The suit makes the man… that’s what they say. And, really, there is something about a well-dressed man. Or, as a drag queen friend of mine used to chide, “Darling, you are what you wear, and that outfit is not who you are!” And that’s the true story of why I have a contrasting silk lining in most of my jackets today. It’s who I am.
In this morning’s reading from Ephesians the writer talks about putting on some special garments: The Armor of God. Most long-time church people have heard this story at least once a year since they were old enough for Sunday School. It makes a great felt-board presentation. But in these days of hostility and political warfare I want to take a closer look at the nature of these garments and what it really means to put on this kind of armour.
This was written at a time before the church was the church, in fact it was called simply the ekklesiae which was also what they called local political gatherings. Some of the other terms, “rulers,” and “authorities” usually refer to real-live people, kings, magistrates, and those in authority. So, there is an element here of down and dirty politics. But, later the writer also talks about cosmic powers and heavenly forces. The writer is urging us to recall that what is below is a reflection of what is above. Our thoughts and actions affect a world which we cannot see. That is why joy is one of the hallmarks of a spiritual person. It is not that they are so happy, though they may be. It is so that there can be joy in Heaven. Our joy here on earth brings joy to God above. So, in this passage, we are talking about very real political troubles on earth and their corresponding battles between good and evil above.
This armour, though, is not for fighting. It’s so that we can stand. Just stand there. It’s defensive. The readers of this letter would have been subject to assault, so they needed defence.
The first piece of armour is the one thing that seems completely absent in our modern political discourse: Truth. Of course, we have the truth. You and I, we’re in the know, right? Well, we have to be careful. This piece of armour wouldn’t have been named first if it weren’t the most important. I do think that truth sometimes gets away from us. For example, President Trump has done some horrible things. He is not a horrible person. He is, in fact, a child of God like the rest of us. He is not a number (45), nor is he any of the things I hear on the internet. He is one of us. That’s the truth. See, truth might not be as easy as you thought.
The breastplate of righteousness protects your heart. In these times of political turmoil, when it seems like democracy may really be on the rocks, it is easy to let our hearts be troubled. I get it. But, put on your armour. Righteousness has to do with what is right. It is right to observe the sabbath, to care for one another, to extend the friendship of God to all the world. These things are right, and they will protect your heart from the angst of living in this unreasonable, unrighteous, time. Worry, lashing out, even being very clever about it, is not that helpful.
Shoes may not seem very important. In my travels around Asia I regularly see soldiers wearing flip-flops. But, the military successes of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar are often attributed to the fact that their soldiers had good shoes. And, by good shoes, I mean that the shoes had cleats on them similar to what a footballer might wear. It enabled the soldiers to stand their ground. And, remember, that is the objective here. To stand. Just stand there.
When you are attacked, and you will be, we all will be, you can throw up your shield of faith. Roman shields were often covered in leather and then soaked in water so that if a flaming arrow came towards them the shield would put it out. That’s not all metaphorical. The real shield really put out the real flame. What we want to think about, though, is this business of faith. It doesn’t mean to believe the right things, or to be part of the right religion. Faith, or believing in, means to stand with. In the gospel reading for this morning the disciples found Jesus’ sayings about flesh and blood to be hard. I find them hard too. It’s so hard, in fact, that a lot of Jesus’ followers left him! They didn’t have faith with Jesus, they couldn’t stand with him. The shield doesn’t protect you from enemies. There are no guarantees about that. It is not a shield against hard times. We’ve all had ‘em. It is about our ability to stand firm during the hard times. How do you respond when the going gets tough? Can you hang in there with the truth, with what is right, how deep are your shoes?
Finally, a soldier puts on a helmet, and the helmet is salvation. “Saved from what?” My agonistic friends love to ask. Well, saved from wrath, saved from the violent ways of this world. Salvation doesn’t mean that violence won’t touch us. If it did then we wouldn’t need all this armour. What it means is that we don’t have to become part of the violence machine that seems to just keep on turning. Despite the militaristic nature of the metaphor, it is all about how to overcome violence with truth, by doing right things, by standing firm with Jesus even when the going gets rough, by keeping faith the one who came to usher in a reign of peace.
There is only one offensive weapon mentioned, and it’s the very last one: The sword of the spirit, or the word of God which is Jesus himself. So, if we’re going to go on the spiritual attack, the life of Jesus is the only weapon we have and he is notoriously peaceful.
So, are we going to march in the streets, protest, run for office, fight for the underdog? Sure we are. But, in all that, we are not going to be overcome with violence, we are going to do things that are right and good, and we are going to keep faith with Jesus even when the going gets rough.
All this costuming tells us who we are. We are people who stand. We stand firm. We don’t walk away when Jesus says hard things. We are not part of the violence machine in our actions, or our speech, or in our clever posts on social media.
Go ahead, put on your armour. It’s who you are, darling.
Linda McMillan is still in Chiang Mai, wearing flip-flops and tank tops and calling it armour.
Some Notes of Possible Interest:
Some people think that the apostle Paul wrote Ephesians, most people think that he did not. It was common, and not at all considered in poor form, to ascribe a writing to someone else.
Here is a very short explanation of the saying “As above so below.” You may have also heard Rabbi Akiva write about it.
Romans 5:9… Therefore much more, having been justified now by His blood, we will be saved by Him from wrath! (Borean Literal Bible) — The point I make in the essay is that the armour or God is not offensive, it’s not about wrath or violence at all. It’s defensive, remember. But this verse makes two points: We are justified and we are saved. Two things. Perhaps for another essay sometime.
By calling Jesus Master I am not implying any kind of servile role for his followers. It is just an acknowledgement that he is a spiritual master. Jesus called us friends. I can acknowledge that my friend is a master.