Today the kids go back to school – my two, and all the kids here in Cherokee County, NC. All over social media you can find pictures of fresh-faced students in their back-to-school clothes.
Ah – that first outfit. On it will rest the hopes and fears of all the [school] year.
Or was that just me?
The back-to-school outfit was so important to me, I can clearly remember a couple of them. Like the stonewashed pair of Guess jeans that were so tight, they had zippers at the ankles to get them over my feet and I had to lay down on my bed to button them up. At the other end of the spectrum were the wide-legged JNCO pants that I bought with my own money – because my mother would never have financed that foolish endeavor.
My style changed from year to year… but my hope to put my best foot forward remained the same. My secret dream was that the campus came might come to a state of hushed awe when I stepped out of the car. “Wow, Mary really changed over the summer!” “She looks great!” “Maybe I should ask her to go to homecoming!” “Maybe we should make her the homecoming queen!”
Of course, that fantasy is only for the world of teeny-bop coming-of-age movies. But it does make a difference to have the right outfit, does it not? A little extra confidence and a good first impression can go a long way.
That’s what draws me to Ephesians 6: this idea of putting on the right things. Not clothes – not even armor – but a sort of spiritual putting-on that can withstand even the devil himself.
I could have used that kind of outfit for back to school.
I mean – I loved school. I totally did. I was excited for it to start, nerdy about my classes, and had some quality friends in every grade. But other byproducts of school included: judgment; gossip; sexism; materialism; fights; drugs; lust; racism…
Public school can be a tough place.
The world can be a tough place.
Every time we walk out the door – shoot, every time we get up and get out of bed – we face evils and temptations. To be faithful to Christ, we need support that lasts longer than the latest trends. To resist evil, we need protection that’s stronger than a strip of fabric. More than we need a perfect outfit, we need spiritual “armor” built out of things like righteousness and peace and faith.
Imagine heading into the first day of school dressed like that. Imagine every time we walked out the door, we had on that kind of invisible armor for protection.
Well… why can’t we put on armor made of righteousness and peace and truth?
Through the Holy Spirit, we can – but the tricky part is that it doesn’t happen quickly. Putting on things like truth and righteousness and peace takes time.
Some of you get dressed in a flash. I know it’s possible because I’ve seen my husband do it. He gets out of the shower, opens the closet, and grabs a pair of pants from one end and a shirt from the other. The whole operation takes about 60 seconds flat. Done!
The armor that Ephesians is talking about doesn’t go on like that.
No, putting on this kind of armor takes time… more like how I pick out clothes. In a few weeks I’m going on a continuing ed trip to my home stomping ground. Before I thought about the flight or the hotel… I thought about the clothes. I’ll be mentally trying on outfits from now until September 26th, rotating through shoes and pants and shirts to find the perfect matches. These will be tested by reality when I move to my real closet, and I’ll ditch some ideas and bring out new ones. On the morning of the trip there’ll be a last-minute change, for sure – and most likely I’ll throw in a few extra shirts in the event of an unexpected social activity comes up.
Whew. I’m already exhausted.
I’m not sure that’s the best use of my brainpower, but it does help me make a point here: putting on spiritual “armor” is less like a quick throwing-on of clothes and more like me getting packed for a trip. If we want to put on truth and righteousness and peace, that’s going to take some time.
In the church we call that time investment “spiritual disciplines.” It’s reading our Bibles a little every day and studying together in small groups. It’s regular times of prayer. It’s coming to worship and receiving communion. It’s acts of service that teach us how to love others. All those things make up the slow, steady work of becoming more faithful to the way of Christ. Or, in the language of Ephesians – they are ways that we put on spiritual armor.
And over time, we begin to feel it. We’re a little less vulnerable to the arrows of mean words. We’re a little less likely to be swayed by peer pressure. We stand a little stronger in the face of evil.
We are suited up and ready to go.
To go where? Now, that can vary: school or work or grocery store or restaurant or mission field or courthouse – it doesn’t matter where…
…as long as we’re going.
Real-world armor is designed for soldiers to wear so that they can go into battle. It’d be silly for a soldier to suit up just to sit around base camp, right? Our spiritual armor is for the same purpose. It’s not provided so that we can stay in our comfortable clothes, or in our comfortable group of friends, or in our comfortable routines… This armor is given so we can go out to where we might otherwise feel a little vulnerable, stand in the face of evil, and represent exactly what our armor is made of: righteousness, truth, peace, faith…
But note: the vast majority of what we’re given is defensive. There’s only one item from Ephesians 6 that can be used for an offensive move: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” Even in that case, don’t forget that this “sword” is designed to fight against the presence of evil – not a person.
That’s so important I want to say it again: the equipment we’re provided to go out with is mostly designed to defend us when attacked. When we’re required to use that sword of the Spirit, it should be against the spiritual forces of evil – not a person.
With this armor, we are suited up so that we’re protected from evil; we’re ready to go out into the world.
To places like… school.
If you’re going back to school this week, now might be a good time to start or recommit yourself to this work of putting on spiritual armor. Don’t spend your whole bedtime routine picking out the perfect outfit; leave some time to read your Bible and say some prayers. Set your alarm a little early in the morning – even just 5 minutes can do it! – and pray quietly before you put your real clothes on. Give yourself some time to suit up: for school, or work, or life.
And once you’re suited up – go. Go to where you might otherwise feel a little vulnerable. Go and represent righteousness and truth and faith and peace. Go, and know that Christ goes with you.