Ephesians 6:10-17
Rev. C. Dan Brand

We are once again searching for Christian spiritual excellence. Last week we began our focus on the Apostle Paul’s metaphor about equipment Christians need for faithful discipleship, the “Whole armor of God.”  We talked about the belt of truth; this week we consider the breastplate of righteousness.  Of the six pieces of armor Paul mentions, this is the one that most often rattles our cages.  We hear the word “righteousness” and suddenly we think, “Uh oh, here are expectations that we cannot fulfill.  That word brings with it some really high expectations.

So what do you think righteousness is?  We have heard all our righteousness is as “filthy rags” in the sight of God. OK, but then a lesson on the breastplate of righteousness comes along and most likely we hear that we should be righteous. And, if we were righteous we would be protected (after all a breastplate is for protection) from the slander of enemies, we would avoid wrongdoing, and keep unruly passions in check.  In essence, we should lead an upright life, a blameless life, Righteous.

I love to hear a friend of mine tell her story about her righteous moment. You see, she was raised in N.C. where as a young person they had revivals—sometimes for several weeks. As she says, they had a revival until all the people who came were righteous to be saved. She says that she felt the urge to go to the altar, when she would receive the thump on the head by her mother when she said “You are not ready, girl” Well, this went on for several days. Each time she felt the urge—she would receive the thump, you’re not ready. But, one night as she was sitting there, as she puts it, minding her own business without moving a muscle, she receives the thump, but this time she was told “NOW YOU are READY”

That is why there is confusion. Which is it? What is the expectation? That we cannot be righteous, no matter what we do? Or that we should be righteous, or at least give it the old college try? So what do you think righteousness is? I can tell you that the dictionary is not much help. The handy dandy American Heritage defines righteousness as something “Morally upright; without guilt or sin—conforming to a standard of right.”  The thesaurus is better…. It lists synonyms like godliness, uprightness, good, moral, puritanical. Those are what come to mind when we think of righteousness.

Do we expect that of anybody?  We try to apply that as a standard for politicians and preachers, and profess great outrage when the expectation is not met, but the truth is we do not really expect it.  In fact, we would look at someone that is “righteous” as goody-two-shoes and not someone to invite for dinner.

What does the scripture mean when it uses the word righteousness?  To better understand, I went back to the ancient root of the meaning from Hebrew and Greek. It means, “to be in order”.  As the centuries moved on to Bible times, it came to be thought of in terms fulfilling the demands of a relationship.  Despite what modern minds think, Biblical righteousness had nothing to do with godliness or uprightness or being good or even being moral.  Was the relationship “in order” or not? Was it right? If it was, as far as the Bible was concerned, you were righteous.

Abraham is one of the Old Testament characters called righteous. Why? Because he did everything right? Of course not!  Abraham was just as much a sinner as any of us.  The Bible says Abraham was considered righteous because of his faith.  His relationship with God was right.  It was in order! Did you hear me? His Relationship with God was in Order! He had enough faith to pull up stakes and move to a foreign land because God told him to.  He had enough faith to trust God to give him a son and heir even though he was an old man.  He even had enough faith to be willing to sacrifice that heir simply because God asked him to.  The relationship between Abraham and God was one of master and servant, and Abraham kept that in order.  Thus, Abraham was called righteous.

In the Antarctic summer of 1908-9, Sir Ernest Shackleton and three companions attempted to travel to the South Pole from their winter quarters. They set off with four ponies to help carry the load. Weeks later, their ponies dead, rations all but exhausted, they turned back toward their base, their goal not accomplished.

Altogether, they trekked 127 days. On the return journey, as Shackleton records in The Heart of the Antarctic, the time was spent talking about food — elaborate feasts, gourmet delights, sumptuous menus. As they staggered along, suffering from dysentery, not knowing whether they would survive, every waking hour was occupied with thoughts of eating. Jesus, who also knew the ravages of food deprivation, said,
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for RIGHTEOUSNESS.” We can understand Shackleton’s obsession with food, which offers a glimpse of the passion Jesus intends for our quest for righteousness.

The more we understand this word, righteousness, maybe the less intimidating it becomes.  When we think of it in terms of “right relationships” and not saints or angels with halos, it makes a whole lot more sense.  

Did you know that our Apostle Paul uses this word “righteousness” 115 times in his writings? If you go and read his letters and think of “right relationship with God” as being righteous, it makes a whole lot more sense.  But there is another thing about this “breastplate of righteousness”. Whose armor is Paul talking about? It is not our armor.  It is not our righteousness that protects us.  The breastplate that protects our often very faint heart is God’s righteousness.

What is God’s righteousness?  The same as any other righteousness in the Bible, God is called righteous because God fulfills the expectations of the Master/servant relationship with people in delivering and preserving them.  God delivered the covenant people from slavery in Egypt and preserved them from extinction despite centuries of powerlessness.  God delivers and preserves the people of the new covenant, you and me, from sin and death through the saving work of Jesus Christ.  God can be counted on.  God upholds the divine part of the relationship.  God does right by us. God is righteous.  After all, a breastplate is designed to help us–to protect us.

If we want lives that are spiritually excellent, we will do everything in our power to make all our relationships right.  We will do what is expected of us, and we will do it when we should and the way we should.  That is basic discipleship! And just as it will get life off on the right foot for any relationship, it will make life good for any of us.  The truth, of course, is that, despite all our high hopes and remarkable resolve, we will sometimes mess up—Big time.  The good news is that this protective breastplate comes from God who never messes up.  This is one relationship that will never let us down.  The breastplate of righteousness or the “R” word can become our word because it is God’s Word.

Let us pray:

Lord, we confess that too much of our reluctance in pursuing a proper relationship with you comes from misunderstanding.  Help us to commit ourselves to overcoming our own confusion so that we might share your good news with a world that is even more confused.  We pray it in Jesus’ name.