Saturday, January 28, 2006

Holiness Sermon in Series "What it Means to Be a Methodist" Jan 29 sermon

Micah 6: 6-8
Matthew 6: 1-15

It is very clear that the idea of holiness was the main concern of two young men at Oxford two and a half centuries ago named John and Charles Wesley. The two named their student religious club “The Holy Club,” and their meticulous attention to applying a holy regiment to their lives earned this club the nickname “the Methodists” among those who derided their efforts.
In John Wesley’s “Notes,” Wesley writes in a question/answer format: “What was the rise of Methodism, so called? In 1729, two young men, reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness, followed after it, and incited others so to do. In 1737 they saw holiness comes by faith. They saw likewise, that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point. God then thrust them out, utterly against their will, to raise a holy people.” The mission statement of the early movement of Methodists was clearly dedicated to holiness as the guiding principle. Wesley asked himself the question, “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? Not to form any new sect: but to reform the nation, particularly the church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.
What exactly is this idea of holiness? Christian perfection, according to Wesley, is “purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God” and “the mind which was in Christ, enabling us to walk as Christ walked.” It is “loving God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, 109). It is “a restoration not only to the favour, but likewise to the image of God,” our “being filled with the fullness of God” (The End of Christ’s Coming, 482).
Wesley was clear that Christian perfection did not imply perfection of bodily health or an infallibility of judgment. It also does not mean we no longer violate the will of God, for involuntary transgressions remain. Perfected Christians remain subject to temptation, and have continued need to pray for forgiveness and holiness. It is not an absolute perfection but a perfection in love. Furthermore, Wesley did not teach a salvation by perfection, but rather says that, “Even perfect holiness is acceptable to God only through Jesus Christ.” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection)
Holiness, or Perfectionism, was a guiding principle of the Methodist movement for Wesley. It was also one of the most contentious of issues throughout the history of our denomination.
Some in the movement stressed holiness as a personal moral code, while others translated holiness into social activism. Many remained true to Welsey’s notion that personal holiness fed social holiness.
The Book of Discipline states, “we proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners” (49). The social witness that is the goal of the church begins in the hearts and lives of its believers.
Amidst the tumultuous times of the American 19th centuy, certain elements of the Methodist movement felt that the church wasn’t lifting up the great heritage of personal holiness. During the last half of the 19th century, groups within the church began challenging the church as a whole to become reinvested in “personal holiness” by reclaiming the class meetings and love feasts that had been a hallmark of our denominational expression. In the 1870’s a group called the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness sought to bring the church back to the glory days of the early 1800’s, when the Methodist movement spread like wildfire throughout the wilderness of the Appalacias in a series of Camp meetings. IN the 1890’s The Nazarene church split off from the main line of Methodism as well because some felt that personal holiness was no longer being accentuated.
There is no contesting the fact that by the late 19th century, the Methodist Episcopal church had indeed lost many of the traditions that had characterized the movement in its earlier days, such as testimony, shared feeling, and spontaneous evangelism, and practices such as the class meeting and love feasts and camp meetings. However to identify these practices as the only vehicles of “Holiness” is to misinterpret Wesley’s full understanding of holiness. The church did indeed evolve. The class meeting became Sunday School, church policy and mission built on testimony and shared feeling was transformed into church policy and mission coming out of specialized, rationally deliberated and centrally coordinated committee meetings.
To say that these structures eliminated the persuasion of the Holy Spirit though is to believe the Holy Spirit is fairly weak and incapable. The emphasis in the Main line church at the time of the Holiness “exodus” and Pentecostal movement was indeed on transforming society, but it was still holiness. It was Social holiness—attention to women’s suffrage, dietary reform, medical attention in the ghettos and in poor countries, mission work, abolition of slavery.
What does it mean for us today?
As someone who is consecrated by the Bishop to serve as a leader and an example to this community, I understand holiness to be to make myself a “clean window” for God’s light to shine through my life. Wesley believed, and I believe, that personal holiness is the foundation of social holiness.
As we “grow in grace” and come closer to the redemptive heart of Christ, the Spirit will flow out of our hearts, as Christ proclaims in John 7: 37-38: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Personal holiness is living with the thirst for Christ. When we drink from the spring of life, when we live holiness, our hearts become channels of that great peace and joy. That personal decision to accept the grace that aligns our lives with life of Christ makes us one more step toward a “complete holiness” of individuals and society.
The scriptures that we read today also give us a key to holiness. Oftentimes our temptation is to “show off” our holiness.
It’s this attitude that has caused modern minds to think negatively when they hear the word “pious.”
The prophet Micah reminds us that what the Lord truly requires of us is not the fanfare and the show, but instead God wants us to be excellent in the quiet things that truly show our love for the God of love: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This is what it means to be an open window for God’s light.
Matthew also tells of Jesus warning his followers about the “dangers of holiness. It is our temptation to seek recognition for the lives we lead. Jesus tells us plainly, “Beware of practicing your piety in front of others in order to be seen by them, for then you will receive no reward from your father in heaven.” The pitfall of holiness is that we believe it is OUR determination to lead a life of piety and purity that DESERVES to be noticed.
This is why I prefer the window illustration. A window works best when it is completely clean and free of blemish or obstruction. Seeking a life of holiness is akin to keeping our “window clean.” What do we notice about a clean window? Well, if the window is truly clean, it might not even be noticed at all! A clean window is transparent—it draws no attention to itself, but instead to what is outside it! A clean and holy life truly draws attention not to ourselves, but to what shines through us!
At the end of the passage we read in Matthew, Jesus helps us reign in our egos and desire for attention by laying out a simple prayer. At the end of the prayer, he shares the secret of salvation. Most of us, when asked what it takes to be saved would probably lay out a set of beliefs. If you subscribe to this idea, then you’re saved—that’s the way many of us approach a life of faith.
However, according to Matthew, Jesus has another idea of what is the key to salvation. Once again, he lays it out very plainly—“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Father will forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, your father will not forgive you.” There it is—the most holy thing we can possibly do. Somewhere along the line, it was contorted simply into living a life of abstincence. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t dance: that’s holiness. How can we forget when it is right there in the print as plain as day—If you want to live a life of holiness, you must forgive! Forgiveness is that light that shines down from heaven. That is the main point that Jesus was trying to communicate to us—we are a forgiven people. If we block up the window and pull the drapes on God’s forgiveness by not allowing that beautiful light to shine through our lives, then we are in the darkness too!
If you’re seeking to live a holier life—start by asking yourself, “From whom am I withholding forgiveness?” If you have forgiven another person, but are not receiving reconciliation in return, know that God’s light of forgiveness is bursting at the seams to come back to you. Forgiveness is not ours, this is why it is a key to salvation. Forgiveness belongs only to God, and God wishes to share it through us with the world.
This is true holiness. Life is not a stage, and holiness is not a show. We don’t do things to be noticed. Holiness isn’t amping up our worship services so they look and sound more “spiritual.” Holiness is simply living forgiveness in every aspect of life. It’s keeping the window clean so that God’s light can shine through. What a gift it is to have the potential to represent God’s goodness in the world! May we all pray to “let love and integrity envelop me until my love is perfected and the last vestige of my desiring is no longer in conflict with thy Spirit. Lord, We want to be more holy in our hearts!” Amen


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