Text: Ephesians 6.10-20
Have you noticed that over that last few weeks, the Lectionary keeps bringing us back steadfastly to the Gospel of John’s discourses, by Jesus, on the meaning of his flesh, his body, his bread? It’s a quirk of the Lectionary that once in three years, these important passages (each with their own distinctive flavour) are drummed into our heads, week after week.
We have now heard sermons on the topic of Jesus’ bread and body from a wide range of thinkers, including Bishop John, the Rev'd Judy and of course my pride and joy, Emily Ashworth. I am tempted to add my distinctive vision of these passages to theirs, with yet another sermon on the topic this week – but I fear that some of you might walk out with a cry of ‘Not bread again!’).
There has, however, been another theme bubbling in the background of our lives in this past week, hasn’t there? With the chaotic exodus of Western forces from Afghanistan, many of us have found our minds drawn to the plight, and the lot, of the common soldier. How many lives, we wonder, have been spent, or shattered by injury, for such apparently little gain? And how must the families of such servicemen and women feel?
I cannot help but notice the irony that whilst soldiers have been so much in the news this week, the Lectionary places before us Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – and especially his powerful analogy of the Armour of God. So that is where I too will focus, this morning.
In this famous passage, Paul encourages the Christians in Ephesus to stand strong in the Lord, against all the wiles of the Devil, by dressing themselves in the metaphorical armour of God. Let us set aside for a moment any debates about the reality versus the metaphor of the Devil. Paul’s argument, which we cannot deny from our own observations, is that there are forces of evil abroad in the world. Such evil, found among many rulers and authorities, results in corruption of the political class, on a worldwide scale. Such evil breeds terrorism and warfare, from which the wealthy benefit while the poor die in ditches. Such evil breeds poverty, so that substandard homes collapse in Haiti, or billions go without a vaccine while we bask in our medical triumph.
Paul teaches his followers that the only defence against such evil is the whole armour of God. ‘Stand therefore, with the belt of Truth fastened around your waist’. This is the first of Paul’s arsenal against the wiles of the Devil. He want us to be open-eyed about the lies that we get told. He wants us to prioritise Truth over lies. But what kind of lies would Paul have had in mind, in his context, and in his time. What, for Paul and for us, is not True about the world in which we live?
Well, for a start, it is simply NOT TRUE that warfare is the only way to solve conflict. Might is not always right, either, whatever the Roman authorities believed. ‘Come’, says the Bible, ‘Let us reason together’. And later in the same book of Isaiah, we are offered the promise of swords being turned into ploughshares. In Paul’s time it was Rome which dominated the world, using military might and superior numbers to conquer and subdue. But history tells us that the Roman project was not destined to last. And neither will any Empire which uses violence as its means of control. Rome's militarism was also the cause of its downfall.
It is simply NOT TRUE, either, that the possession of great wealth will bring you happiness. One only has to observe the shattered marriages of our internet billionaires, or the substance addiction of a thousand Hollywood actors and London stock-market brokers, to know that true happiness is not found in owning stuff. The Truth to which Paul refers is that we need to store our Treasure in heaven. It’s the treasure of good deeds, of sacrificial lives, and of living simply. We can store those treasures in Heaven, the realm of God, where there is neither rust nor moth, and where no thief can break in, to steal.
The lies of Military Might and Accumulating Wealth are but two of the lies we tell ourselves, and against which we must fasten about our waists the belt of truth. But there are many more. Our task is to sift the information we receive. We need to be wise, and not fall for the lies we are told on a daily basis by the powerful, (and I would say evil) forces at work in our lives. Refugees are NOT coming to steal our jobs – they are fleeing for their lives. Poor people are NOT just unlucky – the systems of the world keep them poor. Black lives are NOT less valuable than white lives. Differently gendered people are NO less precious than straight ones. And the Vaccine is NOT an attempt to re-write our DNA or inject us with microchips and the mark of the beast!
So that’s the first of the arsenal of weapons in the Armour of God - Truth. Without it, and a continuous quest for it, we are truly lost. But there are many other weapons in the arsenal – ranging from the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation. But there isn’t time to explore them all! Let me instead encourage you to think about them all, for yourselves. When you get home (or if you are already at home, online), open your Bible to Ephesians 6 (or take today’s service sheet home with you) and ponder for yourself what each of these weapons mean, for us, today. By all means debate them with me online, via Facebook or email. I’d love to know what you think each one means.
My brothers and sisters, our world is in a mess. The seas are rising as the forests burn. New viruses are rampant, and the population is exploding. War is still the default method of solving our differences, and the wealthy 1% are growing richer and richer. Never before, in human history, was the Body of Christ more needed than it is right now. Never before was there a more urgent need for us to graft ourselves onto the Vine of God. Never before was the whole armour of God more needed – truth, righteousness, the Gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the Spirit of God. These are the only remedy for the burning, dying world in which we live. Let us then, with Paul, ‘make known the mystery of the gospel’. Pray that we, with Paul, may ‘declare it boldly, as we must speak’.