We human beings don’t have a very good track record at waging peace. We’re well practiced at waging war – on the international stage and among family and friends. We have lots of words for the instruments of war: armor, weapons, arsenals, shields, battles, skirmishes, and the list goes on. But what words do we use to name the instruments of peace? This morning’s passage from Ephesians uses words of war for waging peace. It speaks of “the whole armor of God,” “the spiritual forces of evil”, and “the sword of the Spirit.” But it also follows in the footsteps of the prophet Isaiah in transforming images from war to peace. Isaiah spoke of turning “swords into plowshare and spears into pruning hooks.”(2:4) Ephesians speaks of the “belt of truth,” “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the shoes of the gospel of peace,” “the shield of faith,” and the “helmet of salvation,” inviting us to transform these pieces of daily wardrobe into instruments of peace.
But before we can experience the transformation we must face the conflict. That’s the hard part for most of us. Whether we’re debating strategy for the international stage – diplomacy or war, sanctions or bombs, mediators or troops – or for an interpersonal conflict – fight or flight, shout or silent treatment, engage or avoid – the challenge is to hang in long enough to achieve our goals.
We’ve all been in communities and families in which we fight over petty matters. Maybe you grew up in a family like mine where we avoided conflicts until they erupted in war. Or maybe you faced constant conflict because no one was willing to back down from their position. I've heard from people in many congregations, including this one, who say, “I don’t need this. I just want to live in peace. It’s not worth getting involved in activities because it just leads to fighting.” I say, “peace isn't achieved by avoiding conflict but by working through it.” My batting average isn’t very good in drawing them back into the work, but I still believe that peace must be waged in the midst of conflict, rather than wishing for no conflict or avoiding it when it arises.
Ephesians addresses relationships between God and people, between cultures, within the body of Christ, between neighbors who have different values, and in the home. In each case it’s taken for granted that conflict is inevitable: humans don’t always get along with each other.
The advice in Ephesians may feel irrelevant or even alienating through 21st century lenses. But that only reveals how important context is. Few rules work for all cultures all the time. We need to figure out what works for relationships in our cultures. We may do that through parenting classes, courses in conflict resolution, or marriage retreats. It matters to learn ways to resolve conflict.
But Ephesians doesn’t leave it at that. The way to resolve a particular conflict is to acknowledge that its roots are deeper & more powerful than imagined. It's important to improve our relationships; but if we don’t take into account a deeper reality, we'll always wonder why good relationships are so elusive. In the world there’s a tendency toward evil, toward chaos, and toward animosity. Ephesians soars when it gives a vision for a world reconciled by Christ but holds no illusions about how hard it is to achieve.
We need to face that reality in church. People say things to me like, “Why does that person behave like that if she calls herself a Christian?” “Why don’t you talk to that person and tell him the he shouldn’t do that?” I’ve learned through decades of pastoral ministry that it’s not enough to give people advice or teach them how to relate, how to listen, and how to respond to others in their grief. Whether we’re dealing with an individual, the institution of marriage, the church, a nonprofit agency, a business or a government, there’s a magnet that pulls us toward chaos and conflict. Many forces work against us. It's difficult to be righteous in today’s world.
If evil is bigger than we are, our defense must be greater too. Today’s epistle invites us to “wage peace” in all our relationships, from the most intimate to the most public. God is more powerful than all we can ask or imagine. God offers us power to stand on in the face of opposition. The armor described in Ephesians 6 is mostly defensive. It focuses on standing firm more than on advancing.
The kind of shoe worn by Roman soldiers didn’t facilitate rapid movement, but rather long marches and a solid stance while the soldier threw his spear, used his sword and held his shield against arrows, lances and stones. These shoes prevented feet from sliding. Those were the shoes imagined as what will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
We’re told to fasten the belt of truth around your waist. The truth we need to take into every conflict is that Christ has already won the peace for us. Peace is a gift from God, not something we create: “Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us.” We need to wrap that truth around us. Christ created a peace we’re called to maintain. That prepares us to wage peace. When we go into an argument with someone believing that Christ has already broken down the wall between us, we can stop being so defensive and wage peace.
But peace requires strategy, just like war. When it doesn’t look like there's any hope for peace, what makes us ready to wage peace anyway is grounding ourselves in the fact that peace is already the true reality; we simply need to expose that truth so it can be seen and lived, rather than the falseness of the conflict. Back in the 1990s there was a group called Witness for Peace that literally went to stand on battlefields, putting their lives at risk to keep people from killing each other. It is what the Mothers of East LA did with their gang banger sons: they stood between enemy gangs and said, “you will have to kill us if you are going to keep killing each other.”
Good people disagree with each other about strategies for peace. Should the US sign the nuclear accord with Iran? Whatever you think of the accord, it is an attempt to wage peace. Los Angeles is a Sanctuary City, allowing city workers to treat clients the same whether they have legal papers or not. Whether you agree with that or not, it is an attempt to wage peace. At St. Athanasius we have occasional community Eucharists in three languages. Whether you like them or not they attempt to wage peace.
I find 4 ways to wage peace in today’s passage:
1. Start with what is already true: the roots of peace are always present. Ajusco conflicts but history as squatters drew diverse people together in common tasks. Draw on that.
2. Tell stories: beneath conflict are common experiences of fears, threats, and longings that become glue for binding us together.
3. Wait for the right moment: If peace is the true reality, I can afford to wait for the moment. To force it might destroy it. Patient waiting is part of standing firm.
4. Nothing but peace is enough: The flip side of patience is passion, which gives urgency to waging peace. “We shall not give up the peace, we have only started.” Coreymeela.