The Right Equipment

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Life is a journey.  We are embarking on a journey, both as a congregation and as individuals – moving into the future that lies ahead of us.

And, like a journey, there are three main stages we need to consider.

First, we move away from that which is familiar.  If we go on a road trip, we move out of our comfort zone when we decide to leave the house and get in the car.  That is, in essence what we spoke about on September 4.  Then we plan a route.  We have a starting point – our home, for example, and we have an objective where we want to arrive.  We may have a good map (or even an excellent GPS app!) but even so, we do not know what we will encounter enroute.  So we prepare for the journey – we select the right clothing and equipment.

If, for example, we travel from North Vancouver to Jasper, Alberta, in February, like Barbara and I have done many times, there are some essentials to consider.  Firstly – snow tires on the vehicle.  Then warm clothing and good boots.  An emergency kit that contains water, food and blankets.  Also booster cables, tow rope and a snow shovel are necessities. Candles and flares are also good to have handy in case of an emergency.

However, having to make such detailed preparations and not knowing exactly what we will encounter on the road do not deter us from the trip.  We are well prepared for whatever road conditions or weather systems we may encounter.

On September 4 we spoke about getting out of our comfort zone. We are on a journey of faith, and in order to do that, God is calling us the step out of that which might feel comfortable. Last Sunday we spoke about navigating unfamiliar terrain.  We have a starting point – our compass anchor, our Ebenezer. We have an objective – the Great Commission beckons us.  We want to revitalise our church family and we want to reach our community for Christ and with Christ’s love.

The reading today is from Ephesians 6:10-17.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

When Paul wrote this letter he was in prison in Rome. The scholarly consensus is that the letter was most likely written around 60 A.D., which would coincide with Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome.  He was placed under house arrest, guarded by a detachment of soldiers.  The letter to the Ephesians was quite possibly a circular letter, intended to be read first by the Ephesian church and then circulated to other churches.  It is a letter chockfull of sound theological teaching, building through the teaching of salvation, reconciliation of Jew and Gentile and the purpose of the church.  Paul sees the church as the vehicle through which God’s glory is made manifest to society at large.

  • In simple, modern English – the local church is the vehicle through which the love and God is poured out to the world around us. The church, in this sense, should not be confused with organized religion.  We’ll come back to that – hold the thought.

Paul knew that the recent converts to Christianity were not having an easy time of things.  They were ostracised, persecuted and, towards the end of Paul’s life, emperor Nero actively promoted the persecution and execution of Christians.

To encourage the Ephesian church to stand firm, Paul ends the letter with the illustration of the full armour of God – likening it to that of a soldier.

When I considered this in light of the messages of the last two Sundays, I realised that this illustration also fits our journey as a congregation and as individuals.  We are embarking on a journey of faith. We have a course set before us.  Now we need to consider the equipment we need for the journey through this unfamiliar terrain.

Let’s unpack this.

  • Firstly – the belt of truth. The belt of truth firmly buckled around your waist.

Among the many parts of the armour the belt was one of the most important.  Not only did it keep the loose-fitting frock the soldier wore as undergarment together, but it also served as anchor to secure the sword – the gladius, and the dagger – the pugio.  Also essential was the groin protection – a leather strip, reinforced with metal pieces that protected the lower abdomen of the soldier.

The belt of truth is a powerful image for us, as we consider the future.  A few years ago a gentleman came to the church and engaged Reverent Robin Jacobson and me in conversation with the question: “what is truth?”  Thinking back on that discussion I realised he was not so much interested in finding an answer but more interested in generating a circular argument.  Robin was very good at frustrating those efforts.

  • What is our truth?

John records the following in John 14:6: “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know[a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Jesus is our truth.  Building on this statement, Jesus later (verse 17) promises the disciples that the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of truth - will be poured out on them.  We, also, are blessed with the Holy Spirit of truth.

I picture this belt as the anchor for the other elements of God’s armour that Paul describes later.  Paul describes the Word of God as the sword of the Spirit.  Just like the gladius and the pugio are carried by the belt of the uniform, so the sword of the Word will be carried by the belt of truth.

  • The first part of our equipment for the journey – the truth of Christ.

Secondly – the breastplate of righteousness.  The breastplate was the most important piece of defensive protection the soldier had.  This was especially true of the Roman infantry soldier.

Allow me to indulge in history for a moment.  The Roman army was, for its time, the most disciplined and best trained army in the European and near Asian world.  The infantry was particularly effective by fighting in close formation – a shield wall.  The shield was held close to the body in the left hand, while the gladius was wielded as a stabbing weapon in the right hand.  No wild swinging of swords as Hollywood would have us believe.  If an enemy could slip a blade past the wall of shields, the only thing that stood between the Roman and serious injury or death was the breastplate.

Paul probably had this image in mind when he wrote the passage – one day I’ll ask him.

Righteousness means to be in a right relationship with God.  This term is often used in the Old Testament to describe how God deals with His people.  He is often described in the prophets as sitting in judgment with righteousness.  In Isaiah 59:17, the prophet described God as putting on righteousness as His breastplate and donning the helmet of salvation when stepping in to save His people.

In our understanding of Christianity, righteousness, that is being in the right relationship with God, is brought about by faith in Jesus, by accepting Him as Lord and Saviour.  As I mentioned last week – when we accept Christ as our Lord, we are justified – that is – we stand in a right relationship with God before Him.  In this sense, righteousness and justification are linked.  The breastplate of righteousness can thus be described as the breastplate of justification through Christ Jesus and our faith in Him.  This is our most important defense against the doubts and fears that may assail us in our faith walk.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written, way back in the 16th century, to try and put in writing what constituted the then fledgeling Protestant belief framework.  The very first question is: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and the answer is “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”.  Short and sweet – the breastplate of righteousness, shining bright.

  • The second part of our equipment – the breastplate of justification in Christ.

Thirdly – footwear.  In Paul’s words – have your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.  Isaiah speaks of the same idea in chapter 52, verse 7:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”

From some archeological evidence it appears that is not unusual in Isaiah’s day for messengers to travel barefoot.  Probably because they could run faster, unencumbered by sandals that might come loose and trip the runner.   Paul’s image conjures up another image in my mind.

Some 750 years lie between Isaiah’s time and that of Paul.  A lot had developed in those 8 centuries, among others, footwear.  Roman military footwear was a very practical work of art.  The sandals consisted of a thick leather sole, equipped with bindings that were spaced about a centimeter apart where they tied into the sole.  These were linked and woven together and extended to about two hand widths above the ankle.  The sole was reinforced with metal strips or hobnails – similar to the hobnails used on army boots until rubber became more available after WW2.  The Roman soldier could, and did, walk all over Europe on sandals like that

Bring that image to the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.  The peace that passes all understanding.  The peace of Christ in a turbulent world.  With sandals like that we can stand firm, even when the footing may get a bit rough or slippery.  Another translation (NEB) puts it this way: “Let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace, to give you firm footing”.

  • That brings the third piece of equipment – the gospel that proclaims the peace of Christ.

Fourthly – the shield of faith. A Roman soldier without a shield in battle was a dead man.  The shield served not only as protection for the individual but also for those around him.

Roman shields, in Paul’s time were rectangular in shape and curved to offer better protection in close combat.  They were made of strips of wood, often covered with leather and bound at the edges with stitched rawhide.  A protruding metal boss in the center provided the main grip on the inside, and an effective secondary weapon on the outside.

In battle formation the soldiers were aligned so that the shields touched with the neighbour to the left.  Each soldier was thus protected party by his own shield, and partly by the shield of his neighbour on the right.  The testudo or tortoise formation was particularly effective. They worked as a team and had complete trust in each other.

The image I conjure up in my mind is something like this.  As a community of faith, we each have our own shield of faith.  These shields will not be uniform, like the Roman ones.  Some will be larger, some smaller, some thick, some thin. That is not important, as I’ll try to illustrate.  Imagine standing below a 32kV power line.  If you were to reach up to touch the power line with a thick steel pole or with a steel guitar string, the result will be the same.  Electrocution.  The power is not in what we touch the cable with – the power is in the cable.  In the same way God’s power is not made manifest because of the size or strength of our faith, but because His power does not depend on the strength of our faith.  As a community of faith we strengthen each other.  Like the soldiers in battle formation, we link shields, so to speak.  We gain strength as we meet together and support each other.

We still have to maintain our own shields – that is we strengthen our faith relationship with our God as we live for Him and spend time with Him in prayer and meditation.  Like a soldier cleaning and polishing his shield.  When we get together and link shields, we are strengthened for the challenges that may face us.

  • The fourth piece of equipment – faith in Christ.

The fifth item – the helmet of salvation.  Isaiah used the same illustration, as I mentioned before, when he used the image of God Himself putting on the helmet of salvation.  In Isaiah’s image (59:17) God dons the helmet of salvation as the bringer of salvation to His people.

The language Paul uses here when he says: “Take the helmet of salvation” implies accepting something that is offered.  We are offered salvation through faith in Christ – it is a free gift.  Earlier in the Ephesian letter (2:8) Paul writes: “It is by grace through faith that you have been saved”.  The helmet of salvation is the last piece of defensive protection Paul describes in this passage.

For the Roman soldier, the helmet served a number of functions. In the battle line it provided protection against the blows and attacks that may come from an unexpected angle.  For example, if an enemy would wield an axe and reach over top of the shield the helmet would provide protection.  The helmet, with its distinctive markings, also served to identify the soldier as belonging to a particular unit and subunit, readily identifiable to his commanding officer.

If we bring the illustration closer to home – we are saved by grace through faith.  We are God’s people.  We are protected.  We are known as disciples of Christ by the love we have for another – and for the world.  We are intimately known to our Lord – our Commanding Officer if your will.  We are secure in the knowledge that nothing, not even death, can rip us out of the hand of God.  We are one in the Lord, one in the Spirit.

  • Item 5 of the armour of God – our salvation by grace through faith.

Lastly – the sword of the Spirit, i.e. the Word of God.  In most translations the sword and the helmet are addressed in the imperative form, that is in a commanding tome – take the helmet and take the sword.  The Today’s English Translation puts it more succinctly: “And accept salvation as a helmet, and the word of God as the sword that the Spirit gives you”.

A part of this illustration is the up close and personal nature of the Roman gladius.  It was not very long, only about 60 cm – nothing like the 2-meter-long swords of the late Middle Ages.  It was at its most effective at close range.  And so, I think, it is with God’s Word.  We are most effective as witnesses and most effective in showing Christ’s love when we get close and personal to others.  We cannot show God’s love at a distance.

In our daily walk of faith, it is good to have a solid foundation on which we base all we do and say.  That foundation is the Word of God – as we are given it in the Bible.  That is for us as valuable as a sword was for the Roman soldier.  The Word is not a weapon to hurt others, it is the means by which we orient our lives and through which we can witness to others.  Both by our lifestyle and, if need be, with our words.

  • To complete the picture – the Word of God as the sword at our side.

When I tried to sum this all up, I bogged down.  Eugene Peterson came to the rescue with the way he paraphrases this passage.

Ephesians 6:12-18 (The Message)

13-18 Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

Allow me to conclude the illustration.

We are on a journey as a congregation and as individuals.  That journey has been ongoing for a long time, but now, in this unfamiliar time, post-Covid and when searching for a new minister, it seems that the pace has picked up.

We are called to step out in faith – to get out of whatever comfort bubble we have been in and look to the future.

We do not step out into complete chaos, though.  We know where we come from – we have a communal Ebenezer stone as well as individual Ebenezer stones.  We know what God has done for us and how He has helped us to where we are today.  We also know in which direction we wish to travel.  The Great Commission is the end objective – we want to revitalize our church family and we want to reach our community for Christ – to show His love and care for them.

We have the equipment we need for the journey.  When we think of the armour of God we can adopt the succinct statement from Eugene Peterson – truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation are more than words.  Learn to how apply them.

Finally, I want to come back to the thought I said you should hold right at the beginning.  I said that the local church is the vehicle through which the love and God is poured out to the world around us.  The church, in this sense, should not be confused with organized religion.  We are the local church.

In this context I want to leave you with a thought written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a German pastor and theologian, vehemently opposed to Hitler and his regime. He was arrested in 1943 and executed by the Nazi regime in April 1945, about 4 weeks before the war ended.  He wrote:

What matters in the church is not religion (the trappings in which we have clothed faith), but the form of Christ, taking shape among a band of humans.  If we allow ourselves to lose sight of this, even for an instant, we relapse inevitably into program planning for the ethical and religious shaping of the world.

We, here at Lonsdale United Church, and wherever you may be logged on from, are a band of humans among whom the form of Christ is taking shape, equipped with the full armour of God.

May God bless His word.