Made Holy for a Purpose

Today The Story takes us to the 10 Commandments.  Now, if you’re like me, you’re thinking “good, this one will be easy – I learned this in Sunday School!”. 

After all, the 10 Commandments are foundational, they’re basic, and even if we don’t manage to keep all of them all the time, they’re easy enough to understand; we all know what they mean, right?

Well… yes, they are foundational. From the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has said our faith is summarized in the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the words that became known as the Apostles’ Creed. 

But… as much fun as it would be to give you a little pop quiz and see if we can rhyme off the 10 Commandments here today (and you know me, that would be fun), even if we could all recite them from memory, if you’re like me, it won’t really be helpful, because for as foundational as those 10 Commandments are, I think they’re also the most misunderstood part of the entire Bible.

We read them wrong, because we don’t read them as part of God’s unfolding story.

Rules & Rewards?

Here’s what I mean: how many of you – and be honest – were taught by a well-meaning person somewhere along the way that these are the rules we’re expected to follow, and if we follow them, then we will find favour in God’s eyes, he will bless us, and there will be a reward for us in heaven.

It’s ok, be honest.  That’s what I was taught going to Sunday School as a kid.

‘These are the rules.  Following these rules will make you holy. 
Follow these rules, do as God commands, and you’ll receive God’s reward.’ 

But, my friends, we’ve walked together (already this Fall!) from the garden of Eden to the flood, to the calling of a perfectly average Abraham who had trouble trusting God’s promises, to jealous sons wanting to kill each other and selling their own into slavery, to famine, lies, dysfunction, captivity, impatience and disobedience in spite of seeing God’s incredible might, and now, as the Ten Commandments are given, these people through whom the whole world would be blessed have been grumbling, quarrelling, complaining about God’s provision, and we know that, even as these 10 Commandments are being given on the mountain, what are they doing in the desert below?  They’re making a golden calf to bow down and worship with a big party as they polish off the wine they took from Egypt.

So, tell me:
Where in that story does what we’ve been taught about the 10 Commandments fit? 
Where in that story do we see a god who lays out commands, watches to see who will follow them, and chooses to reach out to and reward the best ones, to set them apart and call them “holy”?

We don’t, because that’s not how God operates.

Which means, although the 10 Commandments are foundational, somewhere along the line in the last 250 years since the industrial ic revolution, we messed it up; we got it backwards.

You don’t follow the 10 Commandments to make yourself holy.

No – not at all!  Because we are holy, we follow the 10 Commandments.

Was Abraham holy, set apart, saintly before God called him?  Or when he got tired of waiting and slept with the maid?  Was Jacob holy, set apart, saintly before he inherited the promises of God, you know, when he was cheating his brother and suiting up in goat skin to trick his father? 

Was Moses holy when he murdered a man and ran away as far as he could, escaping the slavery of his own people?  Were the Israelites holy, set apart, saints of God when they sat on the banks of the sea wishing they were still slaves, or when they grumbled in the desert, or when they stood at the base of the mountain, so impatient for God to do the next thing that they make a golden calf?

No.  Because God calls us first.  God reaches out first.

God says “I have a plan for you” first.  God chooses, God elects, God calls us to be his own, to be set apart for a relationship with him rather than broken relationships with a broken world.

That’s the big idea here today: God first says ‘I made you, I love you, I choose you:
so follow my commandments’. 

God calls us to be his own, he calls us to trust Him rather than put our trust in things that are passing away, he reaches out to tell us that we are set apart – holy – and, so we should learn to love what he loves, to hate what he hates, to see the world as it really is, and long to follow the commandments of God.

How did we get it so wrong?

So how did we get in this mess?  How did we get God’s commandments so backwards in the modern era? 

I’ll tell you why, though I don’t like it any more than you will: it’s because we like to believe it’s all about ourselves.  If I have something, it’s mine.  If God gives me a gift, it’s for my benefit.  If God called Abraham, good for Abraham; if God calls me, good for me. 

But when in this whole story has God called someone for their own sake?  He hasn’t, and He doesn’t; instead, He calls us to be part of what He’s doing.

God doesn’t call us for our own sake.  God – the same yesterday, today, and forever – calls us to be a part of what he’s doing as he heals, restores, and draws us to himself, one faithful person at a time.

God called Abraham so that all the world would be blessed.
God called Israel to be a light to enlighten the nations.
God called the Church to be a brightly shining city on a hill.
God called you to reflect his light, to put it on a lampstand, not to cover it with a basket, so others can find their way back.

And that’s where holiness fits in.

We don’t “be holy” so God will choose us and we receive a reward.

God has chosen us, we have received the ‘inestimable benefit’ of the forgiveness of our sins, and so holiness is our response.  And it’s not for us.  No, as Peter says: it’s because “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light”, and why do we follow his commands?  Peter says it straight out: “so that… they may see your good deeds and glorify God.”

Do you know what that means?  Being holy is part of our mission.

Holiness, choosing to live as those who have been set apart for God’s glory, isn’t for our benefit, but is for the benefit of the whole world, as we’re invited to work alongside the One True God who is calling all people back into relationship with him.

So what about those Commandments?

Ok, so if that’s true, then how do those 10 rules factor into God’s mission?

As you reflect on Chapter 5 this week, I want you to look at the 10 Commandments in what might be a new way.  Each one reveal something that we long for.  Something that we had in the Garden of Eden, something we were created to enjoy, that was lost because of sin.

Here’s what I mean:

We were created to worship the one true God – so we can have no other gods (commandment 1), even though we long to worship.

We were created to see God face to face – so we can’t make idols (#2), even though we long to see God.

We were created to chat with God as a friend in the cool of the day – so we can’t take his name in vain (#3), even though we long to speak to him.

We were created and long for rest, sabbath – and so we call “rest” holy.

We were created to be and long for a loving family, so we honour father and mother.

We were created to procreate, not take life, so we do no murder.

We were created to have trusting, committed, lasting partnerships, so we do no adultery.

We long for having all that we need, and were created to find all our fulfilment in God, but taking what isn’t ours got us into this mess, and so we do not steal.

And when we stole we lied about it, but we long for justice and truth, so we do not bear false witness.

And it all began because we wanted what wasn’t ours to take, we weren’t happy to trust what God had provided, and ever since we’ve longed to have more and more and more, but that longing can only be fulfilled by the One God who has it all, and that’s why we don’t covet.

Holiness is the reward

My friends, God calls us as we are, with all our weaknesses and hurts and longings; he calls us as we are to transform us into what we should be.

And the 10 Commandments are not a test – they’re the furthest thing from it. 

They’re our proper response.  Because we are holy, because we have been called and set apart to God’s glory, we will commit to live this way, because the 10 Commandments show us how the world was meant to be, what it was like before sin entered the picture, and give us a foretaste of what it will be like when all things are restored.

The 10 Commandments aren’t a path to holiness – no, they are a reward; living them is a glimpse of what life will be like when God makes all things new.

And, my friends, that glimpse isn’t for you.  Your life, living those 10 Commandments joyfully, reflects God’s light out into the darkness, drawing others in to see that there is a way for those longings are fulfilled: in God, Our Father, who calls each of us to be his own. 

To Him be the glory now and forever more. Amen.

Love the Lord first. Go all in. Love isn’t scarce; God provides.

Speak to all the congregation of God’s chosen people and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Leviticus 19:1

You shall be holy.

One of the eye-opening moments we had while studying the scriptures last Tuesday evening was realizing that, as far as the Bible is concerned, we are saints.

That’s worth saying again: according to the Word of God, we – you and me, right here, right now, are the saints of God.

Time and time again the scriptures make the point that there are no rankings among those who follow Jesus; after all, what point would that be if the first will be last and the last will be first?  No, all of us – whether we’ve learned through a life of careful discipleship to live and speak and act in imitation of our Lord, or whether we’re more prone to miss the mark, stumble, and accept our Lord’s outstretched hand of forgiveness once again – all of us are called by the same name: saints.

And that’s an important, even crucial point.  No matter how successful you’ve been at following Jesus last week; no matter how many times you did or didn’t remember to give thanks for what God has given you; no matter how many times you did or didn’t take a few minutes out of your day to read and hear God’s Word; no matter how many times you did or didn’t put someone in need ahead of your own best interests; no matter how many times you did or didn’t offer forgiveness and release yourself and your brother or sister from the weight and bitterness of their sin; no matter how many times you did or didn’t open your mouth to speak the Good News of new life in Jesus, and go to make disciples of all nations – no matter how we did with that, there’s no escaping this one point: all of us have the same job description in God’s eyes. 
We are saints.

To the Saints of God:

The word “saints” simply means “holy ones”, and the Word of God is clear: that’s the only option, the only position available for those who have been baptized.  While we’ve made all sorts of excuses through the years, and have come up with all sorts of reasons why only some followers of Jesus are called to be holy – the Mother Theresa’s of the world – the truly remarkable, and downright frightening reality is that, in the eyes of God, none of those human excuses hold any water.  As a baptized member of the Church, God looks at me and sees Alex, his child, called to be a saint.

God looks at you.  God looks at _____ and sees his child, whom he has called to be a saint.  He looks at _____ and sees his child, called to be a saint.  God looks at each of us, just as one day we will stand before God, and he sees one whom he has called to be a saint.

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel” – not just the leaders, not just the most devoted, not just the elders, all the congregation, “and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

God, in his awesome mercy, makes no distinctions when he makes us part of his family; and this is where the scriptures say the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: the Lord looks at us as those who are called to be his holy ones… and how have we done with that? 

This is why, once all our excuses are stripped away, we can proclaim without reservation that all – even the most ‘saintly’ among us – have fallen short of the glory of God; that all of us – even the most ‘saintly’ – need the mercy of God; that none of us, no matter how hard we try, can ever earn a place in the Kingdom of God apart from complete and total dependence on Jesus: the only way is to follow where he leads.

You shall be holy.

The Lord sees us, and has called us to be, his saints, his holy ones
But what does it mean to be holy?

Holiness means, simply, “set apart”.  The call to be holy is the call to be, simply, set apart.  This building is holy – it is set apart for the worship of God, for fellowship, and the equipping of the saints for our mission in the world.  This holy table is holy because it is set apart – that means it isn’t used like other tables, to fill our bellies, or as a place to hold our coffee while we chat; it’s set apart for the glory of God; it’s holy

The Bibles in our pews and in our homes are holy – at least I hope they are – because they are set apart from the other books on our shelves.  No, it’s not about their location, that they should be kept somewhere special; not at all.  But the Bible is holy, or at least it should be, because of how we read it.  Other books we read once and then put down, but the Bible is set apart – we’re called to read it daily.  Other books we read to hear the thoughts of human authors, but the Bible is set apart, we read it as God’s word to us, with the prayer that it will shape our thoughts, words, and actions.

So what does it mean that God expects you to be holy? 
What does it mean for us to be set apart?

If we are set apart as those who give glory to God it means that we no longer live for ourselves, but for God.  Now that’s a tall order; so tall an order that people through the ages have done well in dreaming up excuses for why only some are called to live that way, as we imagine all the ways we can try to get ourselves off the hook by separating the ‘professional’ Christians from the lay people, or putting the elite followers of Jesus on a pedestal to try and excuse ourselves for just being ‘average’ disciples.

No, there’s a lot more to that first and greatest commandment than meets the eye. 
If we’re to be holy as God is holy, it starts by loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  It demands my all.

We can’t be half-holy.  Think about it: something can’t be sort-of set apart.  It’s either set apart, or it isn’t. 

That’s the fundamental teaching of Jesus, summarizing all the Law and the Prophets.  We have to learn to love God first, and to do it whole-heartedly and single-mindedly. 

If we love God first, if we love the one who Created all that is, who desires our redemption, who reaches out to us in mercy, and who is himself the source of love, then a good and holy love of our family, friends, neighbours, and even our enemies will flow out of that.  But if we love God with anything less than our all, then we aren’t set apart.  Remember, there’s no such thing as half-holy; if I love God, but love myself more, or I love my freedom, or my own desires, or my ability to provide for my family and bring happiness to others around me, if I love anything more than God, then my heart, soul, and mind aren’t holy

I think, often, we’re afraid to go all the way.  It could be trusting God, it could be finally forgiving someone who has hurt us, it could be letting go of a habit or attitude that has become comfortable like an old friend.  We’re afraid that if we actually go for it, we’ll lose control and won’t be able to get it back.  But, God has already called you to be one who has gone all the way – one who is set apart, one who is holy. 

God says ‘love me first’, not that we become no fun, or we become so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good; not that we become like some of those crotchety caricatures of self-righteousness that have sometimes been seen as ‘saintly’ as an excuse for why the rest of us don’t live that way. 

Sometimes I think we’re afraid that if we go all-in, we’ll no longer have enough love or enough time or enough energy for the things that already matter to us.  We say, I barely have time or energy for what I have to do now, how can I possibly add another relationship, another concern, another daily task of reading and praying to that list?

But, God says love me first, and love me completely, all in. 

And, contrary to all our fears, we find we then share in that overflowing, never-ending source of love itself.  All our concerns that keep us from loving God fully assume that love is scarce, that we only have so much to go around.  And that’s true, if we’re trying to drum it up within ourselves; but God’s plan for you to be holy is the opposite; if we finally go for it, we find ourselves tapped in to the source itself.

…and it’s only then that the second part of that commandment is truly possible.  It’s only then, when we’ve put all our anxiety and reservations aside and have put God first, and have set ourselves apart for his glory, that we can ever truly love our neighbours as ourselves.

As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of love, we can’t imagine wasting it on our enemies.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of mercy, we could never imagine wasting it on those who have hurt us.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of wealth, we could never imagine giving joyfully to anyone in need, even those who would take advantage of us.  As long as we’re depending on our own scarce supply of energy, we can barely imagine getting through the day and making time to say a few prayers, let alone giving up our lives to his service.

But if we allow ourselves to be set apart, if we allow ourselves to be as God calls us to be, we suddenly find that He supplies what we need; He makes the way; He makes us holy as we learn to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind.

You see, that’s the other misconception with holiness. 

Holiness isn’t something we earn; holiness isn’t something we do, or try with all our might to produce within ourselves.

“Be holy” simply means “be set apart”. 

Let yourself be set apart for God’s purposes.  Learn, by grace, to go all-in and love God first, with all the love we think we can drum up.  And, as we do that, as we allow ourselves to be set apart, it produces holiness, and God provides.

Suddenly the love of neighbour isn’t a chore; as we grow into the likeness of Christ, we learn that holding that grudge only binds us to that past sin, and we learn to forgive; before we know it, we can’t imagine why we ever thought love, or time, or energy was a scarce thing to be hoarded, because we’re tapped into the source of it all, just as God desired.

My friends: God says that you and I are saints.  That’s your job description.  This week, let that sink in. Have we let ourselves be set apart, or are we trying to be half-holy, holding something back, lest we run out?

This week, or perhaps even this morning, in this holy place, at this holy table, as we eat this holy food for a holy people, lets be holy; let’s go all in, finally hold nothing back, and love God with all that we have.  I guarantee, because God promises, that we’ll taste and see that the Lord is good, and be happy and blessed as all those are who trust in him.

 Saints of God: be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.  Amen.

In the world for the sake of the world.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done – in Fort Smith – as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Last week we looked at those first lines of the Lord’s Prayer, reflecting on what it means to pray that God’s will would be done here and now, not just “on earth”, but in our midst, as we are called to be Christ’s body in the world.

It’s not as though God’s will for how our world should be is a total mystery.  Yes, while there are many things that are beyond what we can ask or even imagine, God’s will for how he would have us live is no mystery at all: St. Peter summarized it all so well as we read last week: “as He who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct, because it is written: be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

The lessons assigned by the Church for the next couple of weeks take us through the rest of Peter’s letter, where he writes to teach Christians what “be holy” means.  It’s one thing to talk about holiness, about living as citizens of the Kingdom of God, doing His will right here in Fort Smith just as it is done in heaven.  But, let’s not pretend that this is an easy, or even a straight-forward task.

Comfortable as we are in our own communities, with friends and neighbours that we have come to know and love over the years, and many of us with vital roles to play as, by God’s grace, we’ve left our mark on the lives of those around us, leaving the world a little bit of a better place, it’s still no accident that scripture refers to us as foreigners, aliens, and even exiles in the world.   It’s not so much that we’re not at home in the world. Rather, as citizens of God’s Kingdom by baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves as dual citizens. 

We’re called to be holy – to live as we will in the Kingdom of Heaven – while we find ourselves in a world that, deep down, is anything but holy.  In a real way, if we’re living as God expects – if we’re striving for holiness, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to hit the target and hear that “well done, my good and faithful servant – then we find ourselves sharing that real tension shared by immigrants who find themselves in a foreign land.

Dual Citizens & Culture Shock

If you ask someone who has done any on-the-ground international travelling – not tourist resorts, but being out-and-about in the streets of a foreign land – they would tell you that it takes a little while to get your bearings.  Yes, the food is different and the language is different, but it goes much deeper than that: the culture, the expectations that people share for how they interact, how they show respect, how they live their lives, are very different too. 

And, it’s one thing to be a visitor, but to move in and live and contribute to the community as a foreigner is, universally, a difficult task.  Beyond learning the language and customs and expectations of your new home, you also have the difficult questions of figuring out how much of your own culture you want to retain. 

On the day you move in, do you stake your home country’s flag in the centre of your lawn?  Do you wear the clothes of your home country, or do you try to blend in?  Do you keep on celebrating the holidays of your homeland, do you give them up for Canada Day and Remembrance Day, or do you combine the holidays of your new and old countries together as best you can? 

And, of course, those are the easy questions. When the time comes to raise a family, do you teach them the expectations of respect and manners as they were in your homeland, or do you teach them to blend in with the expectations here.

These are very real questions.

And, St. Peter teaches us, if we’re serious about what it means to be a Christian, then these are the questions we face as well.  “Beloved”, he writes after declaring that we are a holy nation set apart to proclaim the light of God’s truth in the darkness of the world, “I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims… to conduct yourselves honourably among the non-believers, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may glorify God by your good works which they observe.”  (1 Peter 2:11-12).

Finally – this is where we see this lofty idea of ‘holiness’ put into real, everyday practice.

Your job, my job; as a member of Christ’s Body, and as a member of this church, is to live in such a way that, when somebody wants to throw insults or slander us, they have no words; to live so that, when somebody speaks about us, all they have to go on are the good works that we have done in God’s name. 

Imagine that – imagine if we, each of us as individual members, lived lives like that.  Imagine if, every time someone drove by and noticed the church, every time someone saw “St. John’s Anglican Church” in the Facebook community group, every time a neighbour saw you – a member of the Church, the only words on their lips, all the evidence in our lives, pointed to God’s good works.  No matter how different their beliefs, no matter how different their priorities or the way they live their lives, imagine if we all lived such that they were speechless, except to list off the good works that they observe, and then, without even knowing it, they’re glorifying God for the work He’s done at our hands.

That would be holiness.  Just imagine.

A poor track record…

Unfortunately, though, churches don’t have the best track record.  Yes, sin and pride are part of the problem, but too often, it comes down to how we’ve chosen to live as dual citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and the world around us, how we’ve chosen to live as foreigners and exiles on pilgrimage in the world.

Some Christians live as those who fly the flag of the foreign Kingdom proudly, as those who stick out as not belonging in the world, having nothing to do with the sinful world around them.  Unfortunately, the same thing happens for Christians who live that way as happens in many immigrant communities – they become cut off from the wider culture, and they only hang out amongst themselves. Not that it’s a bad thing to be proud of your identity, but if Christians are supposed to be on a mission to draw in those around us, and give no evidence except our good works, then Christians who cut themselves off from the world are going to have a hard time carrying out that mission.

And, on the other hand, there are those who have assimilated so well into the world around them, that it’s impossible to tell that they are citizens of the Kingdom of God.  This is the temptation that many churches have faced since the 1700s, especially us Anglicans.  If the Church has no different message than the world, then the mission also fails. There’s no point inviting someone in to something that looks exactly like the world around it, and, in the eyes of those outside, produces none of that fruit of good works that leaves them speechless.

No, we’re to live as those on a mission.  We’re in the world, for the sake of the world.

Now, that’s not always easy. 

Is it Persecution, or are we jerks?

As we read this morning, Peter warns the Church in every age that there will be suffering – something we already know from the lips of Jesus himself. 

But, even in the early Church, it seems people were quick to claim they were suffering for righteousness, when really they were just getting what they deserved; they were quick to say they were being persecuted, when really they were just being jerks.

“It is commendable”, Peter writes, “if you endure suffering for the sake of conscience toward God”. Yes, certainly. If we suffer for doing good, we are to follow Christ’s example. If someone robs from you, if someone slanders you, you don’t seek revenge.  No, you live your life so that the only thing people can say about you is about your good works that glorify your Father in Heaven.  As St. Paul says in Romans, even if your worst enemy is hungry or thirsty, go give him food and drink, so in the end even your enemy can’t say anything bad against you. (Romans 12:20, cf. Proverbs 25:21-22). When the world around us causes us to suffer for the sake of conscience, to suffer for what is right, then we trust fully in our Good Shepherd, and follow boldly, knowing that even the valley of the shadow of death if not a place to fear if we’re following where he guides.

But are we being persecuted when we’ve brought suffering on ourselves?  No, not at all.  “For what credit is it if, when you are punished for your faults, you take it patiently?” 

No, as dual-citizens, we’re to submit to those with authority over us, even when our leaders make decisions that anger and upset us – and certainly, this time in our history highlights that, no matter where you are on issues of the economy and public health and gun control, everyone’s got an opinion on what our leaders are doing.  Of course, it’s our duty to participate in politics – but, we are to do so while submitting to authority.  Why?  So that, no matter what, when people see us Citizens of the Kingdom of God, they are speechless except to give God glory for the good works done through us.

“For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15).

This is where Christians have so often shot ourselves in the foot.

Turn on the American news today, and what do you see?  People claiming – in the name of  Christ – to be persecuted by public health orders to stay home; Christians making headlines as pastors are ticketed and fined for endangering the lives of the vulnerable, many of whom don’t even have access to proper healthcare. 

Just imagine.

If we were serious – if we were serious about being holy as God is holy, if we were serious about God’s will being done on earth as it is in Heaven – then, if the world wanted to find a story about Christians, there would be nothing to report except God’s good works: churches reaching out to communities; churches delivering necessities; churches partnering with governments and shelters and community organizations to meet people’s needs; churches finding new and creative ways to reach out to seniors and those who are isolated, so that even at a time like this, we bear one another’s burdens and spread God’s light in the world around us.

Thy will be done. 

Just imagine what our church – just imagine what our community – would be like if, every single time someone drove or walked past this building, every time they saw the church posting on Facebook, every time they saw our posters in the stores, if every time they saw you, as a member of the Church, the only words they could find to say would be to praise God for his good works done through us.

That can happen.  God can do it.  And it would change this church forever as God drew people in to the light of his Word.  That’s God’s will.  And, for his will to be done in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven, we need to be willing… to be holy, as He is holy.

Thy will be done… in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

How often do we stop to think about what those words mean?

For so many of us, the Lord’s Prayer was one of the first things we learned as children (and for good reason, too: they’re the very words that our Lord gave us in his lesson on prayer!).  Those words are a part of every worship gathering of our churches, when we raise our voices as one to claim God as Our Father because we have been adopted as sons and daughters in baptism.  They’re comforting words – words we can turn to, words Jesus gave us, for every situation, and especially those times when we just can’t find the words to say.

But how often do we stop to think about what those words mean?

Over the next few weeks, our Sunday readings bring us through St. Peter’s first epistle, a letter in which he instructs Christians on how we should live in the world around us.  Far from simply calling us to “be good” and “do unto others…”, what we find there is much more profound; a much higher calling.  We’re called not just be ‘good’.  No, we’re to be holy.  Why?  Well, precisely because we are those who call God our Father; every time we say those words we are boldly claiming that we – you and me – have been made members of that royal family, and if God is our Father, than we are claiming to be nothing short of heirs of the eternal kingdom of God.  A kingdom built not on kindness and good manners, but holiness; “holy”, meaning that which is set apart from worldly use.

For St. Peter, and for the Church reading God’s Word in this season of Resurrection, this is where our faith comes down to brass tacks, this is where the rubber meets the road. If we say Christ is risen, if we say we’re sons and daughters of God, if we say Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us until his kingdom is revealed, then we have to put our money where our mouth is and live as those who are holy, as those preparing for that future glory as we learn by imitation to follow in our Lord’s steps.

Living as Citizens of the Kingdom

First and foremost, we must realize that, for all the good things in the world around us: for the beauty of the earth; for family, friends, and neighbours; for all the progress we have made in the past centuries towards a society built on freedom and justice, as proud as we should be for the ways that we help each other out, carry each other’s burdens, and make the world a little bit better by our efforts, we must realize that human effort will never be good enough to make the world as it ought to be; as we said on Easter Day, if there was any other way to restore our relationship with God and one another, then the Death and Resurrection of Jesus is completely unnecessary.  But there is no other way for that which is perishable – for bodies that cripple and wrinkle and seize up, and for minds that store up guilt, shame, and regret – to be re-made for eternal life.  No human effort can do that.

As we said last week, with doubting Thomas reaching into our Lord’s side, as we said at our Bible Class on Tuesday, the Gospel writers go to great lengths to make the point that Jesus rose in his body, that this is no spiritual experience or philosophy, but that Christ is the first fruits of a new crop; a crop that is imperishable.

And that’s important.  No amount of happy thoughts, positivity, or wishful thinking can turn that which is perishable into something non-perishable. 

A Food Bank analogy…

And, to be clear, this isn’t a lofty religious idea.  Here’s an example a bit more down-to-earth:

I can be the most generous person alive, the most giving; I can want with all my mind to make the world around me a better place… but, very practically, no amount of positive thinking makes bananas or fresh, ripe tomatoes good gifts for the food bank.  No amount of good will or generosity or positive thinking can change the perishable into non-perishable. 

No, what it takes is a complete change. 

Take a tomato, for example.

Tomatoes are great.  They’re versatile.  They’re full of great nutrients.  But, they’re perishable.  They bruise, then they rot, then they decay. 

And in spite of how great they are when they’re fresh, not only is a tomato a bad food bank gift… it’s actually harmful.  It rots, it spreads that decay to whatever is around it, and then it spawns mold that spreads.

If only there were a way to make tomatoes imperishable…

What’s required is for the very nature of the thing to change.  And, as a start, for the tomato to last, the first thing that happens is that it is cut down; it dies.  But in that dying, as the tomato is buried in the darkness of a pot and meets the source of heat and energy, the fresh tomato is transformed, and suddenly, put into a can, you have one of the best non-perishable foods you can buy: suddenly, that tomato is made into something that can last, not just a week in your fridge, but it is something that can be stored until, at the right time, it shares health and life with those around it.

And, of course, we don’t want to push our tomato analogy too far, but for us mortal, perishable people to share eternity, it requires us to be changed, to be made imperishable, a process which begins as we share in the death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism.

But that process doesn’t end there.  That process requires us to be set apart, to be holy. 

Now, holiness is an idea that often gets skewed.  It seems every few generations someone starts a new “holiness movement”, which, all too often, turns into a competition to see how good you are at keeping a law: whether it’s being a teetotaler, or in the old days, not dancing or chewing tobacco, or, perhaps in our own day, when it becomes about mindfulness and healthy living – none of which are bad, in and of themselves.

But, when Peter writes of holiness, he has a bigger idea in mind.

For Peter, holiness is about living here and now as those who know will share in the eternal life of God.  Or, as we read today, do not be conformed to the ways of the perishing world, but be set apart.  We’ve been picked up out of the spreading rot and decay of the perishable world, and washed clean, and are now called to live as the sons and daughters we are.

So Peter tells us, “live in reverent fear during this time of exile”.  Not fear as in being afraid, but the reverent fear of respecting the one in authority and knowing that actions have consequences; the reverent fear of longing to hear “well done, my good and faithful servant”.

St. Peter tells the Church to live now as we will live in Heaven.

Big Ideas

…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Fort Smith as it is in Heaven.

In those familiar words, given to us my Jesus, we’re taught two big, bold ideas right in that one line. 

Thy Kingdom come.  The Kingdom of God isn’t here – yet.  But, with Jesus, we’re to long for that day when our faith will be sight.  Our faith is not in some far-off land of bliss, but as the Bible teaches, our faith is that God will restore that which has been broken, and those who trust in Him will share his imperishable life in a world where rot and rust and decay are done away, where sighing and tears are no more. 

That’s what we pray God will do.

But, bigger yet, we pray that, in the meantime, thy will be done, here, as it is in glory. 

That God’s will would be done here, where we are.

Of course, if God is who we believe him to be, we don’t have to wonder about his will as it is in Heaven: he’s revealed it for us in scripture, in great detail, about what the world will be like when his gracious, loving will, rather than our selfish wills are in charge. 

But, think about it: if he’s our Father, if we’re the heirs to his Kingdom, and our Lord taught us to pray that God’s will – the way of life in the Kingdom – would be found here and now, then what are we asking for? 

Are we asking for God to do something?

Or, are we really asking for God to assist us as we live as sons and daughters, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, even while we’re here, right now.  God’s will is being done in Heaven… for Our Father’s will to be done here, we’re asking for us to have the grace to be willing to live as those being prepared for eternity, and to live that way starting now.

Over the next 4 weeks, our lessons being us to explore this idea: how does St. Peter envision us being holy, as those already on the path to eternal life through baptism and the life of faith.  How do we let God’s will be done on earth, in a world where we’re subject to governments and employers, in a world whose economy and priorities doesn’t share God’s values, and in an age where it can cost us dearly when those Kingdom values don’t line up with whatever ideas are trending in our world this week.

Thy will be done… right here, as it is in heaven.

Well, what’s the first step? 
Be holy, as Our Father is holy.  Amen.

The Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

Colossians 3:1-11

When I was a boy in Sunday School, there was a song that we would often sing.  It goes like this:

            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            For the Father up above is looking down in love,
            So be careful little eyes what you see.

Maybe you’ve heard it.  The other verses go on to warn little ears to be careful what they hear, little hands to be careful what they do, little feet to be careful where they go, little minds to be careful what they think, and little hearts to be careful who they trust.

It’s a simple song, but in spite of it’s childlike simplicity, it shares much in common with what we read in the scriptures today. 

In Colossians, we are told that we are a new creation, remade as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and, St. Paul goes on to teach us, as those who now share in the life of Christ, we are to put off the thoughts and actions that define our world full of pain, grief, and shame. It’s a list of vices that isn’t news to any of us: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, slander, filthy language, lying to get ahead, and creating divisions amongst ourselves.

To borrow the extended image used by St. Paul, these are things that worldly people carry around with them, wearing these thoughts and actions as a garment, as clothes as they walk about.  And, to some extent, whether we like it or not, the old saying holds true: the clothes make the man.  Our identity is shaped by the image that we project to our friends and neighbours, and that image then shapes our attitudes, our thoughts, and our actions.  It’s like the kid who knows she has the coolest clothes, and allows that to become who she is, and shape how she treats other people.

Today’s lesson tells us to strip off that worldly clothes; to strip off that impurity, greed, anger, those lies and divisions, and instead to clothe ourselves with thoughts and actions that imitate Christ.

The implication, of course, being that we aren’t stuck in those sins as though they define us.  As comfortable as we get in well-worn clothes, and as much as wearing that favourite old shirt becomes a habit, if we choose, we can change them, and put on the garments of righteousness given to us at baptism.

Now this list, sexual immorality, greed, anger, filthy language, there are no surprises there, this is nothing new.  These are all things that, at some point, our parents, other family members, our clergy, and our teachers taught us, even if, in some cases, they didn’t practice what they preached.

A stumbling block

Yet, it’s this same list that becomes a stumbling block for so many who have left the church.  We’ve all heard it, I’d say especially from men who have wandered away from the church: “The church is full of hypocrites.  He’s selfish, she’s a gossip.  That one’s as greedy as you can imagine, and if that other one has a drink, you’d never believe the words that come out of their mouth.  Christians?  If that’s a Christian, I want nothing to do with it.”

All of us, as children, were taught to keep away from these worldly desires; all of us, one way or another, were warned to be careful of what we see, do, or say with our little eyes, hands, and mouths, often with the stern message that “God is watching”.

Many of us, for better or worse, were taught that purity – right actions, proper gratitude, good manners – would buy us favour with God.  Many of us were taught that it’s as though God was keeping a tally, like an eternal, heavenly “swear jar”, where we have to throw in a quarter for every curse word that crosses our lips, or do a good deed to make up for our failings.

And, if that’s the case, then those outside the church are right – the church is full of hypocrites.

Because the truth is, once we strip away the glossy exterior, every man, woman, and child alive continues to struggle with impurity and greed, with anger and rage, with filthy language, dishonesty, gossip, and divisions.

The reason for purity.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

The problem, though, with that Sunday School song is that it has the message backwards.

So many, both inside and outside the church, think that the Gospel message is that we are to do good, live the best life you can live, and earn heaven as the reward.  So many think that living a “Christian life”, living a pure and righteous life buys us eternal life.

But that’s to have the message bottom up.

Yes, and it’s so important that the scriptures tell us in multiple places, we’re to avoid immorality and adultery, impurity, and greed.  Yes, we’re to avoid divisions and lewd speech and drunkenness.  Yes, we’re to refrain from anger and dishonesty.

But we don’t do that to earn our place in the church or in the family of God.  And, our place in the family of God doesn’t depend on some heavenly tally, whereby any one of us could pat ourselves on the back and say, “wow, aren’t I a good Christian”.

No.  We do our best to live in imitation of Christ because all of us – no matter what we’ve done, or whether our struggles are invisible or open for all to see – all of us have been invited to take off our worn-out earthly clothes and instead clothe ourselves with the grace of Christ.

I don’t try to live a pure life to earn heaven.  It’s the opposite.  Because Jesus loves me, I will live my life in a way that honours him. 

And if our neighbour’s struggles are more public than our own, we reach out to them in love, knowing that it’s only by the grace of God that we haven’t found ourselves in their situation in this broken and messy world.

Indeed, the Church – our church – is not called to be a museum for saints.  The church is a hospital for sinners, a home for the beloved children of God who have accepted the invitation into God’s family.

Yes, be careful little eyes what you see; and be careful little ears what you hear. 

But remember, it’s our Lord himself who says that it isn’t what goes into a person that makes them unclean; it’s what comes out of a person that makes us unclean.

It’s our Lord himself who raises the bar, saying that even just looking at another person with lust in your heart is to commit adultery.

And by the same token, if we pat ourselves on the back for our clean living, what have we done but allow pride to puff us up, allowing us to see ourselves as better than a brother or sister struggling with sex or drugs or drink or gossip or gambling.

We choose to take off those worldly habits because we love God, not to earn God’s love.

God is Watching… but that’s not a threat.

We have to remember, too, that God is watching.

But, even there, I fear sometimes we’ve got the message bottom-up.

For the Father up above is looking down… in what?

Too often, “God is watching” has been used as a threat.  But that goes back to that whole mistaken understanding of God as the great tally-keeper of good and evil.

As we heard in the Old Testament, yes, God is always watching.  But he watches as a loving Father; he waits patiently like a parent ready and willing to welcome a child back with open arms, no matter the mess we’re in – ready to take off the dirty, stained clothes we’re wearing and clothe us in his love.

Yes, God is watching, but he’s looking down in love, calling us to put off the ways of the world.  Not because our impurity makes him love us less, but as any loving and patient parent, he wants to spare the wayward child from learning lessons the hard way.

Being a disciple means to be one who is studying a discipline.  The scriptures use the image of a runner training for a race; no athlete who wants to win the race sits around eating donuts when they should be training on the track.

A disciple of Christ is one who is learning, studying, training to be like Christ.  And while no amount of failure can change the fact that he loves us and that he sees our value and our worth, it’s hard to say you’re training for the Olympics if you never go to the gym.  If we’re disciples, if we’re studying the way of God, that means we have to learn to love what he loves and to hate what he hates.  It means we live lives that keep things in perspective, not allowing our desires or pleasure to become the driving force in our lives.

Our Witness in the World

Be careful little eyes what you see?

Yes.  Because, at the end of the day, it’s not just about you.

God’s plan for every church is that it is not just the place where people gather to praise and be fed and to fellowship and to have their wounds healed.  It’s the place from which we, you and me, are sent out to share that healing, that belonging, that love with people who are desperate to hear it, who are desperate to be invited to belong, and to be told that they are loved. 

There are people – even our own neighbours – who are desperate to take off their worn-out, dirty clothes, and to put on the garment of God’s love and forgiveness as they accept their place in his family – this family.

But, for better or worse, in the eyes of the world, the clothes make the man or woman

If we’re to do that work God has given us, to be his messengers, his hands and feet in our community, we have to live lives that reflect his forgiveness, that reflect that, every time we mess up, he stands ready to re-clothe us as we commit once more to be his disciple.  

We’re to live lives not to show how pure or righteous we are, but to show how good God is, as we live for him instead of for ourselves.  The worn-out clothes of self-righteousness won’t get us far.  But, by the grace of God, with minds set on things above, clothed in forgiveness, and following the way of Christ, our lives themselves will preach the Gospel to a world that is desperate to hear it.

May God give us grace to live as his disciples.  Amen.