2 Corinthians 6:1-10; Isaiah 59:15-17; Wisdom 5:17-20; Isaiah 11:3-5
Today in public American discourse, one can (in many circles) only with great difficulty use the words “weapons” and “righteousness” in the same sentence. This was not always the case, of course. In past ages, those who bore weapons for the public good were honored as righteous. Even Orthodox Christians, though ambivalent about the tragedies associated with war, celebrated without embarrassment the martyrdom of forty holy Cappadocean soldiers. The armed Emperor Constantine similarly was remembered for his piety, though he clearly bore arms.
I don’t intend to debate the pros and cons of Christians bearing arms in the political and social sphere, though that is a conversation worth having. It is clear, however, that we are called to take on the “full armor of God” in order to stand against our most dangerous enemies—the powers that remain largely unseen. We know that these were actually defeated at the cross, but that, like a violent but doomed man, Satan wages a last-ditch effort among us, trying to bring down as many with him as he can. As the book of Revelation puts it, “When he saw that he was cast out of heaven, the dragon became furious… went off to make war on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. (Rev 12:17).
We have no need like some melodramatic and superstitious Christians, to look for demons under every rock, and to adopt an attitude of paranoia as we face off with God’s enemy. But we should not be naïve as to his purposes. It is helpful to give our full attention to the epistle reading for this Sunday’s Divine Liturgy, since St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians gives us a sober estimate of our situation in this life. When we hear it read this week, we will also hear this hopeful prokeimenon, placed before the reading:
The Lord will give strength to His people.
Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of God, ascribe to the Lord honor and glory.
The Lord will give strength! Indeed, he has given to us a full panoply of spiritual armor, of which St. Paul speaks in the epistle for this Sunday:
Brethren, working together with Him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For He says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:1-10)
The apostle knew a good deal about the hard life of being a “soldier” for Christ. He needed endurance for the afflictions, hardships and hunger that he faced for the sake of the gospel. He also knew where his strength came—God had given him weapons for the right hand as well as for the left. That is, active weapons and so-called passive ones! He lists some of these for us—purity, knowledge, forbearance and kindness on the one hand; love, truthful speech and the power God on the other. He knew when to rest in dishonor for the sake of Christ, not retaliating, but showing mercy and accepting suffering. He also knew, by the Holy Spirit, when to speak the truth and insist on justice. It looks, from his description of his current situation, that he had much need of the weapons for the left hand at this point in his life—libeled, often in fear of his life, sorrowing, poverty-stricken. His life as an apostle frequently mirrored that of Jesus, whose cross was his glory! The world may not understand how much strength it takes to be forbearing when attacked, or kind when misused. But St. Paul learned this lesson, certainly from the Lord Jesus as he lived his own life, but perhaps also from his memories of those Christians whom he had earlier persecuted, and who had shone with the glory of the loving and strong Savior.
St. Paul knew the Old Testament extremely well, as a Pharisee, who searched the written Word of God, both the Torah and the prophets. We know from this passage, and also from the ending of the letter to the Ephesians, that he and the early Church got their idea about “the full armor of God” (Eph. 6:11) from several Old Testament passages. By looking at them we see that they did not call these weapons of offense and defenses the “weapons of God” only because God had given these to his people. No, in the OT, both God and his Messiah TAKE UP arms in order to bring peace and righteousness to the world. Consider Isaiah 59:15-17:
Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is set upon. The LORD saw this, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of retribution for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
The prophet describes a situation we know all-too-well—when lying people have the upper hand, and destroy those who stand for the truth. In such a situation, when there is no one strong enough to plead for those being hurt, Isaiah says, God is compelled to act, knowing that only He is the answer. He puts on righteousness, and salvation, justice, and zeal, on behalf of his hurt people. A similar, even more descriptive passage is found in the book of Wisdom, just after we hear that well-known verse about the righteous living with the Lord forever:
The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against the madmen. (Wisdom 5:17-20)
Here, the LORD contends for righteousness, puts on a similar suit of armor—justice, holiness, wrath, righteousness. But he also arms creation, which fights with him against injustice. Perhaps this is a reference to the natural consequence in creation that come the way for those who oppress others—eventually their lives will find them out, and the very created order will impede them from continuing their demonic behavior. The very roadblock of death, built into the human situation since the Fall, witnesses to how God uses nature to slow down evil. As C. S. Lewis put it, death is, in this way, “a severe mercy.”
Alongside these active visions of God protecting his own, and even calling in creation to work with him in disciplining tyrants, there is a more surprising picture of an armed divine figure. This is the picture of our Messiah, painted for us by Isaiah:
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the spirit of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isaiah 11:3-5)
In these verses, we hear about the weapon of righteousness again. But we also hear about faithfulness, discernment, the power of the word and the effective Spirit of life. This Messiah has been already described as full of the Spirit of God, and we see his tender disposition as he cares for the poor and the meek. His weapons are his Word and his Spirit—these are what will judge and chasten the rebellious, rather than hail, wind, and fire. That which is meant to bring life—the Spirit of his lips—has the opposite effect when it touches unrepentant evil. God’s Messiah is the truest presentation of the Father that we have: “The one who has seen me, has seen the Father,” Jesus explained. And so, we see that God’s major weapons are the very ones that can bring wisdom and life: his Word, his Spirit. These are his right and his left hand, as St. Irenaeus put it, by which he reaches into the world. Perhaps this reach includes discipline—and we pray, not final slaying! We have it on good authority that God’s will is that everyone will be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).
And so, in speaking to the young leader, Timothy, St. Paul explained the power of God’s weapons. In helping him to see how to deal with those who were trying to divide the Christian community, he gave this advice: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2Tim 2:24-26 ). Notice that it is in the gift of words, of teaching and in the gift of gentleness, that Timothy is to find a way to deal with the situation. He is to carry the Word of God as an offensive weapon in his right hand, and gentleness in his left, showing forth the nature of our Father who is both just and merciful. This is the very same nature as the Lord Jesus who spoke the truth, but also was silent as he was led to the Cross.
The biggest question we may have, as followers of the apostles and our Lord, is to know when to use which kind of weapon—when are we to speak boldly, and when are we to be gentle, and when should we do both. This is something, I think, that cannot be decided in advance. Jesus, in looking forward to the time when his disciples would be dragged before hostile courts, told them not to try to figure this out ahead of time, but to be led by the Spirit, who would teach them what to say (or perhaps what not to say). In effect, our entire life is a training ground for such moments, whether we imagine them in terms of a battle or a court appearance. Being clothed with Christ, and learning what it means to show forth the fruits of the Spirit means that, when necessary, we can also be clothed with God’s very own armor, or stand with the humility of Christ, exposed to the hostility of the world.
One such follower of Christ, we celebrate this Sunday. He is the Holy Apostle James, Son of Alphaeus, who journeyed with his brother Andrew. They taught the word of the Lord in Judea, Edessa, Gaza, and Eleutheropolis, bringing many to faith, and also healing their ailments. This humble apostle, mentioned only a few times in the gospels, finished the course of his faithful life in Ostrachina, Egypt, where he was crucified. Like St. Paul, he knew about the weapons of the right and of the left hand, and when to use them. Of him, we sing,
Let us bless James, praising him as the messenger of God,
for he filled the souls of the pious with wise dogmas.
Standing at the throne of glory before the Master,
he rejoices with all the angels unceasingly praying for us all.
May we, like St. Paul and St. James, son of Alphaeus, be found faithful, armed with the strength that God has given us, the power of Christ’s forbearance, and the wisdom to know how to which weapons to use when.