How do you preach a passage people think they know already? The whole armor of God is the subject of a host of religious knickknacks, posters, mouse pads, coffee mugs; it’s everywhere. So, how do we trot it out one more time without seeing people’s eyes glaze over with faces of “been there, done that, currently wearing the t-shirt” looking back at us from the pews?
First, we shouldn’t ever assume that. Sure, in some church contexts, there is a danger of the overly familiar. But given the current state of biblical illiteracy, you can be assured that there are those who have never heard the depiction of the armor of God from the sixth chapter of Ephesians. And of those who have heard it, many aren’t so well versed on each item to render a refresher unnecessary.
Even so, how do we shift the metaphor so that it might speak anew in our age? There aren’t many professions in our twenty-first-century world that require armor. There is, however, protective gear of all sorts. And the pandemic brought all that back into play in a powerful way. Instead of the helmet of salvation, maybe it is the facemask that brings us a sense of peace and protection. Play with the image, as you can. Find ways of capturing the spirit, even as you shift the main image.
What if, for example, Paul (or Paul, given the debate about the authorship of this letter), who claimed to be all things to all people, now takes on the role of fashion consultant? “Get all the gear, he says, the whole kit and caboodle. Okay, he does say armor, put on the whole armor, but what is meant is take every accessory you can lay your hands on. Get ready, get set, accessorize!
First, says Yves St. Paul, you need a belt. Now a belt is not just for keeping your pants up, as important as that is. But in that day, the belt was also used, by those going into battle, to tie up all those loose bits of clothing that would flap about and could be taken hold of by an opponent when least expected. With a belt you can avoid being caught out. So, “gird your loins” with the belt of truth. Paul says that truth can keep us from being caught out by the loose ends of our lies. As Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, “No one has a good enough memory to be a really effective liar.” We’re going to get caught if we try. But belted in truth, having made the decision to live honestly and openly to the truth of Christ, we won’t get caught with our pants down.
Next, says Paul, tucking the tailor’s chalk behind his ear, you’re going to need a breastplate. That is hardly something we see on every chest these days. Yet we all need something to protect those vital organs, so that we don’t get hit in the gut, so that we don’t suffer from a wounded heart. So, we need a chest protector to strap on to keep our heart in one piece – the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness, it has been said, is being faithful in our relationships. God is righteous because God always keeps faith with us, because God keeps God’s part of the covenant. So, we try to be like God; we try to be righteous and keep faithful in all our relationships. First, our relationship with God, of course, as we try to live our lives in response to the grace we have received. But also in our relationships with one another: we work to keep faith between husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, neighbors, brothers and sisters, and all. We wear our righteousness like a chest protector so that we avoid the sinking feeling in our gut when we have broken faith with a loved one, so that we avoid receiving a broken heart.
And shoes, gotta have shoes. We have to be able to walk all over God’s earth, to run, if we can. So, we must have shoes that let us move. On our feet, we need the readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace. These shoes are made for walkin’. They are not for sitting back, for putting our feet up, for barricading ourselves in our homes and saying, “Oh, well, if anyone wants to know, if they come to me and ask, and really look interested and if I’m not too busy then I just might tell them what I know about faith and church and Christ.” No, sir! These shoes are for getting out on the town, for cutting a rug, for going where the action is. On your feet, the readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace.
Well, proclaims Paul Blass, as he admires his creation, we’re not done yet. You need a shield. A shield? Well, okay, how about an umbrella? Something to hold over you, to go before you, to protect you from the elements, to keep you dry when the weather turns nasty. Something to hold out and to hold on to, something that will remind you that it isn’t always a bright sunny day when all is right with the world. Sometimes the skies do grow dark; sometimes the winds will blow; sometimes rain will fall. So you need something to keep you from drowning in your own despair.
Take the umbrella of faith and hold on tight. When the weather gets rough, when the questions fall like rain, when the tears form puddles at your feet, when the clouds of doubt rumble overhead, then hold tight to your faith. Hold on to that knowledge that you are a child of God, to the experience of being pulled up from off your knees by the hand of one much stronger than you, to that feeling of being made clean again and given a fresh start. Hold on to that; and though the rain may fall, and you may get wet along the way, the center is dry and strong and still remembers that the sun still shines behind the clouds. Carry faith as your shield.
And now, the crowning glory, accept salvation as a helmet. Wear your salvation on top of everything else. Wear it right up there where everyone can see it. Salvation, like faith, is not a voucher that stands ready to be cashed in at the pearly gate ticket booth. It is not a memento toward which you look wistfully thinking I’ll need that one day. No, it is something you wear every day, something that shapes your vision, guides your feet, broadens your understanding. This visor enables you to see more clearly, to see God in the faces of those called other in this divided world, to see brothers and sisters in the marginalized and oppressed. It helps you see not your own safety and security, but all of creation bound up with you in the kin-dom of God. Salvation is a gift of love, a divine gift that lets you see beyond the human into the kin-dom of God where you have a place, and it is assurance that can protect you from all sorts of blows that might otherwise knock you senseless. Accept salvation as a helmet.
And a sword. A sword? Well, yes. But not just any old sword with which you can go hacking away at the undergrowth of our society. This sword has a specific function, and it is a function that you don’t ultimately control. It is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Perhaps we should be carrying a pen or a phone with unlimited texting. This sword is about words. This sword is not about taking away life but about giving life meaning. It’s about communicating God’s word. It is God who wields the power here, not us. It is God whose word cuts to the quick, where soul and Spirit meet. Our job is to be faithful to that word, to proclaim it with our whole life, with all our collective lives as the body of Christ, the word made flesh. This means, of course, that we know what God’s word is. To take up this sword, to wield this pen, this communication device takes a lifetime of study.
Put on the whole gear, accessorize to the hilt, says our fashion consultant Paul. Why? Why do we need all these extra bits, all these accessories? To stand. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand.” To stand, that’s what this is about. It’s a shaky world out there, and it needs people with balance, people who are accessorized, who are armored enough to stand.