This is our last Sunday looking at Ephesians. Next week we have Pastor Kay from Zimbabwe with us, and then on May 29 we’ll start a series looking at Jonah. In last week’s sermon we saw how all are equal in the eyes of God, so we don’t HAVE to, but we can CHOOSE to show honor, to find value in others. If we know what we value, we can know who we are, and we can know how to show it.
This week we are moving into the wonderful image of putting on the armor of God.
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 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.13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 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. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
When I was in high school the University of Texas had a Heisman trophy-winning running back named Ricky Williams, and he was a top-5 pick in the NFL draft. Part of being a famous NFL player is doing media interviews after the game. But Ricky had a strange habit – he would show up to the podium with his helmet still on, and a dark plastic visor covering his eyes. When you see a football player wearing his helmet during the game, it’s not surprising – he should expect to need his helmet. But in an interview with the media? Unless it’s with that guy who threw a shoe at President Bush during a press conference you’re usually pretty safe.
Football is often called a physical battle. Press conferences are not. What gives?
It turns out for Ricky the press conference was a much harder battle than football. Ricky suffered from social anxiety disorder – which is a kind of phobia. Every press conference he was literally at war with himself, and the helmet was a symbolic defense that also hid the fact that he couldn’t look people in the eye.
Luckily for Ricky someone figured out what was going on and he was able to get help from a therapist. Many in his situation wouldn’t have sought help. After all, he had everything going for him! He was young, healthy, a millionaire, famous, what more could you want? But he says “I was never more unhappy in my life. I felt extremely isolated from my friends and family because I couldn’t explain to them what I was feeling. I had no idea what was wrong with me.”
Why do I share this? Well consider that a football helmet is a kind of armor. It is useful for protecting your head during the violent game. But Ricky’s struggle – his need for protection – didn’t end when he walked off the field. His struggle was in his daily life.
When Paul tells us in v11, “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” notice what he doesn’t put any timeframe or limitation on our need for armor. He assumes the “wiles of the devil” will be plaguing us all the time – we need our helmet at all times. Even at the press conference.
Sometimes, though, the church is the last place people want to wear their helmets. We don’t like to signal to other Christians that we’re under attack, that we’re struggling, that we’re doubting. If you’re struggling right now, maybe coming to church you still feel like Ricky and feel isolated even in this crowd. Maybe you feel like something is wrong with you because you’re struggling.
Paul would say that’s not a surprise. We need the whole armor of God – all the time. Because our struggle isn’t just against life’s next curveball. It’s against the “wiles of the devil.”
So there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re struggling. There’s nothing weird about being under attack. In fact, we should expect it. After all, we’re supposed to be in our armor already. And like Ricky, we need help.
Defense = Stand Your Ground = Survive
I can’t help myself, though, when Paul keeps talking about the “whole armor of God,” I keep seeing a Star Wars reference in my mind. Because it’s not just the partial armor of God, it’s the whole armor. The full suit. So I notice the difference in Star Wars between Jedi in their robes and Stormtroopers in their full suit of gleaming white clamshell armor. If you’ve ever watched one of the movies, you know that the Jedi are experts at dodging – that’s why they are armored with cotton. Stormtroopers are decidedly not skilled at dodging – that’s why they wear so much armor.
This passage, as it keeps reminding us to suit up with armor, is telling us we aren’t exactly Jedi when it comes to dodging the “slings and arrows” of life. We’re going to get hit. A lot. So we need armor. A full suit of it. Stormtrooper level.
This passage reminds us to heed what Phillips Brooks said: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks commensurate with your strength. Pray for strength commensurate with your tasks.”
Now when Paul keeps saying “stand your ground,” I am also reminded of a scene from the movie The Patriot where Mel Gibson’s character is asking the volunteer militia to stand their ground for at least two shots against the British regulars. The militiaman replies, “a lot can happen in the time it takes to fire two shots.” “That’s why I’m not asking you to fire three.”
And so when you put these together, Paul is telling the Ephesians and us that following Jesus means we are going to be in the line of fire. And a lot can happen. That’s why we need the whole armor of God. Otherwise we’ll crumble under the pressure and strain. The only way we can stand our ground while we’re in the line of fire is through the pieces of armor that are given to us by God. Like Ricky, we need help.
Pieces of Armor
And what are the pieces of armor? The ways God protects us against the slings and arrows of life, the wiles of the devil?
First off, the “belt of truth.” And what is truth? Well Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” So the first way God protects us is through the truth of Jesus Christ. The truth about who he is. The truth about what he did. The truth about why he died. The truth about the power of his resurrection. The truth about his presence with us as we gather today. The truth ESPECIALLY that in Jesus we see God’s love. I know when I have struggled in life I have been attacked by the lie that God isn’t really loving. The belt of truth is remembering that God is love. The belt of truth is similar to the “shield of faith” and the “helmet of salvation.” Our faith and the knowledge of our salvation both protect us against the flaming arrows of the evil one.
The second piece of armor is the “breastplate of righteousness.” An image of a breastplate is on the front of the bulletin, and you can see that it protects your heart. So when we are attacked by thinking that our actions and attitudes don’t matter, the breastplate of righteousness is a reminder that following God’s ways protects our heart.
The third piece of armor is “shoes…that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Shoes were a big deal to the Roman army. It’s hard for us to imagine today, but you don’t really need shoes. If you spend your life walking around barefoot your feet will get very tough. There are plenty of cultures that still do this today. But walking around barefoot on stone and concrete – that’s bad for you. So shoes were needed to send soldiers long distances along the Roman road system. The roads allowed them to move faster, and the shoes allowed them to walk on the tough road surface, so together they enabled the large expansion of Roman influence.
For us, I think that means we are to go wherever God’s road takes us. The first two pieces of armor were about surviving wherever we already are. Shoes, though, means we are sent marching off to take new territory. And why are we sent? To share the “gospel of peace.” This phrase is interesting. We know what the gospel is, right? It’s the Good News of Jesus Christ – that belt of truth. But adding “peace” onto it is emphasizing one aspect of Jesus’ story. It’s saying, “tell people that because of Jesus they don’t have to worry about their relationship with God.” “Tell people that because of Jesus they can enjoy life rather than constantly trying to placate their petty gods.” “Tell people that because of Jesus they can have rest by letting go and letting God.” That’s the gospel of peace.
Offense = God’s Spirit + Prayer
This is similar to the one and only piece of offensive equipment listed: the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The gospel of peace allows us to go where we’re sent on a mission, but the Holy Spirit is the one who does the actual fighting. A missionary once told me it was her job to be a witness, but it was the Holy Spirit’s job to actually convert people.
Since this is Pentecost, we remember what happened when the Holy Spirit first showed up to do some fighting for the church. The followers of Jesus were given what they needed to do their mission, to tell the good news, and three thousand people came to believe in Christ that day.
Did you know that Presbyterians were once known for how often the Holy Spirit worked through us in sharing the gospel of peace? Did you know revivals started with Scottish Presbyterians in the 1620’s? Did you know that in the early 1900’s the Presbyterians were the fastest-growing denomination in the country? Did you know that up until 1952 Presbyterians had more adult baptisms than infant baptisms? Did you know that in the early 1900’s it was so common that every Presbyterian church was asked to list the “outpourings of the Holy Spirit that resulted in conversions?” We used to be known for the ways that the Holy Spirit worked through us to help people know Jesus.
By way of contrast, today only 1 in 5 people even bother to pray for their non-Christian acquaintances. The vast majority of people have never shared their faith with anyone else – ever. When we did a prayer walk at my last church I took the high school freshmen with me and at the last house I dared two of the boys to walk up to a house, ring the doorbell, and if someone answered, tell them that they just wanted to let them know we were praying for them. And they did it. Sure enough the people answered, and the boys got to deliver their line and to their credit they stuck around for a little conversation with the people. When they were done I told them, “You just did more evangelism than most people will do in their entire lives. And all it took was a willingness to tell someone you were praying for them.”
How might the Holy Spirit want to fight through you? You don’t have to have some elaborate defense of the faith. It might be as simple as letting someone know you are praying for them. Even that is more than most people will do to spread the gospel of peace in their entire lives. You can do that! It is very, very rare for someone to be offended that you’re praying for them. They won’t bite your head off for that. Paul says in v18 – “keep alert” for those opportunities to pray.
Sisters and brothers, we aren’t Jedi. We aren’t able to dodge the attacks that come our way. We’re like stormtroopers who need the whole set of armor because we’re going to get hit. A lot. We, like Ricky, need help.
But our help, our armor, comes from our faith in Jesus Christ. When we are attacked by the lies of the enemy we are protected by the truth of God’s love in Jesus Christ. But our protection is for a purpose – it’s so that the Holy Spirit can spread the gospel of peace through us. We have only two weapons in our arsenal – an alertness, a willingness to share, and the power of prayer.
How is God protecting you right now? And how might the Holy Spirit spread the gospel of peace through you? We are protected for a purpose. We are armed for a mission. Time to march. Amen.