The Breastplate of Righteousness
The Whole Armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) #2
Lent II; February 25, 2018
I wonder if St. Paul was a runner. Sometimes he explicitly uses running as a metaphor for Christian living and other times it seems to be on his mind, as in this section of Philippians. Here's what comes to my mind when I read these particular words. When I did the Wabash Trace Marathon a few years ago, the temperature at the start was in the 50s. I knew that by the time I finished it would be around 70. So I wore shorts and a tank top, a little too light for the 50s and a little too much for 70, but a compromise. Some folks wore a little more, dressed for the temperature at the start but overdressed for the finish. And a couple of guys were bare-chested, anticipating the warmth but certainly underdressed for that early-morning autumn start.
But there were those who paid attention to the entire course. They were warmly dressed at the beginning. And as I worked my way toward the finish, I noticed tee-shirts tossed aside along the Trace. Folks had discarded clothing as they went, letting go of something they no longer needed in order to be more ready for the finish. And I have noticed that at other races and on other trails: tee-shirts, gloves, caps discarded along the way. "I don't need this anymore," they are thinking, and so they let it go.
Paul didn't need his own righteousness anymore, so he let it go. He was running toward a goal, and the goal was to know Christ.
Last week our theme was the Belt of Truth. On the figure you see that the belt has been removed (Note to readers: this is the figure fully-armored; each week during Lent a piece of armor is removed). Our soldier is becoming a servant, removing literal armor and replacing it with spiritual armor. Instead of a belt, the figure wears the belt of truth. The figure is wearing a breastplate, protecting the heart. One way you and I often protect our hearts is by insisting on our own righteousness. We know that we are better than other people: we don't cheat on our taxes, we don't settle fights with a gun, we go to church and give money and support the Food Bank and are nice to dogs and other people's children. Ain't we grand?
And now I'm not going to start trying to convict you of sin; that isn't the point. The point is that hanging on to our own goodness is slowing us down, making us too heavily clothed for the race. We need to drop that heavy breastplate of our own righteousness alongside the trail and keep running toward the knowledge of Christ, holding close to our hearts his righteousness. The righteousness of Christ is better protection and is a lot lighter.
Jesus told some stories about this. He told a story about a real good guy, a guy who kept the spiritual disciplines of fasting and tithing and who very carefully followed the law of God, and went into the church to pray. "I thank you, God, for making me so terrific, not like that guy over there." Meanwhile "that guy over there" was simply crying and saying, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." And Jesus said that it was the sinner who found favor with God, not the one who boasted about his own goodness.
And you know the story of the Prodigal Son, who was welcomed home when he threw himself at his father's feet; meanwhile his faithful, trustworthy older brother refused to come to the party. The Prodigal Son was quite a sinner; he told his father he was tired of waiting for him to drop dead, so he wanted the money he would have coming to him and then went off and squandered it all. Only when he hit bottom did he "come to himself" (Jesus' own words) and decide to go home, begging for forgiveness. The older brother never did anything really wrong, but he wasn't going to join Dad in welcoming kid brother home. He thought that because of his good behavior, he was entitled. You don't need to be a great sinner to repent and turn to Jesus; you need only to take off the breastplate of your own goodness and open your heart to the goodness of God.
Remember again what the Whole Armor of God is to protect us against: the "wiles of the devil." Your own righteousness, your own goodness is not strong enough to protect you from the wiles of the devil. It's heavy and cumbersome and makes it hard for you to run the race and it isn't very good protection, anyway. Throw it alongside the trail and put on something light and strong: the righteousness of Christ.
I don't know whether my problem is that this breastplate is in pieces and I've been taking it off only a bit at a time or whether I've taken it off but, instead of tossing it aside, I'm carrying it and keep trying to put it back on. When the devil attacks – you've heard me talk about this before – with doubt and insult and those awful voices then the breastplate of my own righteousness is still there. "You say that about me, but what about him?" "You started it!" or the ever-effective, "Oh, yeah?!" I think I know my answer: the breastplate of my own goodness is made of many pieces, and it's taking me a long time to take it off, a piece at a time, and let God replace it with the righteousness of Christ.
The goal of the race is to know Jesus Christ; covering my heart with my own righteousness will just slow me down, make me too heavily dressed for the weather. Leave it by the side of the trail and wear Christ's own righteousness; it's much better protection against the devil's wiles. Don't run the race bare-chested; you need protection. Remember, though, that the best protection is the breastplate of the righteousness of Christ.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master