Sermon: 13th Sunday after Pentecost 23rd August 2015, Revd Dr Philip Blake

The Reverend Dr Philip Blake

The Armour of God

Sermon at St Alban’s Epping 23/8/2015

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish 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 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

This is arguably one of the most famous passages in the Bible. When I was at Sunday school in the 1960s, if we were looking at this passage we usually had a picture of a Roman soldier to colour in-something I did not enjoy much as it was not a special skill of mine and then we got to sing loudly Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus or Onward Christian Soldiers, two imperialist hymns of glorious political incorrectness which I still love.

But familiarity should not blind us to the great truth of this passage and its wise advice to us as Christians in the 21st century.

Importantly, the passage reminds us that we are actually in a battle. In the comfort and ease of our lives in Sydney with so many material blessings and an apparent level of security, health and well-being rarely known in human history, it is very easy for us to become complacent. We can cease to have the experience of being aliens and strangers on a journey and in doing so, think that we have arrived.

But we are engaged in a spiritual battle and we can see its manifestations in our own lives and families and in the broader realm of our society. I do not wish to be trite, but in my work I see some of the things that God has given us in our world being destroyed in this spiritual battle. I have the desperate sadness of families being pulled apart, of people who can only see the material and who are all too willing to sacrifice the well-being of other people and indeed themselves and their own souls to achieve some elusive dream of wealth, power or status. We see governments at times unable or unwilling to care for the people that God has given them and we see God is created order unwisely exploited with no thought for the future and with an unwillingness to share with the weak. These are symptoms of the spiritual battle which reveals our alienation from our Creator and are blind servitude to everything that he is not including dark spiritual forces.

Paul calls us to stand strong in that battle. Realistically, he knows that we cannot do so in our own power, but in the power of God and he calls us to put on the armour that God provides so that we can fight for him.

Each piece of this armour is essential. We need to understand as we colour in our picture that the absence of the belt of truth, or the breastplate of righteousness, the proper sandals on our feet, our shield or our sword will leave us ill-equipped to fight.

There is an understanding for us that the truth of God as revealed to us, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, enables us to recognise what is wrong and what is right. We sometimes mockingly talk about the phrase what would Jesus do but actually, as I reach my late 50s, I understand more and more, but to orient myself towards what is true right and valuable I need to have a clear understanding of what God stands for and Jesus helps me to know that realistically. I have the privilege each year of taking a Christian studies class through the Gospel of Mark. As I share the excitement of the truth of God revealed in the person of Jesus, I think I learn more than my students. It might be fair enough to see that is a reflection on my teaching, but I hope it is also a reflection on the way the Scriptures keep revealing new things to us. I think that the belt that holds everything together is therefore Jesus as we know him personally and deeply.

The breastplate of righteousness I find to be a very interesting concept. As I journey with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark I find his emphasis to be on doing right, rather than an emphasis on not doing wrong. His encounter, for instance, in the synagogue with the teachers of the law which we see when he heals the man with the shrivelled hand on the sabbath is a rejection of the mindset of a cautious and restrictive emphasis on not doing the wrong thing but rather an expansive dynamic of seeking to do good in all contexts. I think for Christians, we also need to seek out positive acts, engagements and relationships in which we can demonstrate righteousness. I think in this way we both guard against a small-minded and ungenerous faith but indeed we can go on the offensive to disempower those who would criticise and reject faith on the basis of the actions of Christians.

We also need to be able to go where God wants us to go. Our feet need to be fitted with the readiness of the Gospel of peace. The gospel of Jesus is not passive, nor is it static. It is dynamic, it is sending, it changes us and forces us out. It will send us sometimes to a different nation. We need to value and treasure our missionaries who have set aside lives with us to serve the gospel of peace. But the gospel of peace will also send us into places in our own lives. It sends us to our work place where we are called to do our work well as honouring the God who gave us work as our creation responsibility. It sends us into relationships with people who do not know Jesus, not necessarily so that the first thing we do is to hand them a tract but certainly so that in knowing us they have the opportunity to know Jesus. We are all fitted with the right sandals to take the battle into our world, into God’s world.

As we give expression to truth, righteousness and the gospel of peace, we are of course expressing our faith. Faith is a very hard concept to nail down. I know it is more than intellectual assent, although our minds must be involved. I know it is more than doing good, although doing good is the fruit of faith. In the end, it must be about the reality of a human being given over to God and in that sense we understand that the protection of shield of faith is not based upon the power of what we believe, but indeed upon the power of the person in whom we have placed our faith. This is, of course, the reason why it can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one as our passage expressed.

The helmet of salvation in our lives is of course the consequence of our trust in God and in what he has done for us in Jesus. Again, as we reflect upon this, it is the gift from God and not something we do for ourselves. As we enter upon the spiritual battle, as we stand firm for the Lord, we know that he holds us and protects us.

And finally, the sword of the spirit which is the word of God. We do not fight without a weapon and we do not engage without knowing his will. We know his word is a light unto our feet in a lamp unto our path. We know it is useful for teaching and correcting rebuking and training in righteousness. We know that man will not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The sword of the spirit enables us to explain to those in our lives why we fight the spiritual battle and indeed why we would like them to join us. It enables us to examine our lives, both to encourage us and to guide us to grow more like Jesus, day by day. To go back to my beloved Gospel of Mark Christian studies lessons I find each year it helps me to stand within earshot of the apostle Peter as he declares “you are the Messiah”, and to join him in that declaration.

We do not fight alone. We fight for our Captain Jesus and Paul reminds us to pray so that the Holy Spirit will aid us in the struggle. Paul, in chains and about to die still asks for the power to fight on fearlessly still wearing the armour of God.