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!
So says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, as we will hear proclaimed this coming Sunday. For most of us, this doesn’t have a lot of meaning. We don’t tend to wear much armor these days — unless one participates in the SCA or other historical re-enactment group — so words like breastplate and shield and helmet and sword don’t mean a whole lot to us. Of course, Paul isn’t talking about literal, physical armor, but is using these as a metaphor to help us understand what God can do for us. These are protection for us, when we go out to pursue the Great Commission, when we share God’s Good News with others. Sharing the gospel can be risky, even scary. It touches the very deepest parts of us, and we make ourselves vulnerable when we share these deepest inmost parts. We need God’s protection when we reveal our vulnerability, when we take risks, and God is very happy to give this to us.
In the gospel appointed for Sunday, Peter reveals his own vulnerability, taking a risk before Jesus and the other disciples. For the last few weeks, Jesus has been teaching some hard things. After feeding the multitudes — with the Resurrection itself, one of only two miracles that appears in all four gospels — Jesus finds many people following him, asking for more food. He seizes on this as a teaching moment, trying to show the difference between the things of this world and the things of heaven. In this world, when we eat or drink, it satisfies us for a time, but then we need more food and more water again. Eventually, all the food and water in the world is of no use, because in time, all of us in this world die. But in God’s kingdom, we find the things that last forever, that are real and true and good. The living bread that Jesus describes sustains and satisfies us forever, without ever needing more. Finally, Jesus comes to today’s passage, which sounds like he’s advocating ritual cannibalism. Cannibalism is anathema to the Jewish people in this time; to even touch blood makes one ritually unclean, much less to actually drink it! So many in the crowd find this teaching to be just too much for them, and they walk away from Jesus, probably shaking their heads in disbelief.
In this passage, you can almost see Jesus. You can see him sigh deeply, as his shoulders hunch. He has been preaching and teaching and healing nonstop. He just fed thousands of people, and now they reject his message. He is disappointed in his people, that they turn away from his truth. And so, weary and dismayed, Jesus turns to his closest friends and asks, So are you guys going to leave me now, too?
I’m sure that the silence was eloquent. I can see the disciples looking at each other, at the ground, at the sky, as they shift their weight uneasily. What can they possibly say? Jesus has been teaching some really tough, confusing stuff here, and none of them is quite sure what it means. Finally, Peter speaks up and answers for everyone. Where else would we go? We know that you are the Holy One of God. You have the words of eternal life. We would be lost without you. And this is true. They might not really understand Jesus — probably not much more than we do today! — but they are still with him, because they believe in him.
This is what God’s armor is for. The armor of God gives us the courage to say, when the whole world tells us we’re crazy for our faith, that believing is a good and joyful thing. The belt of truth upholds us while the breastplate of righteousness keeps us safe from words that might harm us. The shield of faith gives us the courage to become vulnerable by sharing God’s message. And the sword of the Spirit is the word of God, the words that we speak — or that speak through our actions — to bring others to God.
The armor of God is a particularly apt message for me in my life right now. This last weekend, I made my promises as a novice in the Anglican Order of Preachers, so now I’m Sister Warriormare, or maybe Sister Hedwyg. 🙂 The Dominicans are dedicated to preaching and teaching, to saving souls by sharing the gospel. Our calling is to make ourselves vulnerable in the same way Peter does in this gospel story, to say Yeah, sometimes really crappy stuff happens. But where else would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. I would be lost without him. And to support us in this calling, God clothes us in God’s armor. As many religious do, we have a habit that represents our calling. Our informal habit is a black-and-white outfit that makes us look rather like waiters; our formal habit is a white tunic with a black cowl. Most days I wear the informal habit, and when I put it on in the morning, I am reminded of the armor of God. The habit strengthens me, even if others don’t know I’m even wearing a religious habit; it reminds me to behave as a person of faith, to preach the gospel in words and in actions. This past Friday, my class of postulants was clothed as novices. We wore our white albs, and the black cowls were placed upon us, arming us to go out into the world and be defended as we do God’s work. When I wear the formal habit for worship, when I’m out in the public eye dressed this way, I am reminded even more keenly of my call to save souls, to share the gospel. And I do feel protected by this armor. It would not turn away arrows or bullets, but it does help me to handle harsh words, disdainful glances, and behavior that speaks of contempt. Somehow, I find more courage, to help me open up, take risks, and become vulnerable.
I know that clerical collars and vestments are another form of the armor of God. They help our clergy to be similarly strengthened and defended in their work to share the gospel and save souls. The thing is, we don’t really need actual, physical clothing. When we’re weak, physical symbols of our faith can help us, can remind us of our commission from Christ, can remind us that no matter what anyone else says, we count on Jesus’ words of eternal life. A simple cross on a chain can be the armor of God. And we can even put on God’s armor inwardly, by imagining the breastplate and shield and helmet and boots. By intentionally arming ourselves against harm, we are better equipped to take the personal risk, to make ourselves vulnerable by sharing the faith that forms us at such a deep level.
The psalmist tells us, happy are they who put their trust in God! Trust in God. Put on God’s armor. And share something deep and important and real and true… today!