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You asked for a sermon on The Armour of God

 

Ephesians 6:10-20

 

I: — “Rational animal”, said Aristotle. Human beings are rational animals. Aristotle maintained that our rationality distinguishes us from pigs and goats and horses.

From a biblical perspective, however, we are not distinguished as rational animals (after all, apes have a measure of rationality) but rather as spirit-animals. We’re animals to be sure, for according to the ancient creation sagas the animals and we human beings were created on the same “day”. We differ from them however, in that we are the only animal-creatures whom God addresses. Not the only creatures whom God loves, but the only creatures to whom God speaks. God speaks to us, and his speaking to us enables us to respond; even more, his speaking to us moves us to respond. When God speaks to us he expects a response from us. We are response-able, and because we are response-able we are also response-ible; responsible to God, accountable to God. In all of this what distinguishes us from the animals is spirit. Human beings are primarily creatures of spirit.

 

II: — To say that we are primarily creatures of spirit is to say that we live, ultimately, in a world of spirit. Which is to say in turn that conflicts in our world are ultimately spiritual conflicts. Most profoundly, our world is not the scene of competing economic forces (although there certainly are competing economic forces.) Ultimately the world is not the venue of contradictory ethical theories, ultimately not the theatre of clamouring historical movements. The world is finally the scene of spiritual conflict, intense spiritual conflict: a conflict, in fact, which claims victims every day.

Those who do not grasp this are fools, scripture tells us. They are already victims in the conflict and don’t know it. If you and I are going to survive spiritual warfare, thrive amidst it, even triumph in it, then we must understand what Paul means when he says, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood”. Listen to J.B. Phillips — “For our fight is not against any physical enemy; it is against organizations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.” Next the apostle tells us that we have to stand. He repeats himself: stand! He means several things. “Stand up to the powers; defy them.” He also means, “Withstand them; don’t succumb!” He even means, “Stand up and be counted; let everyone know where you stand.”

If we don’t see the need to stand in this three-fold sense then we are naive; we are unwitting victims of “the unseen power that controls this dark world.”

The apostle insists that the entire cosmos is shot through with evil. No institution is spared. “Organizations and powers that are spiritual”, is how he puts it; these organizations and powers are influenced by “the unseen power that controls this dark world”.

In other words, not just economics or history or politics but spirit; spirit lies behind Wal-Mart, the University of Toronto, Credit Valley Hospital, the new government of Indonesia, the Canada Council. Spirit (good or bad or both) lies behind the Ku Klux Klan, but also behind the Afro-American organizations which oppose it; behind the Mafia, to be sure, but also behind the Canadian Red Cross; behind the National Hockey League and the National Ballet and the Canadian Medical Association.

It sounds vast: the entire cosmos seethes with spirit. But not only is it vast; it is also pinpointedly individual, microcosmically personal. Spiritual conflict occurs in individuals every bit as much as in organizations and institutions.

Think of the Ford Motor Company when individuals in the Ford family did everything they could to prevent autoworkers from organizing. Harry Bennett, a tough guy from the U.S. Navy, was the liaison person between the Ford Motor Company and the underworld. The Ford family hired Bennett for more than running errands and delivering cars, however. Bennett was hired to beat up anyone who tried to organize the autoworkers. Walter Reuther, the first president of the United Autoworkers, together with his brother, was beaten so badly that they had to be hospitalized for six months.

When Ralph Nader let it be known that General Motors automobiles were structurally unsafe and GM wasn’t going to do anything about it, GM executives had Nader tailed by private detectives night and day, hoping to catch him in an indiscretion for which they could blackmail him and destroy him.

Do you think that education is spiritually neutral? The ministry of education’s outlook, the curriculum it develops and assigns to school, the societal and individual ends toward which it moulds student; there’s nothing neutral about this. Foundational to any ministry of education is what it deems to be the educational good. The ministry of education is an aspect of the provincial government. The government has been elected by the people and wants to be re-elected. At the same time it is subject to immense pressures from assorted lobby-groups. What finally surfaces in our children’s classrooms is a compromise that accommodates, in varying proportions, the mindset of the electorate, the notions of educational theorists, the specific interests of lobby-groups, and the drift of a society that is drifting farther and farther from its Christian roots. None of this is spiritually neural.

Yet lest we think that only “organizations and powers” are involved we must look to ourselves. What about us? It is to you and to me that the apostle speaks concerning “the devil’s craftiness”. Of course we can be tempted, even seduced, at our point of greatest weakness. I need elaborate no further, since temptation or seduction at our point of weakness we usually recognize quite readily. But we are in equal danger of being tempted or seduced craftily at our point of greatest strength. At our weak point we are in danger of falling flat on our face. (Not much demonic craftiness is needed to bring us down.) At our strong point we are in danger of becoming self-important and therefore self-deluded, vain, contemptuous of others and defiant of God; in short, spiritually blind. The evil one can get us where we are weak and where we are strong, and get us with equal ease. Which is to say we can be got ridiculously easily. We are much more vulnerable than we think we are.

 

III: — Then the only thing to do is to put on the whole armour of God

[1] The first item, says Paul is the belt of truth. The belt which the Roman soldier wore was a wide piece of thick leather. It protected his lower abdomen and prevented him from being disembowelled.

Truth is the truth of the gospel; the substance of the gospel. It is the substance of the gospel which gives us substance, something in our belly. Without such substance we shall always lack stomach for spiritual conflict.

The Hebrew bible (which Paul knew backwards) speaks of both the truth of God and “truth in our inward parts”. What else are our inward parts except guts, the very thing which the leather belt protects? The substance of the gospel, truth, lends us substance; and this in turn fortifies us.

[2] The second piece of armour is the breastplate of righteousness (righteousness in this context being the integrity possessed of the person rightly related to our Lord.) The breastplate protected the soldier’s heart. According to biblical metaphor our heart is the control centre for willing, feeling, and discerning. Integrity or righteousness protects our personal control centre. Not the integrity of self-made moral achievement; the integrity, rather, which comes through having Jesus Christ, the righteous one, ruling within us.

When I was a child I relished playing with my gyrotop. When the gyrotop was spinning ever so quickly I could place it on a taut string or a needlepoint and it would stand upright. Regardless of how the string was moved around; regardless of the motion of the string or needle and their quickly changing angles, the top remained upright. Its orientation never changed.

A gyrotop is only a toy. A gyrocompass, on the other hand, is for real. In World War II all submarines were equipped with a gyrocompass. It too spun at startling speed: thousands of revolutions per second. When the submarine was submerged, without radio contact or celestial navigation, the gyrocompass kept it on course. If the submarine was depth-charged and knocked about violently, the gyrocompass reset the course automatically. Without it the submarine would be lost. One hundred men cramped in a steel tube 300 feet down — and everything depending on a small item which maintained constant orientation however violent the turbulence.

Righteousness, integrity — Paul compares it to the breastplate which protected the soldier’s heart. Righteousness, or integrity, protects the control-centre of every Christian.

[3] Shoes, the third item in the Christian’s armour. Did it ever occur to you that the best-trained foot-soldier is only as good as his shoes? What good is a foot-soldier whose feet hurt so much he can’t walk?

Roman soldiers were known for their endurance, their long marches. One of Caesar’s most effective tactics was to keep his men marching when everyone else thought his men would be hunkered down, soaking blistered feet in a basin. But the feet of Caesar’s soldiers didn’t blister; neither did the men become unduly fatigued. Their footwear was better than that. Roman soldiers wore sandals, lightweight sandals made of rawhide. The shoes were light, flexible, resilient. Don’t we need shoes like that: light, flexible, resilient?

“How long do you think you can keep going?” I am asked this question by dispirited pastors and amazed United Church members every day. “Are you in it for the long haul?” I can answer all such questions are three words: light, flexible, resilient.

The shoes, which the Christian wears, are “the gospel of peace”. By “peace” Paul doesn’t mean primarily “peace in my heart”. He means shalom, the kingdom of God, God’s end-time resolution of cosmic conflict when the evil one, now defeated, is finally destroyed and will no longer afflicts God’s creation. The gospel promises this and even now anticipates it. Because I believe the promise, and because my feet are shod with the gospel (which is to say, I’ve already tasted the end-time resolution), I can keep going for as long as breath remains in me. Light, flexible, resilient.

[4] The shield of faith. It quenches fiery darts, says the apostle. One day some enemies of Rome dipped arrows in pitch, set the pitch on fire, and then shot the flaming arrows at Roman soldiers who were still 100 metres away. The arrows stuck fast in the wood and leather shield the soldier carried, and ignited it. As soon as the soldier dropped his burning shield, the next volley of arrows killed him. The solution was simple. Soak the shield in water before the battle. The flaming arrows hissed out, and the Roman line advanced.

Every soldier carried his shield on his left arm. It protected 2/3 of his body, plus 1/3 of the body of the fellow on his left. In other words, every soldier was responsible for affording a measure of protection to his colleague.

“Be sure you take faith as your shield”, Paul insists. We must take faith as our shield, not only because faith extinguishes the flaming missiles by which we are assaulted, but also because each person’s faith affords a measure of protection to others in the congregation. If I don’t take the shield of faith, you will be uncommonly exposed to the evil one’s assault on account of my negligence. In this congregation we owe each other as much protection as we can give each other. After all, we are not isolated strugglers; we are a congregation, a community, a fellowship.

[5] The helmet of salvation. The helmet protects the head. A soldier’s head is vulnerable. In modern infantry engagements 90% of fatal wounds are head wounds. A soldier is more likely to perish through head wounds than through any other kind of injury. The head is crucial.

It is the head which thinks. And it’s important to think. Jesus insists that we love God with our mind. And when Jesus heals the disturbed fellow who runs around in the graveyard mutilating himself, the townspeople find the fellow in his right mind. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that they must not be conformed to the mindset of the world around them; they must be transformed by the renewal of their mind. J.B.Phillips again: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remake you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed.” Either our thinking is renewed at the hand of God or we are stuck in that mindset which blindly keeps on rationalizing the delusions and depravities of a world which contradicts the truth of God every day.

Peter urges us to “gird up our minds”. The usual expression is gird up one’s loins. In ancient Palestine people wore calf-length robes. If they had to do something vigorous, they picked up the back of their robe, brought it forward between their legs, and tucked it into their belt. People girded their loins when they were about to do one of three things: work, run, or fight. To gird up our minds means that we must think vigorously; and our thinking has to tell us whether we are to work, flee, or resist. It takes wisdom to survive, even triumph, in the midst of spiritual conflict. Wisdom means knowing when it is appropriate, even needful, to work, flee or resist.

[6] Lastly, the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. The sword, be it noted, is an offensive weapon. The sword of the Spirit (God’s Spirit) is the only offensive weapon the Christian has. Furthermore, it must be noted again that this offensive weapon which God empowers is the word of God or the gospel. The only offensive weapon you and I have and therefore can wield is the gospel.

To say that we wield the gospel is simply to say that the Christian community does not huddle in a corner, a pathetic in-group doing its best to protect itself in a bleak world. To wield the gospel means that we announce and embody the truth of God and the redemption of God and the undeflectability of God at all times and in all places. When Paul wrote the Ephesian letter he was in prison. He didn’t like being in prison, but he also knew that the gospel can be announced and embodied in any setting, and a prison setting is as good as any other.

When, earlier in our century, the Soviet government rounded up thousands of Christians and packed them off to Siberia, these people didn’t exactly laugh. But once in Siberia, hardships and all, they joked with each other that the Russian government, vehemently atheist, had finally funded a Christian mission to the Russian north. The gospel-witness which those cheerful Christians bore there has borne fruit beyond anything anyone could have imagined.

When Paul was imprisoned in Rome the Christian community there was tiny. Five house-churches — 75 Christians? — in a city of one million. Yet Paul had wanted to get to Rome for years just because Rome was the seat of influence throughout the civilized world. At last he got to Rome. His accommodation wasn’t exactly what he had had in mind. But at least he was in Rome. And there he would wield the sword of the Spirit, the gospel, the only offensive weapon the Christian has.

How fruitfully did he wield the gospel? We have just spent 20 minutes being fortified for our struggle by the letter he wrote from prison. How much more fruitful could he be?

Seventy-five Christians in a city of one million. But no self-pity, no poor-meism. Merely a conviction that the armour God provides for God’s people in their spiritual conflicts God’s people must put on. And having put on defensive armour, God’s people must go on the offensive with the sword of the gospel, which sword will win greater victories than any Roman army ever imagined.

 

                                                                                         Victor Shepherd
June, 1998