This is the text of a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Ephesians 6:10-20. (It is the last in a sermon series on Ephesians, which is why there is a great deal of reference to ideas introduced in earlier weeks). A recording of this sermon can be heard here.
This morning I particularly want to have a look at this idea of the “armour of God.” For many Christians this passage has been presented as key to Christian identity; I’ve known people who as part of their prayers every morning have gone through “putting on” all of these elements of the armour of God, in order to feel ready to face the world and the day.
And that’s fine, and even a laudable prayer practice, as far as it goes. But if you take a particular piece of Scripture and make it so key to your personal identity, then it’s really important to make sure you understand it properly… and I’m not sure that always happens.
Let me explain what I mean. The author of the epistle encourages his hearers to “take up the whole armour of God;” the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.
But all too often what I have seen is Christians who take up the belt of certainty; the breastplate of self-righteousness; the shoes of triumphalism; the shield of ignorance; the helmet of exclusion; and the sword of judgement. And with those firmly in place, have taken their stand against anyone who challenged them.
I wonder if you’ve known anyone like that? If I’m totally honest, I can remember a younger and harder version of myself which might have found some of those things familiar and comfortable.
But why do we do it? What is it that makes us reach for certainty over truth, and so on?
I suspect there are at least two contributing fasctors.
One is that it is easy to read a passage like this as if it is about our emotional state. To read the exhortation “to stand” as if it is about being free of anxiety, doubt, or trouble. And therefore to reach for whatever will give us immediate relief from our anxieties, doubts or troubles… without stopping to ask whether the easy answers, in emotional terms, are always the right ones.
But I think that, for the author of this passage, the idea that this would be read as a kind of psychological exhortation would have been quite foreign. When he talks about our struggle being against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, he isn’t talking about our internal anxieties and doubts but about very concrete, external realities; about any of the political and social or bigger-than-individual forces which were in any way oppressive, abusive or destructive.
The other contributing factor, though, is that often we don’t have enough depth in our own Christianity. If we take the idea that Ephesians falls naturally into two parts – a section of doctrine and then a section of application – you can’t, for example, put on the belt of truth unless you’ve thoroughly apprehended that truth first. Unless you’ve really grasped that the truth you’re supposed to take up is the gospel, and you have therefore steeped yourself in the gospel so that it shapes your whole approach to life, then when you hear the exhortation to take up the “belt of truth” you might well end up reaching instead for whatever you feel certain about.
It takes a certain humility, a willingness to admit that the resources for the Christian life are not all internal but come to us as gift, and that we need our relationship with God, we need Scripture, we need the church, the people around us to help equip us for the struggles of the Christian life. We need to admit that Truth is bigger than just what we feel but has an objective, external reality which we need to work to apprehend.
Earlier in Ephesians the author says bluntly that “truth is in Jesus,” and points out that righteousness and salvation are part of the new self, the new creation, which is the work that God does in us; not something we can create for ourselves. He also says that Christ “is our peace.” Earlier in Romans Paul had argued that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace,” and I think this passage is expanding on that line of thinking; “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh…” but rather we need to be aware of what the Spirit is doing, in bringing the life and peace of the reign of God.
Think back to what the author said earlier in Ephesians: “Through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”
This is the faith we’re meant to take up as a shield; our access to God in boldness and confidence, knowing that confronting the powers of evil at work in the world is part of the eternal purpose of the wisdom of God.
I think perhaps to make sense of the “sword of the Spirit” we need to look a little beyond Paul and note what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews said: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The word of God and the Spirit of God are, in Trinitarian terms, working together in a way which we can’t separate; the sword of the Spirit is, it seems to me, the wisdom to discern good from evil and light from darkness.
I could go on unpacking these concepts in more depth, but I’m conscious that I only have a certain amount of time, so I can only commend to you the idea that they’re worth further exploration of your own.
But my point fundamentally is this; unless we are so deeply rooted in our faith that we have a good, deep, robust sense of the truth, the peace, the faith, the salvation and the Spirit of God, a true connection with the living God which animates and nurtures us, then when push comes to shove we are likely to make the mistake of accepting poor substitutes. It makes perfect sense, then, that the author finishes this portion of the letter with instruction to pray at all times and to persevere in supplication for all the saints; because it is on that living connection that everything else depends.