August 26, 2012

Put On The Whole Armour Of God

Passage: Ephesians 6:10-11

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

Quebec’s provincial election is scheduled for September 4.  As part of the Parti Québécois’ election campaign platform leader Pauline Marois announced her party’s plan for a Charter of Secularism that would, among other things, prohibit public sector employees from wearing “conspicuous religious signs.”  She did not spell out exactly which conspicuous signs would be forbidden, but in the past the party has identified the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap, and the Sikh ceremonial dagger, as problematic.

One religious symbol that would be spared is the crucifix. The party is all for ridding the state apparatus of any inkling of religion, except when it comes to Christian symbols. Those, it says, are not really religious but part of Quebec’s cultural heritage.

Marois and the Parti Québécois have demonstrated what has been long known.  Secularism is anything but neutral with respect to religion; it is hostile to religion and will admit no rivals.  Even when certain Christian symbols are exempted it is because these are co-opted to mean something else; in this case the promotion of a distinct culture.  It is akin to how much of the England’s public views the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth—people see it as part of culture and not carrying any explicit religious content (like Santa Clause). In parts of Britain attempts to expunge Christmas pageants from public institutions have been roundly opposed because it is considered part of cultural heritage; it is not seen as particularly promoting Christianity because the Bethlehem story isn’t considered by most people to be true.

Can a political party be religiously neutral?  That remains a question for debate.  Biblically speaking though, no human institution is spiritually neutral.  From a biblical perspective humans are distinguished from the rest of God’s creatures in that we human beings are the only creatures whom God addresses (speaks with).  In all of this what distinguishes us from the animals is spirit.  Human beings are primarily creatures of spirit.

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.

1. In writing on this text of scripture in Ephesians 6 about spiritual conflict N.T Wright made this observation. “I have noticed, over the years, that the topic of spiritual warfare is itself the subject of spiritual warfare.  It is as though certain hidden forces would much rather we didn’t talk about it, or that we swept it under the carpet.”  I think his observation astute.  Talk of spiritual warfare is often the subject of ridicule and considered the musings of the religiously fanatical or extreme.  The general public prefers to ignore the forces of evil; for example when dreadful events of mass-shootings by an individual occur all manner of explanations emerge in media except talk of evil.  The devil is depicted in a cartoonish fashion and dismissed as nonsense.  Even in the church among believers—at least in Western democracies—we don’t often think of ourselves at war with evil forces.

That one of the “wiles of the devil” is to appear not so “wily” in the collective consciousness of humans should not surprise us.  Consider the gospel diagnosis of human sin; our sin blinds us to our sinfulness; the cross of Christ bears witness that we do not know what sin means to God and are reluctant to accept the gospel’s diagnosis.  In a similar way humanity rejects (or is blinded to) the Biblical witness that human beings are primarily creatures of spirit and so would not regard the conflicts of this world rooted in a deeper spiritual conflict.

Paul insists that we should be aware of what we are up against.  We need a sober realistic assessment of the struggle we are engaged in.  We must understand what Paul means when he says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh ".  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."

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 (good or bad or both) lies behind the organizations and powers of this world.  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.

Many have experienced how the enemy of our soul uses moments of depression or other moments of emotional vulnerability (i.e. bereavement) to attack; there seems to be this current of doubt that washes over us sending its shivers with a message that your faith is useless otherwise you wouldn’t have this struggle with depression.  We are also well aware of the enemy’s craftiness in tempting us at our point of greatest weakness.  We are also aware that the enemy can strike us at the place of our greatest strength promoting spiritual blindness by stroking a sense of self-importance and self-sufficiency.

2.  It is a theme that appears in the story line of many Hollywood action movies.  The hero is harassed by the bad guys to the point that something needs to be done; what follows is the scene where the hero arms himself with all manner of weaponry; it is staged to make your heart soar as the hero emerges fully loaded.  The bad guys are going to pay dearly for their misdemeanours.

“Put on the whole armour of God”, says Paul.  Paul is fond of military imagery in describing the Christian life.  Believers need to be suited up and ready for battle.  I note with you that the armour of God is mostly for defensive purposes so that the believer is able to stand: to stand up to the powers, to withstand them, and to stand up and be counted.  In Hollywood movies the conflict is imaginary and the outcome inconsequential; the spiritual conflict God insists is the real one and the stakes couldn’t be higher, as the cross of Christ reveals. The armour is not for a holiday parade; there is an actual enemy to be encountered.

I also note with you that this armour is God’s to give us; we receive the gear that is made for the very battle we are engaged in.  In other words this armour is not something we muster from within as if it were a matter of practising the right habits or of adopting correct discipline—as helpful as both those things are.  We need both the armour and the strength to deploy the armour; God provides both.  The stand God calls us to make against these spiritual forces God enables.  God never calls us to a fight for which he will leave us unequipped.

We also know that the battle is God’s; we are called to stake our stand alongside our Saviour.  Ultimate victory is not in doubt.

It is, of course, a surprise to many people that there is a “struggle” at all.  Yes, they think, we find it difficult from time to time to practise our Christianity.  We find it hard to forgive people, to pray regularly, to resist temptation, to learn more about the faith.  But as far as they’re concerned that’s the end of it.  They have never thought that their small struggles might be part of a larger campaign.  They are like soldiers fighting in a fog; never seeing, and actually not knowing about, the others not far away in the same line of battle, let alone the other theatres where the war is continuing.

In most major conflicts, of course, hardly any front-line soldiers know very much about the rest of the war.  That’s the job of the generals.  But at least they know that something is going on, and that their bit is part of that larger whole.  That’s the perspective that every Christian needs to maintain as we hold our bit of the line against attack.

3. I invite you to reflect on the various pieces of the armour God supplies for battle; let’s get suited up.

A. The first item, to put on, 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 as well it held other things in place. Truth is the truth of the gospel; the substance of the gospel.  The substance of the gospel, truth, lends us substance; and this in turn fortifies us.

The substance of the gospel is that we are so loved by God; that our Saviour withheld nothing of himself for our sakes.  Our sin is far worse that we imagined and we are loved far more that we can comprehend.  Never give up on the sheer truth of the gospel; it is what holds everything together.  The church needs to proclaim this gospel because believers need to be reassured they are loved by God in the face of an enemy that ever seeks to convince us otherwise.

B. 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.

In World War II all submarines were equipped with a gyrocompass. It 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.  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.

C. Shoes, the third item in the Christian's armour. The best-trained foot-soldier is only as good as his shoes.  Lightly armed soldiers who needed to move quickly wore sandals; the heavily armed Roman legionaries wore heavy boots.  I am not sure which Paul has in mind.  In either case the shoes enabled the wearer a firm grip on the ground enabling the wearers to stand firm and remain upright.

The shoes, which the Christian wears, are "the gospel of peace".  On other occasions we have underscored the gospel truth that real peace begins with peace with God then peace with each other can emerge.  When Paul speaks of peace he also has in mind 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. It is the gospel of peace that secures our grip on the ground as we traverse the landscape of life.

D.  We also need the shield of faith. It quenches fiery darts, says the apostle.  In ancient warfare arrows were sometimes coated with pitch and set on fire.  The defense against this to 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.  Reflect on how your own faith sorely tested is often strengthened by the faith of another beside you.

E.  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.

F.  The last piece of armour Paul names is the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. 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.  (This does not mean we are to bash people with the Bible.)

To say that we wield the gospel is simply to say that the Christian community does not huddle in a corner, 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.  To get a glimpse of the power of this weapon consider we are today being fortified by Paul’s announcement of the gospel from a prison cell.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.