Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 23, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 6:10-20
During the past five weeks, we have been exploring the book of Ephesians in our morning worship. This letter emphasizes how in Christ, God has broken down walls that separate us to unite us even in the midst of our diversity and differences. It reminds us of the breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s love and power at work within us to accomplish more than we can imagine. Therefore, we are called to put on Christ, to be imitators of God, as God’s beloved children, and to live in love, in the same way that Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.
Today, we come to the end of the letter, and in the sixth chapter of Ephesians, we are given a reality check. For Christians to live in unity while acknowledging our diversity, to live imitating God and putting on Christ, to live with love in our hearts and spiritual songs on our lips… to do all these things can be difficult. There are forces and powers out in the world and within ourselves that are constantly waging war against us to discourage and defeat us. In the midst of this struggle, we hear these words: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”
How do we define strength in the world today? Oftentimes, we think of strength as an ability to out-smart, out-gun, out-think, and out-number our rivals, our enemies, and our adversaries. Political candidates tout their strengths and highlight the weaknesses of others. We celebrate companies like Apple and Google, and athletes like the women’s U.S. soccer team and football stars like J.J. Watt. UVA flaunts the SAT scores of their incoming first-years. Every fall we pray that the Cavaliers will beat the Hokies. Parents want their children to excel. We don’t want to be seen as weak. We don’t want to fail. There are so many high achievers here at UVA and in the Charlottesville area that competition is part of the air we breathe. We want to be strong.
But what does it mean to be strong in the Lord and putting on the full armor of God? While there are many battles taking place in our world today – literal battles with guns and tanks, political battles and debates, cultural battles – this passage suggests that the one really important battle is not a battle between “flesh and blood” human beings. Rather it is against forces and powers that we cannot see, but which do serious damage to individuals, families and communities. While the Roman empire was built on its military strength, early Christians were not called to bear arms against any human beings, because their battle was a spiritual one. Therefore this letter uses the common military gear of the Roman soldier and transforms this gear into new Christian metaphors of spiritual warfare.
Twice in this passage, Christians are told to “put on” the full armor of God. The word for “put on” is the same Greek word used earlier in Ephesians 4:24, where Christ followers are put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Putting on the full armor of God is just another way to illustrate what it means to put on Christ, to become a new self, a new creature in Christ. Therefore, the various pieces of armor are first and foremost, characteristics and qualities that Christ offers to believers to incorporate into our lives so that we can be strong in the Lord and stand firm even in the midst of attacks from the forces of evil.
The first piece of armor is the “belt of truth,” which holds the battle tunic together. In Colossians 1:15-17, Christ is described as the image of the invisible God, and “in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” When our world is unraveling and falling apart, we have Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life, who will hold us together as the belt of truth.
The second piece of armor is the “breastplate of righteousness,” which protects our heart and lungs. Romans 5:19 says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Christ) the many will be made righteous.” When the demonic powers of sin and shame and rejection attack us to break our hearts and puncture our spirits, we have Christ, whose obedience made us righteous in God’s eyes. In the saving work of Christ, we are loved and accepted by God.
When Christ has a hold of our lives and we experience Christ’s righteousness and God’s approval, we experience shalom, a wholeness and a peace that transcends all understanding and all circumstances. We can’t help but share that good news with others. Therefore, our feet will be fitted with the third piece of armor, a readiness not only to “talk the talk,” but to “walk the talk” that comes from the gospel of peace.
The fourth piece of armor is the “shield of faith.” “The Lord is my strength and my shield; My heart trusts in Him, and I am helped,” thus sings the psalmist in Psalm 28:7. As far back as Genesis 15, God spoke to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you.” When we don’t know what the future holds, when the flaming arrows of fear are hurtling our way, we can be sheltered behind God’s power and faithfulness because God reassures us, “Do not fear; trust in me. I am a shield to you.”
The fifth piece of armor is the “helmet of salvation.” 1 Thessalonians 5:8 says, “Let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” As Christians, our salvation comes through our Lord Jesus Christ. But the powers of this world are constantly attacking this truth, tempting us to think and believe that our salvation comes also from worldly success. We think we’re doomed if we don’t get into the college of our choice. We think we’re damned if we don’t “make the grade.” We think we’ll face the wrath of our parents or our peers or even ourselves if we fail in one way or another. A recent survey of 150,000 college freshmen nationwide found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently “felt depressed” during the past year. More than a third “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments. One respondent said that as a high school student, “You have to get good grades, have all sorts of after-school activities that take up tons of hours, and you have to be happy and social — you have to be everything. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to sometimes.” Students, as important as grades and activities are, remember that your salvation comes from Jesus Christ. Put on the helmet of salvation as a protection against the demonic temptation to seek salvation elsewhere.
The final piece of the armor of God is the “sword of the Spirit,” which is the word of God. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Some say that the sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon in the armor of God. But I would say that before we use it on our enemies, the word of God should be used on ourselves to judge the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts.
When we put on the full armor of God, then we can be strong in the Lord. This strength does not come from ourselves. In fact, one mystery of the gospel is that through our human weakness, the strength of Christ is made most evident. The apostle Paul, when he talked about struggling with the torment of Satan as “a thorn in his flesh,” heard the Lord say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responds, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
Last Thursday, former President Jimmy Carter told the world that he had cancer in his liver that has spread to his brain. Presidential scholars and everyday Americans can argue about Carter’s years in the White House, but most people agree that no other former President has done more to champion human rights, fight third-world diseases, or build Habitat for Humanity homes than Jimmy Carter. Throughout his press conference, he had a broad smile and an upbeat attitude. At ninety years old, Carter said that he’s had a wonderful life, and that he was feels “perfectly at ease with whatever comes.” Despite this news, he continues to focus on others – he’s still hoping to travel to Nepal with Habitat this fall, and he talked about the Carter Center’s work in eradicating the parasitical guinea worm from Africa. In fact, he joked, “I’d like for the last guinea worm to die before I do.” Closer to home, even though he received his first treatment on Thursday, he is planning to teach Sunday School at his Baptist church this morning, just as he’s done for decades. By some standards, President Carter’s cancer diagnosis puts him in a position of weakness; but to me, he’s a living example of a Christian who is strong in the Lord.
Many of you here know Millie Fitzgerald, who passed away earlier this week. Millie was a long-time member of UBC and a long-standing member of our sanctuary choir. For several years now, Millie suffered from various physical maladies, but despite the weakness of her failing body, she was strong in the Lord. Nine days ago, Millie contracted pneumonia and decided to forego treatment. Last Monday night, after our Deacon’s meeting, Ed Lowry suggested that a group of us walk across the street to visit Millie at UVA hospital. About eleven of us went to her room and found her asleep on her bed, laboring for breath, with no signs of recognition that we were there. For twenty minutes, we sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to Millie, with her daughters and other family members present. We left the room at around 8:45 p.m., and early the next morning, Millie’s daughter Amy emailed Ed Lowry: “Mom departed this life a little past one this morning. Betsy and I were with her, holding her hands as she took her last breath. It was very peaceful, and remarkable in that we knew it was happening. I have no doubt that the hymns helped to usher her on to a better place. I’ve never felt such overwhelming love in one place.”
In my conversations with Millie, she often felt useless and wondered why God still had her here. In all those conversations, I didn’t have an answer for her. But on that night, I couldn’t help but wonder if God kept her here so that Millie could give us one, final parting gift: the gift of the overwhelming love, grace, peace, and power of God, made perfect in her weakness.
Jimmy Carter, Millie Fitzgerald, and others you may know who are strong in the Lord are reminders to us that at the end of the day, at the end of our days, the most important things in life are not our GPA’s, our SAT scores, the number of letters behind our names, the number of digits on our paychecks. The most important thing is whether we have put on Christ, who is our spiritual armor, so that when the day of evil comes, we may be strong in the Lord and stand firm.