I love the passage we read from Paul’s Letter to the people of Ephesus, with its imagery of the whole armor of God, not because I love going into battle, but because I love a system. A plan. If life were a James Bond movie, then I would be the Q character, the nerdy, awkward, scientist with the neat little gadgets for every emergency. This text from St. Paul is basically that scene, for the early Christians. This is what you’re going to need, he tells them, this is your gear. I love how it’s all mapped out.
God doesn’t want us to be without a plan, doesn’t intend to leave us defenseless, for whatever life throws at us, the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Really, the whole of the Bible is a map of that plan, taking us from the place we found ourselves—lost, there be dragons—all the way through our lives to home, you are here, right where you need to be. God’s plan of salvation takes shape through the Creator’s guidance, in Christ’s Incarnation, death, and resurrection, and with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the follow-up. The implementation strategy.
Paul wants the strategy to be clear. This isn’t rocket science, actually, even though I might want there to be a souped-up Aston Martin involved. The plan isn’t supposed to be some esoteric mystery, available only to the spiritual elite. It’s meant to be accessible to all. So what does Paul describe, what is God offering us, so that we can face what’s coming and stand firm? It starts with the Truth. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Honesty is the plan. I really love this plan. It’s grounded on something so basic, so fundamental, we begin with living in Christ, who told us, “I am the Truth.” We have to start there. Whatever else we do, the truth will be the right guide, the truth will set us free.
But there’s more, because honesty isn’t enough. It’s the place we’ve got to start, but the truth can put you in danger, as Jesus’ own life shows us. So, next, we put on the breastplate of righteousness. Now righteousness is a tricky thing for us, because it’s so perilously close to self-righteousness, which we can see all around us in our world—in fact, as Christians, we are known for it, and that reputation can be a huge obstacle, when we’re trying to tell people about the Jesus who loves and forgives. We don’t want to use righteousness as a weapon to wound or dominate others. But, if we pay attention to what the text actually says, righteousness is not being proposed as a weapon at all, here. It’s not the sword of righteousness, or even the club of righteousness, definitely not the machete of righteousness. It’s the breastplate, the protection, for the most vulnerable place, the heart. Without that righteousness, we expose ourselves to all kinds of damage. We hurt our own hearts, when we do wrong, when we become the kind of person who is used to hurting others. Being just and living with integrity, is the best way to make ourselves and those around us safe from the spiritual erosion of callousness and cruelty. Bad actions endanger us, and those we love; eventually, inevitably, they lead to death. Living in God’s way is the only way out of that dead end.
The working out of God’s way, God’s desire for our lives, will be a little different for each person. Paul says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” The instruction here is graciously flexible; there is no one right answer. What helps you get ready, to proclaim the Gospel of peace? What gives you energy, feeds your passions, makes you more understanding and patient, more generous? Or, conversely, what do you know you need, to fill up your bucket of good will, or else you get cranky and mean? Running? Time by yourself or in nature? Enough sleep? Serious study and reading? Talking with a friend? Meditation? Experiences of the world and other people? Do what fuels you, make sure you’re equipped with what you need, to do the work and to be there for others.
So we’ve come this far, we’ve been cautioned not to get ourselves into trouble with dishonesty or bad actions, and to provide ourselves with those particular things that nourish us. What else do we need, to confront the forces of evil? Paul reminds us to take shelter, under the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. That’s one way evil works, especially in our world today, it makes everything seem so urgent, I must do this right now! I’ve got to respond to this horrible post on Facebook, or correct my neighbor who’s in the wrong, or make a judgment on this question of national importance, quick, now, before my own position is at risk, or I look foolish, or am judged, myself. I’ve got to handle everything, take every opportunity, or I’ll lose my chance, I, or my family, might be disadvantaged. It’s all got to happen now. Faith meets this temptation by taking the long view, faith trusts, faith waits, it abides, in the old language, resting secure in the knowledge of who God is, and therefore of who I am—God’s child.
We are under the shield of faith and we are under the helmet of salvation. For all of those temptations of urgency are really fears of our own mortality, disguised as the possibility of achievement. What wounds our minds? Fears. What wakes us up at 2 in the morning, racing round our heads? Fears. What keeps us from being in each moment, and cherishing what is, the gift of those around us? It is fear, that eats away at our life, our joy. God has promised, God has spent a lifetime, telling us that we are saved. That every hair on our heads has been counted. That each tear we shed is collected in a bottle. That we are not to worry, not to be afraid, for God loves us, and will gather us all in and make us new. Know that you are loved. Know that God has done everything, has given everything, for you. It’s not on you, saving yourself is not your job. You can’t get any more beautiful in God’s eyes than you are right now, because you are Christ’s, brothers and sisters of Jesus and one another. That is all the protection we need, that is the whole armour of God.
Paul only mentions one weapon, in this passage. It comes at the end, and it’s not a weapon in the conventional sense: the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The Word that we are forgiven, sought out, loved as Christ by God, that is how we stand up and fight the forces of evil. Just those words. That they are true for me, true for you, true for everyone—no one is beneath God’s notice, no one is uninvited to the feast of the bread of life.
And always, there is prayer. Pray in the Spirit at all times. That is how we live in the awareness of God’s mercy and love. Prayer for everyone. Pray also for me. We rely on each other’s prayers. Feel them all at your back, when you need them, because they are there. Feel the protection of the truth, of righteousness, of the gifts you are given, of faith and salvation. Walk around in the strength of God’s power. Now we are strong enough to go and serve.