We stood in line at the outfitters shop on the Taylor River in southwest Colorado. As a family we were preparing to ride the rapids in a big rubber raft. We rented wet suits, boots and gloves, life vests and oars. Our guide—a confident woman who was, I thought, younger than some of my sweat socks—helped us into our gear.
Just as we got on the bus to head for the river, another party arrived. In those years, people could decline the equipment. That’s what they did in order to save expense and time. The guides tried to persuade them to suit up, but they declined. Off we went.
The un-suited party got their raft into the water first and headed downstream. Soon we were in the boat as well, pitching and rolling in the aggressive water. It was all great fun. Great fun, that is, until we rounded a bend and found a raft pinned against a big rock.
The group ahead of us had taken a bad turn and hit the water. One of the un-suited party was clinging to the raft. We pulled him into ours. Another was floating face up near the bank. We got him in as well. A third member clung to a rock downstream and was rescued by another raft.
It was a a sobering lesson for all of us. We were so very glad we had taken the advice of our guide and suited up for the journey. Paul gives his readers similar advice here at the end of his letter. “Put on the whole armor of God,” he warns them, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” It’s time to suit up!
Paul uses a descriptive Greek word that we translate as “the whole armor.” It is the word panoplia, from which we get our English word “panoply.” Imagine a cohort of Roman soldiers, armed with spears and swords and protected by shields. When the cohort came under attack or advanced into battle, the soldiers could lock those shields together into a nearly impenetrable shell. If they stayed together, they were nearly impossible to defeat.
These Roman infantrymen were called “hoplites,” and they marched in this formation, called a “phalanx.” When Paul uses his term, his listeners would see that phalanx of locked shields united in common cause for the sake of the Empire. So it’s important to read these verses as addressed primarily to a group of Christians rather than to us as individuals.
There’s another element in this description. It’s the “stance” we adopt for the battle. Four times Paul uses a word that means “stand” or “withstand” or “stand firm.” If our stance is right, we can, as the old commercial used to say, “take a licking and keep on ticking.” It’s time to suit up! And it’s time to stand up!
I was a poor wrestler, but I liked to try. The first thing you learn is how to stand: feet about shoulder width apart, knees bent, shoulders forward, center of gravity, well, in the center, head up, eyes forward, hands ready to engage the opponent. One of the most important things in wrestling was to keep a good “base” under you. If you did that, lots of other things would go better. It’s time to stand up!
That’s Paul’s point here. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. The right stance and the right suit are necessary for dealing with the attacks and challenges the forces of evil will launch against us. It’s time to suit up and stand up!
For a third time in Ephesians, Paul reminds us about the nature of the enemy we face. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” he declares, “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.”
These are the same rulers and authorities and powers Paul describes in chapter four. Paul urged his readers to speak truth to those powers through the united voice of Church in the name of the Messiah and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Here he reminds us that the battle continues.
How do we suit up and stand up? We take the battle seriously. Church is not a weird kind of card club. Christianity is not a hobby. Congregations are not museums or memorial societies. This is about the meaning and purpose of life. This is about the direction and destiny of history. This is about whether death wins or life triumphs. If we’re not that serious, we should stay home. Paul witnessed to his faith by dying. Will we witness to our faith by living?
How do we suit up and stand up? We live for the praise of God’s glory. We express that praise in regular worship. We welcome the gift of faith as the Holy Spirit equips us to be God’s works of art. We live in the unity of that Spirit as people who are no longer strangers to one another. We trust the Spirit to expand our imagination and energize our prayers to ask for what we need for mission and service.
How do we suit up and stand up? We celebrate the gifts given to the church for ministry and leadership. We live by the power of God’s love as one people in all our relationships. We submit to one another in love to show the world what the kingdom of God really looks like. We speak truth to the rulers and authorities of this world and remind them that they are temporary and answer to a higher authority. We rely on God’s word in Scripture and sacraments to fill us and form us for the fight.
It’s time to suit up and stand up! One weapon remains—prayer. Next time we will stand up with Paul as he comes to the end of this letter.