Sermon on Ephesians 6:10-20 offered to the people of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, CT.
For the last year or so, my wife and I have been serving a congregation in Abilene, Texas. In case you had any doubts, West Texas is slightly different from Central Connecticut. As you can imagine, the cultural shift for the two of us Yankees was profound. Perhaps the most striking cultural shift from Connecticut to West Texas is that people in Abilene actually dress like cowboys. When one goes to a restaurant in Abilene, there’s a good chance that there will be a table full of tanned, sinewy gentleman wearing blue jeans, snap-button shirts, cowboy boots, and of course, ten-gallon hats. These people are not making a fashion statement; they wear these clothes because they are particularly well suited to their work. The ten-gallon hat keeps the blistering Texas sun out of their eyes and off their shoulders. The snap-button shirt can be removed in a hurry in case of a brush fire. The thick blue jeans guard against the bites of rattlesnakes that may be lurking along the trail. And those iconic boots are specifically designed to make mounting and riding a horse safer and more effective. Every element of the cowboy’s wardrobe is designed to help with the supremely difficult task of roping, wrangling, and herding cattle. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people in West Texas who dress like cowboys even when they have never ridden a horse, much less wrangled and branded a calf. And I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I am one of these people. One of my very first purchases when I arrived in Texas was a pair of cowboy boots. And I will be perfectly honest: I adore my boots. Not only are they incredibly comfortable, I love the way I feel in them. I can’t help but strut a little bit when I’m wearing my boots; they impart at least the illusion (or delusion) of a John Wayne kind of swagger. If I wear them for an evening out, I can’t help but feel like a cowboy, I can’t help but feel like a real Texan by the time I get home. But then, as I remove them from my feet, the swagger dissipates and the illusion ends. I haven’t become a cowboy; I haven’t changed at all: I’m just a displaced Yankee sitting on the bed in his stocking feet.
What we wear says a lot about who we are, or at least about how we want people to perceive us. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians understands the meaning that the things we wear can have. In these final verses of the letter, the writer enjoins members of the congregation to “put on the whole armor of God,” including “the belt of truth,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the breastplate of righteousness.” This is kind of a strange image, mostly because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on its face. The idea that you can “put on” the armor of God implies that you can also take it off. This seems to defeat the purpose: why on earth would you put on righteousness or truth or salvation only to remove it?
It’s important to realize that the idea of putting something on recalls the imagery of baptism. To understand this, we need to think a little bit about ancient baptismal services. When new Christians were preparing to be baptized, they would stand on the edge of a large baptismal font. There they would remove their clothes and leave them behind. Upon entering the water, they would respond to those six questions that are still an integral part of our baptismal liturgy.
There are three renunciations: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? After this, the one being baptized would be submerged in the water and baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Then there are three affirmations: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? After emerging from the water, the new Christian would put on a white robe. The removal of one’s earthly clothing was symbolic of abandoning the evil powers of this world; donning the white robe was symbolic of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the imagery that the writer of Ephesians is evoking in the passage we read today. He is saying: remember how you put on the Lord Jesus Christ at your baptism? Remember how you abandoned the powers of this world and promised to pattern your life after your Lord? Here is how you can live that out in your everyday life! You can make righteousness such a part of your being that it could be a breastplate protecting you from every foe. You can be so committed to the truth that it could be a belt around your waist. You could be so confident in the saving power of Jesus Christ that it could a helmet upon your head. The writer, in other words, is telling his congregation that baptism has lasting and eternal implications. When I remove my cowboy boots, I come to the realization that I am not and probably will never be a cowboy. When we remove our baptismal robes, however, we do not stop being Christians. In fact, that’s only the beginning. Baptism is not an isolated event; it’s something that carries you through your entire life, something that shapes the way that you live in this world.
This image of the armor of God also implies action or readiness. One typically does not put on armor in order to sit around a fortified castle; one puts on armor in order to go out and meet the challenges of the world. Cowboys do not put on their ten-gallon hats and boots in order to sit around the ranch; they wear these in order to go out on the range and do their jobs. One of the great temptations that Christians face is imagining that the time we spend in church is what defines us as Christians. We might imagine that because we have put on our proverbial baptismal robe, because we return every Sunday to be fed at the altar, that we are living a Christian life. Don’t get me wrong: these are enormously important, but our identity as Christians is not limited to the time we spend in a church building; our identity as people who have put on the Lord Jesus Christ should shape every facet of our being.
There is nothing about our life is not affected by the fact that we have been baptized into Christ. We might wonder what exactly this means. Again, the baptismal liturgy holds the key to understanding how to live a Christian life. When we promise to follow and obey Jesus as Lord, we are not simply affirming that we are on board with the commandments of Jesus. Rather, we are making the astonishing claim that we are willing to follow Jesus Christ’s example, that we are willing to pattern our lives after Christ. When we make those baptismal promises, we claim that, like Jesus, we are willing to give of our very selves for the sake of our fellow human beings, that we are willing to think of others before we think of ourselves, that we are willing to bear embarrassment, persecution, and even death for the sake of those who despise us. Our baptismal promises encourage us to see the world as a place full of people we are called to love. You can see how this attitude of self-giving love has the power to shape every facet of our lives. The way we interact with our families, the way we do our jobs, the way we participate in political discussions, the way we reach out to those less fortunate, even the way we cheer at a baseball game all change dramatically when we allow our baptismal promise to follow and obey Christ as Lord to shape our lives.
Now, this is by no means easy. When we look at how we are called to love as Christians, it is easy to think that the task is overwhelming. And it is, if we do it alone. The advantage, however, is that we are part of this incredible community called the Church. We are all part of a community founded and sustained by Christ’s self-giving love. We gather together week by week to be sustained by the Word of God and Christ’s Body and Blood, to remind ourselves that we have put on Jesus Christ, and then we go out into the world together, encouraging one another, helping each other along, and picking each other up when we fall. We are as much the Church out in the world as we are in here. Lately, there’s been a bumper sticker floating around that proclaims in large letters: “Don’t go to church!” In smaller letters it reads, “Be the Church.” Each and every one of us is called to be the Church. Each and every one of us is called to go out into the world and reach out in love to everyone we encounter and when we stumble, to depend on the love and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each and every one of us is called to remember that we have put on the Lord Jesus Christ, that we have put on a baptismal robe, and that this garment has changed who we are forever.