When I hear the word “holiness” it makes me cringe a little bit. I was part of a church that was part of the Pentecostal holiness tradition, and the call to holiness crossed the line at times into legalism. There was such a fear of “cheap grace” that soon all grace became suspect. Eventually many of the groups that were influenced by the holiness movement had to wrestle with the old lists of dos and don’ts that really just set up a new law with some modern updates. The problem that I see with easy to reference lists is that they tend to fixate us on what we aren’t supposed to do, and that usually has the opposite of the intended effect. What we focus on usually determines our direction, so focusing on dos and don’ts can trip us up and distract our focus from Christ. The church has wrestled with this from its beginning, and we even see pieces of these difficult issues in the Bible in Paul’s letters, Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, and the words of the Old Testament prophets. Peter had a firsthand look at the ways Jesus engaged these issues and today’s text refers to some of the words Jesus had to say on this subject.
13Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. 14Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.
1 Peter 1:13-17
We have what appears to be a very difficult call on our lives, and that call is to act in ways that reflect the good character of God in our daily lives. This good character is not something we can just emulate by trying, but requires us to discipline ourselves through practicing the actions that do not come naturally to us. Let me say that, at first, this is indeed a difficult call, but as we train and practice it becomes easier. When I first started going to the gym riding the exercise bike for 20 minutes was torture, and now I am strong enough that the torture lasts for 35 minutes. Seriously though, it has gotten easier and it definitely feels more natural to go and exercise. By practicing a good habit it gets easier the next time you go to do the action. In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas Willard uses the analogy of baseball.
Think of certain young people who idolize an outstanding baseball player. They want nothing so much as to pitch or run or hit as well as their idol. So what do they do? When they are playing in a baseball game, they all try to behave exactly as their favorite baseball star does. The star is well known for sliding head first into bases, so the teenagers do too. The star holds his bat above his head, so the teenagers do too. These young people try anything and everything their idol does, hoping to be like him—they buy the type of shoes the star wears, the same glove he uses, the same bat.
Will they succeed in performing like the star, though? The star performer himself didn’t achieve his excellence by trying to behave a certain way only during the game. Instead, he chose an overall life of preparation of mind and body, pouring all his energies into that total preparation, to provide a foundation in the body’s automatic responses and strength for his conscious efforts during the game. (Willard 1991, 3-4)
In order for athletes to make what they do look as easy as it does to us requires a lot of hard work outside of the public eye. We also have training to undergo in order to make decisions that are different than those that come naturally in the society we live in. The priorities of following Jesus are in conflict with some of the core values of every culture in the world, so it becomes absolutely imperative for us to practice those different values so that we don’t get conformed to the patterns of the world around us. When we discipline our minds and bodies to following Christ we end up confronting those desires, hopes, dreams, and ambitions within ourselves that go against the call to live transformed lives that are set apart for service to God. Every political, social, or economic culture has significant parts of the worldview connected with them that are not of God, and which require resistance training on our part to not get caught in the snares that are hidden behind the honeyed words of people who stand to gain something from us listening to and following them. The trap is of course to follow something that is of human origin rather than the God who made us and redeemed us. As in our previous example, the one we are called to follow is Jesus, and unless we emulate the ways he prepared himself to serve we will make the same mistake that Willard talked about in terms of copying mannerisms rather than training regimens. So what does it look like to order our lives after the life of Jesus? What does it mean for you that when you go to work, to the store, to school, you are called to live by the same priorities Jesus lived by? These are questions that can only find their answer through practicing and training ourselves in listening for and to the voice of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know about you, but I cannot say that I am “holy in all my conduct” as Peter admonishes us to, but the longer I practice spiritual disciplines like meditating on scripture, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity submission, service, confession, guidance, and celebration (Foster 1978, i) the more I find my spiritual batting average going up. Does it often seem like the improvement is incremental or barely discernible? Yes, most of the time the change is so gradual that I don’t notice it has happened until I get into that clutch situation and find that Jesus’ way in that situation comes to me much more easily than the ways I responded in the past. Rather than having to refer to an external law we can find God’s ways written on our hearts. That is our goal in this, that through preparation on our part we place ourselves in a position in which God transforms us into better reflections of his original design for humanity. We can then become truly holy rather than merely “holier than thou.”
This leads us to the truly difficult part of the call to holiness, we have only one person we can compare ourselves to and that is Jesus. If we focus on others we not only lose sight of Jesus, but we usually end up with a false sense of holiness since we usually only compare our strengths to other’s weaknesses. This is a form of missing the mark that is all too human, common, and if we were really honest about things something each of us can say we have done. The healthiest thing we can do is to hold up Jesus’ example and ask “What do I need to tackle next to get me closer? God please help me.” Our call is to be as holy as Jesus, not comparing ourselves to others, but really looking for the ways we can build each other up and honestly do some self-evaluation about where “I” am not being holy. Whatwe really need to remember is that there is no one here who gets to say whether another person is holy or holy enough. While in some cases it appears to be obvious one way or the other, we can’t see into the heart and sometimes confuse culturally appropriate behavior with spiritually appropriate behavior. Moses was God’s prophet, and one of the holiest figures in the Old Testament, but still had a temper and a half. Abraham was considered righteous, but wow did he have some faith issues and some serious trouble with honesty at times. You don’t get any holier than Jesus, but he broke all kinds of Jewish understandings of the law and actually was seen to have conversations and actually hang out with “those kinds of people”. What I am saying here is that human understandings of what it means to be holy tend to be a bit distorted from God’s point of view. Holiness is not legalism. Holiness is not blind submission to authority. The people who are “above” us get things wrong all the time, and so do we. Holiness is humbly placing ourselves at the feet of the cross saying “Lord have mercy on us.” Holiness is setting our lives apart for the purpose of serving God’s mission, wherever that may take us. We are embedded in this world, but our allegiance is not to anything here. Peter calls us exiles, people who are not in their homeland, and we need to practice the traditions and ways of the land we come from in order to keep ourselves ready for that glorious time when our exile comes to an end. When I lived in ministry with refugees that had come to the US, they sought out other refugees from their home country to support them in their exile and to keep themselves from getting so acclimated to the culture they were in that they forgot what it was like to live at home. Like them, we need to come together to remind each other of the home we miss and to encourage each other in those practices that prepare us. There was a tourist in New York City who had gotten off the subway at the wrong stop on his way to Carnegie Hall. In his search for the right place he got very lost, and finally in desperation he asked a street musician “Excuse me sir, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The musician looked up at the tourist and said “Practice, man, practice.” Holiness is a lot like being that street musician, having such a focus on our true home that we don’t settle for watching the work of others, but engage and encourage ourselves in the practices and disciplines that get us closer to the goal.
We must in reverent fear, and this really requires explanation because when we hear these words we think of being afraid of the mean guy in the sky waiting for us to mess up so he can smite us, but that is not what this word combination is about. “Reverent fear” is about knowing our place in the grand scheme of things, recognizing the vast, immeasurable, gulf that exists between our tiny selves and the God who placed the galaxies on their courses and yet also recognizing that the impartial judge looks upon each human being with a love that is vaster than the universe it spoke into being. When we think about the fact that God chooses to love us enough to sacrifice himself so that we can finally come into the relationship which leads us to our true home, reverent fear is an understatement that doesn’t even cover the half of it. Back to the original sentence now: We must in reverent fear submit ourselves to the work of preparing ourselves for our great homecoming. We must work on the relationship we have with God, and freely assist others in their relational work. When someone is ready to change, and each of us is still in need of God’s transforming work in our lives, we have the joy of supporting each other. On a practical level, there is a great book called Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster that gives us some coaching in preparing ourselves. There are other books and websites out there, and one of those disciplines that helps us to learn about our selves and God is the discipline of study. We are works in progress and the beauty that will be revealed in us as we practice holy living will reflect the good character of God for all to see. As we enter into our time of open worship consider the love that draws us into a relationship that helps us to live as our true selves, the love that draws us home and challenges us to let go of the values and priorities that seek to mold us into a different image. Let us practice together that discipline of listening in Communion with God and our family of faith.
If you are interested in participating in a group study of the book Celebration of Discipline, please speak to me after the service. May our great God give us the strength to train for and practice so that God’s ways can be written our hearts to guide our every action. Grace and Peace to you, go in the love of God.