Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon: "Suit Up!", Ephesians 6:10-18 (August 23, 2015)

(Video of this sermon)

I want to take a moment to ask you what images come to mind when you hear this passage from Ephesians. Holy Crusaders going off to war? Our men and women in the armed forces getting ready to fight for God, freedom, and the American way? Preparing yourself to go and “do battle” with the unchurched in your life? The idea of “just warfare”?

We live in an age of conflict. Certainly, every age has had its own battles and struggles, but it seems like our time is particularly hostile. September 11, 2001, ushered in a new era of fear and xenophobia, attitudes from which none of us are completely free. Religious extremists kill indiscriminately in the name of a God that none of us recognize. Meanwhile, Americans seek to preempt these tragedies by bring war to their doorstep first and by torturing information out of captured terrorists. These days, people seem to believe that whoever can shout their opinion the loudest is the most right. Political debates are characterized by in-fighting and personal attacks, which we’ll no doubt see more and more of in the coming year as once again a presidential election looms. And all of us have heard about how Christianity is under attack, how Muslims, or Atheists, or Political Correctness, or the government is trying to keep us from being the Godly people we are called to be. Many Christians are taking drastic measures to fight back against this perceived injustice. In this day and age, it feels like if you’re not immediately going on the offensive, you’re already losing. It seems that the writer of this letter to the Ephesians could have been talking straight to us, doesn’t it? Warning us to gird our loins and prepare to launch ourselves into battle: “Put on your armor! Pick up your swords! Smite the enemy!”

I’m hoping, however, that many of you were listening more closely to today’s reading. I’m hoping that you were able to avoid the assumptions that so often go along with this type of imagery, bringing war and battle and conflict immediately to mind, and hear what the writer is really trying to tell us. See, in our proactive, take-the-bull-by-the-horns, looking-out-for-number-one American mindset, we may assume that the writer of this letter is commanding us to put on our armor in order to go on the offensive, to avert disaster by making the first move. In reality, though, I think that he’s actually saying just the opposite. This is a case of when our own paradigm, our own perspective from this time and place, can get in the way of hearing what God is actually trying to tell us.

Hear what the writer of Ephesians is trying to explain. When we think of armor, our minds often jump to what armor usually implies—war. When one takes the time to put on armor, one is usually preparing to go raging into battle, guns blazing. But the letter to the Ephesians is challenging us to see armor in an entirely different way. It’s demanding that we not make assumptions about what armor implies, but to consider its true, primary purpose, what it’s created for. In verse 11, we read, “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” We may use armor as a means for war, but it is created for PROTECTION. Right up front, we’re informed that the purpose of God’s armor isn’t for encouraging aggression, but for standing firm against the war that others create. Our task is not to make, but—on the contrary—to withstand the violence of war.

And if that’s hard for us to do, to essentially stand still when we feel like we’re under attack, then we need to continue reading through the next verse, verse 12, to help us understand why it’s imperative that we resist war with our brothers and sisters: “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.” God’s armor is NOT for engaging in battle against people, flesh and blood, our fellow travelers through life, but in fact for resisting the powers of evil that surround us and imprison us ALL. This may sound like splitting hairs to some of you—after all, it’s people in the world that wield the power that brings evil to our doorsteps—but it’s a vital distinction for us as Christians to make. Other people are not the enemy. God loves ALL of God’s children—even the ones that we aren’t so fond of. It’s the sin, the twisted, fallen nature that we’re ALL subject to, that God commands us to reject.

Since the imagery of an armored soldier has the potential to be more problematic than helpful if we don’t check our assumptions before, during, and after reading scripture, I’d like to suggest an alternative mental image to help us better understand our job here. Instead of allowing the metaphor of armor to bring to mind a battle-ready soldier, I’d much rather this passage make us think of, say, Batman. Yes, that day has come; your new pastor is going to preach to you about Batman. Think about it: “Take up the whole Batgear of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day…” it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

In all seriousness, I probably could have chosen one of any number of superheroes, but there’s one thing about Batman that sets him apart from all others in our collective consciousness: Batman has made the deliberate choice to never kill his enemies. It's what he's known for. He doesn’t take justice into his own hands, subject to his own individual idea of fairness, even though many of us would say that he’d be well within his rights to do so. With very few exceptions, he captures the bad guy and immediately turns him over to the proper authorities. He doesn’t even stick around to take credit! Because of this unique M.O., Batman’s gear isn’t oriented toward launching into battle, but toward withstanding the enemy until the situation is under control or the police arrive.

This is why I think Batman is a much more appropriate—if unexpected—role model for those of us seeking to put on the armor of God. He does need armor to protect himself (a fragile, mortal human being, unlike Superman or Wonder Woman) but its purpose isn’t to make it easier to pick a fight (even a “just” fight). It’s to allow him to stand up to the evil in the world without being destroyed in the process. And to make sure that something bigger than him and his own biases, his own desire for revenge—Justice—gets the final word.

THAT’S what we’re called to do. The moment we profess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, whether it’s through our parents at our Baptism or through a personal profession of faith as a Confirmand (or at any other point in our lives), we’re putting our faith and our trust in something bigger than us. God doesn’t need defending—the divine can take care of Godself, thank you very much—but God does need sharing. And sharing can get dangerous in a hostile world that lives by the sword and dies by the sword. And so, this is something that Batman can teach us. He puts his faith in justice over revenge. For our part, we need to put our faith in God over the desire for personal victory—a desire, by the way, that stems from the very evil that we’re specifically instructed to defend ourselves against!

We’ve been getting this wrong for centuries, by the way; millennia even. God has been calling us to peace for as long as we have been God’s people. It’s about time we start listening. The prophet Micah, writing in the time of the Jewish exile, describes a future of restoration for God’s people—God’s dream for God’s children. Micah reassures the Israelites with promises of peace and security after the turbulent years of the Jewish diaspora. But, notably to our Western ears, there are no words of triumph, of personal or national power, no promise of victory. The Israelites’ comfort comes from the knowledge that one perfect day, GOD will be judge and arbitrator. Ours will be to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. THIS is the ideal! THIS is God’s dream for God’s children! THIS is the objective of those who love and claim God as their heavenly Father. And yet, we resist this proper use of our armor. We hold onto our swords and spears “just in case” and we don’t trust God over and above our own belligerent tendencies.

So today, make the choice to throw away your swords and spears for good. Put on your armor—no, excuse me, your Batgear—of God: the belt of truth, not of self-serving propaganda. The breastplate of righteousness, not of self-aggrandizement. The shield of faith, not of self-reliance. The world wants us to conform to its expectations, not to God’s. It wants us to be warriors, to buy into the lie that victory is synonymous with aggression. But God insists that it doesn’t have to be this way; indeed, that it must not be this way. Sharing the Word was never meant to be violent—it was given out of love and forgiveness, and God intends for us to share it in the same spirit. It’s not something that’s done with guns and bombs, but with simple shoes that carry you where you need to be in order to proclaim the gospel of peace.

We live in a broken world, a world that leaps at the opportunity to go to war. But we have been set apart. Set apart not to jump into the fray but to stand strong, confident, and unmoving, ready to proclaim—and to live out—the gospel of peace for all who are prepared to hear it.

Suit up, friends. Don’t be the Christian that the world deserves right now, but the one it needs.


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