The Shield of Faith
The Whole Armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) #4
Lent IV; March 11, 2018
The line from our theme passage in Ephesians is this: "Take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one." The preacher's temptation is to focus on the evil one and those flaming arrows. I was listening to an interview the other day in which the guest pointed out that in most fiction the bad guys are the most interesting. He was talking about Milton's Paradise Lost and said that Satan is a more interesting character than God. I saw the movie Black Panther the other evening and the tortured soul Erik Killmonger and maybe even Ulysses Klaue provoke more interesting conversation than does King T'Challa. So it may be more fun to talk about the evil one and the flaming arrows than to talk about the shield of faith, but I'm talking about the shield of faith today.
Whatever you construe those flaming arrows to be, the Bible is telling us that the best defense against them is faith. A shield is purely for defense, as is most of the rest of this "whole armor of God" that we're talking about, and faith is active and engaging, not purely defensive. But for now we're interested in faith as a defense against the flaming arrows of the evil one. And from what I read you from the Book of Hebrews there are two things to say.
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). That's the traditional translation and some of you may even have memorized that in Sunday School. I don't like it, though. It sounds pretty but it's hard to figure out what it means. This is one of those times I'm grateful that the Presbyterian Church makes its ministers learn to read Greek. Here's how I translate it: "Now faith is the foundation for what we hope for, confidence in deeds we haven't seen for ourselves." And so the line (v. 3) about trusting that God made the universe, even though we weren't there to see God do it, makes sense. You and I were not around to see God make the universe, so how do we know God made it? It's in the Bible and we find the Bible a generally trustworthy account of the work of God. We have faith in a number of things that we haven't seen for ourselves and that faith is the foundation for all we hope for as people of God.
But faith is not blind. Imagine you're driving along and you see this sign:
Are you going to keep going straight on and disbelieve the sign? Some of you might; when your mothers told you the stove was hot and not to touch it, you touched it. You trusted her the next time. You might keep going and get to where the bridge is supposed to be. What happens next depends on how fast you're going: you stop, turn around, and take the posted detour this time; or you drive right into the river because you're going too fast to stop.
But probably most of you have faith in the sign. It looks official; it was probably posted by the Highway Department. You don't have to see for yourselves that the bridge is washed out, although there is always the possibility that it was posted as a scam by someone up to no good. It's possible that you are wrong, but you have faith.
So we have faith that God created the world, even though we weren't there, because that word comes to us from a source we trust: the Bible. The rest of this chapter in Hebrews is a wonderful recitation of the deeds of people of faith, what Abel, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab and many other men and women hoped for and were able to accomplish because they had faith. Their hope in God was built on a foundation of faith, confidence in the deeds of God that they had not seen for themselves but were told them by witnesses they trusted.
Why do I have faith, for example, in the Resurrection of Jesus? It is the foundation of nearly everything I hope for. Was I there? Did I eat and drink with him? Did I walk the Road to Emmaus with him? Was I there when he grilled fish by the sea and said, "Come and have breakfast"? No, of course not. But there were people there, people whose testimony I trust: Mary of Magdala, Simon Peter, and many others. They saw him, touched his hand, received a piece of fish that he had grilled, heard his voice. And I trust them.
A saving faith, faith that protects us from the flaming arrows of the evil one, is a faith that has confidence in the deeds of God without having to see them for ourselves, but that are testified to by people we can trust.
And the other thing to say is that a saving faith is a faith that hangs in there. That's how I read the first part of our selection (10:37-39). When the one who is coming arrives, who will still be standing and who will have given up? This is where it is so easy to get it wrong. To have faith does not mean that you never have doubts. You may have doubts, you may wonder about the reliability of the testimony, you may not buy all this mumbo jumbo that the preacher gives you, but you have hope in God because you have a foundation of faith, and so you hang in there. To have faith does not mean that you never ask questions. Actually, I think faith leads to the most interesting questions. You may be puzzled, you may not understand, you may have trouble reconciling what the Bible says with what you experience, but you hang in there. Faith is a practice: it's something you do and that you keep doing. You and I hang in there through doubt and through questions.
So what is my challenge for you this week? Just this: when we have communion this morning, practice believing that you are having food with Jesus. That's something we believe. And then, this week, ponder that. Who told you that you were having food with Jesus? Why do you trust that person's word? And how does that faith protect you from the flaming arrows of the evil one? You come to this Holy Supper with faith, faith built on the testimony of deeds that we did not see for ourselves but reported by those we trust, faith that gives us hope, and faith that hangs in there. That faith is your shield against the flaming arrows of the evil one.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master