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

SPIRITUAL EXCELLENCE: THE SWORD OF THE SPIRIT

Delivered 8/31/97
Text: Eph. 6:10-17
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

I was channel surfing one night recently when an image came on the screen that surprised me. The author Salmon Rushdie was being interviewed. Do you remember Salmon Rushdie? He is the one who wrote the book The Satanic Verses(1) which infuriated faithful Muslims because of what they felt was a blasphemous attack on their prophet Mohammed. There were demonstrations, riots in the streets, even people killed in response. Finally, the Ayatollah Khomeini put a multi-million dollar bounty on Rushdie's head and told Muslims it would be the right thing to do to assassinate Rushdie. The rest of the world was horrified at that, but, ever since (even though the Ayatollah is long since dead), Salmon Rushdie has been forced to live in hiding. That is why I was surprised to see him on television the other night. He says the contract is still out on him, but folks do not take it quite so seriously anymore. He had better hope not.

What caused all the upset? WORDS! Nothing but words. Words in a book; words from a vengeful religious fanatic. Words have power. When we were children, we chanted "Sticks and stones can break my bones but names (or words) can never hurt me." HA! Some of the deepest wounds we ever suffer come from words.

When my grandmother was a little girl, about ten years old, someone in church made an unkind comment about her ability (or lack of it) to sing. So she stopped. She never sang anymore. She did not sing in worship. She did not sing at parties. As far as I know, she did not sing in the shower. She lived to be three weeks shy of reaching 100 years old, but in all the years I knew her, the only time I ever heard a note from her throat was to sing "Happy Birthday" to one of us ONCE. I will confess that whoever told her she could not sing was right - it was awful. But lack of talent had not kept her from trying; it was the cutting remark, the unfeeling word, that kept her silent for 90 years. Words have power.

What brings this to mind is the reference in our lesson to "the sword of the Spirit...the WORD of God," this final piece of equipment with which the Apostle Paul describes the Lord's provision for Christian soldiers...the armor of God...the protection we need if we are serious in our search for spiritual excellence. We began with the Belt of Truth, GOD's truth - God loves this world and sent Jesus to save it. Then the Breastplate of Righteousness, GOD's righteousness, the promise that in God's loving relationship with this world God will do WHAT God is supposed to WHEN God is supposed to. 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 God's love and care even when we are miserably UNfaithful. Two weeks ago, the Helmet of Salvation to protect us from worrying about the ultimate outcome for ourselves or this world; that is already taken care of. Now, the sword of the Spirit...the word of God.

What is the word of God? Most would quickly answer, "the Bible, of course." Well, yes and no. To be honest, nowhere in scripture is there any reference to the Bible being "the word of God." The word of God is more than pages in a book, even this very special book.

Listen to the definition of an eminent theologian, a man who was my father's roommate in seminary, and after whom I got my middle name, Eugene Osterhaven:

"The broadest meaning of the Word is God's entire disclosure of Himself and His purposes...mediated through prophets, apostles, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Conceived more personally the Word is Christ Himself, the `person of the speaking God,' as John Calvin puts it (Inst. I, vii, 4)..."(2)

Do you remember those marvelous opening phrases of the gospel of John? "In the beginning was the WORD and the word was with God and the word was God...and the WORD became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father."(3) In a unique way, JESUS is the WORD OF GOD.

Is this what Paul meant when he talked of the sword of the Spirit...the word of God? Actually, I suspect he was thinking the same way WE do...the WRITTEN word. He could not have meant Christ in the flesh because Christ was not physically present when Paul wrote these words any more than he is for us today. He could not have meant simply the Spirit of Christ because that would have opened a Pandora's box and unleashed a wild and uncontrolled fanaticism..."devilish madness" is what Calvin called it in the sixteenth century in his contacts with those who wanted to abandon scripture and appeal directly to the Holy Spirit to support their opinions.(4) No, the Apostle Paul meant to offer us something more solid than that. For him, and for us, the sword of the Spirit is the word of God WRITTEN.

Why the metaphor of a sword? Most of the preaching I have heard on this passage says this is the one offensive weapon Christians are given from God's armory. I confess that there have been and ARE many who do indeed use scripture offensively. They use it as a bludgeon to smash their particular version of evil and sin. The religious leaders of Jesus' day did that to him. Religious men have done that to religious women, denying them their rights and systematically excluding them from leadership in the church. Scientists have been branded as heretics for saying the earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa (after all, does the Bible not speak of the sun rising in the east?), or that the earth was not necessarily created in six 24-hour days - HERESY! Black people have been kept in chains as good Christians used the Bible to insist that slavery was God's will. People whose marriages have failed have been made to feel like outcasts in the church. I knew of a young man who refused to talk to his mother for several years because the Bible says for wives to "submit" themselves to their husbands and he did not think his mother was submissive enough - his father thought everything was fine, but that made no difference. A list like that could go on and on. People have been and continue to be extremely offensive with this sword of the Spirit.

Is this what Paul intended? Of course not. The armor of God is a protection against evil. It is not to be the source of evil.

Perhaps some light can be shed on the Apostle's phrase by looking at another passage where God's word is compared to a sword. Hebrews 4:12 - "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." This is hardly an offensive attack. It is exploratory surgery. If Paul had written in 1997, he might have called God's word, not the sword, but the SCALPEL of the Spirit.

If spiritual excellence is our goal during this summer season, we do need that. We need to know the things within ourselves that would keep us from realizing our lofty ambition. Calvin called scripture our "divine spectacles" - God's word helps us see everything more clearly, even ourselves. Unfortunately, there is no more widely-owned but narrowly-used piece of equipment in God's armory than this sword of the Spirit.

A couple was entertaining a visiting minister in their home. Near the end of the evening, the wife asked the guest if he would care to read the Bible and offer prayer before they all retired. Being assured that he would enjoy the opportunity, the hostess said to her young son, "Bobby, go into the other room and bring that big book mommy and daddy read so much." In a moment the lad came back...with the Sears catalogue.(5)

Why do people neglect their Bibles? After all, we say in our confessional documents that the Bible is our "primary rule for faith and practice." Some have called it the Christian's "Owners Manual." As children we stood and sang,

The B-I-B-L-E
Yes, that's the book for me;
I stand alone on the Word of God,
The B-I-B-L-E

Then why is it neglected? Some folks probably avoid the Bible because they do not care what God has to say, but I doubt that many in the church would make such a statement. Some, no doubt, avoid it because they do not want any standards for life except their own. It is true that the same Bible that says BELIEVE also says BEHAVE. Mark Twain said, "It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it's the parts that I do understand."(6) There is probably some of that in the church (particularly when it comes to money and tithing), but again I doubt that many Christians would openly admit that. No, from my perspective as a minister, it seems that the biggest reason people are willing to let this sword of the Spirit get rusty from disuse is LAZINESS.

When I was in seminary, we had a wonderful Old Testament professor, Dr. Robert Marshall, who had the reputation of being EASY. Before our first course with him, some of the upper-class let us know that we would hardly ever have to open a book, the Old Testament or any other, to pass his course. This was good news to notoriously lazy seminary students. Unfortunately, Dr. Marshall got wind of that word and on our first day in class, he let us know that there would be a test EVERY WEEK and pop quizzes anytime he felt they were necessary. We ended up studying. We had to. I wonder if Christians would study the Bible more if they suspected God would spring pop quizzes every so often.

Two little boys were walking and talking. One said to the other, "Your grandmother is always sitting on the porch reading the Bible. How come?" The other responded, "I don't know. I think she's cramming for finals."

Is laziness the reason folks neglect the Bible? I learned long ago that there is a difference in perception between pulpit and pew on things like this. Some time back a survey was conducted asking why church members did not participate as faithfully as they could or should. Respondents were asked to choose from a list of answers and rate them in order of importance. Of the preachers who replied, the number one answer was "lack of commitment." But lay people listed "lack of commitment" as number SEVEN. Realizing that this question about Bible study might reflect a similar difference in my perspective and yours, I checked it out. I asked some of you.

The number one answer? People neglect the Bible because it is too tough to understand - folks get discouraged and stop studying. OK, I hear that. Number two? Bible study was never made very exciting in early training, so folks stopped bothering with it. All right. Number three? Time - with so many other things going on in our lives, it is hard to find the time to just study...the Bible or anything else. Number four? Laziness. Finally.

If any of those are true for you, let me make a few suggestions. Too tough to understand? Do not give up. If you do not already own one, buy a copy of the Bible in modern English. Then begin to study one book or passage that has interested you with the help of a good commentary (you can find them in the church library). That will be a start.

If Bible teaching in times past was boring or confusing, get into a church or class or study group that meets your needs now. The Apostle Peter once wrote to the church, "No scripture is of private interpretation." Solitary study will not do the job if God's word is going to be "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword." In a couple of weeks, we will begin our midweek study of the "New Testament Postcards," those shorter epistles we find in our Bibles. I hope you will make the time to be a part of the study.

No time? Perhaps. Most of us admit that we MAKE time for things we consider important. Remember, you can never tell about a pop quiz.

If sheer laziness is the reason for neglecting your Bible and you know it, get down on your knees and ask God for the gumption to get your priorities straight. If spiritual excellence is really your ambition, the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, cannot be neglected. In a way that Salmon Rushdie or the Ayatollah Khomeini could never imagine, THIS word has power.

Not long ago, a young woman sat in my office and talked about her very busy life. She told me that things had been difficult lately - there had been the press of business, family crises, a sudden death. She was having questions about religion. I was not surprised because she rarely attends church. It never ceases to amaze me that people understand so well that a healthy body requires proper exercise, nutrition, and care or we will get sick. They understand that a car needs water in the radiator, oil in the crankcase, and grease on the axles - maintenance - or it will stop running. Why can they not understand that unless the deep things of the spirit are cared for - uplifted in fellowship, nourished with prayer, comforted in God's word - maintenance - they too will break down under the pressures of life? As I say, I was not surprised she was having trouble.

Martin Luther once called the Bible, "the cradle that brings us the Christ." Jesus himself so often steps out of those sacred pages - lovable and compassionate and intensely knowable - and with good reason we find comfort in the thought that if God is really like that, we can trustfully commit ourselves unreservedly into his hands, for life, for death, for anything.

Is that what the Bible is for you? It has been said that if all the neglected Bibles were dusted simultaneously, we would have a record dust storm and the sun would go into eclipse for a week.(7) I hope not.

How Firm a Foundation,
Ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith
In God's excellent Word!(8)

Let us pray.

O God, we confess that we so often try to go our own way without the benefit of the road map for life you have provided in scripture. Help us to commit ourselves to the kind of study that will make us the faithful people we have been called to be. For we pray it in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen!


1. London : Viking, 1988

2. Eugene Osterhaven, The Faith of the Church, (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmanns Publishing, 1982), p. 171

3. John 1:1,14

4. Osterhaven, p. 172

5. Clyde Murdock, ed., A Treasury of Humor, (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishing, 1967), p. 14

6. Jon Winokur, Ed., The Portable Curmudgeon, (New York, NAL Books, 1987), p. 32

7. Maxwell Droke, Ed., Anthology of Anecdotes, (Indianapolis, Droke House, 1948), p. 156

8. John Rippon, Ed., "K," A Selection of Hymns, 1787

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