“Armor”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 23, 2015 – The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 6:10-20

 

It’s a great image, the Whole Armor of God. Don’t you love the thought of girding yourself up with truth and righteousness? Fastening buckles and adjusting straps until you’re covered from head to toe, until you’re totally engulfed by God’s strength, until you’re just about invincible.

For some of us, this text might be a familiar one, an oldie-but-goodie, one of those scripture passages you drew pictures of in Sunday School with stubby little crayons, one of those texts that wrote itself on your heart so you would never forget. For some of us, it may be completely new. And for some of us, or at least for me, this text might feel a little bit uncomfortable.

Did you cringe a little bit at all that talk of “the wiles of the devil,” “enemies of blood and flesh,” “cosmic powers of this present darkness,” “spiritual forces of evil”? That’s not language we often use in the United Church of Christ, where we tend to focus more on proclaiming welcome to everyone than on doing battle with demonic forces. Did you flinch at the implication of violent hand-to-hand combat that would require a sword and shield? That seems out of whack with the teaching Jesus proclaimed in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

This text from Ephesians is one that can be terribly misconstrued. There is good reason for us to feel uncomfortable with talk of arming ourselves against the evil one. Over the centuries, Christians have put on belt and breastplate, taken up sword and shield, and gone out to battle those whom they called “enemies of God”—including, at various points, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, indigenous people, and even other Christians whose theologies they found offensive.

In the fourth century, as the creeds of the early church were being hashed out, people condemned as heretics were stoned or burned at the stake in the name of orthodoxy. In the eleventh century, Crusaders from Europe poured toward the Middle East, pillaging towns and massacring anyone who got in their way, waving banners adorned with crosses all the while. In the fifteenth century, the devout monarchs of Spain instituted the Inquisition to expel “enemies of God” from their realm. In the seventeenth century, New England Puritans tied so-called witches to dunking stools and plunged them into ponds; if you got free and made it to the surface, your guilt was confirmed, and if you drowned, it proved your innocence, a little too late. You know these stories. On and on we can go with all the ways in which spiritual warfare is a problematic concept, all the times throughout history when our faithful tribe has got it wrong.

 

But here’s the thing. No matter how uncomfortable the militaristic imagery makes me, no matter how hesitant I feel about the history of spiritual warfare, there are times when I just plain need the armor of God. Don’t you?

When the fog of depression has you pinned to your bed, when gravity feels a hundred times stronger and the air feels like molasses and getting up feels utterly impossible, when you start to believe those sneaky thoughts that tell you it will never get better… don’t you need that breastplate of truth that tells you that you are a child of God, loved to the core?

When the bank account is down to its last few pennies and the bills are stacking up higher and higher, when the fridge is empty and you can’t refill it until next month’s check comes in, don’t you need the shield of faith to give you hope that you’ll make it through this time, as you’ve done before?

When you exchange angry words with someone you love and find that you cannot take them back, when the distance between you seems to grow wider by the day, when your heart aches to hear that voice and see that smile again… don’t you need shoes that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace and reconciliation?

When you pull out of the driveway and find yourself behind a pickup truck with the confederate flag flying from the back, when you hear the news of yet another death of an unarmed person of color, when you feel like your little gestures of unity can’t possibly change a whole system that privileges one group over another… don’t you need the breastplate of righteousness to strengthen your resolve?

If you’re like me, confronting the enormous problems of the world, and the only-slightly-less-enormous struggles of your own life, can be exhausting. If you’re like me, there are times when you just want to give up. That’s when you need to have that helmet of salvation planted firmly on your head. That’s when you need to be girded all around with the Whole Armor of God. For God has promised that that armor will always be at the ready, that whenever you need strength or courage or reassurance or reinforcement, it will be there, just waiting for you to slip into it.

And here’s the good news: you don’t have to put it on all by yourself. Just as medieval knights had pages who would help them don their battle regalia, we have each other to gird one another up when the going gets tough. In fact, the grammar of this passage from Ephesians underscores this point. In Ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, verbs are conjugated differently depending on their subject. So, a verb for “you” individually is different from a verb for “you all” collectively. And in this passage, all the verbs are in the plural. This whole passage is addressed not to a singular individual, but to a plural group of people, the Christian community at Ephesus. “Be strong in the Lord”—together. “Put on the whole armor of God”—together. “Pray in the Spirit”—together.

To do this, to put on the whole armor of God together, requires that we first truly see one another. It summons us to open our eyes to our sisters and brothers, in strength and in weakness. It calls us also to open our own hearts to our family of faith, to allow others to see us as we truly are, not as some idealized, make-believe version of who we think we’re supposed to be. To put on the whole armor of God together requires that we trust each other enough to share our vulnerability, to trust that our tender places will be received gently, just as we will receive the tender places of others. So many of us move through our lives with deep hurts just below the surface, carefully and self-protectively concealed. But when we trust each other enough to expose those wounded places, that is when we can find the help we need from God and one another. When we do this, we are able to do what Paul exhorts us to do, to put on that Whole Armor of God—together.

 

So if you are weary in the teeth of an intractable struggle, take courage, for there is someone here who will see you and come to your aid.

If you are pinned down by depression, take courage, there is someone here who will take your hand and help you get on your feet again.

If you are crushed by financial insecurity, take courage, for there is someone here who will bring you a bag of groceries and see you through.

If you are yearning for reconciliation with someone you love, take courage, for there is someone here who will help you find the words you need and the strength to say them.

If you are disheartened by the tenacious enormity of injustice, take courage, for there is someone here who will stand beside you and raise their voice with yours.

And if you are feeling strong, or strong enough, anyway, then take courage, and look around, and find a sister or brother in a moment of need, and bring them the Whole Armor of God. And know that when you need it, they will do the same for you.

And together—strengthened by the belt of truth, and the breastplate of righteousness, and the shield of faith, and the shoes of the gospel of peace, and the helmet of salvation—together, we will be a phalanx of courage in the face of adversity and injustice, a united squadron embodying together the very realm of God.