The lesson this morning from the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of our need for spiritual armor. This is so we can withstand evil forces, “for our struggle [in this world] 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…” For many people, perhaps many of you gathered here, “spiritual armor” is not something quite in vogue. That’s my hunch. You probably have up-to-date anti-virus software on your computer; you will take seriously your doctor’s recommendation to have an H1-N1 swine flu vaccination this fall; you wash your hands before you eat; you accept our country’s need for military defense to guard us against adversaries… All of these are protections to ward against enemy forces, whether armed confrontation or in the form of viruses and germs. But your sense of need for “spiritual armor” may not garner much of attention. It should.
The scriptures speak of a panoply of spiritual forces that surround us, seek to inform or infect us, are for both good and evil. Certainly Jesus and Saint Paul presumed that the force is with us and against us. And so we read here in the Letter to the Ephesians about our need for the “armor of God”: a belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, a shield and helmet, secure shoes. Going back to the early centuries of the church, so many people have ventured to explain what these various pieces of armor really symbolize. Endless commentaries. John Calvin, the sixteenth century Protestant reformer, weighs in with very wise advice. What’s the secret, for example, why righteousness is made a breastplate instead of a girdle, he asks? The significance? Absolutely nothing. It’s fruitless speculation. This is simply a 1st century description of the armor of a 1st century Roman soldier.i What is significant is our need for protection from head to toe because we all are vulnerable to attack. How are you spiritually vulnerable, where you need to be well defended? That awareness will inform the kind of protection, the armor that you need.
I’ll draw on the insight of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Jesuits, who in his earlier life was an armor-bearing knight and soldier.ii Two things. For one, Ignatius says that the enemy of our soul is like a calculating general sizing up his opponent. Where is the opponent vulnerable? Where are you?
It may have to do with how you are prone to lose your center or your sobriety. What is it that makes you vulnerable? It may have to do with your proclivity to over-work, or to under-rest, and so your fuse is short or your rationalization is great. You may quietly say to yourself, “I deserve this,” something, which if you were more sound and centered would be dangerous ground, as you would know.
If you are prone to harbor resentment, you are very vulnerable. Resentment is residual anger, and it is infectious like metastasizing cancer. It will eat you up.
If you are prone to lose your gratitude for being alive, you are spiritually vulnerable. Life is a gift, not a given. If you are prone to lose your perspective on the amazing gift of life, of so much that is mysteriously wonderful, beautiful, sustaining, strengthening… If you are prone to lose sight of this, then you are prone to give way to a pernicious pride, to the idolatry of being your own god. And that god will be too small for you, will abandon you.
If you are inappropriately critical of other people, you are vulnerable. I say inappropriately critical of other people, because we absolutely need critical faculties to navigate our relationships. Being inappropriately critical is a tendency to see other people, or another person, as better than you or worse than you. You judge them, in their essence they are better or worse, and you, therefore, either inferior or superior to them. That’s inviting trouble, because you lose your dignity in that kind of judgment, and so does this other person in your eyes. If you are prone to be critical of people rather than merciful, then you don’t know them well enough, and you are spiritually vulnerable to get lost in your relationships.
If you are prone to keep secrets, you are spiritually vulnerable. I’m not talking here about your meriting privacy nor about your keeping confidences, both of which are important. I’m talking about living your life not looking ahead or looking up but rather looking over your shoulder or looking down, hoping that something is not discovered or traceable, hoping that something within you that needs light stays in the dark. That’s a secret, and that puts you in spiritual vulnerability because that darkness will grow without light.
In our lifetimes, we don’t lose our spiritual vulnerability. We wouldn’t want to lose it. How we come to know God, how God breaks through to us, is probably through something that is broken in our lives. That break becomes God’s breakthrough, again and again. Our being vulnerable for the good also puts us at risk for being vulnerable to the bad. I’ll use a medical analogy. A person in a hospital on an operating table is looking for a good outcome. The surgeon will take every precaution that something bad, something potentially infectious, doesn’t infiltrate what is opened up for the good. And so must you. Ignatius of Loyola says that there is a kind of spiritual warfare going on around us and within us. We are being fought over, and we need to be armored. Ignatius says that in every soldier’s set of armor there are chinks, little breaks in defense that makes the soldier particularly vulnerable in those areas. Ignatius says these particular breaks don’t go away in life. Where and how you are vulnerable, you will be for the rest of your life. Ignatius simply says, remember that. Don’t let down your guard, especially where you know yourself to be vulnerable.
Which goes back to the particular pieces of armor you need. What are they? You need the 21st century equivalent of the 1st century armor described in the Letter to the Ephesians: an equivalent to the helmet to protect your eyes and ears and head: how you see and hear and think. The equivalent of a shield and breastplate to guard your heart and protect your limbs; an equivalent to the 1st century “girding up your loins,” which is about finding and maintaining your center. You need custom-fit spiritual armor. What is it you need?
There is more going on in this world than meets the eye. The presence and power of God is operating: God’s light and life and love. God’s invitation to us is to co-operate with how God operates, to claim our needed protection and our invincible power. And power we have. Saint Paul writes, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”iii Claim the armor you need, the armor God has for you, and take it up… and having done everything, stand firm.iv
i John Calvin (1509-1564) writes: “Nothing can be more idle than the extraordinary pains which some have taken to describe the reason why righteousness is made a breastplate instead of a girdle. Paul’s design was to touch briefly on the most important pints required in a Christian and to adapt them to the [military] comparisons he had already used.” Quoted in R. W. Dale, The Epistle to the Ephesians (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1882); p. 426.
ii Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).
iii Romans 8:37-39.
iv Ephesians 6:13.
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