Sermon of the Week
No Insignificant Question: The Whole Armor of God; Let All You Do be Done in Love.
Keywords: The Whole Armor of God, Ephesians, Do Everything in Love, Adrenaline, Aggressive Society, Joyful Faith.
Adrenaline, or epinephrine, is a hormone that kicks in
during times of excitement or stress or danger.[i]
Biologically, it triggers the so-called “fight or flight response,”
meaning that there’s some danger, some issue, some problem
and you either need to dive right in RIGHT NOW,
or you need to run and find a safe place, THIS VERY SECOND.
The hormone causes air passages to dilate
so that extra oxygen is sent to muscles,
and also it prompts blood vessels to contract
prioritizing and re-directing blood toward major muscle groups
including the heart and lungs.
Your pain sensation goes down a bit,
which is why you can continue running from
or fighting danger even when injured.
There’s a notable increase in strength and performance,
as well as heightened awareness, during stressful times.
The effects of adrenaline can last about an hour.
We were talking about that this week
at the Prairie Village Citizen’s Police Academy.
Our town’s police department
offers the academy as an opportunity
to learn more about the work of a police department.
We’ll get the chance to test out the radar equipment in traffic vehicles,
hear from the county attorney about the criminal code and police activity,
talk about communications, ethical vehicle stops,
even chat with the animal control team.
This week we talked a bit about the patrol officer,
what’s in their car,
what they go through on a shift.
The highlight of the evening was when they explained how stop sticks work
which are these super light tubes that the officers keep in the back of their car
and, if there’s some car that is going fast that they need to stop,
they can toss the tubes across a street and hope the car drives over them
at which point the tires puncture and gradually lose air pressure
and the car comes to a stop.
We got to sit in the patrol car, turn on the lights, run to the back
and try to get the sticks out and safely on the road
in the allotted 20 seconds. Not very easy.
I was amazed with what the adrenaline was like,
even in a comical little simulation like that
where 10 civilians try to do this task
that would be much more anxiety provoking in a real-world moment
by a person regularly trained to do it,
and multiply that by all the other tasks that we ask our officers to do
patrol our streets
respond to mental illness and domestic disturbance calls
build relationships with community.
It’s a lot.
One of the things that they say makes them feel equipped and prepared for that work
is the fact that the department supplies all their equipment.
As they put it, all we have to have is underwear and a t-shirt.
Not every department, apparently, does that.
They get their uniform, shoes, even a form-fitted ballistic vest
which they have to wear under their shirt.
Having a department care about their safety,
provide them the tools they need to do their work,
and keep them clean, maintained, and functional,
makes a big difference.
It is a little thing in the grand scheme of things,
but it alleviates a bit of the built in stress of their work
helps them be a bit calmer
which helps them do their job, make good choices,
keep those moments of adrenaline management at bay.
We’ve reached the end of this sermon series
exploring topics and themes and questions posed by you
by members and friends of The Kirk.
We’ve covered a lot of terrain.
We looked at the Book of Revelation,
talked about Pets and their relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
searched for peace,
and, last week, talked about how the church stands with Jesus
in this political climate,
and invites all those who love Jesus to do the same
for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
Eight significant questions.
Thank you for suggesting these topics for our reflection,
and for all the other topics that we didn’t have time to get into as well.
This final topic in our sermon series is a combination of two suggestions.
The first is this passage from Ephesians, in which the Pauline author
encourages believers to, as he puts it, put on the whole armor of God.
The letter we call Ephesians is a bit of an enigma, wrapped in a mystery.
It claims to be written by the apostle Paul,
but most scholars say it was written by someone influenced by Paul,
maybe twenty or thirty years after him.
The church was in a very different place, at that time.
Paul thought Jesus would be returning soon,
but he hadn’t come back yet,
and so the church was beginning to put down roots and build structures
that would enable it to spread the Gospel and do the work of Christ
in an increasingly difficult context.
Followers of Jesus started to experience significant persecution
by the Roman Empire,
but even so, the community spread,
starting in the places where Paul and the other apostles founded communities
and then across Asia-minor and the Greek city states and throughout Judea.
Those first hundred or two hundred years or so were tough,
during this Roman persecution,
with faithful people arrested and tried and punished and, in some cases, killed
because of their affirmation that Jesus is Lord.
The Emperor didn’t like that. He wanted to be called Lord.
So, by the time that the author of Ephesians was writing,
maybe close to the time that the book of Revelation was written,[ii]
there was a sense of chaos, a sense of persecution,
a sense of the world falling apart around them.
To these faithful people, Ephesians seeks to encourage them
to find faithful ways of going out and doing the work of Jesus Christ.
He encourages them not to make too many waves,
and to take comfort in knowing that the faith they follow is important.
Like Revelation, the struggle is put in cosmic terms, as Ephesians puts it,
with the “rulers, the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness”
what the author calls the forces of evil.
I don’t really know what specifically he was talking about.
That is lost to history.
But we know that these persecutions were real and difficult and disruptive.
And it is in this context that Ephesians talks about putting on the whole armor of God.
It is a strikingly military image, maybe, for the scriptures,
and the author mentions six different items:
Stand, therefore, he says, meaning don’t step away from this world, these struggles.
Stand, therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist.
That’s the first piece: the belt of truth.
Then put on the breastplate of righteousness.
As shoes, put on “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
So shoes of the gospel of peace.
There’s a shield, of faith.
Which is pretty cool, since it stops flaming arrows.
And a helmet of salvation.
Finally, there’s a sword. The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Put these on, says the author of Ephesians.
And pray, keep alert,
and persevere in keeping the holy people of the community in mind.
One thing that is kind of interesting,
is how these six items—belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, sword—
are exactly the items that the roman army would give their soldiers.
It is the boilerplate Roman Soldier uniform,
kind of their version of what the Prairie Village Police Department
assigns to their officers.
But two things about this list in Ephesians:
With the exception of the sword (more on that in a moment),
they’re all defensive items.[iii]
And they’re all symbols, metaphors for the values and practices
that make up our faith:
the belt of truth—Jesus came to champion truthful speech, speaking truth to power,
rejecting efforts to slander or obfuscate or gaslight.
At Jesus’ trial, Pilate was incredulous about this, and asked him flat out
“Yeah, but what is truth.”
And Jesus was willing to die for it.
That belt of truth, says Ephesians, holds everything up,
like a good belt does, right?
Truth is vitally important. Because, as Jesus said
“If you continue in my word…you will know the truth.
And the truth will make you free.”
Then there’s that breastplate,
the roman version of the ballistic vest.
It was meant to deflect against knives and swords.
But in this world of spiritual and societal conflict, says Ephesians
put on the breastplate of righteousness, or justice, as some versions translate it.
Standing for justice, for righteousness, will serve as your protection.
Something similar, perhaps, for the helmet,
here the helmet of salvation,
knowing, in your heart and in your head,
that you are safe in God’s hands,
that your eternal life is secure, because God will make it so.
Unlike the other pieces of armor,
these two have a history in the Hebrew Bible.
In Isaiah, there’s a discussion about how God was distressed
about a community that didn’t practice righteousness, or justice.
The vulnerable, the hurting, the poor, the hungry,
they were being taken advantage of, in Isaiah.
So God, seeing how no one is going to intervene on their behalf,
God is said to don “righteousness as a breastplate” and “a helmet of salvation”
along with a few other items not listed here, like a cloak of zeal.
Cloaks are always fantastic.
Reminds me of Harry Potter,
where a Cloak of Invisibility was essential for Harry and friends to save the day.
Unfortunately, Ephesians didn’t add a cloak.
Probably because it wasn’t part of the Roman Soldier’s standard uniform,
but it is helpful to make clear
that these two: the breastplate and the helmet
tie us back to the prophet Isaiah.
Back then, in Isaiah, God took charge to seek to make things right
for the vulnerable and the hurting.
Now, after the life and ministry of Jesus,
that is our work, the work of the church.
So WE put on that breastplate and that helmet
pursuing justice in the world as the hands and feet of God.
Then there are the shoes.
What kind of shoes.
Reebok? New Balance? Ecco? Birks? Chucks?
Doesn’t matter. Any shoes will do.
Just choose the ones that will help you proclaim the good news,
which is what that word Gospel means.
The good news.
And not just any good news. The good news of peace. God’s peace.
The peace of the peaceable kingdom of God.
Next is that shield of faith, one that can stop flaming arrows.
Pretty nifty trick.
But faith, pistis, the one in whom we put our ultimate trust,
faith in God is a shield of sorts.
It reminds us that God is the one ultimately who’s got all of this
that God’s promises will stand
that God’s love and care for us is unconditional and unbending.
For the arrows of doubt or despair or hopelessness or self-rejection
this faith can be quite a shield indeed. Faith reminds us that God’s our protector.
All five of those are defensive implements, meant to give us good protection
in that rough and tumble world out there.
And good equipment, properly maintained, generously given,
can help alleviate anxiety, reduce our susceptibility to fits of adrenaline,
and keep us going in a steady, confident way.
Because I will tell you,
there are days that feel a lot like I need all of those things.
The last few years have felt like we have, collectively,
been subject to societal adrenaline.
And through it all,
again and again I’ve gone back to these important foundational teachings of our faith
to help remind me about why we follow Jesus:
to affirm that love is more powerful than hate,
that death is not the final word,
that there is something bigger than us worth striving for,
that sharing of what we have and what we are with one another
brings salvation and healing to the world.
Belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet.
Truth, Righteousness, gospel of peace, faith, salvation.
Then there’s the last one, the sword,
maybe the only offensive weapon of the uniform
but not always so. A sturdy sword is essential in defensive combat.
Game of Thrones or The Princess Bride taught us all that.
The sword is the sword of the Spirit, the helper,
the one who blows through the world and shakes things up
and makes all things new,
that spirit is the very Word of God.
The Word that was at the very beginning, making and creating
like an artist joyfully sculpting a world.
The Word is there at the end,
the alpha and the omega, from A to Z,
when there is a tree planted near the river running through the city
a tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations,
as we learned from Landon’s sermon on the Book of Revelation last month.
We sometimes forget
that the bible starts with the joyful creation
and ends with the image of the redemption and healing of the whole world.
This is a helpful place to explain why
we need to connect this encouragement in Ephesians,
to put on the whole armor of God, all of that equipment of belief that we need
to make it through trial and struggle with hope and with possibility,
why we might connect THAT
to this reading that Wendy offered from First Corinthians,
the second of the two topics commended for the sermon series.
Have you noticed how many people seem to be going about their daily lives
like it is some sort of combat, some sort of struggle, some sort of fight?
I’m not just talking about the last few years of our political life together.
Just watch people at the grocery store trying to get the quicker checkout line,
or observe how people act when driving through a construction zone, or rush hour,
and you see what I mean. People are mean to each other.
And then there’s the effort of having the newest gadgets,
or the best decorated house. Competition. Neighbor vs neighbor.
Or how, in this increasingly divided age,
we’re pitted against one another more and more,
marking some as worthy and others as reprobate,
even though God Welcomes All.
And, in the church,
too many Christians think that faith is all about spiritual warfare,
not the defensive kind, either,
but they go on the offensive,
seeking to take down other’s arguments,
standing on the street corner with a bullhorn for a sword
imagining themselves tallying up a cosmic scorecard of lives saved for Jesus.
Meanwhile, Jesus just rolls his eyes and
gets back to the work of loving and healing and connecting and empowering people
to be in honest to goodness relationship with each other.
Too many Christians think that the bible starts at the fall,
the banishment from the Garden of Eden, on the one hand
and ends with those cosmic battle scenes in Revelation, on the other.
To them, life is about contest. About sin. About struggle. About vanquishing foes.
And they’re wrong.
The bible starts at joyful creation, and ends with the healing of the nations.
Life is about celebrating existence, not conquering it.
Faith is about trusting that God makes beauty and joy and hope possible
that Jesus peacefully surrendered his life
to show us a better way to live with each other.
So it may be prudent for us to balance this very worthwhile idea
of the whole armor of God,
but an idea that implies that life is all about struggle, all about spiritual warfare,
with something that Paul actually wrote, words in the letter we call First Corinthians.
There, we see Paul wrapping up his reflections to them.
He’s about to finish and mail the letter,
and he goes through some final details:
he plans to visit, if he can.
He reminds them about Timothy, and about Apollos,
about people that they know and love,
and then he offers what might be another summary version
of what can equip us when we go out into this stressful, hurtful, tense world of ours.
Stand Firm in your Faith.
Four worthy ideas that evoke for us
the topics of Ephesians: truth, righteousness, faith, salvation,
the gospel of peace, and the word of God.
And to these, Paul begs for one more:
He says: Let all that you do be done in love.
That might summarize Paul’s teaching in a nutshell,
the teacher who reminded us that faith might move mountains
hope might abide
but the greatest of these is love.
And when we remember that all of our actions must be done in love
that tendency to see the whole world as a battlefield,
as a zero-sum game where YOU have to lose in order for ME to win
all of that withers away.
The Whole Armor of God is best understood only when we put it on
for the purposes of love. When we wear it for God.
Because it is THAT love which will have us value the truth, seek after righteousness,
and dance the night away in shoes that proclaim the gospel of peace.
Love bears all things.
Hopes all things.
Believes all things.
Love never ends.
And for people who wear all of that armor,
who bear that love out into the world,
we can do things that we never imagined:
We can stand up to tyrants.
We can be with our loved ones during their last days.
We can rush into a burning tower to save the vulnerable,
or hold their hand while help is on the way.
We can face our own mortality with dignity.
We can love our neighbor as ourselves, and seek their welfare.
May we, dear friends,
see all of these as the amazing gifts of the holy spirit
who promises to be with us,
and through God’s presence,
to protect us with God’s compassion and God’s assurance.
And with that, God’s kingdom may just prevail afterall.
May it be so.
[i] For more information, see the website of the Endocrine Society, particularly https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/adrenaline
[ii] Some think that Ephesians was written around 80 or 90 ce, where Revelation was written around 95 ce.
[iii] Among other sources, this section draws upon “God’s Complete Armor” in N.T.Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky. 2004) pp 72-76.
Image Credit: “Castle Love Locks” by Didgeman, shared under creative commons license, and found at https://pixabay.com/photos/castle-love-love-locks-loyalty-505878/ (accessed September 29, 2019)