If you’ve been on a plane any time in the last 25 years, you probably took a moment to leaf through the SkyMall catalog—that kitschy magazine that’s full of innovative and weird products that are impulsively appealing, but you don’t really need.
A Yeti garden sculpture? How about a sleep mask that plugs into your iPod or a pen that takes pictures? Leafing through that catalog on a long flight, you might have thought you really did need that replica Harry Potter wand or that voice-recognition grocery list organizer. But, alas, SkyMall filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Seems that now, in a world where gadgets are multiplying at a high rate of speed, people aren’t waiting until they fly to grandma’s to do their shopping for battery-operated ephemera because novelty is now no longer novel. In fact, it’s totally passé.
The best new novelty items are gadgets that are called wearable tech—such as smart watches and activity trackers that you wear on your wrist like this Fitbit that my wife got me. It’s a “step counter/calorie watcher” that makes me feel as if I’m wearing a fast food and potato chip low-jack.
Additionally, cameras that you can wear on helmets are becoming more common, as are other devices that have the potential to make your life more interesting, if not better.
The Ritot Projection Watch, for example, is a gadget that can display the time on your hand in beautiful digital colors because, you know, turning your wrist to look at a regular watch is, such a hassle.
Hush Smart Earplugs will block out sounds you don’t want to hear, like your husband’s snoring or your neighbor’s yappy dog, but still allow you to hear sounds that you want to hear, like the ringing of your phone or your baby crying.
The ShotTracker device uses a wristband to track how well you’re doing at shooting a basketball, because apparently watching to see if the ball goes through the hoop isn’t a good enough indication.
While a lot of this gadgetry is interesting, most of it isn’t essential, nor is it a cure-all for the inherent messiness of life. A smart watch might make it easier to answer your phone or check your calendar, but it won’t protect you from over-scheduling yourself. Your helmet camera may record cool videos of that epic ski run or downhill mountain bike ride, but it won’t keep you from crashing into a tree. In fact, our reliance on tech sometimes gets us into trouble, like the people who hike with a handheld GPS instead of a map and are hopelessly lost when the battery runs out.
So what if there was wearable tech that never fails, is highly mobile, offers ironclad protection from danger and never runs out of power? We all would be interested in that, right? Well the apostle Paul offers us a catalog snapshot of just such a product—a product mind you that is absolutely free.
It’s a “suit of armor”, spiritually speaking of course, that’s actually functional, unlike the 6-foot-tall Italian Armor Sculpture that was once available in the SkyMall catalog. It’s a suit of armor that when put on and used becomes for us everything we will ever need to ward off evil and be successful in living out the Good News of Jesus.
Paul uses the Greek word “panoply” to talk about this spiritual suit of armor.
The actual armor, the actual “panoply” was a light, maneuverable, state-of-the-art armored kit that was used by the Roman legionnaires who were seen all over the Mediterranean world.
Designed to be used within the virtually impenetrable Roman phalanx—which was a military formation—the panoply featured gadgets with both offensive and defensive capabilities that shielded the solider and made him lethal in his attack. This was wearable tech at its most basic and most effective.
Paul saw the Roman panoply as a metaphor for the kind of tech that the church needed to wear in order to survive and stand against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Unlike the Roman legions, whose panoply was designed to “struggle against enemies of blood and flesh,” the church’s enemies are those powers that seem always to be poised to invade our lives, often through the very gadgets that we carry, wear and watch.
Just glance at your cell phone, your tablet or your computer, and chances are you’ll see plenty of images and invitations that are contrary to the will of God, even if you’re not looking for them. The more convenient our lives become, it seems, the more complacent we become in guarding our hearts and minds. Paul’s metaphor is thus an invitation for the church to band together to defeat the spiritual enemy that is always poised to strike at us.
The Roman panoply was such that an individual soldier was protected only so long as he stayed in ranks with his comrades, their shields locked together. The armor was designed to protect only the front of the soldier and not his back, which ensured that his front was always toward the enemy. If an individual broke ranks, either to fight on his own or to run away, he was then vulnerable. Bottom line—The tech only works when it’s used in community.
This was true for the soldier, and Paul knew it was true for the church, yet we miss this reality, particularly because in our highly individualized, cell-phone-staring, button-pushing and thumb-twitching world we don’t realize that we’re only as good as the community of people around us. Ultimately, it wasn’t the armor that saved the Roman soldier in battle; it was his connection to the others.
In our text, in his metaphor, Paul urges the church to suit up and check our connections to each other if we are to “withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”
The Apostle Paul takes this metaphor a bit further when he goes on to describe each piece of wearable tech that, when used together, makes for a strong defense against the forces of evil. He begins with the “belt of truth” that is foundational to the strength of any group of people. The ability to trust one another and speak the truth is essential to both soldiers and churches.
The belt of truth enables the community to “put away falsehood” that “leaves no room for the devil” to operate. Our gadgets can be used for gossip if we’re not careful, so Paul begins with truth—the wearable and usable tech that is most protective of the cohesion of the community of faith.
The “breastplate of righteousness” and the “helmet of salvation” are echoes from Isaiah 59:17, where God puts on the armor to go out and repay God’s enemies for their evil. God’s righteousness and salvation guard our hearts and heads in the knowledge that God has already defeated the enemy through the righteousness and salvation offered by Christ on the cross.
Like a heart rate monitor app on your smart watch, the knowledge of what God has done for us in Christ, revealed in the “word of God,” helps us to gauge our spiritual health. The more we exercise the grace offered to us, the more likely we are to stay strong in the knowledge that we are eternally protected from the slings and arrows of the evil one.
Next, the Roman “caliga,” or boot, was one of the key parts of the panoply. It enabled the legion to keep pace on the march with more precision than the step counter on your Fitbit. Here Paul uses the image to encourage the church to put on “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” The church that’s constantly stepping outside its walls to preach the gospel of peace in the community through both words and actions will be most equipped to “stand firm” even while moving out into the neighborhood.
Next, the shield was a critical piece of the legionnaire panoply, since it provided the primary protection for both the individual and the phalanx.
Shooting flaming arrows into the enemy’s ranks was a standard tactic in ancient warfare, since individual soldiers would have to drop their shields in order to put out the fire. The Romans devised the counter measure of soaking the leather-covered shields in water before battle in order to extinguish the fires before they got started.
For the church, faith acts as a kind of shield against “the flaming arrows of the evil one.” A strong faith is not just the product of individual devotion, but is the result of a church that rallies together in defense of the gospel and holds up those who are struggling.
And lastly, the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” One of the upsides of having all this wearable tech is that we have easy access to Scripture in our pockets and even on our wrists.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that Scripture is a “sharp, two-edged sword” that cuts both ways—it slices into the lies of the enemy and it can cut us to the heart when we are convicted of our sin (Hebrews 4:12).
The more we engage in reading Scripture daily, the more we are able to see the enemy’s SkyMall-like catalog of temptations for doing evil for what they are: worthless junk that is harmful to both body and soul.
These pieces of armor were critical to the Roman soldier’s survival and success. And Paul has given them to us as a means for surviving evil and succeeding in sharing the Good News of Jesus.
SkyMall may be in bankruptcy, but gadgets are here to stay. New inventions are popping up all the time—and many of them do make life easier, more enjoyable, better, healthier. As much as I fret about my Fitbit, it has motivated me to make healthier choices.
Paul reminds us, however, that it’s the tried and true products that really stand the test of time, especially when it comes to guarding our lives in Christ—truth, peace, faith, the word of God.
So may we consider what evils we need to withstand and stand in opposition to. Then may we do just that with the full protection and peace that comes from wearing and using the armor of God. Amen.