In the days of the BIBLE, war was a frequent reality, a constant threat; to us, even the language and metaphors of war seem foreign and old-fashioned. Ahead of Christian pilgrims, not soldiers. Share the real pain, don’t fight the good fight. Thus, reading Joshua is awkward; for Joshua encouraged the Israelites to feel righteous about the conquest of the native Amorites. The New Testament election, too, uses military language, describing the struggles of small Christian communities as a cosmic battle against supernatural evil.
Rather than attacking the military mindset of Ephesians, we may prefer to stay in our 21st century comfort zone and focus on “the shoes of the gospel of peace” (verse 15 – as Romans 10:15, a “realization” of Isaiah 52.7). “God” and “peace” go hand in hand, as each Eucharist reminds us. But we can take a more holistic approach and give due weight to the battles we need to fight, and perhaps even the wars we should wage, to bring about that peace.
Sometimes people contrast peace as a practical agreement to end a state of hostilities (drawing on classical ideas) and the nobler ideal of Hebrew. shalom. But both understandings have their virtues. Yes shalom is peace from heaven, so pax is peace on earth. It sums up that moment when human beings choose to stop the spiral of aggression and embrace compromise. Peace on earth, in other words, is eternal negotiation.
Support. Resist. Stay firm. Support. The writer of Ephesians begs his readers not to flee the battle. The shoes of the gospel of peace should instill in them the courage to make this possible. Think of them less as a symbol of pacifist nirvana and more as the preparatory work needed for the postwar period, when the fighting ends and negotiation begins. They should be part of the equipment of every soldier of Christ.
In this cosmic contest, therefore, we have as much protection against evil as we choose to use. We can put on the belt of truth. We can put on a helmet and breastplate, pick up a shield and a sword and get ready to use them. Yet no amount of PPE can protect a person who does not properly manage their equipment. Our vigilance will never be perfect. Instead, we harden ourselves by taking blows and blows, learning to cope when we come into conflict with these deadly authorities and cosmic powers.
The last item in our arsenal is this sword which is “the Word of God”. In today’s gospel, people stopped following Jesus because they did not like the demands it placed on them. In this way, idleness can really be a sin. Peter sometimes did not keep his promises, but not here. It is not a struggle for him to follow Jesus; it’s not even a choice. It can’t be anywhere else; for Jesus has the “words of life”. From that moment the shield of faith is attached to his arm.
There is another element of war – or, more precisely, its consequences – in these readings. Verse 16 of today’s Psalm prays that the Lord will erase all memory of the evildoers of the earth. Damnatio memoriae, or “memory deprivation”, was an ancient punishment imposed by conquerors on their enemies. It erased all traces that someone had ever been, for example by saying, “In the future, you will never have existed.” After conflict, such punishments illustrate the truism that history is written by the victors.
Remembrance is essential to our sense of self. Augustine says it this way: “I am a creature who remembers, I am a spirit. The Israelites served the Lord because they remembered what He had done for them in the past. Corn damnatio memoriae also has a modern lesson to teach us; because it can also mean “the condemnation of memory”.
Think reckless tweets, late-night emails, messages you repented too late, that leave a person vulnerable – years and even decades later – to be cut off from memory. An old self who, in better times, could be quietly allowed to fade away like a photo left in the sun becomes the first, the only thing that is remembered about him. Thank God, Christianity looks forward to the person we learn to become, not the return to the old self that we have lost (Ephesians 4:22).