“Putting on the Armor of God”
November 13, 2011
I was taking a Saturday drive recently down a busy highway. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I might have been singing along a bit too loudly to the song on the radio. I came around a bend in the road and a billboard yelled out to me: “Jesus is coming! Are you ready?” I had a familiar moment of pause. I wondered aloud to myself, and the person in the car with me: I don’t know, am I?
You see, from a very young age, I worried about being “left behind.” While the church of my youth didn’t focus much on the second coming of Christ, many of my friend’s churches did. I worried that I would come home from school one day to find the water running in the sink, the dish towel that often resided on my mother’s shoulder on the floor, and I would know she had been raptured. More importantly, I would know that I hadn’t.
My experience is not a unique one. The at times intense focus in contemporary Christianity on Christ’s return is not a new struggle for the church. Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians in a time when they too were struggling with questions about what they believed to be the “end of days”, and what that meant for their faith.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is likely the oldest book we have in the New Testament. Scholars believe that Paul was writing from Corinth to the people in Thessalonica. He had stayed with them for only a short time before he moved on. But his impact was lasting. Their lives had been so radically changed by his message that they had founded a new church community in a time of a great persecution and external pressure. But the Thessalonians were afraid. They had misinterpreted Paul’s teaching on the second coming of Christ, and they were terrified.
Maybe you too have had your own “billboard moment.” You stopped at a red light and the bumper sticker on the car ahead of you proclaimed: Jesus is coming, look busy! You paused for a moment. Your stomach dropped a little. Maybe you even wondered aloud to yourself if you were ready?
I don’t know when Christ will return brothers and sisters. I have some idea of what I think it might look like when He does, but that is a sermon for another day. And neither did Paul know when Christ would return. Like many in Christianity today, the Thessalonians believed that Christ’s return was imminent, but Paul was among the first to say that we cannot predict when it will come. He was not instructing he followers what to believe, but how to live in the present moment.
So hear now the good news of Paul’s words brothers and sisters, while Christ has not yet returned, God is already here. Already known to us. God has already come to us through our faith. In Christ’s death and Resurrection, we are awakened daily to that faith. It is in Christ’s saving love and Grace that we can engage in lives of love and service.
You know a little something about living lives of love and service Union Church. You do it every day. You do it in your mission work in Zambia and Nicaragua. You do it in your commitment to make our church a welcoming and accessible place for all who worship here. You do it in the ways you care for one another with casseroles, cards, and phone calls. You live daily into the privilege of being called out people in the light that Paul talks about.
But being called out children of the light is tiring work! It is not easy to get up on Sunday mornings, or give up your weeknights for yet another meeting. It is not easy to see the headlines in the newspaper, or the evening news that seem filled with hunger, poverty, breakdowns in civil discourse and so much pain. It is easy to feel as though the work we are doing will just never be enough. You may wonder to yourself how or why you should keep going. Like the Thessalonians, you may be growing weary and need a message of hope.
When Paul realized the Thessalonians were struggling, and in need of hope, he sent Timothy back to check on them. Timothy found that while they were doing okay, they needed bolstering from their leader. And so, Paul sent them a letter.
As you all know, Stacy and I wear a clergy robe to worship each Sunday. My robe is special to me. It was given to me by a Rabbi I have done interfaith social justice work with in the last year. And it is filled with blessings from people I have not yet met.
Before she sent it to me, she asked scores of people I had never met to shower it with their prayers and blessings for my journey. And so, they did. Their prayers and blessings are like my letter from Paul. When the journey is long, and my armor feels like it is cracking, I can put on this robe, and be reminded that God has given me all I need for this journey.
Much like I can put on my robe, when we are battle fatigued from doing God’s work in the world, we can return to this place. You see our letter from Paul is the reminder that we are not alone. We are part of a community of faith, this community of faith. We can return to this place to pause for a moment from our busy lives to be reminded to “Be still and know that I am God.” We can return to this place to put on the armor of God’s promises-for they will never fail us.
Paul writes: put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. The best evidence of God’s faith, love, and salvation we have is one another. We come into this place on Sunday mornings to set down the heavy armor the world has laid upon us, and take up the armor of God. To lay down the armor of self-doubt, fear, anger and pain the world has given us to carry, and to put on the armor of love, faith, grace and the helmet of blessed assurance that God has given to us instead through Christ and one another.
Now, I am the first to admit the word armor can be a little jarring, but the armor we put on through this community is not the kind of heavy, war torn armor you may think of. For God’s armor is not the world’s armor. God’s armor is light, life giving, and sustaining. When we wear it out of these church doors, it has the possibility to create new life instead of destruction in its path. God’s light cannot help but shine from us.
Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians as a source of encouragement. In verse 11, he writes: Therefore encourage one another, and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. The term he uses for “building up” is one he also uses in the book of Corinthians to describe how the individual is responsible for the larger community. Many scholars say that Paul sees Christianity as a temple, and while the builder is God, we can assist in its building. We put on our life-giving armor so that we may build things up, not tear them down. We wear it to carry forth a message of hope and encouragement to those in our lives who need it most.
Friends, I don’t know when Jesus is coming back. Neither did Paul. But I do know that if we daily put on the armor of God and encourage one another along the journey, we will be one step closer to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. That if we reach out to those in our lives whose armor is cracking, and help to patch and polish their holes, we will be a living example of the encouragement Paul gave to the Thessalonians. That there are many weary travelers on the journey who need you to help secure their breastplates and straighten their helmets, so that God’s light can shine more fully into a broken world. Brothers and sisters put on the armor of God. Then: Go. Be. Love. The world needs you. May it be so this week. Amen