Sermon for Sunday, August 22, 2021 || Proper 16B || Ephesians 6:10-20
Today I want to talk about the armor of God, this evocative set of images the writer of the letter to the Ephesians uses in this morning’s second lesson. Now when I say the “armor of God,” you might be overcome by a negative visceral reaction. Many who grew up in fundamentalist churches will remember the armor of God being deployed as a strictly militant concept, one that went hand in hand with drilling Bible verses for use as ammunition in proselytizing encounters. In this worldview, the fundamentalist church is a last bastion in the spiritual warfare between an angry, vengeful God and the Enemy – Satan – who has bolstered his ranks with humans who don’t belong to that church. Back in high school in Alabama, I was the target of some of these encounters because I was practicing Christianity in ways that were not acceptable to the big conservative church nearby.
So I’m fully aware that the phrase “armor of God” is loaded with baggage. But that’s why I want to talk about it today. When I read Ephesians 6, I don’t see a passage about combat or warfare. I see a passage about vulnerability, about giving ourselves over to God, about trusting that God is present when we face moments in our lives that test our inherent goodness and our impulse to love.
The concept of the armor of God first appears in the earliest letter of Paul that we know about, the first letter to the Thessalonians. This letter was probably written no more than fifteen or twenty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Much of the terminology the Christian church uses to this day appears in 1st Thessalonians: the primacy of faith, hope, and love; the grouping of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the naming of Jesus’ message as “gospel”; even that most famous of all sayings on cross-stitched pillows: “pray without ceasing.” Near the end of this earliest of Paul’s letters, Paul talks about the “breastplate of faith and love” and the helmet of the “hope of salvation.”
This early use of the armor language is important because it probably means such concepts were floating around early Christian circles – and this was decades before even the term “Christian” was adopted for this growing religious expression. Fast forward twenty or so years, and the follower of Paul who penned the letter to the Ephesians has developed the armor concept even more. Now we have a belt and shoes and a shield and sword to go along with the breastplate and helmet.
The thing is, the early Christians were known as staunch pacifists throughout the Roman Empire. They sought (and sometimes even received) exemptions from compulsory military service. One of the reasons Christians were persecuted during this time period was their destabilizing effect on a culture built around violence. The Christians simply refused to fight, and some even went to their deaths over this refusal, an act that became a noble, if confusing, example for many in the empire.*
The early Christians were following the example of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who told his followers to put away their swords during his arrest, who spoke of turning the other cheek, who laid down his life to indict a culture of violence, who stretched his arms of love on hardwood of the cross to bring everyone into the reach of his loving embrace. So, if the early Christians were pacifists, why did Paul and his followers use the language of martial armor? I think Paul was trying to contrast, on the one hand, armor made of metal that only protects the body, and, on the other hand, the attributes of a life lived in God that is about so much more than physical safety.
And so Paul invites us to put on the belt of truth, a garment that holds all our clothes in place; and the breastplate of righteousness, which always seeks to do what is right rather than what is popular or easy; and the shoes of peace, which help us move about the world as living examples of the gospel; and the shield of faith, under which we shelter when bombarded by setbacks and disappointments in our quest to make this world a better place.
I know all this metaphorical imagery may be hard for us to grasp, so here are three examples of people who wore the armor of God.
Exhibit A: You remember David in the Bible. We read his story earlier this summer. Before he became King David, he was Jesse’s youngest son, and he kept the sheep while his older brothers were off fighting against the Philistines. Then one day, David is delivering some care packages to his brothers when the Philistines send out a champion to take on an Israelite in single combat. Goliath’s armor is described in great detail: a bronze helmet, bronze greaves for his legs, a coat of mail weighing as much as 5,000 shekels of bronze. None of the Israelites want to accept Goliath’s challenge. But David, who isn’t even part of the army, is willing. King Saul decks David out in Saul’s own armor – another bronze helmet and a coat of mail. But David can barely walk in the armor. He shrugs it off and goes out to meet Goliath with his sling and stones…and his faith in the God of Israel. David put on the breastplate of righteousness, and he prevailed. David wore the armor of God.
Exhibit B: Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor and first woman to be part of a president’s cabinet. After spending decades in New York working for safer and fairer labor practices, Frances brought her compassion, faith, and expertise to bear at the height of the Great Depression. Over years of dogged persistence, she assured the New Deal included a social safety net that would alleviate the suffering of millions and pave the way for many of the social programs Americans rely on today. She overcame many obstacles in her pursuit of making life better for all Americans. Frances wielded the shield of faith, and she prevailed. Frances Perkins wore the armor of God.
Exhibit C: John Lewis, longtime Georgia congressman and Civil Rights leader who died last summer. Lewis rode with the Freedom Riders and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He was beaten to within an inch of his life on multiple occasions. And still he clung to the principles of nonviolent resistance, becoming an example for countless others. And he helped change this country for the better. In his book, Across that Bridge, he wrote: “Clothe yourself in the work of love, in the revolutionary work of nonviolent resistance against evil…Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice.” John tightened around his waist the belt of truth and slipped his feet into the shoes of peace, and he prevailed. John Lewis wore the armor of God.
The armor of God does not protect our bodies from wounds and from dying like metal armor does. The armor of God is not concerned with death at all because we believe that eternal life swallows up death in the power of the resurrection. No, the armor of God is concerned with life – a life of truth, righteousness, faith, and peace. Each morning when we rise, we can don this armor so that we too can open our arms wide and embrace our broken world in a spirit of courageous compassion.