Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Holiness is the Goal

During May, I preached from 1 Peter. Much like the rest of the New Testament letters, 1 Peter mixes theology and ethics in a facile manner—moving from thinking about the nature of salvation, hope, resurrection, suffering, the purpose of creation, holiness and who Jesus is; moving into what believing and having faith in Jesus means practically, in the present, in terms of behavior, for those who call themselves (ourselves) disciples of Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite pieces (that isn't in the Revised Common Lectionary, I blogged about that here, but that I added for worship the first week) is 1 Peter 1:13-16. In the NRSV it reads:
Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Methodists have always been holiness people. Now, let’s be clear, at times we’ve let that identity express itself as “holier than thou, people,” and that’s not OK! Being holiness people shouldn’t be about legalistic judgmentalism, nor should it be about imagining ourselves to be perfect when we are not. Holiness should be a calling and a goal—it should be our desire and hope to fulfill God’s call to holy living, and to submit ourselves to the kind of discipline that can lead us there.

Christian faith is far more than just believing, though belief is important. Christian faith is as much a way of living as it is a way of believing. Being Christian means acquiring and practicing a peculiar ethics. For most of us, we learn how to be good, nice, kind, studious, industrious, and so on as children—we learn virtue as a part of our formation as people! That is normal, and part of the reason that Christians are intentional about formation and education of our children. But, and there’s a pretty big but here, we don’t become Christian automatically—we have to decide to follow Jesus, and to be conformed to him. “Christian ethics, like any ethics, are ‘tradition dependent.’ … Christian ethics only make sense from the point of view of what we believe has happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.”* What we believe matters for how we behave (and that is especially true for what we believe about Jesus).

There’s a corollary as well: even in the process of being formed into “good” people, we have the propensity to develop habits that need to be reworked. 1 Peter reminds us, “do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.” Our desires, passions, and drives, some of them even defined as virtues by the world around us, need to be brought into the light of Jesus Christ and examined to see if they conform to the desires, passions and drives of Jesus and his followers. We are called to reconsider our behavior “like obedient children,” as those who are most likely to be formed into a particular way of living and being.

I didn’t run before I moved to my current appointment. In fact, I had a pretty lax relationship to physical health overall in terms of diet, exercise, and rest. I had endless excuses, including chronic back pain and plenty of “busyness,” to justify my choices—but then I visited my new doctor. He engaged in some pretty serious truth-telling, bringing into perspective that my learned behaviors did not conform to longevity or long-term well-being, and when I reflected on that, it seemed profoundly poor stewardship of God’s gift of health to continue living like I had. It wasn’t instant, but I have learned the joy of a different way of living by practicing it. The same is true for Christian living—we might find it difficult at first, impossible apart from the Church, but with time and practice, we can become more and more God’s holy people, conformed to the way of Christ. What Christian practices might you re-engage? What practices might you take on for the first time?

*Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville,TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 71.