In my thirties I had the great good fortune to live and learn and teach in Japan for more than five years. One of my greatest joys during that time was learning more about Japanese history, culture, and religions not only by reading but also by visiting many historic sites: temples, shrines, palaces, and castles.
I lived in a small city called Miyoshi in Hiroshima prefecture, almost exactly in the middle of the island of Honshu, so, equidistant from both the Seto Inland Sea to the south and the Sea of Japan to the north. Fairly often on my own and especially when I had visitors, I would journey across the border to the north into Shimane prefecture to visit the Sea of Japan coast and the city of Matsue.
In Matsue is Matsue Castle. It's one of only twelve remaining medieval castles in Japan that is an original wooden structure rather than a concrete reconstruction. Completed in 1611 and designated a national treasure, the castle itself is a kind of samurai museum. The panoramic views of the city and the surrounding countryside from the top level are breathtaking. And the only way to enjoy those views is by climbing the centuries-old wooden steps story by story in slippered feet. Each level of the castle in route to the top showcases samurai artifacts. And among the most intriguing of these to me are the examples of samurai armor.
The samurai were the warrior caste in Japan's feudal period, the second-highest caste after the nobles. From the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries, nearly 700 hundred years, they effectively ruled Japan. Their code of idealized behavior included the virtues of honesty, courage, respect, benevolence, rectitude, honor, and loyalty. And their continuing influence upon Japanese culture, arts, and religions is difficult to overstate.
Samurai armor was meant to appear terrifying to an enemy. Perhaps you've seen examples of it in movies or museums. It often made the warrior appear like a giant beetle or crow or another revered insect or animal in Japan.
Samurai armor served the twin purposes of protecting a warrior in battle and projecting samurai virtues and status when on display at home.
And samurai armor was custom-made for the individual warrior. It was designed to be strong to offer protection but also to be lightweight and comfortable so that the warrior could move about easily and naturally.
The samurai were not the only folks with armor though, were they? Our scripture, both the first testament of Hebrew scripture and the second testament of Christian scripture, are littered with armor and with the stories of the soldiers who wore it and the battles they fought.
Armor appears in lots of places. In the New Testament we find mentions of it in Romans 13, Ephesians 6, and in our scripture for today from 1 Thessalonians 5. And these descriptions of spiritual armor in Christian scripture are echoes from Isaiah and Genesis.
Our scripture from Thessalonians admonishes us to "put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." The Ephesians 6 passage mentions the same helmet of salvation as well as the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, and then adds some weapons in addition to the armor, namely, the shield of faith, the sword of the spirit. Lastly, Ephesians 6 says that for shoes we should put on our feet whatever will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Ephesians calls all these pieces of spiritual equipment "the full armor of God."
Romans 13, like our passage from 1 Thessalonians today, calls us to be people of the day not the night and tells us succinctly to "put on the armor of light" - without explaining what that armor is. So, what is the "full armor of God," really? And what is "the armor of light"?
I suggest to you today that the full armor of God, the armor of light is not the stuff with which we armor up in defensiveness or unresponsiveness. It's not self-justification or self-delusion. It's not even self-protection much less self-aggrandizement. Rather, this armor is the stuff that lets us live fully into our calling. For though we are not all called to the same thing, we are all called to something.
This armor is counter-intuitive: knowledge of it gives us courage to make ourselves vulnerable as Jesus the Christ made himself vulnerable by coming to us and living among us.
This armor is the strength of the living Christ made manifest in us. It is all the things that keep us grounded in gratitude and in the goodness of God. It is all those things that help us remember who and whose we are, that allow us to see ourselves and others with compassion. It is all those things that equip and empower us to bear the light of Christ into the world and to live out our promises as baptized people.
My armor may not look exactly like yours. My calling and yours are not necessarily the same.
So, this spiritual armor, which includes the "breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation," may look differently on different Christians. And probably should. And, like the armor of the samurai, it is strong to protect and custom-made to allow us to move comfortably and naturally. It equips us to be responsive and to be fully ourselves.
Remember when David was preparing to go out to face Goliath? Remember when Saul gave David his own armor to wear into that battle? David put on Saul's armor, but it was way too big for him and way too heavy. It was Saul's armor, made for him, not for David.
And David's armor was practically no armor at all by comparison; David's armor was the armor of skillful means. He carried only his shepherd's staff, his slingshot, and five smooth stones - tools so familiar to him they were like extensions of his own body.
So, be sure of this: this spiritual armor is available to all of us, and it fits each of us - not somebody else.
The place of the samurai in Japanese society changed as the times changed in Japan. Their armor was still impressive-looking and still had pride of place on display in their homes. But when the modern era arrived and ongoing warfare was no longer the norm, the work of the samurai became administrative in nature. [9:16] They went from living by the sword and dying by the sword to life in oversight and death by a thousand paper cuts.
Times have continued to change dramatically in most cultures throughout the last few centuries. The place and role of the church continues to change as well. And the pace of change has only accelerated as we have begun making our way not only through the twenty-first century but through this strange and difficult season of pandemic and division.
Yet the armor mentioned in 1 Thessalonians, Romans, and Ephesians in not armor that we should merely keep on display to project Christian virtues. We are not keepers of museums; we are the Jesus movement. This full armor of God, this armor of light is what we need to suit up in every day in order to embody Christian virtues and to incarnate the love of Christ living in us.
Why? To what purpose? So that, as our scripture today concludes, we may "encourage one another and build up one another. Every single person I know needs encouragement right now. En-courage-ment. Literally, we need to have the heart put back into us. It's brave work; it's daring work; it's critically important work; it's God's work. And so, it's our work.
Breastplate of faith and love: check. Helmet of the hope of salvation: check. Wearing these, we make ourselves vulnerable; we fulfill our calling; we encourage one another.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we want to wear the light armor, the right armor, to walk in the steps of Jesus in humility and vulnerability. Give us strength and wisdom to live as people of the day, to encourage one another as we make our way back to each other and to you. We pray in the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.