In our passage from Ephesians this morning, Paul implores us to “put on the whole armor of God”: belt, breastplate, boots, helmet, shield, and sword. For us, obviously, armor is an antiquated means of martial defense. The only time we see armor is in old castles or when we watch movies about medieval knights. (Although Batman’s suit is very much like armor in “The Dark Knight Rises”. I guess that’s why he’s a knight.)
But the imagery would have been immediately relevant for Paul. It’s interesting that all the armor, though martial, is there for protection. It’s there for defense, not offense: the breastplate protects the torso and the vital organs, the helmet the head, the shield provides shelter from incoming dangers, the boots or shoes there to advance “peace” not war.
There is no lance to go on the offensive. There is no mace or flail to wreak destruction. The sword is the only piece of the armor that could be used offensively, but even the sword is used to parry and repel an enemy’s advance. And, these means of defense are anything but threatening: belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, gospel of peace, and helmet of salvation.
It is important to realize that Paul is not conjuring an image of a holy army, crusader style, marching off to conquer and subdue the world in the name of Christ. This is no iron clad moral majority. Instead, he recognizes that just getting out of bed in the morning poses it’s own challenges in “this present darkness” and he wants believers to find their protection in God.
Although armor may be anachronistic, what is still immediate and relevant for us today is our need for protection in this present darkness. As we sing in Luther’s enduring hymn, “for still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe. His craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.” We all need protection of some kind in this world.
Now, we may or may not we buy into the maligning presence of “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”, as we say in our prayer book baptismal service. But unless you are a Christian Scientist and believe that sin, sickness, and evil are illusions that don’t actually exist, then you will be on board with the fact that life, while good and beautiful, is also fraught with occasions for hurt and suffering.
Our big earthquake happened a year ago at this time. Apparently, it was the most widely felt earthquake in our country’s history. Who knew that sleepy and bucolic Louisa, Virginia was epicenter central? In the same way, our lives are filled with fault lines, which may or may not be evident on the surface. Then one day, our ground shakes, things fall apart and “the center cannot hold.” Would that we had on the whole armor of God on that day. We need some sort of protection in this world.
One of the obvious ways we try to protect ourselves is with money. If we have enough, then maybe we can be enough. Maybe you’ve heard the story of the man who came to a catholic priest and said, “Father, my beloved dog, Fido, has just died. Will you please say a burial mass for him?” The priest was indignant. “My son, we do NOT do burial masses for animals! We are not running a circus here! You will just have to go down the street to another church to have Fido buried.”
The man was crestfallen. He said, “I’m sorry to hear that. I loved my dog very, very much and was prepared to give a million dollar donation in his honor.” As the man turned to walk away, the priest cried out, “Wait, my son! You never told me that Fido was a catholic!”
We all need money, no doubt, and not having enough does leave one vulnerable. And yet, as the economy attests, money is not foolproof protection against suffering. There are myriad means of attempting to protect ourselves, but now I’d like to focus on another, more internal way.
In his book, Abba’s Child, the great writer and preacher Brennan Manning says that one of the main ways that Satan (who is called the “father of lies” in scripture) hurts us is by telling us lies about ourselves. Voices in our head that tell us we are not lovable, or that who we are or what we have done is not forgivable. God’s grace really doesn’t and can’t apply to us.
In last week’s sermon I said that humility is foundational. Yet, many people just feel worthless, inferior, inadequate – which has nothing to do with true humility.
A man once came to the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung for help with his depression. Jung told the man to reduce his 14-hour workday to 8 hours and spend the rest of his time by himself, quiet and alone. The man then went to his study each night and read Herman Hesse and listened to Mozart. When he didn’t improve he went back to Jung and told him. Jung said, ‘You don’t understand. I don’t want you to be with Hesse or Mozart. I want you to be completely alone.” The man looked terrified and cried out, “But, Dr. Jung! I can’t think of any worse company!”
Manning says that in his experience as a priest and pastor, “self-hatred is the dominant malaise crippling Christians.” Perhaps self -hatred is too strong a description for you, although you would be alarmed at how many people cut themselves. I would also hazard a guess that this is what is behind the wild popularity of 50 Shades of Grey. While the majority of us (I think?) do not intentionally harm ourselves or resort to sadomasochistic affairs, we do develop other ways to deal with our sense of worthlessness.
Manning says that we develop an imposter, an identity that forms to protect ourselves from the pain of the world. He writes, “When I was 8, this imposter, or false self, was born as a protection against pain. The imposter within whispered, ‘Brennan, don’t ever be your real self anymore, because nobody likes you as you are. Invent a new self that everybody will admire and nobody will know.’”
A friend is going through a divorce right now. She felt unloved by her husband and has erected a massive wall against him for protection. In the process she has walled everyone and everything else out and trapped her emotions inside. She may be protected, but she is protected against all that is real and good. She is protected against any intimate relationship, including intimate relationship with God.
This is not a new or unique insight, of course. Even Badfinger, the 70’s rock band, sings, “Knock down the old gray wall and be a part of it all.” Brennan Manning’s insight is that instead of hating our imposter, we should thank him or her for the ways it he or she has offered us protection. But when we are given a real means of protection – as we are this morning in the whole armor of God – it is time to send the imposter away. Knock down the old gray wall and be a part of it all.
Given the world, the flesh, and the devil, I think this is only possible when we have a true and safe refuge. And there is no one truer or safer than God himself. There are other metaphors in scripture akin to the armor of God: be clothed in Christ, put on Christ, we are hidden in Christ. The psalmist says, “I will say to the Lord, my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.” In Him is truth and righteousness and peace and salvation.
This does not mean, of course, that we will not experience pain or hurt. But it does mean that God is there in every pain and every hurt, all the while taking that hurt and taking that pain and using it for good. God is in the fault line. It does mean that in the end everything will be O.K. for us.
Everything will be O.K. for us because it was not O.K. for Him. Jesus Christ had no armor on the cross. He was not hidden from the scourge or the nail. He had no imposter to protect Him. Surely one of the reasons He died for us is to show us how much God loves us as we actually are.
He has taken away our sin. He who knew no sin became sin for our sake so we might become the righteousness of God. And, when God sees us as we actually are, He can think of no better company. Amen.
- Ephesians 6:10 - 20