Friday, August 28, 2009

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon 8/23/09, Ephesians 6:10-20

Dressed for Success

I have to admit to you that when I first read our passage from Ephesians, when I first skim this text again after not having considered it for some time, my first response is always a bit of a cringe of dislike. This is the closing passage of Paul’s letter to the community of Ephesus, the last chuck of major teaching for this new community of faith before he signs off with some personal words and a benediction. And here we find a sort-of “dress code” for the Christian believer. The imagery is vivid, certainly, painting bold pictures as we hear and read about putting on the whole armor of God. We read, “Put on the whole armor of God . . . our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic power of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Paul then continues by describing six pieces of this armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to proclaim peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. These pieces of armor, donned by the Christian believer, are to guard against evil, and provide strength.

I cringe at this passage because I struggle with such an image of a Christian warrior. For example, we as Christians in the United States don’t feel the same kind of threats against our faith that the early Church felt. Whatever we might feel about the place of Christianity in the US, we are not persecuted in a way that compares with that of the early church, not threatened systematically, not martyred and tortured if we won’t renounce our faith in Jesus. Do we need these warrior images? And, in the midst of all that is happening in the world today, with civil war in regions of Africa, with men and women from this country serving in the military, stationed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where lives of the military and civilians alike are at risk, where whole nations are indeed caught up in a time of chaos and disarray, what are we to make of an image of a Christian warrior, dressed in God’s armor?

If anything, it seems we as the church have been trying to move away from such image, trying to disassociate ourselves from images like this one that unfortunately have described us all too aptly in the past. True, the earliest Christians had to worry about persecution by the Romans and other groups, but once Christianity started to spread, Christians were too often the perpetrators of violence and war against non-Christians. Is this what is meant in this letter to the Ephesians? I wonder, what kind of warriors are we meant to be?

So what is Paul saying in this passage from Ephesians? Let’s return to the text and listen closely to the words. We read, “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Actually, after reading these words more closely, when we dig into them, it sounds like Paul here is actually offering a counter-image of a warrior to us, the readers. This is no regular warrior described. This warrior carries no harmful weapons, has no deadly equipment. This suit of armor is one that is equipped for proclaiming the gospel of peace. This is a different kind of warrior – not one who seeks to conquer or who seeks victory, but one who seeks to spread God’s word, the word of peace, love and grace. What Paul does here completely subverts our normal concepts of a warrior’s armor, and creates for us a whole new understanding of what it means to be dedicated to serving Christ, providing a sort-of instruction manual for us: as people of faith, we clothe ourselves in truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Spirit and Word.

In Paul’s day, people would have been very familiar with the image of a soldier. The Jews and these early Christians lived under Roman military rule. I wonder if they, too, would start to read Paul’s words and wonder at what kind of armor he was encouraging them to don. Was Paul going to urge them to fight back against occupation? Seek revenge? Many would have wanted to. But instead, Paul is reminding them that their biggest struggles were not about dealing with these “enemies of blood and flesh,” not about dealing with the Romans, or those who ridiculed their beliefs, or even those who would commit violence against them. Their biggest struggle would be against the forces and powers of darkness, anything that acted to put a wedge between them and God. Paul wanted them to equip themselves carefully, dress themselves carefully, so that they were prepared for the spiritual challenges they would face. So that meant dressing themselves with truth, peace, and faith, rather than with armor, shields, and weapons.

So what can this mean for us – for 21st century Christians, living here in Central New York. What are the threats that we’re facing? What’s our equivalent struggle today to the “rulers,” the “authorities,” and the “cosmic powers of this present darkness?” As I read Paul, I see him as trying to turn our attention from the outer struggle to the inner struggle, from worrying about equipping ourselves for living in the world, to worrying about equipping ourselves for living as disciples in God’s world. If we’re worried about the outer struggle, equipping ourselves, preparing ourselves for a world that’s business-as-usual, we’ll find ourselves focused on different things than Paul has in mind. We’ll be protecting ourselves with possession, money, and anything that seems like it brings us security and safety. We’ll be focused on getting ahead, even if it means someone else is falling behind. We’ll be looking out for self first instead of neighbor. And we’ll be accepting the false promises of happiness from things other than God, things that really leave us empty, because those things are sometimes easier than the path of discipleship that God calls us down. But Paul has a different vision of what it means to be equipped – equipped for the inner struggle, the spiritual struggle. How can we equip ourselves for that?

To me, making disciples, calling disciples, encouraging people to begin a path of discipleship, a journey of following Jesus, is, of course, our primary work as a community of faith. We’re here to make disciples – that’s the mission God calls us to. But in order to be disciples, and especially in order to grow as disciples – which is, actually, just a word that means students – so to grow in knowledge as students of Jesus our teacher, we have to be equipped. We have to take advantage of the tools that we have to be able to be the best students we can be.

How, then, do we seek equip ourselves with truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s presence in word and Spirit? My hope is that this congregation will make efforts to help people, to offer opportunities, for equipping disciples. This can happen in so many different ways. We worship through words and songs and prayers and more, praising God and being equipped with truth and salvation. If you need to equip yourself with faith and God’s word, I hope that you will commit to participating in a study or small group – we already have some active groups, and I will be leading some new studies this fall. We have Sunday School, and are investing in a youth program, and sponsor our children for camping programs because we are in the ministry of equipping them too – they are disciples, students of Jesus. If you need to be equipped for peace and justice, there are an abundance of ways that you can push yourself, stretch yourself, to engage in service here, in the community, and in our global neighborhood, and there are resources from two denominations just waiting for us to take advantage of.

The point is this – we know we’re called to be disciples. But sometimes we forget that God puts right in our reach so many tools to help us prepare for being workers in God’s kingdom. If we’re seeking to grow in our faith, we need to make sure we’re ready, prepared, equipped, trained. My challenge to you in the coming months is that you find at least one new way that you can equip yourself for discipleship. Paul certainly followed his own advice, and made it his life’s work to seek after the very truth and peace and justice and faith he speaks of in this passage, and so equipped, he was able to share the good news of God’s grace and love with boldness, just as he prayed he would be able today.

That’s my prayer for us too – I pray that we can be a bold congregation, bold in sharing the gospel of peace, the mystery of God’s unfailing, life-changing love for us. Let’s prepare ourselves well for the task. Amen.

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