Sunday, 23 August 2015

Spiritual Armour

Life can give us a real battering.  We are under assault from all sides.  Pressures of family demands, particularly felt by parents who by this stage of the school holidays can be gnawing at the calendar for the school term to start again.  And felt by carers, who get tired and need respite from time to time.  Pressures of instant communication raising expectations of a swift response, which is not often the best response we could make, especially if greater reflection is needed.  Financial pressures, with interest rates having been so low for so long, finding savings are eroded after 7 or 8 years of this, or if wage increases have not kept pace with inflation there may be no savings at all.  Then there are competing political claims to the best course for a country to take, and we seem to have a paucity of real political vision at the moment.  Slogans are mistaken for political vision and proper analysis; political stones for bread.  Cathedral Square is a market place for faith, each group offering their view of certainty, which leave me cold.  Shallowness in politics and faith, pressures in the workplace and home, how do we hold our heads when all around us seem to be losing theirs?

When we are facing the batterings of life the writer of the Ephesians offered six pieces of armour (6:10-20).  This is spiritual clarity and a coping mechanism when the strains are there, how we can keep our spiritual head above water.

He starts with a belt.  Clothes need to allow freedom of movement.  Girding loins in the first century required the tunic to be pulled up between the legs and tucked into the belt.  Then you can run, jump and have freedom of movement that would otherwise not be possible.  The belt does more than protect from embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions, it allows agility of movement.  So the belt of truth puts us in a place where we can manoeuvre and make decisions that allow for movement and direction.  Falsehood takes us into dead ends and stops us functioning.  It can be difficult to assess truth claims but since 16th century we have had three classic tests in the Anglican tradition: scripture, tradition and reason courtesy of an Anglican clergyman, Richard Hooker. 

Scripture is the writings of inspired reflection on religious experience and how God has been sensed and understood.  It carries the distillation of generations where wisdom has been found to work and proved by experience – it works in life.  But that never comes without some kind of cultural packaging and the story of that over the centuries is the tradition in which we stand – it is the ‘how we got to where we are’, intellectually and the story of the journey.  But we also know a lot more, we have scientific discoveries and the wealth of a bank of knowledge that has been accumulated.  This is termed ‘reason’ and this vast bank of knowledge also needs to be brought in to play so that what we see as being true is grounded and adds up.  The Belt of Truth is understood through these three classic pillars that need to relate to one another: scripture, tradition and reason.  When competing claims come, this belt will help us manoeuvre through them and assess them.  It will protect us from the shallow and the delusory.

The breastplate of righteousness is a less obvious concept.  But when we have truth tucked in, we are put in the right place to assess what is just, what is sacred, what is the vision of purpose that we seek to live.  Righteousness is being in the right place from which to judge, from which to plan, from which to be.  It is the state of being in the truth, of living it and allowing it to shape who we are.  There are a lot of emotional as well as intellectual layers to that.

For shoes we have whatever makes us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  That is rather vague and open, but we don’t proclaim peace if we try to antagonize those around us; we don’t proclaim peace by seeking to dominate and bully.  My attention was drawn to a very interesting piece on the Guardian website this week by a psychotherapist, Nick Duffell, about what he called ‘boarding syndrome’, the effect of being at boarding school on the development of emotional intelligence.  The writer was arguing that our politicians who have come out of this stable have emotional handicaps which can limit their effectiveness as leaders in how they cope with competing views.  We all have our character flaws or aspects of our background that we struggle to overcome.  Nick Duffell went on to contrast the ‘boarding syndrome’ background with what he sees in Barak Obama.  Obama is seen to break down diplomatic barriers where others reinforce them.  Nick Duffell gave the example of Barak Obama meeting the Russian Prime Minister and allowing him to speak and tell his story.  The effect was that having been heard he was more open to enter into a conversation that led to a more peaceful solution.  We proclaim peace by being peace, and the power of listening before speaking never ceases to amaze me.  I find hearing and knowing peoples stories changes how I view them and therefore how any conversation goes.  It also changes how they see me because they it seems to matter to them that I know their story.  They feel understood or at least heard.  Peace is about more than the absence of war; it is a way of relating that is life giving and life enhancing.

For a shield we are given faith, so that we can deflect the flaming arrows of evil.  Faith is trust and having confidence that we can rely on God.  Having confidence in God is the root of hope because hope is not just wishful thinking, it is that God’s purposes will not be thwarted, whatever the short-term picture may look like.  We know that our life has its origin in God and its goal lies there too.  Death comes to us all and when it does we trust, we have confidence through Jesus Christ, that our life is held by God.  This is our hope, affirmed at every funeral and in the face of every tragedy.  Faith is a shield because it places the arrows and attacks in perspective and saves from our spirit, our morale, being destroyed.

This moves us into the helmet of salvation.  That comes through Jesus Christ.  He is the sign and reality that God does not abandon the life we have.  This is salvation from futility, from life just being a collection of days and each day meaning there is less left.  Salvation asserts that there is purpose behind, within and beyond life.  We are saved from pointlessness.

Our faith is never just a gazing into space and time; it has bite now.  The sword, the tool of cutting through so that purpose can be achieved is the Spirit.  And the Spirit is the word of God.  The supreme word of God is Jesus Christ, in John’s gospel, the Word made flesh among us.  So faith, trust, hope in God, living the truth in righteousness, leads to action in how we live it and bring it to effect.  It leads to what is just because by being in the right place, righteousness, we are able to determine that.

All of this is underpinned with prayer and sustained by prayer.  Prayer is the lifeblood of truth, faith and hope, of the courage we need and the source of our inspiration.

So the writer to the Ephesians uses the image of armour as a metaphor for spiritual resilience.  The belt of truth putting us in the right place so that we are able to proclaim the gospel of peace, to be that peace, protected by the shield of faith from the attacks of futility and trusting in the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow him in lives of justice and truth, peace and hope.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd August 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment