Sunday 6 March 2011

Let us put on the armour of God

Today we come to the last of this series of 5 addresses on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians
In the first 3 we explored key theological themes:
  1. ‘We must start with Christ’.
  2. ‘In Christ God is saving us by grace through faith for good works’; and
  3. ‘In Christ we are members of God’s household, Christ’s Church’.

Last Sunday we looked at the ethical implications of Paul’s theology in the form of the advice he gave the Ephesians about how to behave as members of Christ’s Church. I summarised like this:

In God’s household - Christ’s Church - we must be kind and forgiving, we must live as children of light’.

Today we turn to the very end of the letter, Ephesians 6:10-20.

It is hard to be kind and forgiving much of the time, to live as children of light, very hard.
Paul knows that the Ephesians can be so only with God’s help – only by God’s saving grace, through faith, just like good works.

‘Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power’, Paul urges them. ‘Put on the whole armour of God’.

The armour of God is a striking metaphor, isn't it? For the Ephesians no doubt it conjured up the image of a Roman Legionary - for us, perhaps, the scary looking equipment of coalition troops in Afghanistan – light-weight body-armour, Kevlar helmet and night vision goggles. Paul no doubt also had in mind Isaiah’s description (59:17) of God’s breastplate of righteousness and helmet of salvation.

‘Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil’, says Paul. I suppose we all have that sense sometimes of a voice whispering inside our head, tempting us to do what that other voice, our conscience, tells us to be wrong, to be displeasing to God. Paul personifies it as the wily devil, but it is really part of us, that part of our psyche that is disobedient to God. It is that part of us that is responsible for all the petty human sins we are all guilty of to a greater or lesser extent – the lies, the malice, the dishonesty, the words intended to hurt others - as well as our failures to be kind and forgiving, as God is kind and forgiving to us.

But there is more evil in the world than we create by our petty human sins.
As Christians we must confront evil outside us as well as within us.

‘For’, says Paul, ‘our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,’ - or our own natures - ‘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’.

Paul’s words sound like science fiction, don’t they? The ‘cosmic powers’ and ‘spiritual forces’ could almost be the Martians in HG Wells’ ‘War of the worlds’, or the Borg in ‘Startrek’.

But these evil powers and forces are real. Wicked ideologies, xenophobia and national interests too often cause the evil of war and violence. Bad economic and social systems generate the evil of hunger and poverty, ravish the planet’s resources and damage the precious web of life. What are they but ‘spiritual forces of evil’? And then there is disease and natural disaster that cause untold suffering. What are these but ‘cosmic powers of darkness’? We don’t understand why God permits such things – but they are surely not ‘acts of God’, since they are contrary to all God’s loving purposes.

Christians must ‘stand firm’ against all these evils, but to do so we must ‘take up the whole armour of God’, in order to ‘be strong in the Lord’.

Paul models the armour of God on the state-of-the-art equipment of a Roman legionary of the 1st Century.

  • There is ‘The belt of truth’. The belt a Roman soldier wore was a wide piece of thick leather which protected his lower abdomen, his guts. The truth is God’s truth – the truth of the good news Jesus proclaimed. It is that truth which gives us the guts to resist evil.

  • There is ‘The breastplate of righteousness’. The legionary’s breastplate was made of overlapping iron bands fixed to leather to protect the chest and heart from swords, spears and javelins. A righteous person relates to God in the way God intends. Righteousness, knowing what God intends us to be, protects the integrity of the Christian heart.

  • There are ‘Shoes … (to) make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace’. The Roman military boot, open like a sandal, with thick leather soles and hobnails, enabled legionaries to march long distances without suffering blisters. Christians too must be able to travel far to proclaim the gospel of peace. It is ‘shalom’, inner wellbeing, the peace of the kingdom of God.

  • There is ‘The shield of faith’. The rectangular legionary shield, made of bent-wood and covered with leather, was soaked in water before battle to extinguish flaming arrows. Christian faith acts like a shield to turn temptation aside.

  • There is ‘The helmet of salvation’. Made of iron or bronze, with a neck-piece at the back and hinged cheek-pieces, the ‘Imperial Helmet’ was designed both to protect the head and intimidate opponents. For Christians, salvation is about God forgiving our sins. Knowing that our sins have been forgiven, we can think clearly, stand firm in the face of evil and not be intimidated by it.

  • Finally there is ‘The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’. The legionary sword was the short steel ‘gladius’, used in hand to hand combat for cutting and thrusting – it’s the origin of the English word ‘gladiator’. The Holy Spirit reveals the word of God to us, what God wants, what is good and right and true, and this is the weapon with which Christians must fight evil. Notice it is the only offensive weapon Paul mentions – everything else is defensive armour.

So, as Paul urges the Ephesians, ‘Let us put on the armour of God’.
Let us prepare ourselves to fight the good fight, to confront and defeat evil wherever we may find it, not just in our own natures, but in all the dark places of the world. We cannot be successful by ourselves, but God through Christ has given us all that we need for the spiritual fight – the whole armour of God.

Paul finishes his letter by urging the Ephesians to pray. ‘Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints’ - 'for all the saints', that is, for all Christians, because we are all saints in the sense Paul uses the word. Prayer by every Christian for all Christians raises the morale of Christ’s Church for the spiritual battle with evil in all its manifestations.

I shall finish with our parish prayer for March. It is a verse from St Patrick’s Breastplate, a powerful invocation of the name of Christ. It can be our breastplate too, part of the armour of God for us, which we can use whenever we feel anxious or fearful in the face of the enemy.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in heart of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger