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Sermon for Proper 16/ordinary 21 B Armour of God

July 19, 2015

armour of GodPut on the whole armour of God – words from our second lesson.

Sounds a bit militaristic. Warfare, fighting, combat, sit uneasily with faith in the Prince of Peace; A macho, aggressive, in-your-face type of Christianity; when violence was used in Christian history, and sometimes still is, in the name of the Gospel. Mind you, it counters the claim that religion is only for women and children.

Liberal churches tend to purge military imagery. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was originally written for children, though I really do wish that Satan’s legions (ISIS?) would flee as easily as the hymn suggests.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus – my experience of Christian life is not ‘from victory unto victory, his army he shall lead’ as if contemporary statues of Dagon automatically fall before the ark of the ovenant. It just sounds all too optimistic.

Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might and “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” What is missing is the sense of struggle, the sense of cost; the power of Christ’s victory comes not from a Rambo-like aggression, but rather from a power that was made perfect through human weakness; the power of Christ crucified.

Anyone bought a copy of ‘The War Cry’ from the Salvation Army? Remember Cranmer’s prayer for the church, ‘militant here on earth.’?

So, what of “Put on the whole armour of God” in our reading? The final section of Ephesians is devoted to communal Christian living. So we are not individual soldiers of Christ, engaged in solo combat against evil. Roman soldiers stayed in such close formation, shoulder to shoulder, shields overlapping, that the blows of their opponents had little effect.All Christians need to work closely with others not like the autonomous male who seeks to go it alone.

Some Christians speak of ‘spiritual warfare’ and battle for personal morality: against drugs, sex, gambling, abortion, euthanasia. For tax allowances for married couples, opt outs for Christians from equalities laws.

Paul says that we are to stand against the ‘wiles of the devil’. Other translations say “schemes”. The Greek is methodia, which gives us the English word method. It refers to craftiness, cunning, and deception. The struggle is “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” v. 12

 Paul says we are fighting an evil force greater than ourselves. Who causes all the wars? Who causes all the starvation in the world, where millions do not have sufficient food and water while there is plenty of food and water available?  Who slaughtered children and parents in the death camps of Germany and Cambodia?

The power of evil is insidious, global, structural. These powers manifest on earth in systems and structures that destroy our flesh and blood. Unjust economic structures that starve people to death in the third world, that lead to mass migration, global warming and expose people to drought, flood and tsunami, that throw people on to the dole queue. The powers and principalities threaten our planet and our highest values.

Governments and churches can be forces for evil as well as good. Look at the erosion of rights, the lies about war, the visions of global empire in both American foreign policy and Islamic fundamentalism,  the dangerous dance of religion and politics, trafficking for the sex trade, global capitalism urging Sunday trading and the likely threat to family life, the arms trade and arguments for nuclear proliferation.

Christians are called to fight these structures. Our writer employs military images, referring to the Roman soldiers his audience saw every day: “the whole armour of God,” “the belt of truth,” “breastplate of righteousness,” “shoes for your feet,” “shield of faith,” “helmet of salvation,” “sword of the Spirit.”

Armaments were both offensive and defensive. The shield, helmet and breastplate were for protection against blows. For attacking, the legionnaire had two seven-foot javelins, which he threw at the beginning of the charge. These had soft metal points that bent and stuck in opponents’ shields, rendering them too heavy to wield. Then when the lines closed the legionnaire used the short two-edged daggers to thrust up under the enemy’s shield and disembowel him. In such close quarters the long swords used by most of Rome’s enemies were rendered ineffective. But Paul is using metaphors that might mean: The belt of truth: Telling the truth, speaking truth to power, being impatient with spin. Trustworthy – in the stock exchange they used to say ‘My word is my bond’. Reliable –parents giving kids strong boundaries – neither giving in too easily nor being unapproachable.

The breastplate of righteousness: right relationships – not seeing people as expendable, using them for our own ends.

The sword of the Spirit: Making peace by bringing two sides of a conflict together to hear each other’s point of view

Being peaceful, not violent – but argumentative when people in power try to pull the wool over our eyes

Is the Church a Cruise Ship or a Battleship?  Many people want it to be like a cruise ship: comfortable, pleasant, with a popular captain and crew, fundamentally existing to please me and serve my needs. The image of battleship might be more appropriate. In such a ship, my comfort and good pleasure is less the focus. Mission, noble purpose, being well equipped, and effectively engaging the spiritual battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. Church is not about cosy spiritual feelings. The eucharist is food for the battle. At the end we are sent out to do battle in the secular world. Armour is not for those who stay home from the conflict.

Paul also urges us to ‘stand firm’. It appears frequently in Paul, where it carries the idea of perseverance.  The exhortation is to stand or persevere in these graces, and not fall. It has been suggested that this may be a reference to worship; Kneeling is a fairly modern invention. For John Chrysostom, the Christian is not on the attack so much as trying to keep from being overwhelmed. He wrote: The very first feature in tactics is, to know how to stand well, and many things will depend upon that. . . . Doubtless then Paul does not mean merely any way of standing, but a correct way, and as many as have had experience in wars know how to stand. For if in the case of boxers and wrestlers, the trainer recommends this before anything else, namely, to stand firm, much more will it be the first thing in warfare, and military matters.’

In the Celtic spiritual tradition, pilgrims often drew a circle around themselves before embarking on a journey. This practice of “caim” or “encircling,” reminds the traveller that God surrounds him wherever he goes. Despite the threat of thieves and robbers, malign spirits, or opponents of the faith, the pilgrim is constantly within God’s circle of protection, the everlasting circle of divine love.

Put on the whole armour of God or, as Charles Wesley put it: take, to arm you for the fight, the panoply of God.

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