“The Whole Armor of God” Colchester Federated Church, August 26, 2018, (Ephesians 6:10-20) Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today is the final Sunday we’re contemplating the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians in this lectionary cycle.  We’ve talked about God blessing the church and adopting us as God’s own, being one in Christ no matter our differences, how to deal with anger and conflict that inevitably comes up in community, and what it means to live wisely.  Today we’ll finish up with the light topic of spiritual battles.  Remember that if this letter was written by Paul—it was most likely written while he was in prison in Rome.  So he knows what he’s talking about here when he encourages Christians to keep fighting the good fight no matter what they may be facing in their own lives or in the world.

Paul writes: “Put on the whole armor of God” and then gets specific: “fasten the belt of truth, put on the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace, take the shield of faith, take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[1]

Lest we think this is literally militaristic, Paul is using a military metaphor of armor to talk about the spiritual battles that we sometimes wage.  The belt is the belt of truth.  The breastplate is the breastplate of righteousness.  The shoes are to proclaim the gospel of peace.  The shield is the shield of faith.  The helmet is the helmet of salvation.  The sword is the sword of the Spirit and that is the word of God.  So Paul is talking about arming ourselves with truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God.  Not physical weapons to fight off our enemies whoever they may be.  But spiritual armor to protect ourselves from dangerous forces in the world.  There is evil in the world whether we think of evil as the devil or forces of evil or injustice or whatever.  And Paul is trying to give those Christians in Ephesus a pep talk as he himself is in prison for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let’s think about what armor is for—it’s for protection, right?  Paul wants us to put on the whole armor of God for our own spiritual battles.  It’s interesting to think about this concept of the whole armor of God.  Sometimes it seems that we harden as we get older or after we go through something in our lives that is painful or even traumatic.  It’s understandable because we want to protect ourselves.  We put on armor.  We learn to protect ourselves because people are not always nice to say the least.  Self-preservation wins out.  We don’t go through the world too naively open or we’ll just end up getting hurt all the time.

But does our inevitable armor that we understandably put on serve to protect us in positive ways, or does it serve to actually stifle growth or exploration or risk taking?  Does our armor ultimately arm us with truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God or not?

These questions remind me of part of a poem from Iain S. Thomas that is so wise. He writes: “Be soft.  Do not let the world make you hard.  Do not let pain make you hate.  Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.  Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

It’s a great poem because people often use the word “soft” as an insult.  Though the true challenge is to be soft and not let the world harden us.  To not let pain make us hate or bitterness steal our sweetness.  To take pride that we still believe the world to be a beautiful place even if everyone else disagrees.  The spiritual armor that Paul instructs us to put on isn’t about shielding us from the pain and heartache of the world or shielding us from the beauty of the world.  The armor is meant to strengthen us for the journey that isn’t always easy.  And the whole armor of God isn’t meant to shield us from all our neighbors who Jesus calls us to see and love.

Turning to the world of sports for a moment, we can contemplate how the word “soft” is used and how the whole armor of God enables us to reach out to others.  People may say “that guy is so soft.”  It’s never a compliment.  For instance, this week there was a lengthy ESPN article about the state of mental health in the NBA.  One of the main players featured was Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Love who has become a spokesman for good mental health in the NBA.  Because this year Kevin Love shared openly for the first time that he struggles with anxiety and has a family history of depression.  During a game in Atlanta, he left the court quickly and no one knew what happened, including his own teammates.  Love made his way back to the visiting team’s locker room because he was having a panic attack in the middle of that basketball game and was eventually taken to the hospital because it felt like he was having a heart attack.

Now before it was public that Kevin Love suffers from anxiety (he wasn’t even comfortable telling his own teammates for years) what did everyone label him as?  Soft.  Some people still may label him as “soft” even knowing that he has anxiety because mental illnesses are stigmatized.  So when he wrote an article to publicly share his mental health struggles, Kevin Love entitled it “Everyone Is Going Through Something.”[2]  Wise words from a famous professional athlete and life-changing words for some people to hear him share so publicly.

For Kevin Love and other NBA players, a process has begun of taking unhealthy armor off.  Because their armor wasn’t protecting them for spiritual battles that we all may face at some point in our lives.  It was preventing them from getting necessary help.  Too many people suffer in silence when it comes to mental illnesses.  Men in particular get ridiculed for being perceived as “soft.”  And what does that do to one’s mental health?  Let alone spiritual and emotional and physical health?

When Paul advises the Christian community to put on the whole armor of God, we can really think about what this metaphor means.  It’s not meant to be literally militaristic because Paul writes “for our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[3]  So we’re not talking about putting on armor and getting our swords ready to battle some enemy that we’re facing in armed combat.  We’re also not talking about putting on armor that means we’re never vulnerable or getting help when we need help.

The armor of God is to help us face spiritual battles in our own lives.  Because we are all going through something.  When we are out in the world our spiritual armor isn’t meant to keep people from helping us when we need help.  In fact, that shield of faith may enable us to have the courage to be open in ways we wouldn’t be otherwise.

All of this makes me think about the book and movie Wonder.  It tells the story of August Pullman who was born with facial deformities that required many painful surgeries as a child and left him with scars and a face that looks different from other peoples’ faces.  All of these medical procedures prevented him from going to school until he and his family decide that for 5th grade Auggie will go to a school like other children his age.  The story is about compassion and acceptance for people who are different.

And one of the major symbols throughout the movie is Auggie’s astronaut helmet.  He wears a helmet around when he’s feeling particularly uncomfortable because it has a visor that completely shields his face from the outside world so that no one can stare at him and see his face.  The helmet is basically his security blanket and helps him block out the world when it feels too overwhelming, when the stares become too much.  Though over time, Auggie realizes that his helmet doesn’t let people in.  And that it can be really scary to let people see behind whatever helmets we may put on our faces to keep people out.  But we can’t truly be seen and understood without some level of vulnerability.  No matter who we are or where we come from or how we look in Auggie’s case.  The astronaut helmet eventually becomes used less and less over time as Auggie realizes that there’s no point in trying to blend in and look and act like everyone else when he was born to stand out anyway.

It ends up that our spiritual armor isn’t meant to keep everyone away from us for our own perceived protection.  Our spiritual armor is meant to strengthen us for the journey, for the inevitable adversity that we all face.  The belt is the belt of truth.  The breastplate is the breastplate of righteousness.  The shoes are to proclaim the gospel of peace.  The shield is the shield of faith.  The helmet is the helmet of salvation.  The sword is the sword of the Spirit and that is the word of God.   Putting on the whole armor of God gives us the strength to be ourselves, to be the people God created us to be, the people that God is calling us to become.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Ephesians 6:10 and 14-17, NRSV.
[2] Jackie MacMullan, “The courageous fight to fix the NBA’s mental health problem,” August 20, 2018, http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/24382693/jackie-macmullan-kevin-love-paul-pierce-state-mental-health-nba
[3] Ephesians 6:12.