The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

SPIRITUAL EXCELLENCE: SALVATION

Delivered 8/17/97
Text: Eph. 6:10-17 (Psalm 118:1-14)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Elvis, Elvis, Elvis! Have you heard enough about Elvis this week? It is hard to imagine that it has been 20 years since Elvis Presley's death. But it is even harder for me to imagine our continuing fascination with the man. An estimated thirty thousand people filed past his grave in a candlelight vigil Friday night; fifty thousand gathered for a "virtual" concert last night. On the worldwide web, there is now a home page for the "First Presley-terian Church of Elvis the Divine(1)" which you can join for the bargain offering of just $13.00 and in return receive your very own personal laminated membership card plus a beautiful membership certificate and folder proclaiming you as a fully ordained member of the flock. I wonder how many calls have come in to the media this week with Elvis "sightings." Amazing. What can you say about a society that says "God is dead" and "Elvis is alive?"

Lead us not into Graceland, but deliver us from Elvis.

Perhaps part of this fascination with keeping Elvis "alive" is our universal human concern about what happens beyond death, not only for him but for us. After all, there is something innate in us that insists that this life is not all there is. Thus, people are concerned about the fate of souls...especially their own. They buy books on life after death. They watch talk shows that might offer insight. They come to churches, synagogues, temples and mosques because, in some sense this issue may be said to be the ultimate concern of all religion. There is a theological word for it...salvation. In a very real sense, our Bible is a book of salvation from beginning to end.

It is surely a Christian concern. There is a well-worn story of a parishioner who dozed off to sleep during the morning service. "Will all who want to go to heaven please stand?" the minister asked. All stood, except old sleeping Jasper. "Well, will all who want to go to the other place stand?" asked the preacher. At that moment someone dropped a hymnbook. Quickly, Jasper jumped to his feet and stood sheepishly facing the pastor. He mumbled confusedly for a moment, and said, "Well, preacher, I don't know what we're votin' for, but it looks like you and I are the only ones for it."(2)

Another minister was preaching and in his sermon asked "Who wants to go to heaven?" Everyone held up their hands except one young boy. "Son, don't you want to go to heaven when you die?" "Yes sir, when I die, but I thought you was gettin' up a load to go now."(3)

That is probably the attitude of most of us. Most Christians DO figure that when we die we go to heaven to be with the Lord, even if we are not ready to make the trip tomorrow. That is salvation. After all, from earliest Sunday School we learned that JESUS SAVES! "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved."(4) We are SAVED by grace through our faith in Jesus. "Are you saved?" is still the question of the TV preachers and tent-meeting evangelists. Salvation. It is our destiny...something Christians can count on as surely as the sun coming up in the morning and the moon at night. Case closed!

But the words from our lesson bring us up short. Over these past weeks, our summer study has been considering this equipment which God provides us in our quest for spiritual excellence...the armor of God - the Belt of Truth, GOD's truth that God loves this world and sent Jesus Christ to redeem it. Then the Breastplate of Righteousness, GOD's righteousness, the promise of a relationship with this world God loves that will never falter. On to the Shoes of the Gospel of Peace, GOD's peace, the peace that passes understanding, the peace that a child feels snuggled up to Mommy or Daddy in the midst of a midnight storm. Last week, the Shield of Faithfulness, GOD's faithfulness, that guarantees God's love and care even when we are miserably UNfaithful. But now we are told to put on the Helmet of Salvation, and the question quickly comes, "Why? Have we not already said salvation is a done deal for all of us who trust Jesus?"

Perhaps we should look more closely at what SALVATION is. The first thing to note is that the word comes from a Latin root, salus, that has nothing specifically to do with life after death. It means HEALTH or WHOLENESS, very similar in meaning to the Hebrew word shalom which folks over-simplify in translation as PEACE because it too carries the idea of WHOLENESS.

If, as we said a moment ago, the ultimate concern of our Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is salvation, a quick trip through those sacred pages should offer even more light. Look back to the story of creation. In the beginning everything was good. But Adam and Eve sinned - they ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They decided to think for themselves - no God was needed to separate right from wrong, order from chaos, provide wholeness...salvation. But they were mistaken. This was the way Israelite mothers and fathers explained to their children why so much was wrong with the world. Human arrogance upset God's good order, and the Ghengis Kahns and Hitlers and Sadaam Husseins of this world have offered stark and tragic testimony to that ever since.

But the ancient Hebrews believed more. They knew that God would not leave the world in disarray, nor would God leave the covenant people to fend for themselves. When the Psalmist declares, "The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation" (Ps. 118:14) as we read earlier, he is affirming that God delivers the people from all sorts of disasters - slavery in Egypt, wars with the Canaanites, bondage in Babylon. Indeed, one of the great heroes of ancient Israel, the one who led the people into the promised land, was named Yeshua, Joshua, the Hebrew word for salvation. There is little or no concern with life after death in the Old Testament. Salvation is here-and-now... protection from enemies, a restoration of order.

By the time we get to the New Testament, we find another powerful personality named "Salvation"...Yeshua, which Greek turns into Iesus...Jesus. Do you remember the announcement of his coming? The angel told Joseph, "You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall SAVE his people from their sins."(5) In fact, there were all sorts of little boys being born around the time of Christ whose Jewish Moms and Dads named them Jesus in the hope that their son would be the promised Messiah, the Deliverer, the salvation of Israel from the bondage of Rome...the one who would restore God's good order. Life after death was still no issue.

As Jesus began his ministry, something new became apparent. The salvation he was offering was much more than political deliverance for the chosen people. He said himself that he had come "to preach good news to the poor...proclaim release to the captives...[restore] sight to the blind..."(6), "to seek and to save the lost."(7) To the woman he healed of a hemorrhage, the blind man who could now see, the leper who had been cleansed, he said, "Your faith has SAVED you." Salvation was not a promise of pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye, but a restoration of order in the here and now.

Of course, Jesus encountered a problem, one that went back to the difficulties in Eden. The religious folk of his day were THINKERS. They knew good from evil, order from chaos, saved from lost. Good and order and salvation was obedience to the Law. Good and order and salvation was condemning sinners. Good and order and salvation would come in overthrowing Rome. Evil was anyone who disagreed. Get rid of him. Crucify him!

As you know, they did that. THINKERS that they were, they THOUGHT they were restoring order...saving things. But God intervened and, in a preliminary way on that first Easter morning, saved and restored DIVINE order, the order that had been lost back in the Garden of Eden.

By the time we come to the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation, we find more clearly than anywhere else that salvation...restoring order...goes beyond this life. In its complicated but beautifully poetic way, Revelation affirms to the early church, people who were in danger for their very lives because of their commitment to Christ, that God will deliver, will SAVE, God's people and will make creation good again: no more hunger, no more thirst, no more tears, no more death. Salvation.

The Christian message is that you and I are not capable of restoring things to their original good condition. Only God can do that, and that process has already begun - God sent Jesus. As the Gospel writer has it, "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be SAVED."(8) Salvation is something much more than a promise of pie-in-the-sky for believers. It is nothing less than making a sick creation healthy and whole again.

Our problem is that we are trapped between two worlds. God has already proclaimed salvation, God's restoration of order, in the death and resurrection of Christ. But we still live in a chaotic and disordered existence - there are still hunger and thirst, still tears, still death. We are caught between the already and the not yet. We do not know what to think.

There is an old Rabbinic tale that brings the point home.(9) "One day, outside the Garden, Eve met her old friend the serpent. `Good morning,' said the serpent, `Nice skirt you've got on. How are you doing?'

`It's kind of you to ask,' Eve said. `Actually, not so well.'

`Ah, yes,' said the serpent, `aftereffects of the fruit. It does taste rather sour.'

`But how can I get back inside the garden?' Eve asked.

`Good question,' said the serpent. `For me it's easy, of course: I just burrow under the hedge. But I'll give you a hint. Go back the way you came.'"

The point? Adam and Eve do not go back because they do not THINK they can. They THINK themselves into all sorts of problems. Aftereffects of the fruit, the Rabbi says.

Perhaps this is why Paul chose the metaphor of the helmet for salvation. It protects a foolish head, a head that, like the one back in the Garden of Eden, THINKS too much. Yes, we think wacky things - Elvis is alive and well and living in Pine Hall, as one caller to a local TV station said the other night. But we think dangerous things as well - we are convinced we know good and evil. We look at our lives and know they are not all they could or should be. We think that neither we nor the world is worthy of salvation. But God says NO.

Suddenly we begin to see a progression in this armor of God we have been studying. The Belt of Truth, GOD's truth - God loves this world and sent Jesus - Yeshua - to SAVE it. The Breastplate of Righteousness, GOD's righteousness, the promise that God's loving relationship with this world will never falter. The Shoes of the Gospel of Peace, GOD's peace, the peace that comes when we feel secure in that relationship. The Shield of Faithfulness, GOD's faithfulness, that guarantees divine love and care even when we are miserably UNfaithful. Now this Helmet of Salvation that says stop thinking so much - do not worry about the ultimate outcome for yourself or this world; that is already taken care of.

What the Helmet of Salvation provides is a chance for us to genuinely pursue spiritual excellence. We can be about our business of proclaiming God's love and care for the world...in word and deed...without being sidetracked by worrying over God's love and care for us.

During the first part of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, no safety devices were used, and 23 men fell to their deaths. For the last part of the project though, a large net which cost $100,000 was employed. At least 10 men fell into it and were saved. But an interesting sidelight is the fact that 25% more work was accomplished when the men were assured of their safety.(10)

Some of you have heard me tell that, during my seminary days, I took an evening elective course that was roundly avoided because most thought it would be too difficult - a study of the book of James in Greek taught by one of our best but most demanding professors. On our first night in class, he looked around at the half-dozen of us in the room who had signed up - all good students who would be diligent in our work - and said, "You all have A's. Now let's get to work." We were free to proceed with our task without having to think or worry about a grade. He had given us a student version of the Helmet of Salvation.

Years ago, the evangelist Sam Jones used to have what he called "Quittin' Meetings" during his revivals. He gave folks the opportunity to confess their sins and repent. People said they would quit swearing, drinking, smoking, gossiping. He asked one woman what she planned to quit and she replied, "I ain't been doin' nothin' and I'm sure gonna quit that."(11)

Yes, we are caught between the already and the not yet. We think about the fate of this world, watch TV shows about life after death, worry about salvation, and even maintain abnormal fascination with dead celebrities. Aftereffects of the fruit. But the glorious message of the Gospel is that we need not worry. God has begun to restore order to Eden in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And all who put their trust in him have A's...a Helmet of Salvation. Now we can get to work.

Let us pray.

Lord, we confess that we worry too much and that we are often paralyzed in our action because of it. Help us to trust, to be confident of your promise of love for us and all the world as shown in Jesus. For we pray it in his name. Amen!


1. http://pages.prodigy.com/NJ/zvqj45a/zvqj45a.html

2. Clyde Murdock, A Treasury of Humor, (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishing, 1967), p. 35

3. ibid., p. 45

4. Acts 16:31

5. Matthew 1:21

6. Luke 4:18

7. Luke 19:10

8. John 3:17

9. Stephen Mitchell in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, David Rosenberg, Ed., (New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987), p. 391

10. Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, (Rockville, MD, Assurance Publishers, 1979), pp. 1192

11. ibid., p. 1230-1231

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail