August 26, 2012
Small pieces of clay for distribution
The author of this letter has written several pages on what it means to live in Christ (remember Chris’s first sermon?!)—he describes a transformed life that runs counter to the culture of the day, especially as regards the new community’s make up of very different people who’d otherwise be kept apart—in this case Jews and non-Jews.
This comes towards the end of the letter, as a kind of summary and encouragement. A couple of things about the wording and the cultural setting so we don’t get distracted by certain phrases:
first, ‘in the heavenly places’ and ‘powers of darkness’ reflect the cosmology of the day. In that place and time, angels and demons and spirits participate in what happens on earth - there’s a free movement of good and evil forces in all dimensions of life. Chris might say its mystical language, and that may be so. Certainly, to the ordinary person, these forces are real, and evident in human structures and systems and powers that be. Our cosmology may be different, but is it not true that there are forces at work that stand in direct opposition to that good news of peace that comes through Jesus?...forces based on the opposites of God’s armor:
lies and dishonesty instead of truth
violent or hurtful behavior instead of lives of integrity
wishy washy values instead of clear Jesus values
creation of barriers of discrimination based on fear
vested interests and own own agendas taking
precedence over seeking God’s call.
Ephesians says we are to live a transformed life.
Secondly, each piece of armor he mentions corresponds to something he’s already said in the letter about that – truth, right living, the gospel of peace and so on. So we must be careful not to take this little passage out of context and read into it our personal definitions of those attributes. Note that this is about GOD’S armor. This was a common enough image for God’s strength as far back at least as Isaiah; in fact it’s Isaiah’s language he’s using.
But for Christians today it’s a dangerous image when applied to human believers, and can lead, and has led, to zealous militarism and warfare in the name of God throughout the centuries, and still is today. One author I read this week said “killing is bad enough, but if people can kill in the name of their God, somehow the whole achievement can be seen as good and worthwhile” (wm Loader)
But Ephesians isn’t about conquest; it’s about resistance to powers that work against God’s way that is described through the letter: transformation of the world through love and reconciliation, unity in difference, and overcoming of barriers, religious and otherwise. The same author says that “the Christ agenda controls the [armor] imagery, rather than the imagery controlling the Christian agenda” We might do well to remember that in the midst of the current political rhetoric littered with faith words and concepts used to further our own agendas.
Ephesians in fact reworks the image from a common militaristic one to a very non-militaristic one.
Usually armor is a sign of self-protection and self-reliance, individually and nationally. Ephesians turns that around to a sign of radical reliance on God.
Instead of a passage inciting us to violence and justification of war, as it has been used, it reminds us our protection from evil and our pro-activity for good come not from metal and weapons but from God-stuff: truth, salvation or security, peace, faithfulness, etc.
Rather than arming, it’s about dis-arming, about resistance. I mean, think about our last hymn, does this sound like warfare: heal the sick, preach the word, baptizes teach bring about a just society?
Of course not.
But make no mistake, if we live a transformed life, live with different priorities and values from our surrounding culture, we do in many ways live embattled. The forces against us are strong….ask any parent whose youth is in Sunday sports that competes with church. We need armor.
So let’s take a moment of meditative reflection on this armor, imagining for ourselves, individually and as a congregation, what it means to live a transformed, alternative life depending on God-stuff instead of cultural stuff….
The ushers are bringing baskets with pieces of clay for you to hold and mold as you reflect….hold it until you begin to mold it into some symbol of what God is saying to you in this quiet time…
Close your eyes if it helps, or focus your sight on some item – your hands, the cross, a candle, the pattern on the back of the pew in front of you…
Put on the belt of truth….what is God’s core truth that you claim for your own, that is what holds everything else up, like a belt on a Roman toga?…is it fastened well? …does it free you for movement, unrestrained by what might trip you up?
The breastplate of goodness and right-living protects heart and life, and is upfront and visible to all……
Put on shoes of peace-making….shoes are for readiness to stand and move….no one-size fits all, but ‘whatever makes for proclaiming peace’…some might be soft-soled/souled slippers, others steel toed workboots….where do your feet take you that makes peace? Buechner once wrote “if you want to know who you really are, as distinct from who you like to think you are, keep an eye on where your feet take you.” Our feet, not just our words, take us towards where peace needs to be proclaimed…..don’t they? As someone said to me yesterday, if you want to leave footprints, first you have to get up and walk…..
Take up the shield of faith against the flaming arrows….. what are some of the forces that compete with, distract from or even betray our Christian faith and living?..... But the shield isn’t just about a set of beliefs that we use to protect ourselves. It is also about faithfulness to, and trust in, God’s way, so we stand strong against the assaults of those who do not know the gospel is about peace, not competition, about love, not division……
The helmet of salvation….remember your baptism, when the touch of God’s unconditional love and grace was marked on your forehead forever? Our salvation, our security, our purpose in what we’re saved for, lies in that gift, not in our own brain power, great as it may be…..it is a gift given to us, nothing we produce ourselves….
….and the sword of God’s word, like the shoes, is the active element of the image….not just passively armed against the culture’s assault, but proactively engaging in challenging the structures and systems that divide the world…. Grounded in God’s word, and the Spirit’s power to make it alive, we may disagree on meaning of specific content, but the uniting overpowering message of scripture is that God is involved, active and expectant of our participation in the vision…
All these pieces of armor we have at our disposal…how well do I wear each one? But more importantly, we must remember it’s the community Ephesians addresses…we wear this armor together so we can stand together. Together on the journey, says our congregation’s logo.
All this leads the author into a place beyond image, beyond bits and pieces of armor, the place of prayer…
He ends the section with a call to a prayer life that is serious, and persistent. To live out God’s agenda instead of any personal, or political, or school sports or media agenda, we need to stay focused….grounded in our ongoing relationship with God through prayer, so that when trouble comes, and it does, we are prepared, pre-prayered!
As you come back from your focus point, your reflective listening for God, you may have a form for your clay, already molded or still to be worked on….if you don’t want to keep this piece of clay, leave it in the baskets in the narthex. But if you want a reminder of God’s call, challenge, or comfort to you today, take it home and bake it for about 10 minutes in a 275 degree oven…
Let me close with a story about South Africa during apartheid…..
Let's put on our armor, and dance.