What do my battered trainers have to do with Paul’s stirring words about putting on the full armour of God?

A sermon I preached for the thirteenth week after Pentecost, Proper 16 (21) Year B, on Ephesians 6:10-20 for Preston High Street Uniting Church

When I was young, I was a boy soprano in the choir of St Andrews Cathedral in Sydney. It was a pretty heavy burden for a ten-year-old – an hour of rehearsal from 8am four days a week, and then again on Thursday evening. We sang at services on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and twice on Sundays. And then there were occasional weddings on Saturdays – for which I would receive 5 dollars of cold, hard cash, most of which I would blow on a pastry on the train home.

It was an extraordinary musical education, now I look back on it. Some of my peers went on to have musical careers – you may have heard of the tenor Stuart Skelton? He was a few years ahead of me. And it certainly learned me my music – all those wonderful Italianate terms, how to read a score, breath control, and all the rest of it.

On top of that technical sort of thing, there was something powerful about singing those words of Scripture over, and over, and over again. I got a really firm grounding in the psalms because the system was to sing a psalm at every service. The Songs of Mary and Simeon, which, again, we sang at almost every service, were similarly engrained in my memory. They have been a great resource for me in later life.

One of my strongest memories revolves around tonight’s passage. We used to sing an excellent anthem based on it, which we used to really belt out. The words were calculated precisely to appeal to a child raised on the Lord of the Rings – armour and shields and helmets and swords and all the rest.

So I was excited to get to preach on it tonight. I wondered what would strike me particularly. Would I still find it rousing and exciting? Or would the rather militaristic language jar for me?

What ended up striking me was quite surprising. I was left thinking a lot about shoes.

But first, some exploration of the text.

The metaphorical landscape which Paul in inhabiting here is a war. We, fortunate in our peaceful setting, might find the language of battle off-putting. But for Paul’s hearers, it would have been intimately familiar. Soldiers were common – presumably as common as policemen are today. And the statues of great heroes which decorated the cities of the empire were often dressed as warriors.

But before Paul gets too far into the passage, he notes that this isn’t a physical warfare we are talking about. He isn’t a sort of early crusader, whipping up the armies of the Lord into a frenzy against the ungodly.

This is already interesting: it goes to the question of what sort of Messiah Jesus was. His contemporaries appeared to hope that he would lead them in a war to drive out the hated Romans and their foul collaborators, just like Judas Maccabeus had done a few centuries before. And, now I come to think of it, as had just happened in Judea at around the time of this letter was probably written.

At least, a great war leader had arisen, who had mustered the armies of Israel and had gone to war with the Romans. But it had been a dismal failure and concluded with the complete destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Given that, precisely as Jesus had foretold[1], the temple had been destroyed and the Romans were still firmly in control, and the whole thing had been a complete omnishambles, the question must have presented itself even more starkly: now what?

The problem according to Paul, isn’t precisely the Roman Empire itself. Empires come and empires go, but “the word of the Lord endures forever”[2] as Peter pointed out. No, the real problem was what Paul calls “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[3]

Now we probably don’t believe in a spiritual realm in precisely the same way that Paul does. Paul’s cosmology is perhaps a question for another day. However, that doesn’t mean we should just shrug it off as a peculiarity of the text. There are features of our life together which are hard to understand. We know that whole nations can go completely insane – for instance the Nazi takeover of Germany and the way that, as the Second World War was going worse and worse for them, they spent more and more resources murdering Jews. What on earth was going on there? Or the Cultural Revolution in China. Or, closer to home, the systems which we all live within which trap people in the developing world in debt slavery, or which lock young people in our own context out of affordable housing and secure work.

Even if there are no literal “cosmic powers of this present darkness”, it’s as if there were. There is certainly enough to be getting on with in combatting them without having to define their exact ontological status.

So if Paul doesn’t want us to take up literal arms against “flesh and blood”, what exactly is he talking about? Clearly, he sees the life of a disciple as a struggle, and, as such, we need to be prepared for whatever comes.

He starts with buckling the “belt of truth around your waist.”[4] You can see the practical need for a belt, given that people back then tended to wear rather more flowing clothes than we do, and the last thing you would need in close combat is wafty bits of fabric getting caught in things. Officers also wore special belts, in the same way that officers in our systems have those shoulder things. The “truth” here is the Christian truth – “loyalty to God and to the cause of God, righteousness and faithfulness.”[5]

The breastplate – usually made of iron or leather at the time – is righteousness. Righteousness means something like “being rightly related to God and humanity,” and for Paul it is the gift of God through Jesus Christ. Strap it on, do the buckles up firmly, and it will protect you.

Shoes seem like a funny thing to add in a way, but when you think about it, it would be pretty distracting to have someone stamp on your toes while wearing sandals in mid-battle. I want to come back to them, but I like the way that they are connected to the “proclamation of the gospel of peace.”

Shields, of course, come in a variety of sizes, but for the infantryman that Paul seems to have in mind, they tended to be on the larger side – indeed they were so large that they would protect the person on your left in the battle line. This had the odd effect in combat that people would tend to push into their neighbour’s shield, and thus the whole line would tend to creep right.

Anyway, they tended to be made of wood and leather – metal would be too heavy I guess – and you wouldn’t want it to be set alight, so dousing it in water made sense.

That’s such a vivid image, isn’t it? The devil, who we associate with flame, literally firing flaming arrows at us? I also like the image that your faith can help protect me, and my faith can help protect the next person, and so on – it’s a much more corporate image than you might expect.

Faith here doesn’t mean just accepting various theories about God as being true – it’s not primarily a matter of ideas. It’s something much deeper down and more visceral than that. In the heat of battle, you have to trust your shield, and your comrades. Opinions are for afterwards. Faith is trusting God with your life not really about having opinions.

Next, receive the helmet of salvation. It is something given to us, the work of God. In all this macho language of warfare, it might be easy to forget that salvation is an unmerited gift, not a reward.

Finally, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” It doesn’t just mean the Bible – which, don’t forget, wasn’t complete when this letter was written. Instead:

It is rather the powerful and creative Word of God. It is the word that said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. It is the word that called Jesus from the tomb. It is the word of salvation that does not return void to God[6].

The sword, it seems to me, is our collaboration with God in God’s mission of reconciliation in the world.

The next section is to do with prayer. Keep alert, pray at all times. There have been Christians who have attempted to take that literally – to literally be praying all the time, but equally it could be interpreted as “pray on all occasions.” Be faithful in prayer. We are in a battle, and all this armour and weaponry is related to our prayer. Whatever being God’s soldier in the cosmic struggle looks like, it looks like people who are faithful and alert in prayer.

Finally, Paul says, pray for me. I completely resonate with this – I love the idea that even Paul, who never seems lost for words, was worried about what he was going to preach. It’s kind of reassuring that, as I sit trying to write a sermon and feeling a bit lost for words, I am in good company.

Finally, what an ironic way to end.  Paul is an ambassador of the Gospel. Usually, you greet the ambassador like you would greet the ruler of the nation they represent. But, instead of the red carpet and boring official banquets, Paul is in chains. This emphasizes even more strongly the difference between worldly power on the one hand – dominated, as it is, by the principalities and powers – and the power of the Gospel on the other. Just like a soldier who is fighting a cosmic battle rather than flesh and blood enemies, Paul represents something quite different to the pomp of the world. Which makes him all the more powerful a preacher of the gospel, when supported by the prayers of the church.

So, going back to shoes. I feel like this might be a key to unlocking this whole passage. I run quite a bit – more during lockdown, given how little else there is to do, and I’ve done quite a lot of endurance type events like the Oxfam Trailwalker, and, most challenging of all, the Camino de Santiago across the northern edge of Spain. And the main thing I take from all of these things is that you have to really look after your feet. The wrong shoes can give you blisters or make your feet cramp. Sore feet do not make for good running or walking.

We need to be prepared. We need to choose the right shoes for the task which we face. We need to “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

Going back to 9-year-old me, singing my heart out to these encouraging words: I think that it was a great preparation for what I ended up doing with my life. But it isn’t finished yet. Shoes wear out and need to be replaced. The context changes – the shoes I need to run 10km aren’t the same shoes I needed to walk across Spain. It has been a long time since I was a chorister, and the world is a very different place.  

The same goes for all of us. We need to keep preparing, we need to stay alert, we need to keep praying. Though things change, we need to hold onto the armour of God – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit remain vital. The metaphor might have worn a bit – we don’t really want to think of ourselves as soldiers anymore. But the basic reality which Paul wrote about remains the same. We aren’t passive onlookers, but participants. Our struggle isn’t with specific people, but with forces which go beyond individual humans.

My question to you is this: What will you do to prepare to preach the good news of peace?

[1] See Mark 13, and for an explanation: Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. Pp. 176ff.

[2] 1 Peter 1:25, Isaiah 40:6-8

[3] Ephesians 6:12

[4] For most of this, see  Verhey, Allen; Harvard, Joseph S.. Ephesians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. Location 5057ff.

[5] Ibid location 5057.

[6] Verhey, Allen; Harvard, Joseph S.. Ephesians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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