesians acknowledges this. This is the good news “for which I am an ambassador in chains” (v.20), and anyone who has been backed into a corner or felt trapped by their church will recognise that feeling: “Pray also for me” (v.19) because speaking the gospel into this situation is really really hard.
And here is a final nugget to consider. Ephesians ends the substance of the letter with this phrase: “Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak” (v.20). I do not consider myself a queer activist. And I often am conflicted by the ways in which queer movements have worked out their agenda. But for Christians, the profession and by words and deeds of the truth is something we are called to in boldness. Our identity as Christians means that we are called to make our witness count: the good news we have heard compels us, “as I must speak” (v.20).
Each of us is called to share that good news in different ways. All queer christians are called to different witness. For some it is quiet, for others loud. For some it is publicly expressive, for others it is a faithful approach to daily life. But we are certainly called to express the unity we have in Christ through faith in some way.
For queer Christians, and the Church, it begins with putting on the armour of God, the assurance of our faith and salvation, the reality of our unity in Christ and the Church, and the overpowering deluge of God’s goodness and love. If we begin here, and if we pray… then, says Ephesians, God may just do great things through us.