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So, this passage from Ephesians is a bit weird for me. You may recall, I spent a lot of time in my coming out sermon talking about the story of David and Goliath, and how David needed to take the armour off, be vulnerable, and in that way be stronger than with all that stuff to protect him.
And that’s something I believe is a core part of the Christian story, something I think I’ve been harping on pretty heavily, which is that we become close to God by embracing vulnerability. Jesus came not as a warrior, and he did not conquer through violence and warfare. He came as a teacher, and he was victimized by the powerful and mighty. He was weak and pathetic. He was everything the world despises and they mocked him for it. And yet he is our God and saviour.
We’re used to the term “anti-hero” to refer to morally grey characters like, say, in Dirty Harry, but originally it referred to protagonists of stories that didn’t fit the mould of Greek heroism; characters that weren’t strong and masculine and did not perform heroic deeds—killing hydras and that sort of things. Jesus fits that term exactly. He wears no armour; he says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
And I tend to harp on this because I think it’s something we’re struggling with in our world. Xenophobia and a fear of refugees are because we as a society fear being “weak.” Pay attention to racist rhetoric and you see this; “they are going to take over, replace us, etc.” So much of the discourse around the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is not concern about the people who will suffer under the Taliban—women, children, LGBTQ+ people—but about the fact that the US now looks “weak.”
And you’ll see it in Christianity as well. So much of the religious opposition to masks, vaccines, COVID restrictions seems to have an air of, “My faith is not weak. I don’t want to seem like I’m afraid, like I can’t stand up to the disease.”
But . . . to me, that’s not what Christianity is about. To be human is to be vulnerable; we will all die and no amount of raging against the dying of the light will change that. What Christianity teaches us is that God is with us in that vulnerability. By being Jesus, by being a lowly, vulnerable human being. A baby, a poor minority, an executed criminal. Not a warrior, not a fighter, not a conqueror. Our God is weak, and that is what makes us truly powerful.
And like I said, it hits me a bit weird because I shared a very vulnerable part of myself with you, and my life has changed so much for the better for it.
Jesus says those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And then here’s Paul telling us to put on all this armour.
I mean, they’re different metaphors, and it’s easy enough to reconcile. The Armour of God is not literal armour, but faith, and the sword is not a weapon of harm, but the Word. It just hits me a bit weird.
And, in a way, Paul is telling the Ephesians to not trust in worldly armour and weapons. Instead of a breastplate to stop swords from piercing your heart, put on a breastplate of righteousness; even if a sword pierces you, you will be able to stand tall because you stood on the side of justice. It was a message to the martyrs of old, and a message that many of our modern-day martyrs like MLK Jr. probably took to heart. Things like justice, truth, peace, faith, and the Word of God which is above all Love are more important than power or strength.
When we turn to the story from the gospel, we again see a story where the people want from Jesus something he won’t give them. They want certainty, simplicity, assurance, and they want to be constantly reassured that they’re on the right side, that they’re special, and privileged. And he won’t give it to them. They want a message that’s easy to digest and will tell them what they want to hear, that they can be strong. “Make Israel great again.” That’s what they want.
It’s something I think every preacher can sympathize with. People just want to be told what they want to hear. We have a gospel that’s challenging and people just want to be “spiritually uplifted and strengthened.”
Instead of certainty, Jesus reveals what we had thought was impossible. Instead of simplicity, Jesus gives us complicated answers or turns the question back around on us. Instead of assurance, Jesus asks us to trust. Instead of being told we’re special and privileged, we are told to go out and be with the lowest and the least.
No wonder the people turn away from Jesus. But those who stay, they kind of get it.
I could fill every chair in this room by telling people they’re going to hell unless they come here, that everyone else is wrong and we’re right, and we’re the only ones getting into heaven. Well, maybe I couldn’t. If I went back to pretending to be a straight man, maybe I could, but even then, I wouldn’t say those things. They aren’t true and they aren’t the gospel.
The whole armour of God will not make you a mighty warrior, commanding respect, admired by everyone on your side and feared by everyone on the other side. It is a metaphor, after all, and a metaphor for all the things that actually make us more vulnerable in the world.
Religion is stereotyped as being easy answers to hard questions: what happens to us after we die, how did the world come to be, what is the point of our existence? But faith, and faith, at its best is not about providing easy answers to those questions. It’s about giving us the language and the tools to dive deep into those questions, and maybe become okay with not knowing the answers.
“This is a difficult teaching; who can accept it?” say the people who turn away. “To whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life,” say the ones who stay. The people who turn away will go find a preacher who will tell them what they want to hear, and they’ll be happy, but they won’t grow, and they’ll continue to worry about appearing weak. The people who stay will be made vulnerable; they will be arrested, put on trial, and even killed over the course of their lived, but they will grow in faith and be free from this fear of weakness.