I woke up yesterday morning, and quickly found my heart heavy.
It was just like any other Saturday morning. The girls were watching Saturday morning cartoons. Kay was in the kitchen, scrambling some eggs for the kids, and I stumbled out, hair askew, body creaking, and made my way over to the computer to check the morning headlines. And almost too fast for words, what had started as a typical morning became filled with darkness and sorrow.
This time, the crime was in another part of Nashville, not far from where I worked in restaurants as a teenager. Two men had entered a pizza place on White Bridge Road with the intention of walking away with money they hadn’t earned. By the time they walked out, they had taken more than money . . . they had taken the lives of the two men, Chris, the 33 year old manager, and Josh, his 18 year old employee.
Not again, I found myself saying to myself, for this week has been one in which too much violence has been seen in our city. Earlier this week, a man was shot at one of the apartment complexes along Apache Trail, just down the road from here. A restaurant owner in West Nashville was gunned down behind his restaurant on Wednesday. Two homes in Madison were invaded by criminals who tied up the homeowners and stole their belongings. And on Tuesday, two men pleaded guilty for pushing a sleeping, innocent, homeless woman into the Cumberland River kicks and watching her drown beneath the muddy waters.
What is going on here? Our leaders tell us to be worried about the terrorists who cross our borders and threaten us with violence. But look around . . . it may not be the Muslim terrorists we have to worry about. We seem to be doing a pretty good job of living in the way of Cain, with brother taking up arms against brother. We find our hearts sliding down the path to fear, and our ability to trust our neighbor running out the back door with every 20 point headline screaming of the latest act of violence in our city. Is it really possible to live in love, as the apostle Paul has been saying to us this month? Is it really within our grasp to live in unity with one another and the rest of the world? We want safety and security, and will do anything to get it. Why then should we listen to a man writing a letter from a dark and dirty jail?
It’s in that context that we take up Paul’s final teaching to his flock on Christian maturity, this teaching about protection, the call to take up the armor of God. In the midst of the stuff of the world around us, it may not seem like much, but I think Paul just might help us to examine our world with new eyes.
The people of Paul’s day were certainly familiar with the armor of the Roman soldiers that filled every city in Macedonia, even if we aren’t today. It’s hard for us to fully get the impact of what Paul was describing, but let’s take a minute to paint this picture in our minds. Imagine if you would a tall, muscular man who has been trained to fight for the empire. He strikes an imposing figure standing before us. Around his waist is tied an item that is translated as a belt, but which some scholars say is most likely a leather girdle or apron which was used to protect the lower abdomen and groin. Above that was a garment that covered the entire torso. This garment may have been made of solid metal, but was more likely made by sewing together leather strips that had been covered with metal. In any case, this vest contained special reinforcement in the chest area. Both the girdle and the breastplate protect the most vital and vulnerable places of the soldier’s body from attack. On the feet of this soldier were most likely boots with nails driven through the soles, allowing him to dig in against an opponent and to stand firm in the face of the oncoming onslaught. Now if we continue to follow Paul’s description, this soldier would have a shield, but not one of those small metal ones to defend sword blows. Paul uses a Greek word for shield which describes a full length implement made of wood, and cloth, and covered with leather hides. This shield was usually soaked in water before going into battle and would retain its wetness for some time. When an enemy rained down flaming, pitch covered arrows the shield would catch them and not burst into flames, fizzling out instead in the wet leather. On top of the soldier’s head was a helmet, made usually of metal, and topped off with some sort of crest, identifying the soldier as one to be feared. Finally, in his hands would be his only offensive weapon, the sword. This sword was probably not the long rapiers we hear of in the tale of the three musketeers, but a short, squat one probably less than 16 inches in length. It was a close order weapon, requiring one to get close to the enemy in order to do any damage. All of this stuff, this armor, was heavy and bulky. It took a strong man to be able to wear the stuff, not to mention fight a battle in it. So the soldiers of Paul’s day were feared, seen as fighting machines not to be trifled with.
Now let’s change gears a bit to consider Paul’s advice. Paul is sending in his army, the church into battle. In front of us is a Roman warrior, heading in our direction with his sword and shield, and moving to attack us. And so Paul tells us to put on their armor. Okay, here is truth . . . right here. Okay, let me get my righteousness on . . . okay can’t you see it. Now let’s put on the shoes of peace. Don’t forget to put that faith in front of you and grab God’s word in your hand. And so we stand there, seemingly as naked as we started out, with only a book in our hand, watching this instrument of war and death come toward us, ever closer.
Come on Paul, what are you thinking? Oh we believe in God alright, but a little bit of truth and a dash of peace don’t seem to be much comfort against a sharp sword or flaming arrows bent on destroying us. We need protection — real protection — protection that only comes from armor and weapons, protection that comes from doing unto others as they have done unto us, protection that comes from becoming like our attackers, using violence to end violence.
And that is where Paul confronts us today. Paul hears our cries two thousand years after he wrote his words just as he heard the cries of the early Christians persecuted and under attack by an oppressive Roman government. And Paul speaks to us by reminding us that true war is not waged on the battle field, with weapons and armor. Rather true war is waged in the heart, in the mind, in the soul. “Your battle is not with the external things you see or hear” Paul says, “The battle is not about handguns or roadside bombs. The battle is with powers, with principalities, with the unseen evil that runs through the world and fills our hearts with terror. For Paul, using the weapons of violence in this battle is a futile as trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. The battle of the mind and soul is never won through external means, through weapons, through armor. To fight the battle of the mind, we must use different means, different tactics, and different possibilities. To fight this battle we must use God’s protection rather than our own.
So we look to the tools Paul gives us. We are wrapped in truth, knowing the certainty of what we believe. When we are baptized or confirmed we claim that we know the truth of God’s love, the truth about Jesus’ sacrifice, the truth about our own inadequacy. But as we are confronted by the evil of our enemies, our sense of certainty becomes tarnished, damaged, and we wonder if the whole house of cards that we call our faith is about to fall. The belt of truth cinches together our confidence about who God is and what God promises and protects our spirit from permanent damage.
We are also covered with righteousness. What does that mean? I like the way that the New English Bible translates this, telling us to “put on integrity.” Righteousness is linked to integrity throughout the Bible, and speaks of a coherence, of a wholeness, which a person is known by. Righteousness, for Paul, is not about living out a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” No, righteousness is about living a life that is consistent with the truth we cinch around us. It is about living out the covenant that we made with God when we entered into relationship with him.
Then we have the gospel of peace on our feet. Paul seems less concerned about our putting on peace, than our sharing it. To share “shalom,” (the Hebrew word for peace) is not simply to call for the absence of war. Rather, to offer shalom for someone is to wish for their peace of mind, for their contentment, for their fullness of life. To offer this peace is not passive. No, it is to actively work for the well-being of the other, ensuring that they obtain God’s grace just as it has been given to us.
Faith is the shield that goes before us, and salvation the helmet that covers us, protecting us from the fiery arrows that are thrown our way. It is faith that keeps us from falling apart in the midst of tragedy. It is faith that keeps the flames of hatred and oppression thrown by our enemies from spreading. It is faith that calls us to light a candle in the dark, to give blood, to do all the things that we do to proclaim that evil doesn’t have any power over us. And salvation clothes us in grace far beyond what we may feel at a given moment — a grace given by the one who died forgiving us.
You see, when Paul calls us to put on God’s armor, Paul is reminding us of the truth that has existed ever since Jesus lived and walked among us. To put on God’s armor, this spiritual armor, is to recognize that the power of love is more powerful than evil and death. It is this power that Jesus was describing when he told us to love our enemies. It is this power that Jesus was thinking about when we were commanded to turn the other cheek. It is this power that led Jesus to the cross, sacrificing himself on behalf of the world and rising from the dead to overcome the power of evil and death.
We are not the first people in the world to experience hatred and violence in our world. It was only a few years ago that blacks in South Africa were regularly oppressed, tortured, and killed by whites through the system of apartheid. During the height of that battle, Ted Koppel interviewed Bishop Desmond Tutu and asked if the situation in South Africa was hopeless. “Of course it is hopeless from a human point of view,” he said. But then he smiled and continued on. “But we believe in the resurrection, and so we are prisoners of hope.”
That is what we become when we put on the full armor of God, prisoners of hope. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have been taken captive by a hope that will liberate us from all hopelessness. In putting on God’s armor, we become clothed with a hope that transcends fear, that transcends death, and allows us to be free in the midst of pain, suffering and uncertainty. In dressing ourselves in the garments of God, we find a protection that goes beyond increased police patrols and handgun carry permits.
To put on God’s armor is to recognize that God has turned upside down our notions of power. For in God’s kingdom, it is the prisoners who are warriors, the weak who are strong, the lowly who are exalted. When we put on God’s armor we discover that our strength comes not in the sword but in the Word of God which fills transforms us, renews us, and sustains us. When we put on the full armor of God, our hearts and are souls and our minds are freed from the power of evil and terror that fills our world today.
That, my friends, is a signpost on the way to maturity in the Kingdom of God. Christian maturity, as we have discovered this month, recognizes that there is something much bigger than ourselves that is calling to us. Growing up in the way of Jesus means that we work diligently toward unity, that we humble ourselves and willingly serve others, and that we recognize that the evils we face aren’t battles against flesh and blood, but battles of the heart and mind, requiring a character focused always on the love of God. To be mature is to think differently and live differently, demonstration the radical nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I started the day with a heavy heart, but through the power of Christ, I realized that violence has no real power, that fear has no place in our lives, and that the resurrection of Jesus triumphs over the power of death to rule us. I grieve, for I know that somewhere today a mother is crying over her lost son. I grieve, for I know that somewhere today a 21 year old man who is still a boy is scarred by the knowledge that he has taken a life. Like all who hear these stories, I grieve.
But I am not devastated. I am not powerless. I am not helpless in the face of evil.
For I have been given the complete and total armor of God.
And so have you.