Scriptures: Mark 8:31-38, Psalm 1
Who here is holy? Raise your hand if you know someone who you would say is “holy.” Good. Now, keep your hand raised if that person happens to be you yourself
That leads me to my second question: What is holiness? Take a minute or so to write down a quick definition on your bulletin…Now, who has a response they’d like to share? Thank you for all those responses.
It seems that the word “holiness” triggers some ambivalence. On one hand, we have positive images, of things and people touched with the numinous and extraordinary, glimpses of “God-light” amidst an otherwise mundane existence. We know holiness when we see it and experience it, but it’s difficult to describe, and few, if any of us, would attribute it to ourselves.
Yet we believe one of the “benefits” of faith in Jesus Christ is that we are “sanctified:” made holy. Keith and I are drawing many ideas for this sermon series from Richard J. Foster in his book, Streams of Living Water. With the foundation of the life of prayer in “The Contemplative Tradition” Keith spoke of last Sunday, today we look at the Holiness Tradition of Christian formation practices. In Foster’s words, the goal of these practices is “an ever deeper formation of the inner personality so as to reflect the glory and goodness of God; an ever more radiant conformity to the life and faith and desires and habits of Jesus; an utter transformation of our creatureliness into whole and perfect sons and daughters of God.”[i]
Wow. That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? There are some confusing words there as well, especially that word “perfect.” Now, Foster says the completion of our transformation to such glory, radiance, and perfection comes only as we enter the life eternal, but just beginning the journey sounds daunting. How, exactly, do we become holy? What could it possibly mean to live holy lives?
Biblically, holiness has always been about being “set apart” by God. In choosing Israel, God set the people apart, giving them the covenant and calling them to live in ways which demonstrated their difference. God’s commandments were not seen as a burden, but as an amazing gift, the gracious knowledge that enables true life abundant.
Psalm 1 proclaims this perspective: those who delights in the law, meditating on it day and night, are like trees flourishing by a stream of water, yielding fruit in season. In Jesus Christ, we, too, are planted by this stream, and as his life takes root within us, we become those set apart by his fruit in our lives, showing forth God’s purpose, presence, and power in our words and actions.
But, in living as those “set apart,” there are myriad pitfalls to navigate. For many the word “holy” brings up negative connotations. Theologian Shirley C. Guthrie notes: “Our minds jump from ‘saint’ to ‘superhuman,’ from ‘holy’ to ‘holier-than-thou,’ from ‘sanctified’ to ‘sanctimonious.’ We think of very pious people who live by a long list of thou-shalt-nots and are rewarded for their sacrifice of a normal life in the world by the assurance that they are superior to everyone else.”[ii]
So often, in our longing to be made pure and holy, to be undeniably touched with glorious God-light, we overreach. We are not content with the ways God sets us apart, so we separate ourselves from others. Uneasy with being made “saints,” we try to make ourselves superhuman; impatient with God perfecting our lives, we become perfectionists. Grasping for “divine things,” we find ourselves seizing instead upon merely “human things,” and holding on with all our might.
This is Peter’s predicament in Mark’s gospel this morning. Peter has been on a breath-taking journey. He has witnessed wonders: Jesus healing on the Sabbath, casting out demons, walking on water, and feeding multitudes, wonders that have confirmed the grand hope he articulates when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Messiah,” Peter says without hesitation.
But then Jesus begins to speak openly, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed, and after three days rise again. You can almost see the horror on Peter’s face. He pulls Jesus aside, rebuking him privately, so as not to shame Jesus by pointing out his error in front of the rest of the guys.
Here’s what I imagine him saying: “How could you say those things, Jesus! This Son of Man, suffering, rejection, and being killed stuff—that’s not for the Messiah! You’re different, better, above all that. It couldn’t possibly happen to you!” The vehemence with which Jesus then rebukes Peter reveals the powerful temptation embedded in Peter’s words. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus recognizes this temptation, because he’s faced it and rejected it before, during the 40 days of his wilderness testing. It is the temptation to set ourselves apart, to seek for ourselves control, knowledge, or spiritual enlightenment and remove ourselves from the messiness and limitations of the human condition.
As it turns out, this is not what God has ever been about. Holiness isn’t a self-satisfying superiority that erects impermeable barriers between things or people to maintain purity. No, the God we see in Jesus Christ—the Holy One—is a God who puts on flesh and enters fully into human reality. Maybe that’s why Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, a phrase that can also be translated “Human One.” In the rush to name him Messiah, the disciples don’t initially get it,but maybe later Christians had an inkling, such as the early church father Irenaeus, who said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” One author suggests, “We could accordingly hear the ‘Human One’ as Jesus saying, ‘I am a human who is fully alive.’”[iii]
Let me suggest that from now on we hear the call in Jesus Christ to be “holy people” in just that way: we are being invited to an amazing opportunity, to become human beings who are fully alive. What might that look like?
First let’s clear out the negative imagery of holiness, starting with what it does not look like. It does not look like slavery to either a long list of “thou-shalt-nots” or an endless burden of “shoulds.” It does not look like world-negating separation from the messy and mundane to avoid contamination; nor does it look like body-punishing severity for the betterment of our souls. Any idea or action labeling things or people into categories of good and bad, clean and unclean, thus dividing people from one another or creation, is emphatically not holy. Holiness does not look like perfectionism, “works-righteousness” or any exertion of superhuman willpower to exceed the limitations of our creaturely nature.
All of these ideas are false, because they assume that human creatures can somehow make, will, earn or force our own holiness. We can’t. Holiness comes from God alone. Like salvation, it is a gift. A gift! Only God can give it, and we can only receive it. There is nothing—nothing—we can be or do to improve our standing in the eyes of God, who loves us simply because God has decided to do so.
Now, friends, I know how hard this truth is to take in. You might not know it, but I am already half-Saint, literally. My mother’s maiden name is Saint! I like to joke that it means I don’t have as far to go to full sainthood as everybody else! But the truth is, in half-Sainthood, I inherited a double portion of the confusion about holiness I’ve been describing. Growing up as the daughter and granddaughter of ministers, my peers thought everything had to be “sanitized for my protection,” when I just wanted to be a regular kid. Yet along with the name and assumed vocation of the Saint family, I also inherited perfectionism, the compulsion to maintain a high and holy reputation by achieving always and all fronts.
Perfectionism is a curse. The constant inner pressure to perform to exacting—and often superhuman—standards paralyzes and poisons. It turns “coulds” into “shoulds,” liberating possibilities into arduous burdens. Much of my Christian formation journey has been about getting well from perfectionism.
The only antidote I’ve found is repentance, returning again and again and again to Jesus Christ, crying out, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Jesus always answers this prayer, reorienting me from perfectionism’s illusions to the truth of grace: I am both a sinner in need and a saint in formation as God is at work transforming me bit by bit into a fully human, fully alive human creature. Releasing my tightly gripped burden of “shoulds,”I need do nothing but open my hands to receive the free gift.
Yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously notes, God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. God’s grace is no shrugging permissiveness which says “whatever.” Holy humanity does not look like self-indulgence or even self-actualization, as pop psychology claims. We are free to be formed in a specific shape; the image of Christ—fully alive humanity. And that form, Jesus tells his disciples, is the shape of the cross: “Let those who would become my followers deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
Holiness, Jesus tells us, means learning the ways of self-denial and cross-bearing. To be fully alive is to be willing to lose your life for the sake of God’s grace and mercy. This does not mean negating the very human self that God created us to be; but we are invited to hold that self with open hands, and, as Jan Richardson puts, it, learn “to see what it is within our humanity that hinders us from God, and letting that go. It means not clinging to our human desires at the expense of seeking to know God’s desires for our human lives. It means finding the path that will best enable us, in all the particularities and peculiarities of our lives, to find that intersection—that crossing, that cross that Christ invites us to take up—where the human and the divine meet in fullness.”[iv]
This learning is neither painless or effortless, and though we must never confuse our efforts with God’s work in our lives, the Holiness Tradition of Christian life and faith describes practices which we can undertake much like athletes train to improve in their sport.[v] Foster writes, “By undertaking Disciplines of the spiritual life that we can do, we receive from God the ability to do things that under our own steam we simply cannot do, such as loving our enemies.”[vi]
So, what kind of efforts can we make to open ourselves to God’s holy work in us? We begin by deciding to hope and believe that “God isn’t finished with us yet,” and to consciously entrust our growth in holiness to God. Next, we turn our focus to our hearts, the “inner wellspring” of our actions. Recognizing that only God can transform our hearts, we cry out in prayer, as in Psalm 139, for God to search us, know our hearts, and root out every wickedness in us. And then we commit to obeying the Word of God we receive in response to our prayer. In so doing, we “open the door to the Spirit” to help us and make changes in our behavior possible. [vii]
Our Holiness Tradition forbears in the faith affirm that engagement in the classical disciplines and practices of the Christian life, prayer and meditation, study and fasting, solitude and service, worship and celebration, the ways we present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” to God, do open us up for transformation in holiness. And the ultimate mystery is this: letting go of merely human things to set our minds on the divine life in Jesus Christ, we are empowered to live fully, deeply, holy human lives and we are blessed to bless the world, as God’s light is glimpsed through us.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water, 62.
[ii] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 338.
[v] James Bryan Smith with Linda Graybeal, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, 41.
[vi] Foster, 88.
[vii] James Bryan Smith with Linda Graybeal, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, 41.