Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. – Onward Christian Soldiers, lyrics by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865
There are still places in the world, and indeed within the so-called “developed world” where a hymn like Onward Christian Soldiers provides spiritual sustenance to those working hard to bring solace and support to those in need.
But you don’t hear it sung much in mainline churches. Its militarism and triumphal tone mark it as belonging to an increasingly limited time and place. And that’s okay.
When a hymn ceases to reflect our understanding of what it means to be Christian, we can simply put it on the shelf. Maybe we’ll take it down for an occasional reminiscence, but we don’t get overly concerned about its eternal meaning.
But what about sacred texts like Ephesians?
Eph 6:13 & ff “… take up the whole armor of God … the belt of truth … the breastplate of righteousness … the shield of faith … the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit”
Armour? Swords?? Atheists would say that language like this is one of the reasons that religion is at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous.
Literalists attempt to make the language eternal, and so can tie themselves in knots in the attempt to make it universally appropriate.
Both positions miss the point.
Sacred text becomes … well … sacred because we believe that it carries a message about our relationship with Theos that transcends what the writer was conveying to the original audience. That’s why a movie or book may move us or inspire us but it is rarely considered “sacred.”
That doesn’t mean the message should remain mired in two-millennia-old dogma.
… “the belt of truth”. The word translated as “truth” is aletheia, which would be better understood as unfolding truth. It’s an immensely important distinction since it frees us from the need to pretend that the founders of our faith (or any faith or worldview for that matter) had a knowledge of God that we don’t. Recognizing “truth” as “unfolding” allows us to understand our relationship with Theos in the light of current scholarship and a global society. At the same time, we remain connected to the faith of those who came before us. As our spiritual journey progresses, both as individuals and as a faith, we’re able to look again at the words and seek deeper meanings.
“Righteousness”, “faith”, “salvation” - dikaiosunē, pistis, sōtērion. These words could today be better interpreted as a call to us to be confident that our relationship with Theos is inseverable, personal, and ever-evolving.
It’s not a call to attack other religions or beliefs. The “sword of the Spirit” – pneuma – is a poor choice if our desire is to disembowel anyone who disagrees with us.
But it’s a perfect choice if our desire is to embody the “gospel of peace” – eirēnē.
The Message of the Christ is not that we should go into battle over doctrine or dogma. Our “armour” and weapons aren’t designed to wage war. They’re designed to empower us to “seek justice and resist evil.”
When this is our focus, we can see the influence of the Spirit in others, regardless of their “religion”, even if they claim none at all. We can join with others in projects large and small that express our compassion for each other and the world. And we can support and encourage each other in our personal journeys.
In his analysis for this week, John Shearman talks about the tension between “being Christian” and “becoming Christian.” We are one with Christ but we’re by no means perfect examples of what that means.
In Ephesians, the writer notes that our struggle isn’t against “flesh and blood” but against “spiritual wickedness.” Once upon a time we may have thought of that as if there were actual demons and devils lurking in the shadows. Now we know that our true temptations are those that lie within ourselves, leading us to put our own wants ever more ahead of the needs of others.
The “triumph” of the “Christian soldier” is not achieved when everyone follows the same set of rules. It will be achieved when each and every person has food, shelter, a means to earn a living, and is treated with dignity and respect in a world founded on the agapé relationship embodied in Jesus the Christ.
As I learned to pray a long time ago, may we all do our part to ensure that time comes soon.