The mini-sermon: (Episcopal Church Lectionary date, August 23 2015)
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his
power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand
against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of
blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against
the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces
of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God,
so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done
everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth
around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes
for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel
of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will
be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet
of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that
end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to
make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an
ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Being in the Deep South, the sermon today drew on American football and/or also as well the getting kids ready for school, complete with their shoes - and their Under Armor. That one drew a few groans from the audience, just as how some in the congregation drew in breath a bit sharply at the mention of college team A vs college team B. Clear to see the audience was mixed about this team vs that one.
But not only do I personally like looking at the original language behind the verse, I like looking at the culture to which it was written.
What Paul is describing here has been kind of lost with the transition of warfare over the centuries. To most these days warfare is either gritty footage of drones or the staccato rapping of a machine gun in the distance in a sand pit somwehere, or some kind of lush first person shooter game in which a lone soldier takes on wave after wave of soldiers, only dying from multiple gunshot wounds if he takes too many in one sitting. But the soldier in these verses appears to be describing a Hoplite, a Greek soldier back in the day - one who was armored and equipped in ways that make the metaphor work.
The Greeks acted remarkably similar to the Romans in one respect - you most likely have seen the "turtle" in any period gladiator piece - a manoever in which the soldiers cover themselves with overlapping shields, with only swords protruding. The Greeks did something similar - taking the shield, or hoplon, and overlapping it with the hoplon of the neighbor either side, forming an inpenetrable wall. What's intriguing of note here is that Paul never mentions a spear, which was the soldier's primary weapon - instead he's talking about the sword. He's therefore not referring to the phase of battle in which the two sides taunt each other from camps, or stand facing each other making threats - or even a ranged fight in which spears were used to pick off or wound advancing armies. He's talking about the phase in which two walls of shields are banged against each other, shoving, trying to break formation either side - two walls of men shoulder to shoulder in a "push of war" so to speak, hacking and poking through any gap trying to make lethal strikes at the chest or groin. We've grown accustomed to drones, or guns in which a simple finger movement ends someone else's life - or worse still, to that being button "X" on the XBox. It's another matter still to be dodging a sharpened piece of metal while simultaneously trying the very grim and physical task of running yours through another living, breathing human being. Slick blood, the scent of punctured abdominal contents, vomit and fecal matter together. Cries of pain, shouts and curses, and the rugby scrum of bodies holding firm even as common sense says to run from a blade you'll never see coming if it does hit you. And you're not always able to see the way forward, it's a lot of the time on feel and instinct and being in tune with the other men in your unit.
But Paul in the midst of all this spent his time emphasizing the helmet and breastplate which many soldiers didn't have. A bronze helmet and/or linothorax armor wasn't cheap, and soldiers were expected to come to battle with their own equipment. This makes the whole thing seem closer to rec league hockey than well-equipped college football but it emphasized one thing: society isn't going to equip you for this - if you weren't fortunate enough to inherit a hoplon and inherit armor from a relative now too old to fight, you had to come up with the resources yourself. That bronze helmet might have been magnificent in design and execution, but as someone who's tried to wear the very well made clothes of now-deceased relatives, you're not guaranteed to be their size, so tailoring, possibly swapping with another would be the order of the day.
But what you inherited from somewhere would save you from whatever got through the wall of shields, not only yours but those of others. A hoplon was designed so you could deal with fatigue by resting your weight into the shield, leaning against the bronze, pushing with as you'd push against a car in a ditch on your seventh try. You'd be in theory resting on your neighbor as well, and he on you.I hope the rich metaphors are not lost on this modern audience, in that light. If I was going to rewrite it today I might talk about the fourth quarter of a football game, where the offensive linemen and defensive linemen are standing with their arms resting on their knees, sucking in wind, but shoving at each other time and time again and trying to hold the line those few last times before the end to secure victory. Except that there are pauses in the game, and that you only need to protect a quarterback for so long. The helmet metaphor in that instance might work better though, because a modern helmet protects the head against immediate injury, but also the devastating long-term effects of head trauma.
Out of this very grim, very bloody, very human and very macho metaphor comes a couple of hopeful observations - apart from the metaphors about being well-armored for the task thanks to God. The first is about the enemy using arrows - that was considered a coward's tactic in the ancient world - and also not one particularly effetive against a line of shields. Of course, if you were in a phalanx, you were golden, but it would have been an easy kill for some random Joe standing there. Satan's the kind of guy who shoots people in the back from a moving car, and if you know that tactic, you know to face him with some armored glass in the way, and wave to his impotent sniping.