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This is a Roman soldier, in full armor.
Paul uses this image to illustrate strength and power.
This is an image that the ancient world knew all too well.
Remember, Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter to the Ephesians. A prison heavily guarded by Roman soldiers. So you can imagine that when Paul is writing these words, he can look up and see this soldier.
But it was not only a matter of Paul’s reality, but also of the Ephesians.
Ephesus was once one of the most powerful cities in the world. Some historians have said that outside of Rome, Ephesus was the second most powerful city in the ancient world. It was located at a crossroads of Europe and Asia and the Middle East in what is modern day Turkey, so it became a place of great wealth.
Then, in the century before Jesus was born Ephesus was conquered by Rome. It’s wealth was plundered and the people forced to pay incredibly high taxes. There was a brief period of liberation from Rome, but then when they were reconquered they had to pay five years of back taxes.
Ephesus was economically crippled by Rome and would never regain its place in the world.
But the city was not only financially occupied, but militarily occupied.
The Roman soldier would have been seen on the streets as a reminder of the power wielded over them. They were an occupied city.
For Paul to use the image of the centurion is really interesting. He is taking the image of the occupier, the image of what people assumed power and strength looked like, and flipped it on its head.
In effect, he is saying, this is what the world thinks strength and power looks like. A sword, a helmet, a shield. But, real power doesn’t come from physical armament, but spiritual armament: a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, a sword of the spirit.
Paul says our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood, our struggle is against powers and principalities.
We don’t change the world by taking up weapons or returning violence for violence. We change the world when we clothe ourselves in truth and righteousness, in peace and salvation and prayer.
Contrast the image of the centurion with the image of Jesus.
Jesus had no shield or sword and changed the world more than any other person in history.
Think about Palm Sunday.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem humbly on a donkey. He came down the Mount of Olives with his disciples laying down their coats before him. It was a peasant rally in which the crowd cried out Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
At that same exact time, from the west side of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate entered the city with a great military procession. The historian Marcus Borg described it having “cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
If you were to look at these two parades, which would you describe as having the most strength and power? In the end, which force would win? The Roman Empire who brought fear or the Prince of Peace who came so all might have life and have it abundantly?
We know who won. The powers and principalities of the world crucified Jesus, but he rose again! He is Risen!
We not only see the power of living by truth and peace and righteousness in Jesus, we have seen it in recent history.
We saw it in Mahatma Gandhi. There was nothing about Gandhi’s physical appearance that anyone would call intimidating. He didn’t dress in any powerful way. In fact, for the last 25 years of his life, he wore a simple shawl. He dressed in the clothes of a peasant and yet his work resulted in freedom for the people of India. Operating from a place of poverty gave Gandhi a great strength, from which he took on the British Empire.
Wearing nothing more than a peasant’s shawl, love won again.
We saw it in Dr. Martin Luther King. He wore the suit of a pastor. He said first and foremost, over everything, he considered himself a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. But from that place he gave us a vision, a dream that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” And look at us, the realization of that dream, the diverse people who gather around the table of brotherhood and sisterhood.
Wearing nothing more than a pastor’s suit, love won again.
We saw it in Nelson Mandela who was clothed in a prison uniform. He spent 27 years in prison, often in harsh conditions and isolated from the rest of the world. And yet, he responded with peace, remained calm, and achieved the goal of bringing an end to apartheid.
Wearing nothing more than a prison uniform, love won again.
These men wore the simplest of clothes, but they were clothed in peace and truth and righteousness and love that changed the world.
We often use the language around here of being clothed in grace. When you get a shirt from the Free Store you are literally putting on a gift of grace. The shirt itself is a gift that someone donated, that volunteers have sorted and hung. The entire thing is gift, it is grace.
But, like grace, this has become such a common event that I think we often take it for granted.
So let me give you an example of how powerful this really is.
Last week we had our First Birthday party. Over 300 people filled and surrounded the Fresh Market as we celebrated and made possible the gift of life. In the midst of the busyness of First Birthdays, a gentleman approached me and said that he didn’t have any money but he had just got a job at the Reeb Avenue Center. In order for him to show up to work on Monday he needed the right shoes and clothes to wear. I was busy at that moment, so I asked him to come back on Sunday. He did. After the 11am service he found Dessaree. Now, Dessaree was on her way out the door. She hasn’t had a day off since July, her daughter was with her, she could’ve easily said I’m busy, come back tomorrow. But Dessaree is a woman who herself is clothed in God’s grace. So she turned around, came back, found him the right clothes, went in the basement and got him the right shoes, and gave him a hygiene kit.
On Monday, he went to work. Clothed in the grace of the Free Store. Clothed in the grace of our community. He is now a man of strength and power, with the dignity of a good job.
On Thursday his boss came here only to say thank you. He said that he is such a good employee and didn’t want to lose him. He too was touched by grace and love won again.
Over the last several weeks we have clothed over 1,000 students with school supplies. Through the help of the noisy offering, we provided school supplies to three elementary schools, gave them to our church community and through the Free Store. More than 300 kids went to school with backpacks over their shoulders that came from the Free Store, clothed in grace.
Providing school supplies to kids is not just a matter of paper and pencils. It is putting on the full armor of God. An education grounds kids in truth, an education is the top ticket to the bridge out of poverty. No one can take your education from you. You can’t be stripped of your thoughts and feelings.
We are an amazing place that clothes others in grace, but in order for us to live in to our fullness we have to be clothed in grace ourselves.
We can go through the motions and hand out clothes and food and school supplies and a million other things like any other well-meaning service organization. But we are not just another organization trying to help people out, we are the church. We are the one’s called to share the gift of love in Jesus Christ that we have found with others.
But in order for us to share it, we have to be clothed in grace ourselves.
One of the first decisions we make each day is what am I going to wear?
As a country, we spend a lot of time and money and energy in the things we wear. Even though Jesus tells us to look at the lilies of the field and how they don’t toil or spin, we sure toil and spin.
But if we spend so much effort on clothes that will soon go out of fashion or wear out, we need to spend even more energy being clothed in righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation.
How do we do that?
John Wesley described the way that God clothes us as the means of grace. When we worship, serve, volunteer, read the Bible, notice God in nature, we are clothed in grace so that we can clothe others in grace.
But perhaps none of these gifts grounds us and equips us and strengthens us more than prayer.
Paul uses the word prayer four times in the last four sentences of today’s scripture:
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.
In order for us to be strong, we have to be a people of prayer.
In order for us to be a people who confront the powers and principalities of the world with love, we have to be a people of prayer.
In order for us to stand firm in the struggles of life, we have to be a people of prayer.
In order for us to counter violence with peace, we have to be a people of prayer.
Prayer is the strongest of all weapons. More powerful than any gun or shield or sword made from metal. So let us clothe ourselves in grace and prayer so that love will win again.