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The Holy People
the Redeemed of the Lord...

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version

3rd Sunday after Easter - 4/25/10
Is. 62:6-12;    Ps 102:15-end;    Eph 4:7-16;    Jn 15:1-10

Our lessons all deal, directly or indirectly, with holiness.  Holiness is a theme common, probably, to all religions.  There is everywhere some standard of being, some notion that there is a special state of being or of behavior or of relationship which is the optimum and which may be obligatory.

But there is a marked difference between what the Bible considered holiness and what secular or pagan religions consider holiness.

The word 'holy' comes from the German 'heilig', which means complete, healthy, whole. It is just like our word salvation, which comes from the Latin 'salvus', which means... complete, healthy, whole.  To be holy or to be saved in the Bible is the state of completeness, being the whole of what, by the intelligent design of God, you are created and meant to be.

The notion of "holiness" has come to have a distasteful meaning in our culture, signifying something out of touch with the realities of life, other worldly, and impractical. That is not at all the meaning in the Bible.

Holiness is used in the Bible to indicate a very practical and down to earth loyalty to God. Holy objects might be dedicated to service in worship, such as candles, the chalice, etc.  And just so, holy persons are those who have dedicated their lives to God and to His purposes for them.

Holiness in pagan usage did not mean a moral dedication to one's god or goddess, because morality was seldom a part of pagan religious life.  Morality and religion were two separate things.  The deities were themselves often clearly immoral, a fact which was prominent in their downfall in Greece and Italy beginning in the 400's BC, as the Greek and Italian philosophers began to criticize the gods and goddesses for their immoral behavior, and even debate their existence.

Pagan philosophers saw the "good", that highest for which one can aim, as inherently beyond the world of time and space, so that to reach that kind of holiness, as in Hinduism or Buddhism, one had to rise above the present world and unite with a cosmic consciousness, or some other totally impersonal and abstract state of being, such as the Buddhist "Nirvana".  The "good" was not a moral issue, it was a quest to get out of the world of time and space -- which was considered to be a place of disappointment, despair, and constant failure -- with no hope of stability of being or of moral direction. It was a quest for inner peace, not for moral goodness.

The Romans, for instance, had a strong sense of moral rectitude, but it had to do, not with their religion, but with their politics, military expansion, and empire, being honorable and winning glory.  Their gods and goddesses were not thought of as moral guides, but as enablers in the political and military contests.  They were worshipped, often led by the state, to get them on one's own side of a given conflict.  Making war, conquest, was not itself a moral issue.  It was "right" to conquer because the strong were supposed to rule, that was the nature of things. And that was how one gained glory and honor.

The God of the Bible was the first divinity to be seen as creating a world anchored in both Himself as creator, and in space and time as a place for personal relationships to flourish.  The Biblical world rejoiced in history because history was understood as, above all, God's story-line. God was writing the story of history, and inviting the rest of us to join Him in that journey.

History then was not something contrary to the nature of God. Rather history is God doing something in relationship with His creatures. Time is eternity at work. Time and eternity are not opposites, but a part of each other. A world without time is a static world, a freeze-frame cosmos, in which no personal relationship is possible or even meaningful. The God of the Bible is perfectly at home in time and space -- as illustrated all through the Bible from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, and supremely so in the Incarnation of the Son of God at a small village, Bethlehem, on planet earth, about the year 1 Anno Domini -- the first year of our Lord among us.

The journey of history, as St. Augustine describes in his monumental book, The City of God, was aimed at, headed for, that best of all possible worlds, the Kingdom of God, heaven, which is a community of all those who love God and each other. No other deity was leading in that kind of way. There is no parallel anywhere in pagan or secular literature.

That is why holiness for Biblical religion is always a moral issue. Holiness and morality are tied together. That is because holiness is always a personal relationship issue. Holiness is not something I can have all by myself, and certainly not abstracted from the world of time and space into a cosmic freeze-frame.

Holiness in the Bible, then, is my dedication to the purposes of God for my life, the fundamental and overarching moral issue of all life. Moral rightness means being right with God about my purposes and behavior. Sin means being out of line with the purposes of God, not loving God and/or not loving my neighbor.

That would have been incomprehensible to the pagan mind. The gods were not loved, they were bribed. And one's neighbor was simply one factor in forming alliances in the constant life-struggle to survive in the midst of chaos. You did not typically love your friends (though indeed some did), you got them to be your allies in the perpetual power struggle for survival. Pagan holiness meant getting out of that chaos of unending power struggle into another kind of cosmos altogether, where the ravages of time could no longer beat up on one. It was an escape issue, not a moral issue.

The moral issue for pagans was primarily how one acted in the midst of this chaos, nobly or ignobly. There was no deity leading history somewhere, there was no cosmic history, no cosmic storyline. There were only little local histories -- which fought with each other, and came and went.

There was the history of Babylon, of Assyria, of Greece, and Rome, or of America. There was the aborted history of the Israel, the ten northern tribes. As St. Augustine in The City of God told the Romans (when Rome was sacked by the barbarians) -- Rome (just like all the rest) was dying as a nation because they did not submit to the purposes of God, and join His eternal storyline. Rome had violated its reason for existence and so was being tossed onto the trash heap of history. They would be replaced by another civilization, eventually by one which would dedicate itself to the purposes of God and His Kingdom.

Isaiah says of Israel at the end of this morning's passage from chapter 62:

And they shall be called The Holy People, the redeemed of the Lord;
and you shall be called Sought Out, a city not forsaken.

Foreign peopls will come looking for you, you will be admired and sought out as a model for others.

Holiness, whether personal or corporate, is dedicating oneself to those purposes of God in one's personal, corporate, political, commercial, and all other areas of one's life. That is the moral side of holiness.

 

But there is another side to holiness which does not get as much attention, yet which needs to be understood and addressed. That is the holiness of our being, of our personhood.

In the Fall, we lose track of our moral direction because we rebel against the commanding Voice of God. But, because God is our Creator, the source of our being, we also, and inevitably, lose our stability as beings, as persons. The further we push ourselves away from our Source of being, the less stabile and real we feel. We feel more and more like we are standing on quicksand, skating on thin ice, that we cannot stand firm. So we become less and less whole, less and less secure and safe. We become less and less persons, and more and more like things, depersonalized objects, losing our rationality and our freedom.

So, not only do we not want to obey God, increasingly, we are unable to obey God, even if we did want to. Our primary gifts of life, our freewill and our rationality, become more and more eroded so that we are controlled by other persons, other agendas, other cultural and political forces, less and less by our own rational freewill.

We become unwhole, broken, disintegrated, and in that sense also, unholy. We become as foreigners to God, and God a foreigner to us. As in C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, the souls in hell slowly disintegrate and drift further and further, not only away from God, but from each other, into a personal oblivion.

And, perhaps, a final erosion into nothingness. Such persons pass a point of no-return when the spark of freewill dies, and there is nothing left to fan back into a flame of life. By spiritual suicide they have lost their reason for existence, and there is nothing to do but throw them on the cosmic junk heap, Gehenna.

A holy person is ontologically and functionally a whole person. As one of the early Church fathers remarked, "The glory of God is man fully alive."

That which is not yet whole in me cannot be fully holy. Holiness thus also means maturity, the fullness of life, ripeness. Holiness is something into which we grow, not leap. It comes not only by moral discipline of will and choice, but by a spiritual discipline which leads me to an ability and freedom to dedicate my self and my resources wholly and freely to God. I not only choose to do so, I am freely able to do so. That is not easily come by. It means maturing, growing up, traveling the Way of the Cross so that my inner being can be healed, formed, and matured in the smithy of the discipline of God.

That is the Way of the Cross through which the disciples were led and drawn by Jesus, which meant that Jesus could say on the cross, "It is finished!" He did not mean there was nothing more to do, but rather that He had accomplished in them what was needed so that they could take their next steps in preparation for His leaving this earth -- and them -- so that they (we) could become the Body of Christ here on earth. It was all pointing on to Pentecost, the birthday of the Church.

 

Our being becomes whole, and then holy, when we receive it fully from God -- just as a child first knows that its being, its security, comes from mother. Spiritual maturity means the child of mother becomes the child of God -- consciously, willingly, and joyfully receiving his or her being and security from God, no longer from mother. The only family that survives into eternity is the family of God. All other families die. Our relationships to each other can survive only as we survive in God.

 

I went to my first vestry meeting this last Wednesday, during which I shared two things which I think would be helpful in supporting and furthering the growth of ourselves into a holy people, a part of the Body of Christ, two things which could help inspire us first to a deeper holiness in our Christian faith, and secondly to a wider outreach of that same holiness into the world around us.

Christians typically lack two things today because the churches, by and large, first, do not know how to inspire a deep fellowship among its members, and secondly, do not know how to explain the faith to those outside the church. That leaves the Church of God pale, weak, uninteresting, and unvital to the purposes of God. So the Church seeks to make up for its lack of success by finding ways to copy what appear to be the successes of the world around us.

As a result, the Western Church is, in most instances, dying. It does not need to be that way. The Hand of God is not shortened that it cannot reach out to us, nor the Voice of God so stilled that it cannot lead and direct us. If we are willing.

 

I was the priest at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in East Haddam, CT, from 1971 to 1981. When I first went there, the parish had only 15 in church on Sunday, and there was a lot of friction. I said that I wanted to meet weekly with those who would pray with me, study the Bible, and ask the Lord how to bring life to St. Stephen's Church.

I kept making my announcement, but it took a year and a half before anyone showed up. Then a small group began to come faithfully. We generally went around the circle, sharing where we were succeeding in our life in Christ, and where we were struggling. Others could comment as they felt led. As time went on, the sharing began to deepen, and the depth of trust and love for each other began to grow. Those people became the core of the parish, the workers, the tithers, the faithful who could be counted on. And the parish began to grow. We called our little group, Living in the Light - because the aim was to learn to be honest with each other, to share, as best we could, the realities of our lives.

It was an extraordinary experience in learning how to trust each other and how to be accountable to each other. Without those two qualities of mutual trust and accountability, no community can grow very deeply or impact the world out of a deep and profound unity in our Christian walk.

God, surely, is calling us here at St. Luke's to deepen our life together, to continue growing in our own holiness, and that we will seek the Lord on how to do that here among ourselves.

 

The other item I suggested had to do with outreach to our friends and neighbors. Only a very small percentage of people become Christians at a crusade type of experience. Most become Christians by the simple method of talking with friends who are willing to share their faith. One of the tragic failures typical of Christians today is inability to share the Good News of Jesus as though it really were good news. Like holiness, the Christian message seems largely irrelevant and unrealistic, so churches pursue relevance to the world rather than explaining the Gospel. The world evangelizes the Church.

We can learn how to explain the basics of the Christian faith in ways that are challenging, that are intellectually, morally, and spiritually - not only credible, but compelling, and which can stand in the public arena face to face, not only with our dying secularism, but also with our growing paganism.

Holiness is not out of date. It is the very practical and realistic foundation of all successful life. That can be both explained and demonstrated -- as Christians have been doing for nearly 20 centuries -- when we ourselves get serious with God.

That is my challenge to myself, and to you, that we get serious with God in ways that will change our lives, that will answer our questions, that will give us a foundation to be open and honest with each other on that deep level to which St. John points in his first epistle, and which will then provide an inner strength, wisdom, and love to bring that same good news to our friends and neighbors who might be open to a life in Christ.

Much more can be said of both of these, so let us get a discussion going among ourselves and with the Lord on how to proceed.

Father in heaven, I think You have thrown down the gauntlet to us, and, indeed, to Your whole Church, to put up or shut up, to get serious with You or close up shop. I pray for a spirit within ourselves to rejoice in that challenge, and to thank You and praise You for living in the light with us. Give us the courage and fortitude to live in the Light with You, and with one another, that we might be a truly holy people, bringing that same Light of Christ to the world around us; in His precious name....

Audio Version

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Date Posted -  4/25/2010   -   Date Last Edited - 09/15/2012