Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Armour of God

23 August 2015. Readings: 1 Kings 8: 22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69.

I have a special affection for the "armour of God" passage from Ephesians which is read in churches around the world today. It was the basis of a sermon by the man I studied for my PhD, Daniel Sandford, Bishop of Edinburgh 1806-1830 and founder of St John's, Edinburgh, delivered to young people whom he had just confirmed. It drew attention because the rite of confirmation itself was new and strange in Presbyterian Scotland: a bold statement of Episcopalian resurgence.

But I was more interested in what the sermon suggested about Bishop Sandford's religious culture. He is usually seen as part of the ecclesiastical late Enlightenment. Characterised by rationalism, evangelicalism, scholarly sermons delivered in sober black gowns, it was superseded over the Victorian period by a preference for robed choirs, processions, Eucharists, stained glass and all the other furniture which became standard in the Edwardian church. A hundred years before, however, Bishop Sandford seemed to be ahead of his time in promoting a more artistic and emotional approach to spirituality in the New Town of Edinburgh, enabling me to argue in my PhD that this previously obscure figure in fact made a groundbreaking contribution to history.

You do not need to read Bishop Sandford's sermons to see this. Simply walk into St John's and realise that it was built a quarter of a century before the Victorian Gothic revival supposedly began. But his "armour of God" sermon is interesting because it suggests why this sea-change in British religious culture had at least one of its beginnings in the Edinburgh New Town.

St John's Church. Photo by

The Bishop played up the chivalric romance of the Ephesians passage, addressing the young confirmands as if he were King Arthur, and they his valiant knights, sent out on heroic quests. It was published in 1809, just at the time when Walter Scott's chivalric romances The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), and Marmion (1808) were causing a British publishing sensation. Scott lived nearby and was closely connected with the chapel. Popular literary culture had suddenly been drenched in the romance of chivalry, and the fountainhead was on Sandford's doorstep. Sandford used today's passage from Ephesians to harness that literary excitement as religious excitement, and in doing so brought the romantic movement into religion.

So, now we've examined some historical church culture, let's examine our own.

Despite their ubiquity in the gospels, most of us, whether Christian or not, feel deeply uncomfortable about the idea of supernatural miracles being performed today: miracles do not fit with our scientific worldview. Yet it seems to me that we feel equally uncomfortable with the idea of questions performing "heroic" acts. We have a similar sense that well heroism might have been acceptable in "olden times", it is awkward and inappropriate in the twenty-first century. But what is the logic behind this? A British fear of showing off? The lesson of the World War trenches that "heroism" was a sham, a fruitless waste of life? A cultural reaction, in fact, against the chivalric romance of Walter Scott. There is nothing evidential or scientific about our antipathy to heroism.

Nor is there anything unbiblical about heroism: the "armour of God" passage was a gift to Sandford in his context of Scott's poetry, but he didn't make it up. Paul really did write about heroism, and Christians have been inspired by the passage in many eras of history. It seems to me we are suspicious of heroism merely from prejudice formed of historical baggage. And this is the point when my cultural antennae go up and I ask, have we lost something valuable?

The projections of extinction rates, climate change and deforestation on the one hand, and of realistically likely scenarios of changed society, business practices and political will required to avert rapid catastrophic environmental collapse on the other, are now so pessimistic that many scientific commentators would say that nothing short of a miracle could save the world.

Perhaps now your antennae have gone up, suspecting me of shoehorning a "modern issue" into the traditions of Christianity? Look no further than the psalm set for today: "Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God" (Psalm 84.3). There are supposed to be sparrows on the altars.

Yet not only do we live in a society in which Christians have forgotten that the Bible is far fuller of biodiversity than our modern urban life; we live in a society in which scientists do not believe in miracles. The obstacles to saving the world seem to be insuperable.

Yet again, in the Bible, the key quality for miracles is not so much supernatural magic, as heroic courage.

And it is quite clear that to save the world from environmental destruction, we do not need supernatural magic, but a heroic courage so unlikely it would deserve the term miraculous. The obstacles are not physical, but only psychological – which is just what Paul writes to the Ephesians: "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". Not poltergeists, horned devils or crazed axemen, but doubt, depression, cynicism, low self-esteem.

So where would such heroic courage begin? Not zapping down from the sky; nor infusing like vapour around society. It can only begin inside a single, individual heart.

And what resources do you have to save the world? You don't have the power to make gods zap from the sky. Nor do you have the power to infuse the whole world with miraculous vapour. Your only resource is the only thing that might work: a single, individual heart.

"Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish 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."

You are called to be a hero. You are called to save the world. And because, like all the best heroes from Anne Frank to Superted, you are just a perfectly ordinary person, when the world is saved, it will be a miracle.



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