Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Three weeks ago, I began a sermon series that I entitled “Summer School.” It was intended to remind all of us about some of the basics of the Christian faith that we sometimes forget, when life gets busy, and church becomes routine.
Drawing from the words that the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians, the first week I focused on the unity that Paul says is necessary to function as a church. We’re not supposed to quarrel about every little thing, and when we do, Paul says, we need to learn to speak the truth in love.
The next week, I admitted that sometimes Christians do disagree, and even get bogged down in conflict. Paul says that this is to be expected, when sinful people live in such intimate relationships as we do in the church. But Paul goes on to say that there’s a right way to fight, and a wrong way. Paul says that if you church fights display bitterness, wrath, anger, slander and malice, you need to stop it! “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” Paul writes. In other words, get over it, let it go, and move past it together.
Last week, Pastor Keith picked up on the theme of what it means to be the church. The first two weeks, I spoke about being the church inside these walls, but Keith turned out attention toward being the church outside these walls, in the dark and hurting places of this world; places like New Orleans, or North Minneapolis, or in fractured families, or among struggling congregations, or in tornado-ravaged communities.
It’s one thing to stay in here, and be the church where hymns are sung, and hugs are given, and hope is proclaimed. But what about out there? What about where living is dangerous, or when the values of our faith collide with the values of the world? How then shall we live? That’s where I want to conclude this little sermon series today, as we close the chapter on Summer School, and make preparations to enter into an exciting fall season.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Your work is well done and has inspired me to create better work myself.”
Resources to inspire you — and your congregation!
GET YOUR FOUR FREE SAMPLES!
Click here for more information
Several years ago, I had a colleague by the name of Jim Norlie. He was a gifted pastor and a trusted friend, but one thing I remember specifically about Jim was an illustration he shared in a Sunday morning sermon. He said he was home from college at Christmas of his freshman year, and he and some buddies were planning to go out for the evening. Some of you might know what that means: “Home from college, and going out with buddies.” Just before Jim left the house, his dad said this to him: “Jim, whatever you do, remember that you’re a Norlie.” The unspoken message that Jim’s dad offered that night was that Jim had been raised with values and principles, and whenever he ventured beyond his home, he represented the family by the way he lived his life.
This is essentially what Paul is saying to us in today’s lesson from Ephesians. “When you head out into the world, it’s a dangerous place, with all sorts of pressures and threats, and invitations and temptation surrounding you. Remember that you are a child of God!”
Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we are immune to being enticed or coerced or attracted to things that can compromise our faith. Paul says that the temptations are real, and the enemy very, very present. So how do we stay focused, not only on who we are, but “whose” we are, when the world is swirling around us? Paul tells us to put on the armor of God. He employs the metaphor of equipment used in battle in order to protect us when we leave this safe place and go into the world.
Paul begins with truth; “Put on the belt of truth” Paul writes. In an age when people tell us what we WANT to hear, rather than what we NEED to hear, truth is in short supply. But the truth can also be shaded when people want us to do something that we know is wrong.
• “Oh, come on. God won’t be upset if you cheat on your taxes. It’s your money!”
• “Driving 61 in a 55 mile per hour zone isn’t really speeding.”
• “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
Those are the subtle lies of our current age, and they sound good; no blood, no foul. But they are not the truth, and for Christians, truth ought to be part of our equipment.
Next, Paul says to “Put on the breastplate of righteousness.” In those early battles, the breastplate protected the heart; it was a pre-cursor to the bullet-proof vest. Obviously, the heart is what keeps our bodies alive, but the heart is also the seat of our faith. Sunday School children do not sing “Come into my head, come into my head, come into my head, Lord Jesus.” Rather, they sing “Come into my heart.” We speak of being “hard-hearted” or “broken-hearted” or “tender-hearted” because our feelings can guide our actions. In Romans, Paul writes “If you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart, you will be saved.” This is why Paul wants us to wear our bullet-proof breastplates; so that our hearts will not be discouraged.
The shoes of the gospel are next. It implies going out in mission. If the people were coming to us, we wouldn’t even need shoes, we could just sit around barefoot in the sanctuary and talk about Jesus. But if Paul is telling us to put on shoes, he must be suggesting that we are to venture out of our comfortable sanctuaries and into the places where people need to hear about Jesus.
And I would recommend steel-toed shoes! When I was working construction as a college student, I set a concrete slab on my big toe and I thought I was going to die! That night I went out and bought steel-toed work boots. The point is this; when we share our faith, people are likely to step on our toes. It’s easy to get hurt feelings when we speak about matters of the faith. We want to be sensitive to others, but we need…I NEED…to become more thick-skinned when it comes to criticism.
When Paul refers to The Shield of Faith he is reminding us that sometimes we will be attacked just for believing in Christ. Students in college might be ridiculed by their professors, supervisors at work might harass you for your ethical principles, members of your own family might knock you because you choose to go to church. How does one fend off this sort of criticism? By being confident that God loves you, and promises to be present in your life, even when storms come. That’s the shield of faith.
When Paul calls us to wear the helmet of salvation he is trying to protect us from doubt. We don’t have to be timid or shy about the way we live our lives, because the most important question of our existence has already been answered. God has prepared a place for us for eternity. Nothing can change that. I’m so old that I played hockey before players wore helmets and before goalies wore masks. When those pieces of equipment were introduced into the game, players played with a reckless abandon; they were unafraid because they felt safe and protected. This is what the helmet of salvation offers us; a security in knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Have you noticed that all of these pieces of armor are defensive in nature? The belt, the breastplate, the steel-toed shoes, the shield, the helmet; all are intended to protect us. But the sword of the Spirit is an offensive weapon. The purpose of a sword in battle was to attack the enemy. And Paul says that the sword of the Spirit is to be used to hack away at the principalities and powers that would harm the church. We are to do battle with hypocrisy, and with falsehood, and with injustice, and with false teaching. I know that the whole metaphor of battle is troubling for many in the church, but Paul says that there are times when we must stand up and defend that which we believe. That’s what the sword is for.
I once had a friend, a wise and righteous older man, who could do that, but in the most loving manner. Bill Starr always spoke the truth in love. He had an ability to cut through the garbage of conflict and disagreement and tell it like it was. Someone once described Bill as “a velvet sword.” I like that. It conjures up for me an image of a surgeon who can wisely cut away the harmful tissue without killing the patient. And this is, I believe, what Paul had in mind.
Well, class is finally over. Four lessons during these dog days of August that remind us that we are the church. We’re not perfect, we’re filled with warts and flaws and inconsistencies, but we have one powerful factor: God loves us and has set us free to live our lives with courage. Don’t forget that fact, that God loves us and sets us free to live our lives with courage.
The janitor at Princeton University tells of going in to clean Albert Einstein’s classroom. Each evening, the blackboard was filled with complicated mathematical equation and algebraic formulas. Across the board, Dr. Einstein would always write ERASE. But in the upper right hand corner of the blackboard, there was a basic arithmetic problem: 1+1=2. And beneath this simple equation, Einstein had written DO NOT ERASE! It was his way of saying that the most foundational truths are the most important and must never be forgotten. People of God, the Lord loves you and has set you free to live your life with courage. Do not erase! Thanks be to God. Amen.
©2006, Steven Molin. Used by permission.