St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, October 24, 2021
“Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
THE FIRST TIME I was ever aware that I had enemies, my folks were watching the news, or reading the paper, and conversations rose about nuclear ICBM missiles pointed at us, and a heating up of the Cold War. It was maybe eight years after Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been defeated. Further war was unwelcome, but a very real possible future involving the entire planet again. This world had only just been saved. And now people were digging huge holes in their backyards and pouring concrete bunkers for survival, should the Big One come. Shelves of water, canned foods and air purifiers were installed. Commercials for bomb shelters joined the evening lineup of Purina Cat Chow, Ford Edsel, and the new McDonald’s hamburgers on our black and white TV sets.
Like you’re going to survive nuclear annihilation in a homemade bomb shelter! Armor is often more a state of mind than physical safety.
Armor presumes there will be armed conflict and the armored soldier is a fighter wrapped in a shell to deter the piercing effect of an enemy’s weapons. Armor was used in Mongolia 13 centuries before Christ. They wore seven layers of rhinoceros skins or ox hides. Many layers of linen cloth could also create a barrier for incoming pointy things. That may sound weak, but the Kevlar ballistic vest I wear like police officers is made of unbreakable fibers interwoven and multilayered to catch a bullet and deny its penetration of one’s vital organs.
Metal pounded into sheets and shaped like its wearer can do the job of deflecting blades, but is heavy and restricts movement, making a soldier immobile. The development of flexible chain mail solved much of that. You remember Frodo’s wonderful waistcoat of mithril rings, light to wear, impervious to spears.
The 1st century citizen of the Mediterranean area had seen armor worn by various empires, from Assyrian to Babylonian, Persian and Greek conquerors, and finally Roman legions. Rome was fitted with steel and thick leather. Its professional troops were committed to suppress the vassal states they held in the power, glory and peace of Rome. St. Paul surely had seen his share of armored soldiery, and though the sight of them might cause people to fear, he used the image of an armored soldier for a Christian wearing, day and night, the whole armor of God.
Enemies of the Church saw Christians as being unfaithful to the emperor, or to their Jewish roots, threatening the peace of Rome, which one day they might try to overturn. But the Christians earned a reputation of good citizenry: tax payers, honest business people, peace keepers. St. Paul’s warlike passage here in Ephesians takes care to specify that our war is not against flesh and blood, not against the governmental system, nor against other citizens. It’s the devil that is our enemy. Principalities, powers, rulers of darkness, spiritual wickedness and high places: those are where our enemies lurk. What are those? Fallen angels, mostly. Spirits inhabiting ruthless people plotting against God’s people and purposes. Territories ruled by evil. Lies and deceptions. Cruelty, oppression, perversion, and a malignant desire to control, silence and drive off the pure Christian faith from the world.
Examining Paul’s armor and what it means helps to see where the enemy is and what he’s about. First and foremost, there’s Truth. It’s worn at our waist, holding up our pants or skirts, keeping us from tripping and falling. Truth comes against lies. Great lies are told about many things and come from pinnacles and towers of influence. We’ve heard of Big Tech and its attempts to silence any voice or word that they don’t approve of, permitting only one narrative. We’ve allowed them to be our only channels of information – too much power. And how do we know truth from lies? Good question. How do we know? I heard a suggestion this week. When there is bad speech, the cure is more speech, more truth, freedom of speech: not censorship.
A breastplate of righteousness is worn to save our hearts from spears. Righteousness is whatever God’s will is. Right from wrong. It’s different from truth; this is applied truth. It’s wisdom, how to apply what we know is true by doing what is right. When we act in righteousness, our hearts stay strong and healthy. When we betray goodness, and therefore deny God, our hearts ache and grow weak. The breastplate is essential to keep us in the battle.
Feet shod for the Gospel has a tricky meaning. Our testimony is telling what God’s done in my life for others to hear. It’s the second way the saints in Revelation overcome the great dragon: the blood of Jesus, the word of their testimony, and not loving their lives more than God, even in the face of death. We are told to be quiet and not to offend people in sharing our faith. We have to lovingly reject that admonition and speak out in love when we can. If you really believe in Jesus, He’s the most important thing in the world. When we don’t speak, don’t tell the story, because we’re cowed into silence, we give up ground. Standing is important to Paul, and our stand comes down to where our feet are planted on the ground we are given, so let our ground be rooted by our testimony. We know why we’re Christians. It’s no secret.
On our arm is borne a shield. These were once made of everything from wood to leather to steel. Incoming arrows threatened a soldier from 100 yards off, so his shield was important, as was the shield of his neighbor. They could interlock shields with fellow soldiers and make a wall against archer attacks. This shield is your faith: what you believe and know of Christ. The arrows are lies against the Gospel, our doctrine, the Church. Many modern teachings siphon the power from our faith by claiming great scholarship, but are merely bearers of bad news to discourage simple believers. Faith is our protection from these liars. Their arrows are aflame, which ought to tell us of their origin.
Upon our soldier’s head a helmet is worn, protecting brains and senses of sight and hearing. It’s salvation that keeps us sane. Salvation is a medical term. It means health, and in the faith, we live this life with healed minds and keen perceptions, so that we live on past death to a new world of complete health and everlasting life. Knowing this, that Christ promises mansions and banquets and angels serving our needs, and a rest from this life’s conflicts, can keep our minds clear when the lies rain down blows on us in the fray where we could get confused.
Finally, in our strong hand we hold one offensive weapon. A sword has long been a symbol of power, truth, hope and rulership even beyond its use in battle. Your hand can, in fierce battle, be welded to the grip of your sword. Our sword is not of steel, but of the Spirit of God, as well as the Word of God: Christ and the Holy Comforter living in us and giving us victory beyond all hope against our enemies. These are literally God’s life lived in us, and they identify our enemy as His enemy, the Beast, the antichrist, the great dragon, the devil, Lucifer, Satan, and all his minions. Not other people. Other people may be slaves ruled by his threats and lies. Our dealings with them could be setting them free, praying for them, giving them hope, showing them there is a way out. We war not against flesh and blood. Our sword is God’s Spirit and His Word, often wrapped in words from the Scriptures, and the sword comes against the manifestations of our well-known enemy.
So, our soldier is armored with the armor of God. This armor, as told openly in other Epistles, is the Lord Christ Himself. We are to put Him on. We enter Him and His presence is in our lives – His truth, righteousness, witness, faith, salvation, Spirit and Word – withstand the negative issues in our lives that seek to take us out, kill in us the love we have for our great God. The armor is mostly defensive, partly offensive. And we are to find and defeat the enemy right where we are.
Christians can often feel useless because we’re not missionaries, traveling the world to bring the light of the Gospel to foreign parts. Certainly, a couple hundred years ago, Anglican missionaries went throughout the British Empire with Prayer Book and Bible in hand, setting out the goodness of God in Christ to many people of many lands and races. They came without guns or swords and built churches in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. We might feel inferior to them.
But every Christian has a mission field. God knows America needs Jesus Christ again, in full measure, in truth, as a cure to the many things that war against our land and its people. The ground under us has to be claimed and defended right where we are. This battle is not in malice or violence, but it’s taking a stand, stating who you are and what you know is true. Moral and mental certainty are called horrible things today. Speaking out at a school board meeting is called terrorism. For over a year, churches were called nonessential, and were forbidden to sing, if allowed to meet in small groups at all. I don’t think I’m imagining that war is being waged. Don’t be distracted by politics; that’s incidental. It’s just names. Speaking of names, I just had to look up the term ‘cisgender.’ This new term means you think you’re the gender you were born with. It sounds like a condition that maybe you need to see a professional about. You can’t make this stuff up.
Truth is not the possession of any party. We’re in a war of the spirit. We need to separate the noise from what really threatens us, our way of life, our faith, the salvation of our children. The spirits of the underworld are fully after our children. They are leading a charge and taking human hostages and setting the Church on the sidelines. You don’t need to go to Bolivia to find your battle. Right where you are: stand, speak the truth and love even your enemies. Always wear your armor and you will win.