You may have picked up from being here last week, or from the slightly different format of the notice sheet, that we are doing something a bit different at the moment in our Bible readings and sermon. For this six week period, leading up to the summer, we are going through this section of Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, thinking about what he calls, “the full armour God.”
Now, I wasn’t here last week for the first in the series, but Marg was kind enough to send me a copy of her sermon, so I have some idea of what was said.
Marg got us off to a good start by helping us to think about the Belt of Truth. Helping us to understand that living surrounded by truth can be uncomfortable, even painful, but that in the end it is the best way because it keeps everything else together. I wonder how you have got on this week, focussing on living truthful lives. On Monday I was seriously tempted to cover up a mistake that I had made. Most likely no one else would ever have known about it. In fact, I’d just about decided that I didn’t need to mention it to anybody, it would be fine. And then I read Marg’s sermon that she’d emailed to me. Thanks Marg.
So, I’ve already had to change what I was going to do because of this sermon series, and I wasn’t even here last week. I wonder what else God has for us, what else God is going to be challenging in my life, in all of our lives over the next few weeks? You see, this armour is designed for people who are fighting in a battle. As Paul makes very clear in the lead up to his description of the armour, we need this armour to stand up to the devil’s schemes, to stand against the forces of evil. As people who have decided to follow Jesus, we will be under attack. Those attacks might be very subtle, “did God really say that…”, “nobody will notice, “it doesn’t mean you”, but they can be all the more deadly for that. We have been given a great opportunity over these few weeks to check out our armour, to allow God to show us where we need to be repairing it, or even making sure we’ve got it on.
Anyway, we’ve got our first piece of armour, our belt of truth. This week we are going to check out our breastplate of righteousness.
Now, I reckon that in one way Marg had it easy last week. Everybody knows what truth is. We might not always tell it, but we do know what it is. It seems to me that righteousness is a bit different. It’s one of those words that we use a lot in church, we say it in our prayers and we sing about it, but if somebody stopped me to ask what it means I’d probably flounder around a bit. It’s a long word and it sounds important, but what does it actually mean?
I saw a fridge magnet the other day. It said, “When I married Mr Right, I didn’t realise that his first name was ‘always’”.
Now, I have to say that I have been known, just occasionally, to be like that. But in my hearts of hearts I don’t want to be Mr Always Right. But, I do want to be right in all my ways.
This is the first thing that righteousness means. Someone who has righteousness, who is righteous, is right in all their ways. They say the right thing and do the right thing at the right time.
I wonder if you recognise this scene in countless TV dramas. There are two women having a cup of tea in the kitchen. One of the women is confiding to her best friend about her failing marriage. She says, “I can’t put my finger on it, but things just aren’t right between us anymore.”
In this conversation, “right” means something else. It is to do with a quality of relationship. Is the relationship still faithful, loving, is there good communication, is the relationship right? This gives us a clue to the second meaning of righteousness. Someone who has righteousness, who is righteous: things are right in their relationship with God.
Righteousness: Doing right in all ways and being in right relationship with God.
That seems fairly easy, but I’m afraid that there is a bit more for us to unravel before can really understand what’s going on here.
The next bit is all to do with the relationship between doing the right thing and being in right relationship with God. Fortunately we have a story that Jesus told to help us out with this bit, you don’t have to rely on cheesy fridge magnets or imaginary soap opera scripts.
In Luke’s eye witness account of Jesus’ life we heard a story all about righteousness. We heard about the very religious leader who thought that he was righteous. He was very proud of the fact that he avoided doing certain evil things and that he did over and above the things that he thought that God wanted.
He believed that he was doing right in all his ways, the first type of righteousness, and so he believed that he was in a right relationship with God, the second type of righteousness. He was wrong on both counts. His pride was not right, it was wrong. He didn’t have enough righteousness of action. His pride also meant that he did not ask God’s forgiveness for his sin, so there was something not right in his relationship with God. He had no righteousness of relationship.
We also heard about the man who knew that he wasn’t righteous. He knew that he did wrong things, and that he failed to live in God’s way. He knew that he had no reason for God to approve of him or to accept him. He made no claim to have a right relationship with God, couldn’t even look towards God, but stood at a distance and asked God for mercy. Now, he might have done a lot wrong, but he did at least one thing right. He was humble before God. Because he was humble, God forgave him the things that he had done wrong. His relationship with God was put right. He had righteousness of relationship.
These two men had something in common, something that they have in common with all of us. They did some things wrong and they did some things right. We do some things wrong and we do some things right. Everybody does. This means that nobody can have righteousness of action of their own. No one can claim to live in the right way every minute of every day.
Because of this, nobody can be in a right relationship with God, if they are going to rely on their living the right way to be the foundation of that relationship.
However, there is another way. There was a man who did live the right way every moment of every day. Jesus. He came to live among us, to die on a cross, and be raised to life and glory so that we could have a right relationship with God, so that the things that we do wrong could be forgiven, so that we could be righteous, so that we could have righteousness. Not our own, but God’s, which is great because God’s righteousness is far better, stronger, and more powerful than ours could ever be.
We can do right in all our ways, because we have been brought into a right relationship with God by the love shown to us at the cross. This is what righteousness means.
So if that is righteousness, why do we need it as a breastplate?
Think about it, what would a breastplate protect? It protects some of the major organs of the body – the heart and the lungs. Damage to these organs is pretty quickly terminal. Without them we die. In the same way righteousness protects the core of our Christian lives. Without God’s righteousness we would die.
Our relationship with God needs to be right. It might be that this is the first time that you have heard this, and that you know that you are not right with God, and you want to be. It might be that you feel like your relationship with God has been right in the past, but there’s something not right now. Maybe you know what is wrong, or maybe you just know there’s something not right. If you are to survive the battle that is being waged against you, then it is really important that it is put right as soon as possible. It may be that can be done privately, perhaps as you come to communion this morning. You might want someone to talk and pray with you, either this morning or later in the week.
We also need to be doing right in all our ways. This is really difficult. In fact, I think that we already decided that it is impossible for us. So what should we do? Give it up as a bad job? I don’t think so, it would seem to me that that would be like throwing God’s forgiveness back in God’s face. We are called to live up to the righteousness we have been given. We may fail, and when we do we will be forgiven, but we will still follow that call. We are not on our own in this.
One of the reasons that the Holy Spirit was sent to God’s people, that’s us, was to help us do right in all our ways. To help us to do the right thing, to say the right thing, at the right time. For the Holy Spirit to be able to do this, we need to be ready to hear when we get things wrong, ready to change the way that we think and the way that we feel. We need to be watching for the opportunities that we are given to get things right. Opportunities to show God’s love, to extend God’s welcome, to speak God’s truth, to heal, to speak up for the stranger and the outcast, to pray for others, to be gentle, to put up with things we shouldn’t have to put up with for love’s sake, to serve others.
The breastplate of righteousness protects the heart of our Christian lives. Without it we will die. The good news is that it’s not made out of the rust pitted sieve of our righteousness, but out of the stainless steel of God’s righteousness. We choose to wear it by living in the reality of our right relationship with God, and allowing the Holy Spirit to enable us to do right in all ways.