July 2017, Christ Mountain Top
to Worship, Psalm 26
1 Thessalonians 3.6 – 4.12
Moment: Interpreter article on Syrian refugee meeting Jesus in the
hospitality of the church
Inquisition: “Is he liberal or conservative?”
people speak of holiness, they talk of rules, standards, law. It’s all about purity. No drinking, smoking, or drugs. No sexual activity outside of marriage. No curses, gossip, or lies. No.
No. No. No. Go
to church every week. Give 10%. I think, of the ones listed, that the curses,
gossip, and lies are the hardest. You
may think differently. At any rate, I
know that such holiness is supremely inspiring!
The process is simple: a command, and the will or choice to be pure.
that is at the base of so much of the exclusion in the world. Miroslav Volf
(raised as a Pentecostal Christian in a mostly Catholic Croatia, who as an
adult experienced and observed the “ethnic cleansing” that tore apart the
former Yugoslavia) writes, “Sin as the practice of exclusion … names as sin what
often passes as virtue, especially in religious circles” (Exclusion and Embrace, 72). He goes on: “Sin is … the kind of
purity that wants the world cleansed of the other rather than the heart
cleansed of the evil that drives people out” (74), and “evil is capable of
generating an … environment in which it can thrive unrecognized” (76).
purity, leaves us with two things: First, a personal holiness that is entirely
built on the strength of the human will (and not at all attractive), and,
second, a social holiness that is very susceptible to rationalizing exclusion
as a good thing. Neither is the holiness that God desires.
in traditional theology, in the understanding of the human mind, the mind was
described as having three particular faculties: reason, memory, and will. They are powerful, wonderful gifts. Being strong-willed, for instance, is a great
thing, particularly when you need to bring positive change against entrenched
resistance. But these are faculties of
the mind, not of the soul, and therefore they have little to do with the
holiness that God desires, the life that God promises and offers to us.
“And now these three last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is love.”
soul. Faith is to reason, as hope is to
memory, as love is to will. Faith is the
path to a knowledge that reason can never achieve. Hope is the path to a future that memory can barely
envision. Love is the path to a holiness
that will can scarcely determine.
is remarkable to me that, in the midst of an extended description of the
affection that connects Paul and the Thessalonians, and right before some
advice on holy living, Paul gives them a blessing that combines love and
may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,
just as we abound in love for you. 13
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless
before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
number of years ago, while walking our dog Spooky in a local park, Caleb and I saw
some mantids mating in the brush. The
female had the male in a head lock and as soon as she was fertilized she began
to devour him. Now, it happens
frequently enough in human relationships, generally without the
cannibalism. We “love” someone else, but
treat them as an “object”. They are a
sex object, a bank account object, a fun to go to the movies so we’re not
lonely object. What they are not is a
“subject”, a separate and independent individual, made in the image of God.
theologian, was part of the Nazi resistance.
He was forbidden to teach and began an “underground seminary”, teaching
pastors out of a home in which they all lived together. In those times, he wrote Life Together,
a reflection on how Christian people can live in community. He writes:
Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to
act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the
person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.
Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is
and what he should become. It takes the
life of the other person into its own hands.
Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he
has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied
and would stamp upon all men (1954: 36).
Paul writes the Thessalonians about holiness in terms of sexual purity, he does
not list the standard reasons: STDs, the impact on a marriage, unwanted pregnancies. He gives this simple and theologically deep
reason: Sexual impurity exploits a brother or sister, a brother or sister loved
by Jesus and bearing the image of God. If
we love Jesus, it makes no sense at all to do this to Jesus. Paul believes that knowing God is what makes
us different, not that we know a special secret of which others are ignorant,
but that we are intimate with God. And
when you are intimate with someone, there are special protective limits, a special
covenant to guard that intimacy.
when Paul writes about holiness in our work life, he encourages them to work
hard, to be productive. But it is not to
build bigger barns. Instead, it is so
they won’t be dependent on anyone. (Many
of the first followers of Jesus, like us, struggled with debt.) To those who moved beyond their debt, in the
letter to the Ephesians, Paul told them that they worked so they could give to
those in need (Ephesians 4:28). Mother
we are touching Christ’s body in the poor. In the poor it is the hungry Christ that we
are feeding, it is the naked Christ that we are clothing, it is to the homeless
Christ that we are giving shelter. . . .
I believe in person to person; every person is Christ for me, and since
there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that
moment (A Gift for God: Prayers and Meditations, Mother Theresa of
Calcutta, 1996; 39, 41).
also urges the Thessalonians to “mind your own business”. What great advice for work life and families. But it is not simply advice to work hard and
stay out of trouble. It is an expression
of their love for one another and their neighbors: “You yourselves have been
taught by God to love one another”.
Wesley, the founding figure in the story of Methodism, insisted that biblical
holiness was driven by love rather than by human will. He spoke of perfection not in an absolute
sense but in terms of being “perfect in love”.
It’s consistent with Paul’s blessing prayer for the Thessalonians and
the experience of every spiritual pioneer in the Christian tradition. Mother Theresa said it this way:
would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in
unkindness and hardness” (34).
in love with your brothers and sisters, in love with all. Not because we are
good, but because God is good, and because God first loved us.