Slaying the Dragons

Putting on the Complete Armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-17

Trinity 21 (October 24)

Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. Amen

The dragon had been terrorizing the village for months. Buildings and fields were still burning from the wrath of its fire, leaving some homeless and many hungry. Heroes had attempted to slay the monster but all who tried had perished. The town had taken to sacrificing their livestock to the beast, but its appetite was insatiable. Grimly, they realized that to keep the dragon from killing everyone, a greater sacrifice would have to be made. So the villagers drew lots, and it fell to the daughter of the mayor to be the sacrifice. With heavy hearts they tied her to a post and set her in a high place where the dragon would find her, then they hid out of sight. As if on cue, the shriek of the beast tore the skies, and down it swept, scales buckling as it landed on vicious claws in front of the maiden. Flames darted between the fangs of its open mouth as its yellow, reptilian eyes viewed her with hunger. Closer it approached, and helpless the maiden could only pray.

“Stay back, cursed beast,” commanded a strong voice. Both dragon and maiden looked to see a knight sitting upon a great steed. Sunlight danced on his armor, and the dragon turned and pounced without hesitation. His claws darted out but bounced harmlessly off of the Knight’s breastplate. Not deterred, the dragon opened its mouth wide and a jet of deadly flame spewed out towards the knight. Swiftly he lifted his shield, which was emblazoned with a bright red Cross. The flames broke against the shield, and as soon as the dragon had spent his fire, the knight bolted forward on his steed, and he unsheathed his sword from the girdle at his side. The blade struck true and the fierce dragon was slain. The maiden and her village were saved.

“My thanks to you, dear champion!” she said. “Who are you?”

“I am Sir George,” he replied, “but thank me not, for only by the grace of God can men slay such enemies.”

This is probably not the opening to a sermon that you are used to. Is this preaching or is it a fantasy novel? While the story of St George slaying the dragon is fictional, however, it has been used by writers, such as the great Anglican poet Edmund Spenser in the first book of the Faerie Queene, to dramatize truths of the nature of Christian life as taught by St Paul in Ephesians 6. Why does St Paul use the image of a Roman soldier’s equipment to envision Christian duty? Just to be clear, one thing he is definitely not teaching here is conversion by the sword. The Christian soldier is shod with the Gospel of peace because sharing the good news of salvation through Christ can only ever be authentic when people join the church in a voluntary way. Twisting the passage to say otherwise is not in keeping with Paul’s teachings. So unbelievers are not the enemy – rather, unbelievers are the villagers ravaged by the dragon, and the potentially new Christian is the maiden, someone who might become a Christian soldier herself when she sees the power of Christ to fight what the dragon represents.

So what is the dragon in our story? What are we to expect to fight with this armor of God? We are taught by the Book of Common Prayer of the three adversaries, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Take a look at page 276 in the order of Holy Baptism, which says this: [read from the page]. That we are to be equipped to battle these spiritual enemies is reaffirmed in the Offices of Instruction on page 283, and again in the Catechism on page 577 in the book of Common Prayer. You could say the world, the flesh, and the devil are three dragons which the Christian must face in his walk with the Lord. The metaphor used by Paul here teaches us how to understand the defenses and protection which God offers us from these adversaries, the dragons we must face in the spiritual warfare of Christian life. We will look at each piece of equipment and consider how Paul instructs us to resist these enemies to living in love of God and men.

Girdle of Truth vs Dragon of the Flesh – I should note that when Paul says that our battle is not against flesh and blood, he means that our enemy cannot be faced with literal weapons. But when he tells us to put on the girdle of truth, he is preparing us for battle against flesh in another sense – the sin that is already inside of us. The first murderer Cain found himself overcome by the dragon of the sinful flesh when he was jealous over his brother’s righteousness. God tells him in Genesis 4:7: “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is like a traitor from the enemy camp ready to betray us from within, and Paul recommends that we put on the girdle of truth first to break the hold this enemy has on us. I wear a belt around my waist because I trust that it will keep my pants from falling. If I was worried that this belt I am wearing didn’t work, I would get another belt I was confident in. Cultivating faith in the security of God’s word as true and committing ourselves to God’s commands protects us from our sinful flesh. Remember, the girdle is where the sword sheath hangs from – you can’t effectively wield the sword of the word of God if you don’t believe it really is the word. So put on the girdle of truth, which is the knowledge that God’s promises in Scripture are dependable and your commitment to live a biblical life will empower you, by the grace of God, to slay the dragons of the flesh.

Breastplate of Righteousness vs Dragon of the World – When we are instructed to resist the world, what the Book of Common Prayer means is what the Bible defines as worldliness – in other words, a worldview that is man-centered rather than God centered. The dragon of the world, like the dragon in my story, will go after the heart, but with attractive lies rather than violence. So the world is defined here not as particular people or governments but rather an outlook that is against God. 1 Peter 2:12-15 tells us that worldly thinking tries to “entice unsteady souls.” The world will appeal to our hearts, to our flesh, to try and lead us away from the light of the Father’s love. This is why we need the breastplate of righteousness. Philippians 3:9 tells us that true righteousness comes “through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Christ is our righteousness, and we must seek to encase our hearts in Him, in His Teaching, in the way of thinking he provides in the Gospels and his inspired authors. When we try to be righteous by our own standards or our own strength, our hearts will be vulnerable. When we guard our hearts from worldliness with the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness, we are equipped to fend off the dragon of worldliness that seeks to lead us off the path.

Shield of Faith vs the Dragon Himself – I have been speaking of dragons metaphorically as adversaries, but in Revelation John literally sees Satan as a dragon fighting the archangel Michael. We are told, “12:9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” So let’s make something clear. Satan and his demons are not a fiction or a metaphor. They are real, fallen angels, who hate us, and hate what we are doing here, worshipping and seeking God’s truth. 1 Peter 5:8 depicts Satan as a roaring lion who seeks to devour us. Satan knows about the dragon of the flesh and the dragon of worldliness, and he is prepared to use them both to his full advantage against us, as well as power beyond what is human. He is in fact aiming his burning arrows at us. But the shield of faith is a passive rather than offensive instrument. We are told in the Epistle of St Jude that when having a dispute with Satan, Michael the archangel did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” If a powerful being such as Michael would not try to battle the dragon with his own power, then we mortals cannot fight him with our own strength. Hebrews 12 tells us that Christ is the author and finisher of our faith, not us. If we try to make our own shield rather than take up the shield which Christ has made for us, then the arrows of Satan will burn right through like flaming arrows piercing a wooden pot lid. Faith is a gift from God and to have its protection from the original dragon, then we must ask for the protection that God gives those who serve him.

So the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and the shield of faith all equip us to stand up to the dragons that seek to devour us. But we must still discuss three more pieces of equipment: the Gospel of Peace, the Helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, without which our armor is not complete.

Shod with Gospel of Peace – Why does Paul here depict the Gospel as footwear? Our feet are our foundation – the basis of our every move. Spiritually, this is even more true in the Christian walk, because it is essential to direct our steps according to the accurate teaching of salvation taught by Christ. No accident that this part of the armor is mentioned between the breastplate of righteousness that protects us from the world and the shield of faith which protects us from the evil one: to evangelize the world and protect our hearts from it we need to be rooted in and know the Gospel teaching of the good news. And we will be fast on our feet when we respond to Satan’s assaults. But that good news, the salvation which is from Christ alone, must be brought in peace – we must show respect to our fellow Christians and promote peace between one another and when sharing Jesus with non-believers, a peace that comes from certain belief available only in Christ.

Helmet of Salvation – The most vulnerable and important part of the body, the head, is specifically covered by this helmet, which pairs with the Gospel of peace to teach that we must be shod with the truth of the good news from head to toe. But this helmet, in addition to the Gospel of peace, is only on our heads if we really believe it. It is not enough to know the Good News and be ready to teach it, but hold on to the truth of it in our mind as well as to share it. Our salvation isn’t dependent upon how much theology we know or how well we can debate people who disagree with us. If we think we are earning our salvation, then we have taken the helmet off and we are vulnerable as a result. Ephesians 2:8 tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” If the head isn’t protected none of the other armor will work. If you cared about your physical safety, you wouldn’t make your own helmet for bike riding, or for riding a motorcycle. Even more so if an enemy is aiming weapons at your head. You don’t want to improvise on this one. Christ alone offers this essential protection that you can put on only by the strength of his grace.

Sword of the Spirit – Notice that this is the only offensive weapon in the whole equipment. All of the others are passive – we put them on and depend upon them. Paul tells us what this sword of the spirit is – it is the Word of God, which enables us to participate in spiritual warfare. You’ve heard it said, Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight – well, don’t bring human force to the battle over souls, your soul and the souls of others. Scripture is our weapon – with it we can fight the devil as Christ did. Now imagine that you command a unit of soldiers, and you never see them practice with their weapons. They never polish their swords or exercise how to handle them properly. Will they be ready, when the battle comes? No. They have to know their weapon, how it works, and how to use it. Don’t fall into the mistake of thinking that that’s the job of the people up here in front. You can’t sit far back enough in church, or just not go to church at all, to get out of facing the dragons. You exist in a universe where this spiritual war is going on, and in the final analysis, there will be no neutral territory. The fight is coming to you, to us. It is thus of grave importance that we know our Bibles. This truth underscores the importance of Bible reading. Our Book of Common Prayer offers a wonderful lectionary that can be used to keep us in the word, but have some plan for continuing to practice with the Sword of the Spirit. Even Christ, when He was tempted by Satan in the Wilderness, fought him not by his sheer power as God, which he could have done, but wielded the Sword of the Spirit against Satan’s lies. Significantly, prayer immediately follows Paul’s teaching on the Sword of the Spirit, which shows that studying the Scriptures should naturally lead to prayer. The Book of Common Prayer is also very helpful here too, including a set of prayers for use in the family that can aid you in praying in many different situations when you just can’t find the words.

When the dragons come calling, Paul is telling us here, we can know how to face them. When our sinful desires prey on us and we feel like we’re not masters in our own bodies, the girdle of commitment to Scripture’s certain truth can make us secure again. When we are in despair that the world is set against us and, worse, is trying to weaken our faith, we can protect our hearts in Christ’s righteousness. When the Devil seems to be prowling around us in dark times in our lives, we can protect ourselves from the fires of his malice with the supernatural faith that comes from the holy spirit through prayerful meditation on the Word. With the helmet of Salvation securely placed on our heads by our Lord Jesus, we can wield the sword of Scripture against anything that seeks to defeat us in our walk with Him, and add the force of godly thinking to our prayers. Amen.

Call Your Doctor First

A Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34 (Trinity 15 – September 12th, 2021)

Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.

I thought I was having a heart attack. I had been dozing on the couch when I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest. I could feel every beat, like a hand slamming inside of my rib cage. My hands and feet started to shake and a sense of doom came over me. I got up unsteadily and told my mother, who was now in the kitchen, “I think I am having a heart attack.” She was strangely calm and asked me why, and I told her my symptoms. Then she said, “I think we should call your doctor first.” That seemed odd, but she’s mom, so she knows best. So we called my doctor, and he asked what my symptoms were, and with a fearful voice I explained what was happening. Then he started asking me about my personal life. This frustrated me – I’m having a medical emergency and he wants to hear about what I’ve been up to? But then, out of my mouth came tumbling a fountain of frustrations – things that had gone wrong recently, disappointments about my future and in my personal life that had been piling up. And as I divulged these things and the flood of distress came pouring out, I started to feel better – my heart beat returned to normal and my body calmed down. “You were having a panic attack,” my doctor explained. I was shocked. Me? I’m a calm, confident, steady, hard worker and careful planner. I don’t get panicked. But, you see, that was the problem. I wasn’t facing my emotions, not really. Without intending to, I was just pushing down disappointment after disappointment, and not facing the fact that the negative emotion was building up. It was bound to burst forth eventually, and the panic attack was how it finally manifested when my body realized my mind wouldn’t notice or deal with the stress.

Now imagine if my mother had harshly rebuked me with Matthew 6:25 when I thought I was having a heart attack – “Don’t worry! Jesus said not to worry!” Would that have been helpful in my panic? Now I would not just be filled with anxiety – now I would be anxious that I was anxious, and I would panic over my guilt that I was panicking! This experience raises the question: how are we to take Christ’s teaching when stressful things happen, particularly as regards our finances but about our worries in general? Should we be racked with guilt that we are feeling anxious because our checkbook isn’t looking ideal and we have fears about having enough? Should we think we are disobeying Jesus when we plan financially, for our future and our retirement? No. No. Proverbs 21:5 tells us, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” In 1 Timothy 5:8, the apostle Paul tells us, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Scripture clearly teaches us to be judicious stewards of those obligations and responsibilities that come into our hands, as a part of gratitude towards God and service to our neighbors.

I know someone who says that when she struggled with worry, Christians around her told her that “worry is practical atheism” (thanks a lot!), instead of offering comfort. We may be tempted to hear simply a condemnatory tone in what Christ is saying, and we shouldn’t soften the fact that this is a command. But, you know, the fact that Christ is teaching this shows that he already knows we’re anxious. We need this teaching precisely because life throws us curve balls that catch us off guard, and we’re going to need to be prepared so we aren’t just bowled over by those unforeseen things. The teaching of this passage is not separate from its tone. Scripture makes clear the tone we should hear when we read, “Do not be anxious.” In Matthew 9:36 we read of Christ, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He doesn’t berate them for being anxious, but actively sets them at ease by demonstrating the care he has for them. It is from a place of compassion that Christ tells us not to worry, because he sees our rapidly beating hearts in the midst of trouble and wants to calm us down. So likewise when we see someone else having anxiety, the right response is not to condemn the fellow Christian for lacking faith, but to compassionately remind them of Christ’s teaching, in keeping with Ephesians 4:23, which tells us to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted…”

When I thought my heart was sick, my mom didn’t dismiss my feelings or tell me to just trust without reason. She told me to call my doctor first, with the belief that in talking to him I would find the help I need. She probably could see what I couldn’t, that it was unspoken and unacknowledged anxiety, but she knew that I needed to hear it from the right person and in the right way for the advice to help and not hurt. Although primarily about finances, I think today’s Gospel can speak to our anxieties in general, which always in some sense come down to fears about whether we’ll be provided for, whether we’ll be okay. So what advice does the true Doctor give in this passage, to help us to obey his command not to worry? I see six pieces of advice here which we can benefit from directly, adjusting our perspectives in practical ways. I won’t go into great detail, but note them quickly.

  1. First, we are told, “NO man can serve two masters… Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” We have to take a spiritual audit of our budgets. As it says in the offertory sentences, “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have I given thee.” There’s our financial budget, the main point of the passage – can we see that God, not mammon, is master there? But mammon is not our only idol. What about our time? Does our time budget reflect that Christ, not the clock, is in charge? And what about our emotional budget as regards our relationships? Do we see that our main goal in life is to please Jesus rather than to appease people we think might not like us if we were authentic about our faith? A false master in any domain of life will not give us the comfort we can get only from Christ, and if we are trying to serve two (or more), we’ll have more stress than we need to.
  2. Second, we are told, “Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment?… And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life?” In saying that life is worth more than the food that sustains us, I think that Christ is reminding us to more objectively take stock of what we actually need. Often we internalize messages, from our friends, neighbors, family, and the world in general about what we need – what kind of food, or clothes, or other things that, without them, we won’t be satisfied. If we have a clearer picture of what we really need, then we can reduce our stress when our budgets tighten and close out things we think we need but really only want. Demanding more than what we need is compared here to somehow making our lives unnaturally longer, over which we have no power. Realistic awareness of both our needs and limitations will relieve much more stress than we think.
  3. Third, we see Jesus teaches, “Behold the birds of the heaven… your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they?…. Consider the lilies of the field… I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” Something interesting that sticks out to me here is that Christ commands us to observe nature. We are blessed in the Branson area to have beautiful opportunity to do this. If you are not taking the time to let God speak to you through nature, you’re missing out on a wonderful dimension of His providential care. The great Anglican philosopher William Paley was so impressed with the design he saw in creation, that he believed simply studying the natural order was an antidote to atheism, so clear was the hand of Providence. The ducks on the landing have no shopping centers, no restaurants, no social institutions to help them accrue resources, and yet, even with a life-span of only five to ten years they are able to continue their species and even have time to have fun splashing in the water. God designed the ducks to take care of themselves without retirement funds, stocks, or bonds – God loves them, and made them with love. But that same God loves us more.
  4. Fourth, Christ says, “After all these things do the Gentiles seek.” Notice here that Christ points out that anxiety over what we think we need is common to all mankind. We can investigate our own thinking about what we really need by asking, “How does my thinking about what I need to be satisfied differ from someone who isn’t a Christian? Does my sense of what I need to have reflect Christ’s standards or the world’s?” This can help us to dispense with attachments that may look like blessings but are actually burdens.
  5. Fifth, Christ tells us, “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” This command is an extension of our first point, that we can’t serve two masters, but with a switch in emphasis – the first is about who should hold our attention in Heaven, and this one concerns what he is directing our attention towards on Earth. The issue isn’t that pursuing money, or friendship, or love, or a meaningful job, or a promotion, or even our hobbies are wrong. The question is if we can provide an account of how all that we do upholds our kingdom work. If it can’t, if we can’t honestly show that what we’re doing adds to our role in God’s kingdom, then we might consider that it’s actually slowing us down, blunting our consciences, hurting our testimony, and, in a word, making us less effective ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. A confused mission will always increase anxiety. If it edifies, keep it. If it clouds your vision of the master’s kingdom quest, let it go.
  6. Sixth and finally, Christ says, “Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Oddly enough I find this statement deeply comforting. It acknowledges that times will be hard. Being a Christian doesn’t offer exemption from the problems of the fallen world, the ensnaring devil, or the sinful flesh. We’ll still feel anxious over the evil of the day. I have already explained that I don’t think this passage precludes judicious planning, but I think it offers instead a very useful piece of advice: when a problem presents itself, break it down into increments. See what you can meaningfully do today. Don’t let the whole problem swallow you up, but rather use your calendar to schedule your stress. Meet it on the terms you’ve set, based on scriptural advice, instead of letting whatever makes you worried eat up your hours and days and weeks and months and years until the worry has dulled all sense of time. Don’t shoulder the burden of all of your responsibility at once – shoulder the day’s portion, and through prayer and by grace you will see it through. It’s no accident that this is the same chapter where Christ gives us the Lord’s prayer – ask for our daily, not our weekly, bread, because you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.

So maybe even now you are thinking, “But I am still anxious. I don’t know if I’ll have enough, or if my efforts will be enough, or if I’ll be able to get through this situation.” You’re feeling little in your faith. You feel like you’re having a spiritual heart attack. Then you should call your doctor first, and you kneel before him and say, Lord, I am of little faith – I’m anxious for tomorrow and I don’t know how I’ll feed and clothe myself or my family, or if my loved one will return to Christ, or if my boss really appreciates the work I do, or if my neighbor will see me differently if I share the Gospel, or if this person who I love so much will ever get better from this sickness. I’m anxious, and my faith is only little. And with compassion, he will say, I know. Tell me everything, and I will unburden your heart, I will give you the peace that passes understanding. Let your anxiety be crucified on the cross with Christ, who himself there asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Our high priest knows our condition – he has felt it, he is tender hearted towards it, and all the anxiety we feel is an opportunity to share it with Him in prayer. He didn’t carry his cross the whole way alone, and we shouldn’t try to bear ours alone either – we should ask for help when we need it. And then we can be ready to help our fellow Christians, when they feel anxious too, to let them know they are not alone, because we’ve been there, and so with sympathy and empathy we can say, “It’s hard to avoid the temptation to serve two masters, to truly seek the kingdom first, to really consider the lilies of the field. But here’s how listening to my doctor helped me not to worry, and how I believe it can help you too.” And in doing so your master’s peace shall be added unto you. Amen.