St Michael’s Workington, 26 August 2018

Ephesians 6: 10-20: The Armour of God

We arrived in Workington in the middle of the longest, hottest spell most of us can remember. Even 1976 didn’t rival it.

If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll know I was born in Australia. I do warmth and sun. And I’m never happier than when there’s the opportunity to leap into lovely water and do some wild swimming – even better, if I can get all my kit off, and skinny dip. I’ve a son, Jonty, who takes after me – and again, if you read the blog, there’s a wonderful photo of him in mid air, leaping off the water break down by the lighthouse. In all his glory.

I’m assuming that’s not normal amongst the members of St Michael’s congregation? Not many naturalists here? None that’s going to admit to it in public, in church on a Sunday morning?

I’m taken back to the very beginning of our Christian story. To the garden of Eden. The first couple have eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they feel shame for the first time. They hear God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, and they hide their nakedness.

They started a trend. We do it too. We cover up. All sorts of things, if we’re honest. And just as well, as our bodies age and sag. Other reasons too. The weather, for one. We cover up, if the sun shines too hot, against burning. We cover against the wind and the wet, to keep us warm and dry. Then, we wear clothes to impress – a new outfit for the wedding, for the interview that will hopefully lead to a job. We wear clothes for protection against damage and spillage too – overalls, aprons. It’s not just shame at our nakedness that means we wear clothes.

St Paul, writing to the new Christians in Ephesus, gave them – and us – a number of reasons to put on clothing. A particular sort of clothing – armour.

He tells the Ephesians to fasten a belt around their waists, a breastplate over their chests. Shoes on their feet. A shield against the arrows. A helmet on their heads, and a sword in their hands.

It’s imagery that you’ll find in lots of our hymns.

Put on the gospel armour,

each piece put on with prayer;

when duty calls or danger

be never wanting there.

(stand up, stand up for Jesus)

 

O clothe us with thy heavenly armour, Lord,

thy trusty shield, thy sword of love divine;

(Eternal Ruler of the Ceaseless Round)

Just two examples.

And when the priest puts on vestments, she prays the traditional prayers that go with each garment. The amice is a white cloth around the neck, that starts over the head, and so: ‘place, O Lord, the helmet of Salvation upon my head to repel the assaults of the Devil.’ The alb is white, and so the prayer is for a pure heart. The Chasuble, and the priest prays: Lord, who said, My yoke is easy, and My burden is light, grant that I may so bear it, as to attain Thy grace. Amen.

It’s not just the vestments that a priest wears. As we wear clothes, they take on meaning. We’ll keep that special outfit to remind us of a special event, or to remember someone we loved. We wear uniforms to identify us; we English are renowned for our love of pageantry – and so expect the Queen, the mayor of the town, to dress appropriately. I could go on – you get the message.

In my younger and more radical days, when I attended Quaker meetings and had many pacifist friends, I would not have been heard singing any hymn that had militaristic overtones. And there’s many today who now argue that it’s inappropriate to sing hymns that recall the days of Empire, when our national pride was such that it was easily identified with battle hymns, and waging war for Christ. We don’t often sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ today, and I understand why. As we remember a hundred years ago, and the waste and losses of the First World War, and the wars that have happened since, we’re very wary of language that ties faith too closely to the battlefield.

So how should we read St Paul today, I wonder?

He was writing to a community that was under threat, that’s the first thing. Was it physical threat? Perhaps. Perhaps they really did need real armour. I think it’s more likely, though, that the threats were spiritual. He’s talking, after all, of the armour of God that’s needed not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.

So this is a belt of truth around the waist, a breastplate of righteousness. Shoes that enable a gospel of peace to be preached. A shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, a sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Paul is talking metaphorically. He is asking us to use our imaginations. Realising this has made it possible for me to sing those hymns now.

So what are the cosmic powers of this present darkness, I wonder? What are the spiritual forces of evil?

I’d start with greed. Which means we buy too much stuff, and waste so much – whether it’s more clothes than we need, or too much packaging. We live in a consumer age – and it is a cosmic power, for it’s difficult not to consume more than we need. Our desires are shaped by advertising, we are conditioned to be greedy – even if we’re poor.

Another spiritual force of evil would be the brutal way cyber bullying can destroy lives. We’re all caught up in it: social media is well-nigh impossible to resist. That itch to look at our phones. But it’s making us much more rude and angry. We’re not as courteous as we used to be. And there are frightening signs that social media is used by those who want to undermine western civilisation and our way of life. False tweets and posts that threaten our children by saying vaccinations don’t work, for instance. Such things as these are the cosmic powers of our present darkness. I’m sure we can think of other spiritual forces of evil today. The advertising that promotes over consumption of alcohol.

So what metaphorical armour do we need today? How might we defend ourselves against stuff that corrupts us?

St Paul takes us back to basics. We need God. It’s God’s armour, not ours. Truthfulness. Righteousness. Peace. Faith. Salvation. Prayer. All these are gifts from God, which we receive and put into practice.

Particularly prayer. Paul writes ‘Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert, always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray, pray.

You will know that Peter and I are praying regularly in church, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings at 7.30 – and now also on Mondays and Wednesdays at 5.30 pm. There’s two midweek Eucharists as well. We pray for St Michaels, for the church’s mission in the world, for everyone in need. Thank you to those who join us, but it would be great if more did too.  We need you to join us. To come along and pray with us. You don’t have to come every day – a commitment to just one of those times each week would be enough. Prayer is a habit that needs to be learned, needs to become a normal part of our routine. Make prayer a habit.

Habit is an interesting word, isn’t it? Monks and nuns traditionally wear habits. Clothing that helps them develop the habit of a way of life, a way of prayer.

Ultimately, when all’s said and done, we come before God as naked as the day we were born – vulnerable and open to be loved and transformed by God’s grace. In the meantime, though – while we endure the cosmic powers of this present darkness – we need the protection, the armour of God. St Paul tells us that this is prayer – the most powerful energy of love ever known.

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Amen.