Monday, 11 September 2017

Trinity 13: The armour of light

Trinity 13 17

“Put on the armour of light,” says St Paul. We don’t often see people in armour these days, but the people St Paul was writing to – Christians who lived in Rome about twenty years after the time of Jesus – would have seen armed men walking the streets every day. Roman soldiers in their armour would have been a familiar sight.

Paul’s first readers would have known far better than us what armour was for and about, but we probably need to do a bit more thinking to really get it. It seems to me that there are really two reasons why armour matters so much to soldiers. The first is obvious. It equips you for a fight. The Greek word Paul uses doesn’t actually just refer to the defensive stuff, the helmet and breastplate and so on, but to all the equipment a soldier would need, weapons as well. Soldiers need the best equipment they can get if they are going to win a battle, or at least survive to fight another day.  

But there’s another reason why soldiers wear armour, and that is to identify which side they are on. Armour is a bit like a uniform – every army wears something at least slightly different, otherwise you don’t know whether you are shooting at someone from your own side. The Roman soldier’s very recognisable uniform would have told everyone who looked at him that he had sworn to fight for the Emperor, to enforce his will, good or bad, right or wrong.  They would have known instantly what he stood for because of the armour he wore.  

So when Paul tells people that they need to put on this armour, he is saying two things to them. The first is that they are in a battle, and that they need to be equipped for it. We don’t have to be militaristic to appreciate that life is a struggle, full of challenges that have to be faced. The second thing Paul was telling his hearers was that in declaring themselves to be Christians, they have come down off the fence and taken a side. They have committed themselves to God, and that will have consequences for them that they can’t escape.  If we are going to call ourselves Christians, says Paul, we can’t just shrug our shoulders when we see someone in trouble, for example, and say “it’s nothing to do with me – it’s someone else’s job to help”. We can’t just shrug our shoulders at the things within ourselves that need to be straightened out either, and pretend they don’t matter. We’ve signed up to serve a God who created everyone in his own image, and loves them with his whole being, and if we say we are his, then we’ve signed up to do that too.  We are called out of apathy into commitment, into action, called to make a difference,  however insignificant we feel, however young or old we are, whatever our abilities or our disabilities.

Put on the armour, enlist for the battle, take yourself seriously, says this reading.

Of course, there’s a problem with all this imagery of armour. It’s very vivid. It grabs our imagination. But that can lead us astray.  Over the centuries, again and again, Christians have fought wars and persecuted those they think are in the wrong, fired up with crusading zeal. They’ve heard the first part of Paul’s phrase, “put on the armour” and got all gung-ho about it,  thinking it licenses them to throw their weight around. They’ve entirely missed the end of the phrase “put on the armour of light”.

So we have to be really careful with this image. The armour Paul is talking about isn’t made of steel; it’s made of light. That was meant to sound odd, to sound nothing like the arms and armour of a Roman soldier. You put on this armour by loving your neighbour, respecting others, not impaling them on a sharp sword. There’s nothing violent about it, nothing that insists on its own way – quite the reverse. I doubt whether this armour  would have impressed a Roman soldier. And yet , ultimately, the kind of self-giving love Paul is talking about is far more powerful than hatred, far more likely to make a difference that will last.

Paul emphasizes that message at the end of the passage we heard today when he uses this imagery of “putting on” in a different way. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” he says. First we were told to put on armour, now we are told to put on Christ. Be like Jesus, he means. Act as he would have acted. And how is that? Well, Jesus died on a cross, helpless, powerless. He was crucified because of his commitment to the people at the bottom of the heap, because of his rabble-rousing, trouble-making insistence that those on the margins of his society were as worthwhile and precious as those who held the reins of power, and had as much to give. As Jesus hung on the cross he looked like a complete and total failure, far from a conquering hero, and yet, out of his act of self-giving love came life and hope that has changed the world.

Today, as we baptise Ewan, Harry and Kristian they are going to be putting something on. It may not look like armour, but it reflects the same idea. After they are baptised, I am going to put these shawls around their shoulders. Clothing the newly baptised in a white garment goes right back to the earliest days of the Church, and in fact, some commentators think Paul’s words about “putting on armour” and “putting on Christ” were meant to remind people of what happened to them when they came up out of the waters of their baptism. They would have been baptised by total immersion – dunked completely . They would have needed something dry to put on when they came up out of the water. But the white clothes they were given weren’t just a practicality. They were symbols of the fact that they were now clothed in the love of God, that they had put on Christ, that they had taken up this armour of light which would equip them for the new lives they were called to live, loving and helping those around them, making their world a better place.

When we clothe Ewan, Harry and Kristian in these shawls, we remind them that, yes, they go out into a world that is full of challenges and danger. It might sometimes feel like a battle. But they too are clothed in the love of God. And that love, if they can learn to trust it, will help them to face whatever life throws at them, stand up against hatred and prejudice, make the difference to the world that each of them is called to make.  These may only look like flimsy bits of material, but the love they remind us of is stronger than Kevlar. It’s indestructible and eternal and we pray that they will know that they will put it on not just today, but every day.

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