Friday, January 25, 2008

Holiness (Maybe Not What You Think)

At Epic we just kicked off the first of a series of three on Discipleship, looking thoughtfully at what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In our house churches we are studying passages coinciding with our series on Sunday mornings. Last week, Erin created our first study on "What Is a Disciple?" by selecting a passage from 1Peter 1:13-1Peter 2:3 related to holiness. At first, it didn't seem an obvious passage about discipleship, but there is joy in the discovery!

In our house church small group we got things started by sharing what our initial reactions were to the word "holy." Two of the most commonly shared responses were: 1) a "holier-than-thou" attitude and 2) the horrible feeling of "not ever being able to measure up." I imagine a lot of people share those same sentiments. Yet the author of 1Peter writes, "But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy'" (vv15-16).

How did holiness become such bad news?

In the wider Christian culture, holiness has been defined mostly in negative terms as far back as I can remember, almost exclusively as "being set apart from..." And without fail, this is extrapolated to mean "set apart from the world." This bit of unfortunate exegesis has, of course, created a boatload of problems.

According to the new book unChristian from the folks at the Barna Group, today's generation of young adults associates Christians with being judgmental, hypocritical, too political, and sheltered (wow, sounds like a fun bunch!). But I could have told you this. It doesn't take much to know that the set-apart-from-kind of holiness that a majority of churches have taught has led to an anemic theology equating holiness not with doing good, but with not drinking, not smoking, not swearing, not associating with the "wrong kind of people." The latter has meant, among other things, being anti-this-or-that, most regrettably, anti-gay.

Yet when you read 1Peter 1 and 2, there is an altogether different picture of holiness, and thus, quite a different picture of what it means to be a disciple.

First, the word holiness actually means to be "set apart for", particularly "set apart for God," not necessarily "set apart from the world."
As one of my small group mates observed, the call to be holy is a call to be "holy in all you do" (v.15), which is stated in the positive, not in the negative. This is markedly different than being holy simply by abstaining from said things. From this passage, holiness is primarily something you do because you are a redeemed person, not something you don't out of fear of being contaminated or because of imagined religious superiority.

And what exactly does holiness call us to do? 1Peter goes on: "Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart" (v22). According to this passage, holiness looks like loving others deeply. Obeying truth (something that Christians argue for all the time) is supposed to lead us not away from the world, but into deep love for others in the world.

Secondly, this begs the question, If we are to be holy as he is holy, How was Jesus holy exactly? I mean if
Jesus was that concerned about purity, why does he not separate himself from all that is unclean and morally questionable? Instead the gospels describe a Jesus who seemingly does the opposite. Sent into the world by the love of the Father for humanity, Jesus touches the sinner, the leper, the prostitute, the diseased, the demonized, the poor, the dispossessed, the unclean with divine grace and mercy. Jesus didn't turn his eyes or his heart away from sinful humanity, but turned his face toward "the wrong kind of people," broken and enslaved to a fallen world, in order to save them.

You see Jesus encounters the world as the Holy One of God. But instead of his holiness separating him from people, his is a holiness that goes out seeking to include the sinner. It is a holiness that sanctifies by an act of inclusion, rather than exclusion. Through the incarnation, Jesus opens up the holy community he alone shared with the Father through the Spirit to include all of humanity, even those not in Christ and those not morally pure.

The incarnation redefines or corrects our definition of the holiness.

Ironically, it was the religious leaders who demanded a different kind of holiness from Jesus, one that was religious and exclusive, but not human. This is still the same misunderstanding and demand many Christians make today. In the name of God, holiness has come to mean being set apart in a weird, abstract, hardcore religious kind of way that makes Christians known more for who and what they are against than who and what they are for. It's tragic that Christians are known more for being judgment than just, more critical than kind. If this is in fact holiness, than it is a holiness that Jesus came to destroy.

"Certainly there is a call to purity that holiness demands" you might ask? And the answer is yes. The bible does call us to not engage in certain activities and behaviors just as it calls us to act positively in other ways. Both are aspects of holiness to be sure. But that's where this passage is also helpful. It concludes: "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good" (1Peter 2:1-3). Here the sin we are to rid ourselves from inherent in becoming holy is defined in relational terms, not religious terms. That's because sin is inherently social, not religious. Sin is more than doing bad things. Sin is ultimately dehumanization. Sin is anything that works against the humanization of persons through the Holy Spirit. All sin at it's core is a relational deficit. If we are to abstain, it is because it dehumanizes others, including ourselves. Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander - this is what makes us unholy. Which explains why holiness looks like love - because love humanizes by upholding the dignity and worth of others made in God's image.

That's why the call to holiness is more than simply abstaining from the easier pickings and mostly theologically irrelevant matters of smoking, drinking or watching R-rated movies, but the call to rid ourselves of the much weightier and more insipid vices within our own hearts that prevent us from loving others deeply and well. It is a call to obey truth so that our hearts can be purified from the kind of sin that sets us apart from others, healed of our unredeemed brokenness so we can be set on a path to loving others, even our enemies. Holiness is a call to set our hearts aright in relationship to God and to others that results in greater love and joy, for ourselves and others, which following close to Jesus and obeying all that he commands actually brings. This is the growing up in salvation that is the fruit of a holy life. This is the spiritual nourishment we crave knowing the Lord is good.

What is holiness? It looks like Jesus.

This is holiness as grace. This is holiness as good news.

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