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The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2012
The Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-20
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle 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. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
The Triple X Olympic Games are over. Records have fallen, new heroes have been crowned, and some old ones elevated to even new heights. The medals that so recently adorned the amazingly muscular necks of so many, are now residing in trophy cases around the world. Yet, there is still something rather interesting to note now that the Games are over. It has to do with all those dolphin-like swimsters like Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin who turned the swimming pool lanes into a drag strip.
Phelps, Franklin and the whole pool full of swimmers who made the Olympic Games were already naturally fast. Years of training, sacrifice, sweat and fierce competition have made them able to push the aquatic envelope more and more every year. This Olympics, however, technology jumped into the pool with them in the form of a newly approved, space-age swimsuit by Speedo® called, appropriately, the Fastskin3. They are the fastest suits ever made.
We've heard about other suits in the past. During the swimming world championships in Rome in 2009, a full-body suit emerged that Phelps and other swimmers quickly decried because it aided buoyancy -- a big deal, especially in distance races where swimmers with less endurance could ostensibly just keep bobbing along to keep up. This new suit, however, is all about decreasing drag, thus making it an equal advantage for every swimmer who uses it. In a sport where a hundredths of a second matters, it makes the athlete well-suited.
It's not just the skintight suit that makes the difference, however. The suit is actually part of a system that includes a swim cap and goggles as well. Did you find yourself wondering how the swimmers knew where their competition was at all times, even eight lanes away? Their goggles are fitted with a hydroscopic lens that offers 180-degree peripheral vision. Natalie Coughlin said, "I'm a backstroker so I can't afford to take a look around to see where my competitors are, but with these I can see everything without moving my head."
Even with all the advantages of the suit, however, achieving a world record in the pool (or anywhere else for that matter), is still up to the talent and conditioning of the athlete. The suit simply works in harmony with the swimmers' natural talent to give them a chance to maximize their potential.
Now, If a high-tech suit can maximize the potential of talented athletes in the pool, we could wonder if there might be a suit that could be used to maximize potential in other areas; like, say, the life of discipleship. In our Epistle reading this morning from the sixth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, we are told just that. There is a performance enhancing suit for a well-suited Christian life. Paul, who was no stranger to the Olympic Games in his own day, understood that the emerging Christian community in Ephesus had great potential. They just needed the extra equipment that would help make them stronger in the competition they were waging with the fiercest of rivals: "…the spiritual forces of evil…” as he puts it (v.12). “Put on the whole armor of God,” he says, “that you may stand…” (v. 11).
The suit that Paul proposes doesn't look all that sleek. You definitely would not call it a Speedo; Sturdy-o, maybe. What Paul describes is the armor and accoutrements of a well-suited first-century Roman infantry soldier, which would have been a familiar sight to Paul’s readers. While not exactly made for swimming, Roman armor and weapons were state-of-the-art for their time, and made the Roman army the best in the world. At the time Paul is writing this, the Roman army guards the entire Mediterranean pool.
Now Paul is not literally telling the Ephesian Christians to put on Roman armor, but he is telling them how the principles behind that technology can make them equally dominant in the fight they're waging with the "…the spiritual forces of evil… " (v. 12). It is a suit that we are also called to put on so as to maximize our own potential with the strength of some God-appointed and gifted equipment building us up (v. 13).
So let’s take a few moments this morning and see how we can get well-suited for the Christian life. Let’s examine the parts of this spiritual suit. The Fastskin3 involves three pieces of equipment. Paul's has six.
First, there's the belt of truth. A belt holds everything together (v. 14). A belt is the central repository for the weapons and equipment the soldier needs most immediately. It also holds the tunic together, thus making it an essential part of the whole suit. Paul equates the belt with truth. Truth provides the disciple with a foundation for competition with evil. Jesus said that knowing the truth about him sets us free. (John 8:32). While others may guess and grope for direction in this life, we can move freely in Christ’s truth. When we study Jesus’ purpose for our lives, we can know our direction.
The belt of Truth!
Second, there’s the breastplate of Righteousness. The Roman breastplate, or lorica segmata, was a segmented series of iron strips joined together by hooks and leather straps that covered the chest and shoulders. The segments provided layered protection from spears and swords, while also allowing freedom of movement. Paul equates this technology with the protection of righteousness. Words are no great defense against accusations, but a good life is. The only way to meet the accusations against our Faith, is to show how beautiful a loving, forgiving, and giving life can be. When we live a loving, forgiving, and giving life, a righteous life, others can see the virtue of a life with Christ. The breastplate of Righteousness!
Third, there are the shoes of the Gospel of Peace. Footwear isn’t allowed in the pool, but it’s essential for the well-suited disciple. For the Roman soldier daily travel distance was determined by how well his feet could carry him, thus a good foundation was necessary for both speed and endurance. Paul says, "put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace" (v. 15). Paul may have had in mind the words of Isaiah 52:7: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.'" When we prepare ourselves to share our faith, to tell the story of our own healing, growing encounters with Christ, we ready ourselves to move-out and announce to those we meet the good news of Christ’s peace. The shoes of the Gospel of Peace!
Fourth there’s the shield of faith. The FastSkin3 may provide a barrier against drag in the pool. The disciple, however, needs an even stronger barrier against the constant drag of temptation. Paul urges the Ephesian church to pick up the "shield of faith" that quenches the arrows of the evil one (6:16). Roman shields were nearly as tall as the soldier's body, and were made of wood covered with leather. When going into battle, the shields were often soaked with water as a way of literally extinguishing the terror of flaming arrows fired at the phalanx. Faith in Christ provides a solid barrier for the disciple by mitigating the burning effects of temptation and guilt. Faith is trust in Christ; a close personal relationship with Jesus. When we walk close with him he quenches the flaming darts of temptation. Walk in prayer each day, and he will be your shield. The shield of Faith!
Fifth, there’s the helmet of salvation. It crowns the suit. The swim cap in the FastSkin3 system uses, so were told, "accurate head mapping data, creating optimum comfort, outstanding hydrodynamic performance, improved fit, and ease of use." The Roman soldier should have been so lucky. The Roman helmet would have been the opposite: hot, uncomfortable, ill-fitting, (literally one size fits all,) and neither hydro- nor aero-dynamic. Still, it was effective in battle. The knowledge of salvation, however, which Paul equates with the helmet, provides more than "accurate head mapping" of our place in the Reign of God. We're not just saved from death and destruction; we're saved for the mission of bringing God's reign of peace to the world. Knowing who we are and whose we are makes a huge difference in how we view life. Know that your salvation is a gift from God. It is securely in place, and God will not remove it. No attack can harm it. The helmet of Salvation!
Finally, there’s the sword; the sword of the Spirit. This echoes the image of God's word in Hebrews 4:12 as "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Paul is saying here that those who learn to use the Scriptures in a refined and precise way are going to be able to cut through all the junk religiosity in the world and get to the goal that really matters; bringing the world into the redeeming, healing presence of Christ. When we study the Scripture, make ourselves truly useful with it, we can stand up for and with Christ, whatever comes. The sword of the Spirit!
Ultimately, Paul says, the training we need to be well-suited, comes as the result of prayer. Prayer gives us focus for the task at hand. It keeps us "alert," and keeps us encouraged to "persevere" in our own training, and in building up each other (v. 18). Prayer supplies the power and the wisdom to wield the sword of the Spirit, and the strength to wear the whole armor of God.
Ryan Lochte, another U.S. Olympian and world-record holder, says about the FastSkin3: "When I put it on, I feel superhuman… When I get on the blocks I'm like an action figure. ... It's out there for any swimmer who wants to wear it…” So is the suit of the Spirit. It is the performance enhancing wear of the disciple. With prayer, it is the power to change the world. Be well-suited. Put it on!