Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Tortoise Shield of Faith+1

This sermon was preached at the evening service on Sunday 19th March. The New Testament reading that evening was Ephesians 6:10-20. There is reference to it having been an awful few weeks for the church; tragically, Natalie, the wife of our priest-in-charge died on Tuesday 28th February having only been diagnosed with cancer within the past few months. Her funeral was on Monday 13th March.

I’ve mentioned in my sermons before about how I love stories, especially mythological ones. Growing up, I enjoyed hearing tales of the court of Camelot; of King Arthur, Merlin and Sir Lancelot, but also of other knights – of George and the dragon, and of the perennial battle between the white and the black knights of folklore.

I don’t think I’m alone in that. The stories are popular for a reason; we all like tales of good versus evil, of individual bravery and bravado, and – if we’re honest – someone in a cool, shiny metal suit.

That’s probably one of the reasons that this evening’s New Testament reading is so famous. Hearing about the armour of God means we get to imagine we’re knights, donning our suits of armour, getting ready to fight our epic battle of good versus evil. It’s a tempting image, isn’t it? Being the lone-wolf, knight in shining armour in our own epic fairy tale?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably seen at least one kids’ talk at church where the preacher gets out a children’s knight costume and acts as squire to a young member of the congregation, dressing them up in the breastplate of righteousness, belt of truth, shoes of the gospel, helmet of salvation, shield of faith and sword of the Spirit, getting them ready – as we exhort each other at baptism – to fight valiantly under the banner of Christ, against sin, the world and the devil.

It’s an ingrained image, isn’t it? St Paul, encouraging us to stay strong in our faith, using this image of knights of old.

Except, there’s a problem. This is a bit of an anachronism.

You see, St Paul lived about 2000 years ago. The knights we are imagining didn’t exist until probably 700 years after Paul died. We’ve got our image wrong.

Paul wasn’t, of course, talking of medieval knights, but of Roman soldiers, and there’s one key difference between a medieval knight and a roman soldier that sheds a whole different light on the passage we heard this evening; the shield each man carried.

In our usual image, we imagine our lone medieval knight with a typical knight’s shield – a heater shield, to use the correct terminology; so called, because it looks a bit like the bottom of an iron. With this sturdy shield of faith, our Christian knight could defend himself from all the fiery arrows of doubt, and fear and all the other things that get flung at him as he tries to live out the gospel life.

Our Roman soldier, however, did not have a heater shield. He had a large rectangular shield, as tall as his body. And this shield of faith was not used to just protect him, but his neighbour too.

The Roman soldier was never a lone wolf. He fought as part of a unit. And when he held his shield, it protected half of his own body, and half of his brother’s next to him. Famously, when marching against flaming arrows, the soldiers would form a shape known as the testudo – the tortoise, where the soldiers in the formation would hold their shields to form a solid wall on each side, and those in the middle would hold theirs over their heads, making the unit into a walking armoured-tank – hence the testudo tortoise-name. This allowed more lightly-armoured troops to march in the middle of the tortoise-shape, being covered by the shields of their colleagues.

This shield of faith, then, is not an individual heater shield; it’s a huge rectangular shield for us, and for those around us. It’s communal. We are in a testudo.

A different kind of tortoise shield

Our culture is an individualistic one. I am so often concerned about how something affects me, rather than my community. It’s nothing new, it’s human nature; selfishness is a skill required for survival in a world where resources are scarce. It’s not always a bad thing either. Personal rights are – obviously – important, as are personal responsibilities. And in this season of Lent, we are encouraged to think about our own personal journey with God, about self-improvement, and possibly some form of self-denial. It is important for our personal faith.

But faith, for St Paul, was not, as surprising as it may seem, an individual thing. It was communal. It still is. We don’t say our creeds individually, but together. And whether we state ‘I believe’, or ‘We believe’, we say the creeds as one, holding our shield of faith for us and for the person standing next to us.

When we fast for Lent, it is not simply to get into shape physically, mentally or even spiritually; it is for the sake of the communal Church. We journey to the cross together.

And this is the thing about that shield of faith. We each carry our own, but for the sake of the community. Sometimes –  and perhaps especially over the awful past few weeks  – my shield may not be strong enough to protect me, but – in our testudo formation – your faith can cover me. Perhaps your faith feels weak, or lacking? Maybe you’ve dropped your shield, and you’re not sure what you believe at this point in time, and cannot rely on your own faith? We are in testudo; for now, you don’t need your own shield. Step into the middle, and rely on ours.

We’re in Lent, accompanying Christ on his journey to Calvary. If, on that journey, even He can stumble, and someone else pick up his cross, then, no matter what you’re going through, how weak or faithless you feel, I am certain that we, here at St Michaels, and in the Church communal across the world, can hold our battered shields of faith together to cover you. We can have faith for you. We may not be your knight in shining armour, but we can be – and are – your neighbour in testudo. Let us join our shields together, and if you can't do that, take shelter beneath the rest of ours.


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