The church in which I grew up had several resources that became common to all of us who spent any sort of significant time there. I’m sure the children of Christ Church have as much familiarity with the Godly Play boxes which help to unfold the stories of our sacred text as I do of the flannel graph cut outs which were used to teach us components of our faith. If you aren’t familiar, these are the sort of cut outs that could be glued to any sort of flannel, and then moved around the flannel board as the story is told. There are a few pieces of our holy Bible that are forever locked into my brain not in any sort of nuanced way, but in simple flannel graph cut outs, and today’s Epistle text is one of those for me.
I can still picture with surprising clarity that small shape of a solider, upon whom the Sunday School teacher would add the helmet of salvation and the belt of truth and the shield of faith, which could withstand even fiery arrows; it was a dramatic retelling of what you would need to put on the whole armor of God. It might be easy to transfer metaphors from our text to easy pictures for kids to understand, but it often is hard to carry over the nuance of what this might mean. Because in my memory, the picture of the solider who was putting on the whole armor of God looked like a typical Roman solider. The helmet was the sort you might see in Spartacus, the shield was modeled after the same, made of leather, soaked to be able to withstand arrows of fire, but what this simplicity misses, and what many interpretations of images of war in our scriptures misses, was how Paul flipped the modern dress of war on its head.
Because you see, here in our Epistle passage, Paul is writing these words literally in chains; he is literally imprisoned because of his efforts to preach the gospel of the risen Christ. This imagery is not about us being right and others being on the wrong side of God’s wrath, but rather pulls into the Christian vernacular an image that is so divorced from the lived reality of these early Christians that it forces a new perspective. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was probably written around the year 62, about 30 or so years after Christ’s death. These people were about the same distance from Christ’s crucifixion as we are from the Oklahoma City Bombing. The memory of the soldiers dressed in armor of war who pierced our Lord’s side is still shockingly fresh in their minds, and here we have Paul telling them to put on the whole armor of God.
I wonder what the first hearers of this image thought of Paul’s use of hostile images to describe a path forward. I wonder if they immediately connected with it, only to struggle when they learned that the enemy toward which they would have to fight would not be another human, but the forces of evil in the world. I wonder if they thought about how much easier it would be to put on the whole armor of the empire than to put on the whole armor of God. Because you see, these things: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, they are simply not just present to make Christians feel powerful and in control. That is not and has never been what Christianity is about. No, theese are powerful defenses against all that pull us from our lives of faith. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what our present day “belt of truth” or “shield of faith” would be, and I think it comes down to something so simple and so difficult that I offer it to you all without fully knowing if this is it. Without fully knowing if this is the right answer.
But I think that for us, part of what we need defenses against in our world today is a defense against cynicism and despair. Now, hear me when I say that do believe that evil forces are at work in this world and we must defend against them, but for myself and for so many others that I have seen, this creeps in through the loss of hope and the assuming the negative about others. There are so few truths that I know in this world, but I know that God is present with us in this struggle of a life. But even though I know that I still struggle to maintain the hope that is inherent in that truth. I struggle hold that hope in the face of the events happening in the world.
I know that I am not alone in the heartbreak of seeing a young parent hoist their infant son to an unknown soldier over a barbed wire fence; in a war and occupation that has been going on longer than half of my life, I struggle to see hope coming out of Afghanistan. I struggle to hold on to any sort of resurrection hope when I hear that entire school districts in Mississippi closed after a teenage girl died of the Delta covid variant just days after she tested positive. When I think of the evil forces that we must face as Christians in this century, I cannot help but to see and name how hope-weary so many of us are, and I just don’t know how we can ever get ready to face such evil.
And then I think about a rule that we had in my house growing up; like most rules, it was born out of necessity; though I don’t remember the exact year in which it was enacted, and my memory might be filling in some details. I clearly remember my father enacting the “you’re not ready until you’ve got your shoes on” code. Like most people I know, we never wore shoes in the house, and after one too many times of my brother or I declaring that we were ready to leave for school, barefooted as we were the day we were born, this saying became a firm family rule. You’re never ready till you have your shoes on.
When I think about how despair has crept into so many of our lives and into our faiths, mine included, I’ve thought about this rule. Because in our Epistle, Paul spends quite a bit of time describing the whole armor of God, each piece of defense gear or even the sword of truth are very specific, but when it comes to shoes, it’s much vaguer. It’s vaguer, but I think it’s almost as important as that cardinal rule in our house, “you’re not ready till you got your shoes on.” Because you see, Paul instructs that for the shoes of the armor of God, we are to put on whatever will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Whatever will make us ready.
We are never ready until we have what it takes to proclaim the gospel of peace. This phrase that Paul uses to describe the all-important footwear in the armor of God, “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” is one that has stuck with me as I felt the forces of despair tug upon my faith in the hope of the resurrection. Whatever will make us ready. My friends, I feel confident that whatever will make us ready is first and foremost prayer. Prayer when the tides of despair are too large to fully fathom. Prayer when the hope of the resurrection and the gospel of peace feels as near as it has in a long while. And prayer when we are sure that we are not ready. Grounding ourselves in prayer might be the only thing that will make us feel ready to proclaim the gospel of peace in this broken world. So, this week, I invite your prayers; I invited your prayers of silence or of loud lamentation; I invite prayers said in your mind as you are driving to the grocery store or prayers prayed in unison with others. This week, pray, pray, pray, and do whatever it takes to make you ready.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on August 22, 2021 for Proper 16B on Ephesians 6:10-20.