Trinity 12 - Put on the whole armour of God

A sermon preached by Fr Robert Thompson in the United Benefice, 26 August 2012

Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-59

For someone who has sat through an extraordinary number of sermons during my life, it is remarkable how very few of them I actually remember. Indeed most of the sermons that I do remember I seem to remember for all the wrong reason. One such was based on our Epistle today from Ephesians. It was an address given by the youth worker of our parish church at a Friday morning assembly in the Junior High School that I attended. Tim was a very trendy youth worker for our quite staid and conservative parish church, whose great passion in life was motorbikes. Everyone in the parish knew him for his love of biking, as much as his love of God. He could often be seen speeding excessively around the parish on his bike, visiting members of the various youth groups and their families. He could easily be spotted in his protective black leather biking gear and the matching helmet, which had emblazoned on it in stark white letters “God is Love.”

You’ll not be surprised to hear then that at this assembly, after the Head had finished the formal prayers, Tim began his address by wheeling his motorbike on to the stage. The address then took the form of a sort of reverse striptease. Biking, was a fairly dangerous pastime, Tim told us, for which suitable protective clothing should be worn. He put on his black leather trousers, and told us these were heavily padded to help protect the lower part of the body. He then displayed his heavy jacket, pointing out the extra padding on the chest and on the back, before he, likewise, dressed himself in that. In a similar vein he put on his boots and his gloves, protection for the feet and the hands. Finally he put on his shiny black helmet, which proclaimed that God was Love, as protection for the head. Then he got on his bike, started it up, and drove off the stage. The Head did not look too pleased, nor quite a number of the more stuffy teaching staff. But all we eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds were well impressed. Many of the more secretively subversive teachers smiled wryly. I can’t actually remember now how Tim related all this to the text from Ephesians. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he left it up to us to work it out for ourselves.

The author of Ephesians does not talk about protective motorcycling gear. Rather he tells his readers that they are to put on the whole armour of God. They are to put on God’s armour in order to be able to hold out against what he calls the wiles of the devil, the evil powers of the dark world, and the spiritual forces of evil. He then directs his readers to protect themselves by wearing the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and by carrying the sword of peace. Wearing all this armour, the author of Ephesians feels, will help his readers to withstand the evil day, and more than this, to persevere and still keep standing. Righteousness, truth, peace, faith, salvation, and the spirit: these are the clothes that we are directed to wear, the clothing that constitutes the armour of God.

On reflection, then, although Tim’s address was one that I remembered and it helped me to remember today’s text; I think that comparing the armour of God with protective motor cycling clothing has very obvious limitations. Tim’s biking gear, like the military armour of ancient battles, is a form of dress specifically designed to stop the person wearing them from being hurt or killed. The body is covered so that the person wearing it may be made as invulnerable as possible. The protective armours of the world are designed, at the least, to preserve the self, and often to defeat and to beat down others as well. But the armour of God is not the armour of the world. The armour of God is truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Spirit.

This description of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the spirit as armour leads us into visual conundrums – for it does not resemble any armour that we may call to mind. What would God’s armour look like? The armour of God is that clothing which we see best worn on the person of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation, God’s becoming a human person in Jesus Christ, is not a self-protecting act on God’s part. It is not a putting on of the invulnerable armours of the world in which God is vaunted above all creation. No, rather, as the letter to the Philippians expresses it, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is an act of God’s self-emptying, in which God is revealed in the form of a servant, not of a master. Jesus, the servant, is the one who did not live his life according to the self-preserving ethics of this world. Nor did he call his disciples to live like this, rather in the garden of Gethsemane he tells Peter to put his sword back in its sheath. The clothes that Jesus wore offered him no protection when his body was handed over to the authorities to be beaten and crucified.

To wear the armour of God is to wear the armour that Jesus wore. It is to shape our lives according to the pattern of his life. This armour is not armour that makes us invulnerable, protecting us from others, or from being hurt or even from death. Rather it is the amour of vulnerability. This is the armour that opens us up to the needs and interests of others as well as ourselves. It is the armour that tears down the self-protective and self-interested barriers that divide us from one another. Nor does this armour protect us from pain, or sickness, nor even death in the end, for God in Jesus Christ, dies on the cross, his body broken and his blood shed.

It is to this way of life, in and through him, that Jesus calls those earliest disciples, and also calls us, in today’s gospel passage. To eat his flesh and to drink his blood he says is to abide in him. It’s not only or primarily an allusion to what we do in the Eucharist. But it is a call to take upon ourselves the summation of his life: what his teaching meant, what his way of life meant, what his subsequent death and resurrection meant, and what they still mean. It is a call to share his passion for a life lived under the vision of what the reign of God would be like on earth. No wonder we hear in that same portion of the gospel today that many found this teaching difficult, and that many of his disciples turned back and decided not be associated with him.

Few of us, I imagine, are motorcycling enthusiasts, and none of us are ancient warriors, and theirs is not the self-preserving armour that we wear. But all of us dress ourselves up in different sorts of protective clothing. We put on the armours of arrogance, of snobbery, of superiority, in order to pump up our own egos and exalt ourselves above others. We put on the armours of complacency, of apathy, of boredom, in order to justify our own self-interest at the expense of cultivating a conscience that is concerned with the well being of others around us. We put on the armours of tradition, of convention, of established power networks, in order to retain our own control of things and to deny a say to others. We do all these things in our daily lives, at work and at home. We even do it in how we run our parishes and we most certainly do it in how we run the Church as a whole.

At the end of today’s gospel passage Peter says: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.” In this, and in most acts of worship, we come to the Holy One of God. We come aware of our shortcomings as human beings and we ask for and receive God’s forgiveness, grace and peace. Here, in this sacred, set-aside time and place, we should come to divest ourselves of the self-protecting armours that we all too ordinarily wear. These walls may be for us a changing room to aid the constant transformation of our lives according to the life of Christ, a place were we can put on the armour of God, a place where we can ask for God to dress us in truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Spirit.

It is when we come as a community to celebrate the Eucharist that the armour of God is most keenly revealed to us in the wafer that is Christ’s body and the cup of wine that is Christ’s blood; a meal that makes us one with Christ and binds us to each other. Let it be our prayer that we shed the armours of the world, and put on God’s armour, that armour which is really not armour at all, but the clothes of vulnerability, the vesture of Christ’s self-giving love.
Holland Park Benefice