August 22, 2021, Put on the Full Armor, Ephesians 6:10-20 – Mtr Kathryn Boswell
The reading from Ephesians today conjures up images of Roman centurions in old-time armor. But we still wear armor nowadays. People in the military wear armor. Firefighters and people in law enforcement wear armor. And there are other kinds of protection that we put on. Bicycle helmets for cyclists, knee pads and other protective gear for our children that skate or do sports. These days face masks are a kind of armor, to protect us from the coronavirus. But the first step, and sometimes the hardest step, in putting on any kind of armor is to believe that there is a real enemy out there that you need to be protected from. Because we don’t take care to protect ourselves unless we are convinced that there truly is an enemy to be faced.
But Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus that their real enemy isn’t the enemy they can see, Roman soldiers, or Jewish authorities. The real enemy isn’t any human being, he said. “Our struggle,” Paul wrote to them, “is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In the ‘80’s, Frank Peretti wrote a very popular book called “This Present Darkness.” He took the name, obviously, from this passage in Ephesians. The story is set in a small town, and the characters are just regular people, a newspaper reporter and a pastor, but there are also demons. They’re invisible to the characters but Peretti describes them, and they’re look exactly like you’d expect, if you could see invisible demons: ugly little monsters with horns and tails and all the rest. And they influence the actions and thoughts and feelings of the human creatures in the story, like C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape, or the little devil that sits on people’s shoulders in cartoons.
It’s actually kind of a fun book, but the truth is that the spiritual forces of evil aren’t nearly as strange and otherworldly as all that. The invisible forces of evil are just as commonplace as the viruses that threaten us today. Our real enemies are hatred, and fear, and jealousy, and resentment, and greed, and bigotry, invisible but all too familiar, not alien to us at all. We imagine that the “heavenly places” are “out there” someplace. We think the war between good and evil is something way above our pay grade, but the truth is that the boundaries of the spiritual realm cut right through our hearts. The truth is, the battle is here and now.
Paul describes this inner battle in Romans, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” He goes on to rejoice that our victory has already been assured by Jesus Christ. In chapter 8 of Romans he writes these wonderful, triumphant verses: “We are more than conquerors…Nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” And yet, writing to Ephesus some three years later Paul is warning the Church that we still need to be on our guard against the enemy. Because even though the victory is assured, there are still spiritual forces out there – out there, and in here, in our hearts – and that they have power to harm us. But the response to that isn’t for us to live in fear. It’s to live in readiness, which is the opposite of fear. “Put on the whole armor of God,” he writes, “that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” And then he tells us what our full armor is,
beginning with a belt. A description of an army in Isaiah chapter 5 helps explain why the belt is part of our armor. Isaiah is describing fearsome troops marching on Israel, ready to execute God’s judgment. “None is weary, none stumbles, none slumbers or sleeps, not a belt is loose, not a sandal strap broken; their arrows are sharp, all their bows bent.” The belt is a sign of being ready, on the alert, prepared for action. In my recent travels, I think of the warning of the flight attendants, who kept reminding us to keep our seat belts fastened, at all times, so we’re prepared, in case of turbulence. And the belt we are to fasten on is truth.
One of the most famous questions in the Bible is the question of Pontius Pilate when Jesus stood before him. “What is truth?” Well, what is truth? Truth is hard to define exactly because truth is that which we know without definition. Truth is the foundation for our thoughts and words and actions. In mathematics, there are basic concepts that have to be assumed, without proof, before any theorems can be proved, before any calculations can be made. We build our lives upon truths we hold to be self-evident, things we know by faith and not by sight. The authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What do you hold to be self-evident? What are the foundations for your choices and actions? Belt the truth tightly around you.
Next we put on the breastplate of righteousness. Now, “breastplate” is another one of those archaic terms, but if you ever watch police shows, bulletproof vests, are basically the same idea. The breastplate, or the bulletproof vest, protects the most vulnerable part of your body. In particular, it protects your heart. Roman breastplates were made of bronze. Bulletproof vests are made of kevlar. But the breastplate of our spiritual armor is righteousness. And like truth, we need to understand what Paul means by righteousness. If we try to keep our heart and our life safe with our own righteousness, as thin and full of holes as that is, we are in a whole lot of trouble. But thanks be to God, the righteousness we wear is the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, not earned or paid for, but given as a free gift to any and all who trust in him. Our heart is safe.
Shoes next. “As shoes for your feet,” Paul says, “put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” Think about how shoes can make you ready. It depends on what you’re about to do. If you’re going to muck out the barn, you get ready by putting on tall rubber boots. If you’re going hiking, you get ready by putting on sturdy hiking boots: with thick soles for rocky ground, and good tread so you don’t slip and fall.
But the shoes that make us ready to face the enemy come from the gospel of peace.
And does that sound like a contradiction in terms? We’re putting on armor to face our enemy; don’t we want army boots? Instead, Paul tells us to hit the ground running in our sneakers of peace. It turns out that our mission, heading out into a world occupied by the enemy, isn’t a mission of warfare, because our gospel, the good news we carry, isn’t about conquest or domination. It’s about reconciliation. “Through Christ, God was reconciling the whole world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them,” Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, “and he entrusts that message of reconciliation to us.” We are surrounded by enemies. But we step out lightly, waving the banner of God’s love.
“In all circumstances,” Paul continues, “take up the shield of faith.” In thinking about faith, it’s helpful to know a bit of Greek. In English we use the word “faith” in different ways. Sometimes we speak of our faith as a set of doctrines, like the Creeds. Sometimes we use the word “faith” as a synonym for the word “religion”. But the word Paul uses here means trust. The shield that stands between us and the flaming darts of the evil one is nothing more nor less than our simple, childlike trust in the lovingkindness and goodness of the Father. That’s all we need.
Helmets are a little more familiar to us than breastplates and shields. If you ride a bicycle, you may wear a helmet. If you don’t, you really ought to. A friend of ours was riding his bike one morning a few years ago on a little winding country road near Potsdam. A truck came around a corner with the early morning sun in his eyes, and couldn’t see our friend until it was too late. He swerved in time to miss him, but the side mirror struck his helmet. The helmet was cracked and ruined, but by the grace of God and a good helmet, our friend survived. Helmets save lives. And that is exactly what salvation means. “I came that you might have life,” Jesus tells us, “and have it abundantly.” “You died,” Paul writes, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
And finally, the sword. My kids basically cut their teeth on the Lord of the Rings, and there was an awful lot of swordplay in our house over the years. With a sword in hand, whether it was a plastic sword or a wooden stick, they were transformed into valiant warriors, fearless, powerful, dangerous. We’ve clothed ourselves in readiness, now, to face the enemy. Truth is belted snugly around us; the righteousness of Christ guards our hearts; we wear those strange sneakers of peace on our feet. We are crowned with abundant life and shielded with simple trust. And now, now we take in hand the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
One year, our kids happened to find some discarded strips of aluminum. And being resourceful children, and very fond of sword fighting, they were able to make a new kind of sword. Unlike the old plastic or wooden swords, these were sharp. And that made it so much more exciting to fight with them. Of course, at that point parents stepped in and the fun was ruined. But my point is that the word of God can be dangerous. “The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together. It judges the desires and thoughts of the heart.” When we hold that sword in our hands, like my kids, we are transformed into valiant warriors, fearless, powerful – dangerous. And here it is most urgent that we remember what Paul told us about our enemy. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” he wrote, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”
When we use God’s word against a brother or sister, in judgment or in condemnation, when we use God’s word to deny the dignity or humanity of another human being, we do incalculable harm. The word of God has all too often been used as a lethal weapon. Slave owners used the Bible to defend their right to buy and sell human beings. Some churches have used the Bible to condone the abuse of women or children. A lot of nations use the Bible to claim divine support for their exploitation and greed. And as individuals, we, too, can hurt one another if we wield the word of God without love.
But as a tool against hatred, and jealousy, and fear, and division, against injustice and racism and cruelty and violence, there is no more powerful weapon. We should all be in training to become the most valiant of warriors against the evil in the world, and most of all, the evil in our own hearts. But our mission as well-armed warriors, is to be ambassadors of reconciliation, carrying the message of peace to an embattled world.