The Armour of God (a Sermon on Ephesians 6:10-20)

I’m reading from the Amnesty International report on the war on Lebanon, August 2006:

“The Israeli Air Force launched more than 7,000 air attacks on about 7,000 targets in Lebanon between 12 July and 14 August, while the Navy conducted an additional 2,500 bombardments.

The attacks, though widespread, particularly concentrated on certain areas. In addition to the human toll – an estimated 1,183 fatalities, about one third of whom have been children, 4,054 people injured and 970,000Lebanese people displaced – the civilian infrastructure was severely damaged. The Lebanese government estimates that 31 “vital points” (such as airports, ports, water and sewage treatment plants, electrical facilities) have been completely or partially destroyed, as have around 80 bridges and 94 roads. More than 25 fuel stations and around 900 commercial enterprises were hit.

The number of residential properties, offices and shops completely destroyed exceeds 30,000. Two government hospitals – in Bint Jbeil and in Meis al-Jebel – were completely destroyed in Israeli attacks and three others were seriously damaged. In a country of fewer than four million inhabitants, more than 25 per cent of them took to the roads as displaced persons. An estimated 500,000 people sought shelter in Beirut alone, many of them in parks and public spaces, without water or washing facilities”.

How could such a thing happen? How could an outstanding democracy like Israel commit such barbarities upon its far weaker neighbours?

We always find ourselves asking these questions in retrospect, unable to make sense of how something so terrible could have happened.

A generation ago we were asking similar questions after World War II. How could such a thing have happened? How could the German people have committed such barbarous acts against the people of Israel? After all, this was the country that gave us some of history’s greatest musicians and thinkers. What on earth happened?

And so we blame individuals – eg. Hitler. It was his fault. Or in the modern scenario we blame Ehud Olmert or George W Bush or Johnny Howard perhaps, or Hasan Nasrallah, if you want to include Hezbollah in the equation. Bad men! That’s why bad things happen. Vote in a bad man and evil will result. Get rid of the bad men and evil will stop! If only it were that simple!

It’s not true is it, that a vibrant peace-loving community mistakenly votes in a maniac who overnight transforms an earthly paradise into a living hell? No. The transformation of a healthy life-giving community into a violent harbinger of death is not something that happens overnight.

It’s the same with individuals of course. Nobody becomes a criminal overnight. Our children do not suddenly become addicts. Paedophiles don’t just spring up from nowhere. Changes take place slowly, insidiously, so that we rarely notice what is happening until it is too late. And a precise, simple cause is almost always impossible to locate.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

The words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6, and how right he is.

If only this were not so. If only our enemies could be more easily identified. Target the enemy, assassinate them if you have to, and the problems will end! Of course It doesn’t work.

Coincidentally perhaps, Israel have been doing ‘targeted assassinations’ for some time now, believing presumably that this will help solve their problems.

I was in Israel in April 2004 when the then leader of Hamas, wheelchair-bound, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, was taken out with 3 missiles fired from a helicopter gunship. Those who ordered the killing hoped, no doubt, that this would bring an end to Hamas as a recognisable force. A year later they won the Palestinian elections!

The real force we struggle with is never that tangible, never that easy to expunge from our midst. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Get rid of the bad boyfriend! That will solve my daughter’s problems. It rarely works! That’s not to say that some boyfriends shouldn’t be moved on, but it’s rarely a complete answer to the problem, any more than assassinating your political opponents puts an end to your opposition.

The tangible problems are relatively easy to deal with. Dealing with the intangible – dealing with jealousy, greed, patriotism that has degenerated into uncritical nationalism, community pride that has become twisted into bigotry and prejudice, fear that has become all-controlling both of individuals and of communities – the unseen forces that lead us towards death. These things are far harder to deal with.

And yet the Lord does not leave us defenceless. On the contrary, He has given us an entire armoury with which we can defend ourselves. We just have to take it up!

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.

In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17)

It is ironic, perhaps, that Paul uses the metaphor of the Roman soldier. Paul writes from prison, and quite possibly was chained to a Roman soldier even as he wrote!

Of course Roman soldiers had always been familiar, if not welcome, figures in his Paul’s life. His nation that had been conquered by Roman soldiers, and in his youth, prior to his conversion, Paul (then Saul) was a committed member of that group of nationalistic Jews who were sworn enemies of the occupying forces.

Paul indeed may have fought against Roman soldiers earlier in his life – if not directly, at least through being a part of a larger guerrilla organisation. Why would Paul then, here and elsewhere, hit upon the image of the Roman soldier as a fitting image of Christian discipleship?

It’s not because the Roman soldier was an endearing image for Paul. And it would not have been because he romanticised the life of the Roman legionary, in the way in which we might be tempted to do today. No. There could have been only one reason for choosing the figure of the Roman soldier, and that’s because the Roman legionary, like no one else Paul knew, knew how to fight!

My favourite quote, and a most revealing one, commenting on the style of the Roman soldier, comes from that famous early Jewish writer, Josephus.

“Anyone who will take a look at the organization of their army in general will recognize that they hold their wide-flung empire as the prize of valour, not the gift of fortune. They do not wait for war to begin before handling their arms, nor do they sit idle in peacetime and take action only when the emergency comes – but as if born ready armed they never have a truce from training or wait for war to be declared. Their battle-drills are no different from the real thing; every man works as hard at his daily training as if he was on active service. That is why they stand up so easily to the strain of battle: no indiscipline dislodges them from their regular formation, no panic incapacitates them, no toil wears them out; so victory over men not so trained follows as a matter of course. It would not be far from the truth to call their drills bloodless battles, their battles bloody drills.” (Josephus’ Jewish Wars III, 60)

There they are: the Roman army – brutal in their efficiency, highly disciplined in their drills, always ready for action, hard and merciless in battle. And that terrible concluding thought of Josephus’ – that the only difference between the drills and the real thing was that there was a bit more blood in the real thing!

It sounds a little like some of the sparring sessions we’ve had over in the hall! Less people get killed of course, but the fundamentals of discipline, struggle, pain, etc. are all there. And we boxers have our own armour of course:

  • The headgear of righteousness
  • The gloves of the Spirit (nb. with the handwraps of truth going under the gloves)
  • The mouthguard of prayer
  • The groin-guard of salvation

And let me draw attention to the key point of commonality between the boxer’s kit and that of the Roman soldier: the inventory, in both cases, is all defensive!

Everything is designed to protect the fighter from getting hurt – the headgear, the mouthguard, the helmet, the breastplate, the gloves, the shield and the buckle! Even the ‘sword’ mentioned by Paul is not the broadsword, used by the Roman soldier as he forged ahead in attack, but the shorter defensive dagger, used for in-close work. The standard weapons of attack – the broadsword and the javelin – are not mentioned at all. Arrows are mentioned, but only as part of the enemy’s arsenal, not as part of the Christian’s kit.

In other words, what Paul is making clear in his detailing of the armour, as in the passage as a whole, is that the battle is a defensive one.

There is no vision here of the church on a crusade, belting it’s way victoriously through the forces of darkness, overturning cultures and values and long-held traditions. All Paul asks of the Christian here is that we ‘stand’.

“take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand. Stand therefore…” (vv. 13-14)

The word ‘stand’ is mentioned three times there in two verses. That’s what it’s all about – taking your stand and holding it.

That was my great hope when I originally challenged Anthony Mundine to a fight. I had no real expectation that I could knock him out. I didn’t really expect to even score many points on him. My goal was simply to remain on my feet in the hope that, when the final bell rung, I might still be standing!

Don’t underestimate how hard this is – and I don’t mean in the ring against Mundine either – I’m talking about the real battle against the principalities and powers and these unseen forces of darkness that operate from the heavenly places.

It is not easy to be the one who stands out in your culture because you have a different value system, different goals and different dreams from your peers.

When we were teenagers, did we find it easy to be the ones who didn’t take up smoking just because it was cool, and who didn’t become sexually active at far too young an age just to prove that we were men?

When we became adults, did it become any easier to fight off the forces of social expectation?

  • Was it easy for us to choose a career of service over one that promised wealth and prestige.
  • Was it easy to resist the temptation to close off our homes and lives to people in need, while our mates were ‘cocooning’ and talking about rights and privacy.
  • Were we able to take our stand when our peers started building up their portfolios and buying investment properties?
  • Were we still able to say to ourselves and to others ‘No thanks! I’m building up my treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume’?

Did we manage it? Did we ward off those darts? Did we win those battles? Or did we succumb? Did we get knocked down by the forces unseen? And if we did get knocked down, did we get up again, and are we willing now to get back on our spiritual feet and to keep on punching until the final bell rings?

Friends, the battle for the human race begins here, with our ability to withstand the assaults of the evil one. Very pertinently, the battle to prevent World War III begins here, with our willingness to withstand the forces that would draw us into violence!

I do sincerely believe that there are unseen forces at work at the moment doing their best to divide the world’s population into a Judeo-Christian west and an Islamic East

Will you take your stand with me, and refuse to look down upon your Islamic sisters and brothers? Will you refuse to buy into the propaganda and fear your neighbours just because they are Arabic or members of the local mosque? Will you join me in saying ‘no’ to every attempt to depict Lebanese people or Palestinian people or Islamic people as our enemies! Will you work with me to deliberately blur the line between friend and enemy, as Christ would have us do?

These are dark days, and if you’re going to be a part of this army, you’re going to need every weapon that God will give you, so as to resist those unseen forces.

We are going to need the whole armour of God. We’ll need the gloves and we’ll need the headgear. We’ll need the mouth-guard and the groin-guard. We’ll need the sword and the shield and breastplate and helmet. And we will need one other thing … we will need each other!

This is where the boxing analogy breaks down a bit. It’s not that boxing isn’t a team experience, as the corner team are fundamental to every boxer‘s success. Even so, in the end, the boxer stands in the ring on his own . In Roman warfare though, as St. Paul had witnessed it, everybody gets into the ring together!

If you’ve seen Roman armour, you may know that the Roman shield (‘scutum’) was designed so that, when the troops formed a line, the shield would protect not only the person holding it, but would lock in to protect the persons on either side as well.

If you’ve ever seen how the Roman soldiers used to form ‘turtles’, you’ll know how they arranged these shields to protect each other from missiles coming in from above as well. Fighting, for the Roman soldier, was always a ‘team’ experience. They didn’t just fight as individuals side by side. Their whole style of fighting was dependant on the presence of their comrades.

Fighting, for the Roman soldier then was always a group effort, and Paul’s image of the Christian at battle is likewise not one of the individual warrior maintaining his or her individual spiritual integrity in the face of overwhelming odds, but it’s an image, rather, of a regiment of troops holding their line against oncoming forces.

This is the image that Paul is giving us (Paul being no stranger to ancient warfare). He’s not envisaging a sole commando taking on the elements alone. He’s envisaging the church, lined up like a regiment of legionaries, each with his shield locked in to that of his neighbour, digging in and holding the line against the enemy hoards that are doing their best to break through, and destroy and corrupt the community. Put on your armour Christian! Take your stand! Hold that line!

Holding the line is not easy. We need to be soldiers! We need to take hold of every weapon that God supplies. And we need each other. So let’s take stock of ourselves, and gird ourselves with our battle gear, for not only does your own spiritual life depend on it, but so also does the life of your sisters and brothers, the life of the church, and the future of our world.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Church in Dulwich Hill, August 2006.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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