August 22, 2021
Last Sunday, Rebecca Wheaton offered us an exciting, fresh path into our worship theme for this season, “How Shall We Love?” She held up the image of ton glen meditation as a model of loving in the way Jesus taught: breathing in the pain and suffering of others and breathing out love and compassion to help meet their needs. I could sense a deep resonance with this image during our time of reflection after the Word.
Sunday afternoon, when I returned to my own preparation for this reflection, I knew I needed to engage what I had just heard. I had been focusing on the text from Ephesians 6, where the followers of Jesus in Ephesus are counseled to “put on the whole armor of God” so that they may be able to stand against the “wiles of the devil.” That sounded sensible, particularly from the perspective of those turbulent times. But, as I’d been reflecting on “how shall we love,” I’d been wondering about finding a more loving way to describe the “armor of God.”
The metaphors Paul uses to describe “armor” made sense to those who heard them when they were written. Ephesus, a commercial city located across the Aegean Sea from Athens, was a center of Roman power in Asia Minor Roman centurions would probably have been a common sight on the streets of Ephesus in those days.
Popular cultural images have certainly changed since late in the first century of the Christian era when this letter to the Ephesians was written. But Roman armor is still a common metaphor for self-protection and domination of others. As I watched broadcasts of the Olympic Games last week there were movie previews with threatening images of figures in armor wielding swords, and V images of warriors urging me to buy something to make me stronger. The emphasis on defeating your enemy so you can force them to do what’s “right” is still pretty strong. And the news from Afghanistan emphasizes the enduring assumption that “Might makes right.”
Our Epistle reading from letter to the Ephesians recommends six pieces of armor that Christians need in order to stand up to – and overcome – the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness. To win, those Christians should have:
- A belt of truth;
- A breastplate of righteousness;
- Shoes so you can proclaim the gospel of peace;
- A shield of faith;
- A helmet of salvation; and
- A sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
This wardrobe of armor looks relevant for a people who are under attack. I can recall some vivid examples from my own time serving in combat, where I put on myheavy ammunition belt, and my flak vest and helmet whenever I went out onto the street. And I’m sure that those who have been and are being subject to the violence in Afghanistan can affirm the importance of swords and shields and helmets.
But, as Rebecca emphasized so clearly last week, “The main thread of Jesus as a prophet and a healer that I want to emphasize today was his mastery of taking on all defects, sins, confusion and sickness of others onto himself and radiating, exuding sustenance and healing.”
Reflecting on this, I got this little tickling memory from the Latin class I took in high school. As I was reading “armor” in our scripture, my brain kept reading “amor,” Latin for “love.” The shift from defensive, metallic body covering to open, welcoming “love” was too much fun to ignore, particularly when our theme for worship is “How shall we love?”.
I’d been pondering how I might offer some fresh, “loving” expression of the Apostle Paul’s guidance about putting on the whole “armor of God,” revised toward a fresh outline for stepping into the whole “amor” of God. Rebecca’s sermon cemented the deal: I was ready to keep looking for a fresh approach to girding ourselves for living in the way Jesus shows us, wrapping ourselves in the love of God: the whole AMOR of God.
PUTTING ON THE WHOLE AMOR OF GOD
So, starting with those images offered to encourage the community of early Christians living with the oppressive dominance of Roman occupation in Ephesus two millennia ago, here are my offerings for a fresh, love-based version of what helps us “withstand the devil.” The first piece of armor for the Ephesians was a belt of truth. How about a cloak of compassion instead of a belt of truth?
A Cloak of Compassion instead of a Belt of Truth
If a “belt of truth” wraps us in what matters most, a Cloak of Compassion can give us the image of wrapping ourselves and others in loving support. That includes welcoming others, including those who are different, into our lives at the family, community and cultural levels. For me, the image of a cloak includes wrapping the other with me in a welcoming embrace.
That’s the first “amor” of God: a cloak of compassion. For the second, how about a vest of forgiveness rather than a breastplate of righteousness.
A Vest of Forgiveness instead of a Breastplate of Righteousness
If a breastplate of righteousness is meant to serve like a flak vest, blocking accusations and anger, it needs to be solid and impenetrable. A vest of forgiveness needs other qualities. It might have pockets to hold, out of sight, the confessions received from another. Other pockets might carry blessings and acceptance. It can have cargo pockets deep enough to carry assurance of the never-ending reality that we are loved and welcomed by God. Many of us are working on this one, trying to find ways to cleanse ourselves enough to earn forgiveness. A faithful disciple who can breathe in our failure and breathe out God’s loving acceptance can offer deep healing.
Part of the defensiveness we see in so many places these days looks like some form of a “breastplate of self-righteousness.” To me, that looks like an ever-flowing fountain of excuses, raised up to ward off accountability for the inability to take responsibility for acts of injustice, both individual and systemic. Last Monday morning, when the news broke that the Taliban had effectively taken control of Afghanistan, shouts of “It was not my fault!” were almost deafening. And the competition to avoid accountability continues.
If we can claim and put on God’s loving vest of forgiveness, we will find its cargo pockets filled with good news we can freely share: “We are forgiven. Let’s do better next time.”
So the Love (Amor) of God might include a cloak of compassion and a vest of forgiveness. For the Ephesians, sturdy shoes to help you proclaim the gospel of peace. The shoes I choose are some Boots of Perseverance.”
Boots of Perseverance instead of any old shoes
For me, Boots of Perseverance can be shoes that help build community through adversity. I’m thinking of the rubber boots of the African miners that we’ve learned about through the “Gumboot Dance.”
Every year that the group from Bokamoso visited us we were privileged to hear about the way African gold miners persevered through times when they were prohibited from communicating with each other. During the colonial era, many native African men were forced by European overlords to work exhausting shifts in the mines. These men were not allowed to speak with one another as they worked.
Not allowed to speak, the miners developed a form of community connection by dancing in their rubber gumboots. The complex dance steps revealed their feelings, their fears and their hopes. These distinct dances have been preserved as a model of communicating solidarity under the radar of the racist leadership that was exploiting them. Today, their dance is preserved as a model of wading through the muck of fear and loathing to build community.
We might look for other examples of boots of perseverance, footwear that empowers us to stand together in the face of the adversities we face today, like the looming persecution of Afghan people at the hand of self-righteous tribal leaders; persistent racial and ethnic oppression on our own streets; and the relentless spread of a disease that commandeers human beings to serve as breeding grounds for its evolving occupation of the planet.
Adding boots of perseverance to a cloak of compassion and a breastplate of forgiveness to helps us put on the whole love of God. And then, instead of a shield of faith, let’s consider a phalanx of the faithful.
A Phalanx of the Faithful instead of a Shield of Faith
For the Ephesians, the shield of faith was a necessary defense, suggested as a way to empower Christians to “quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” I confess that I’ve never seen a shield that quenched flaming arrows, so I may be missing the boat on this one.
But what kind of love can help us stand today in the face of “flaming arrows of the evil one?” A shield is there to help protect. Sometimes in the Roman era the shield was carried by someone other than the gladiator himself. That image of a “shield-bearer” led me to a modern metaphor to represent the shield of faith in our image of the Amor of God, a phalanx of the faithful. A phalanx was, in the time of the Ephesians, a line of shield-bearers, standing together to deflect (if not quench) the flaming arrows of the opponent.
Here at Seekers Church, we know a bit about the importance of coming together to stand with one another in the face of chaos and animosity. We’ve learned to recognize and celebrate when loving acts of community help us face our fear. Since before Kate Cudlipp brought us the prayer of thanksgiving, “Thank God we’re in this together!” we’ve been learning how to come together to meet each other’s needs, gather in community to speak truth to power, and face the anger and chaos of pandemic and war, reminding each other that we are not alone. Our email list often carries news of people standing together to help those in need. Our weekly vigil to support racial justice is another example. And there are many times in our mission groups when we stand together to support member of the group.
For me, one fresh image of a “phalanx of the faithful” could be a small group standing with me as I try to reach out in compassion to others who might be prejudiced toward me as an old, privileged White male. A Phalanx of the Faithful could help me keep listening even in the face of what might otherwise feel aggressive or condemning. It could hold me as my heart is broken open on the inner journey beyond the surface layers of my assumptions, prejudices, and habits in order to truly see and receive what – and who – is confronting me. A group like this can help hold me steady while I find a footing at least solid enough to confess my systemic sin, and my imperfect hunger for wholeness.
With a phalanx of the faithful to ward off fear, adding to a cloak of compassion, a breastplate of forgiveness, and gumboots of perseverance, we’re beginning to get a fresh vision of the whole AMOR of God. But there is more. The next recommendation to those Christians in Ephesus was a helmet of salvation. Instead of a helmet of salvation, how about a Helmet of Patience?
A Helmet of Patience instead of a Helmet of Salvation
I suppose that, for the Christians of Ephesus, the helmet of salvation was the core knowledge that no matter what happened around them there in Ephesus, they didn’t have to worry. “Fear Not!” was probably as challenging for them as it is for us.
So, what about a helmet of salvation? A helmet is designed to protect your head from damage. I usually think of that as physical damage to my brain. But my “head” is also how I think about things – my thoughts, my understanding, my feelings. “Oh, that’s all in your head!” is a dismissal that seemed pretty common to me when I used to dig into my “worry bag” for something to do to fill up my idle time. In times like these, when my need to worry overcomes my faith, what kind of a helmet might be part of the love of God?
One possible holy loving helmet might be a helmet of patience, a bit of the love of God that protects me from the narrow thinking that I have all the answers and anyone I disagree with is wrong … or maybe even evil.
As I try to learn to listen more carefully to others before speaking my mind, I’m becoming increasingly aware of places where deep assumptions can skew the way I receive and sort and store information. Those assumptions often operate at a deep, unconscious level. And when they lead to misunderstanding, they can support systemic patterns of prejudice. I don’t want to let unconscious prejudice have the upper hand. One of my growing edges is learning to listen more deeply. I need that helmet of patience to help protect me from unconscious bias and snap judgement.
Adding a helmet of patience to protect us from prejudice to the shield of faith to ward off fear, a cloak of compassion, a vest of forgiveness and gumboots of perseverance, we’re coming close to that fresh image of the whole AMOR of God. But there is more. The last element of the armor of God is the sword of the Spirit. What might that look like in the love of God? How about a scalpel rather than a sword?
A Scalpel of the Spirit instead of a Sword
In Ephesians 6 we are reminded that the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. As we look at the Love of God, how might we characterize the “Word” as part of this description?
I think the “Sword of the Spirit” is still a pretty common part of the armor of God. So often I see people facing a problem draw their swords to cut down or kill those who disagree rather than ask “What would Jesus do?” How night we see the focused application of the Word as an element of healing love? In some ways, Jesus’ frequent use of metaphors for teaching is a very focused way to bring the larger truth to bear on a smaller situation. Here, the search for a fresh image led me to see the Spirit as a new instrument: the “scalpel” of the Spirit. A scalpel of the Spirit might encourage us to think of how the Word can be used carefully to save lives. This might help describe some focused, loving ways to use Scripture to speak truth to power.
So here are the new images of the amor of God that I’ve drawn from Ephesians 6 in terms of the love of God rather than the armor:
- A cloak of compassion to welcome others
- A vest of forgiveness to receive others’ pain and give back acceptance
- Boots of perseverance to stay the course
- A phalanx of the faithful to ward off fear
- A helmet of patience to protect us from prejudice, and
- The scalpel of the Spirit, to speak God’s love to power.
Let’s see how they work in our Epistle for this week. Here’s a rewrite of Ephesians 6:11-17:
What WOULD Jesus do? I’m convinced that today Jesus is pointing to a way to nurture relationships and build community that lies down a different path from what I often see in the daily paper and on TV and the internet. In our reflection for this season, Jan Richardson speaks to the challenge of loving in turbulent times:
Loving is never just about opening our heart. It is about being willing to have our heart become larger as we make room for people and stories and experiences we never imagined holding.
As we seek deeper ways to find and share the Love of God, a fresh, loving image for today might include a practice or an awareness that helps you stand resolute in the presence of what feels like an existential threat to your values, breathing in the pain that flows toward you and breathing out the healing energy of God’s love, until you can speak the love of God, in terms that can be understood by the power that feels threatening to you.
Loving in a Time of Chaos means putting on the whole amor of God. As we chanted earlier today: “Ubi Caritas, et amor, Deus ibi es.” When I checked for a translation of this, what I got fits our theme quite well: ´Where there is charity and love, God is there.”