(A sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost B–August 26, 2012–Ephesians 6:10-20)
“It’s what I do every morning,” the tall, quiet woman told me. Brought in to manage a department full of people who resented her, people who expected a friend from within to become the boss, she felt the resentment every day.
And so, in the morning, she put on her armor.
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14-17, NRSV)
Every morning she recited this passage to herself while getting dressed for work. Nothing she could do in the workplace seemed to help the situation, and because it involved the safety and health of some very fragile infants, she moved from crisis to crisis and could not resolve the management dilemma. She believed she was doing God’s work, and these words from Ephesians gave her strength and courage to do her best even when others seemed determined to undermine her.
I felt sorry that this nice person, working so hard in a position that helped others, felt threatened and maligned and even endangered.
If you’ve ever worked in a place where people did not want you there, you’ll know how she felt.
But armor? I must admit the image made me uncomfortable.
The apostle Paul spent two years under a special sort of arrest in Rome. Under guard, he could leave his house in the company of the assigned Roman soldiers, as if he were wearing an electronic ankle bracelet. Perhaps the people in charge thought Paul’s credibility would be damaged enough simply by being under arrest that they would not need to worry about him. It seems the Roman authorities thought he would be hampered enough by the guards to be pretty safe walking around the city, even talking to the citizens. Paul also received guests, passing his spiritual wisdom to them. He wrote letters, reaching out to those who wanted to learn from his experience and his example.
The Romans didn’t understand what sort of person they had among them, or how powerfully he would call on the images of the very soldiers who limited his comings and goings. For it is their armor he describes and turns to his own purposes in this letter.
“Put on the whole armor of God.”
Paul did not expect his readers to imagine literal Christian armies, destroying infidels. He did not imagine a Christian state or government or empire. He expected Jesus to return, SOON and to bring to an end life as he knew it. He lived in a faithful present that was also a difficult meantime, chased out of town and stoned and arrested simply for sharing his faith in the radical notion of Jesus Christ, a forgiving God who lived and died and rose again. And like any good preacher and teacher, he used what happened to him every day to transmit his message.
Jesus did, too. Many of his stories began, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” or “the Kingdom of God is as if…”
• like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened
• like a treasure hidden in a field
• as if a man going on a journey summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them
• as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how
Like. As if. They’ve lost their meaning to us, one a word used the way “y’know” once was, the other a challenge phrase. But really, these are words indicating the use of a simile.
In language, a metaphor (from the Greek: metapherin) is a rhetorical trope defined as a direct comparison between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects. This device is known for usage in literature, especially in poetry, where with few words, emotions and associations from one context are associated with objects and entities in a different context…A simile is a figure of speech in which the subject is compared to another subject. (From Wikipedia)
Metaphor and simile suggest a connection between one thing and another. In scripture, the connection expresses a truth that is deeper than a simple fact. Jesus used the commonplace, images of everyday life, to paint a picture of God’s hope for the world. And in his efforts to equip the faithful after the Resurrection, when Jesus was a memory and his followers a persecuted group, Paul did the same. He stood in marketplaces telling everyone who would listen about the one whose love overcame evil, Jesus Christ.
Paul knew that evil well. He knew about the use of strength to harm the opposition. He had used it to persecute Jesus’ followers before he became one himself. In his new life of faith, he found his real power, the gift of encouraging others with words that can still help us today.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
I picture Paul, befriending his guards, and tweaking them just a little with these words. They are wearing the kind of armor that protects against physical wounds, but it has no spiritual power. For facing inner enemies in the difficult meantime, Paul gave a young church an image of its own strength, a power derived not from physical armor but from a protective suit of spiritual virtues and assurances. The cosmic powers of our present darkness sometimes express themselves in the material world through the voices and actions of others. This is nothing new. We know how to arm ourselves—with truth and righteousness, to bring peace and the knowledge of salvation, our weapon a sword of the Spirit, the word of God.
The Whole Armor of God is a potent image. If you search for it on the Internet, you’ll find Whole Armor of God pajamas and a Whole Armor of God game for children. “Be the first one to put on The Whole Armor of God!” For people who feel being faithful has them in a battle against the whole world, all the time, it calls up not the Roman guards hanging around Paul’s door, screening visitors, but the soldiers of history who have gone out under banners decorated with the cross, winning the world for Jesus one sword-thrust at a time.
Actually, it calls that up for me, too. And that’s why I felt so uncomfortable listening to the nice, nice woman at the hospital telling me about how much praying this passage meant to her.
Here’s my guilty passion.
I love singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I love that tune. I love the elements of the bass line. It stirs me.
It’s also considered to be theologically incorrect. We’ve seen so much damage done in the name of God, we shy away from militaristic hymns. Oh, you can sing this marvelous tune with different words. There’s a very nice hymn called “Forward Through the Ages” that makes good use of its marching sound, but for me it’s always the other version in my head, the one I learned when I was a student in an Episcopal girls’ school. If I close my eyes, I can see us in our white blouses and navy blue skirts. I can almost hear our entirely treble voices piping it in chapel, the teacher at the piano making up for it by leaning hard on the bass notes.
It stirs me just the way the whole armor of God, with its belt of truth and breastplate of righteousness, gave needed strength to the manager in the difficult job.
These potent images have a place. The trouble is when we forget they are images, metaphors and similes.
Paul didn’t intend for the churches who received his letter to start manufacturing fine leather armor with the word “righteousness” burned into the breastplate.
Those Christian soldiers in the hymn? They are marching AS to war. They are marching AS IF to war.
The strength gained from scripture carried the manager through many difficult days and nights. She understood how to wear the armor. She did not need to come to the workplace with an actual weapon, using it to prove she was right, by God!
Don’t let us be confused, in the wars of words swirling around us this summer, don’t let us be confused and think that strength equates with volume or violence.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. (Ephesians 6:10)
No need for actual armor. Amen.