The central theme of today's reading is that of spiritual warfare. However, I would be remiss if I did not first say a word about slavery. At the beginning of Ephesians 6, Paul instructs children to obey their parents and slaves to obey their masters. This is part of a much larger section of Paul's letter (beginning at 5:21), which deals with issues of submission and obedience. During the civil rights era of the mid-twentieth century and the abolitionist movement of the mid-late nineteenth century, passages such as Ephesians 6 were used to condone the practice of slavery. However, it is essential that we understand the socio-historical background of this passage before making hasty judgments regarding Paul and the issue of slavery. In the Greco-Roman world of the first century, slaves made up about 1/3 of the population and were an integral part of the family and household structure. The sudden abolition of slavery would have brought about devastating social and economic consequences. Paul knew this and therefore advocated that Christian slaveholders should treat their slaves with dignity and respect, because ultimately God is the Master of all of us. Eventually, due in part to the influence of early Christianity, slavery slowly died out in antiquity. It is clear that Paul would not have condoned the abuse and human degradation that frequently characterized the institution of slavery in the American south.
Now a word about spiritual warfare. The Christian life is described in terms of warfare against spiritual powers (i.e. rulers, authorities, darkness), which are defended against using spiritual weapons (i.e. truth, righteousness, peace, faith). For many Episcopalians, the idea of spiritual warfare seems strange and bizarre. And yet, in our baptismal liturgy, we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. We also renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. These statements are not simply metaphorical, but rather they address a fundamental truth about the Christian life, namely that our struggles always have a spiritual component. As Paul reminds us, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers, authorities and spiritual forces of evil. It is easy to see these forces at work in world around us, yet we are often unaware of the spiritual warfare taking place in our own lives...our families, our homes, our churches. Consequently, it is imperative that we clothe ourselves daily in the whole armor of God, in order to "stand against the schemes of the devil."
Note: I have referred to Paul as the author of the Letter to the Ephesians. However, there are many biblical scholars who question Paul's authorship of this letter. If Paul did write this letter himself, then it was likely written by close followers of Paul. It is also possible that Paul wrote portions of this letter during his lifetime, which were then compiled after his death.