Preaching Holiness

Recently I had opportunity to attend a mini conference on “Preaching Holiness.” This is worthwhile conversation that reminds us we are not God and that God should always be the wow factor in the church.

This was an enjoyable conference for me not only because of the theme, but this gathering is full of friends and mentors and others I have served with for a long time. This is my family. I was raised among this crowd and this message. These are my people. Still, I cannot help but notice that we have some tendencies that are puzzling at times and perhaps disturbing at others.

Here is one small voice from the crowd who wants us to be able to articulate biblical holiness more articulately, effectively, and faithfully.

1 – I understand our desire to illustrate holiness with personal stories that serve as evidence for the work of God in our lives. I fear they sometimes make us sound as if we have mastered holiness or at least make us sound holier than most. Perhaps this draws some to our message but I admit to having doubts.

2 – It is easy to fall into a trap of thinking the best way to preach holiness is to emphasize what it is not. For example, it is not Calvinism. This tends to send messages of some sort of class system in the kingdom as if we are superior to others. I propose we would serve ourselves better to talk about what holiness is.

3 – We have a tendency to act as if preaching love and grace results in listeners thinking it is ok to stay the way they are. If we take the gospel seriously we know these are the very things that spur one to change. Perhaps we think prevenient grace is preferable or superior to other stages of grace.

4 – We love to reference John Wesley in our conversation about preaching holiness and rightly so, no one has been more influential in our branch of the family tree. But I cannot help but wonder what he would think if he felt we were branding our heritage as greater than others in the Body of Christ. Or if we began reading the bible to find evidence for his way of thinking. It was Dennis Kinlaw who said “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God.”

5 – It is easy to make holiness sound as if it is an individual pursuit. Sometimes we make it sound as if it is lived best in our secret places. While no one would deny the importance of holiness in secret, should not our emphasis be on the influence holiness has in relationship with others? It was Wesley who said “Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy adulterers.”

Yet, I cannot help but notice how we emphasize sin as an individual matter. We even might refer to a sinful individual as a loser. What we tend to not talk about is the way sin hinders the body. The health of the body and the witness of the body are both hindered due to sin. Sin has corporate effects. I propose we would do well to discuss how church and world are cheated by sin. This is, as Wesley might emphasize, a relational religion.

We tend to do the same thing with ethics. Ethics is fitting to emphasize while in conversation about holiness. Still we tend to emphasize individual ethics. This is odd when we are reading texts that are written to congregations. Perhaps we would do well to emphasize how ethics support or hinder the body. Emphasize how Christian ethics influence the world. This becomes important when we speak of a gospel that knows of “no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

While talking about ethics it is worth mentioning that to say slanderous things about politicians or pop stars while discussing holiness may be somewhat contradictory. Even these people belong to a world that “God so loved.” We know the holy work of a holy God is evident by the way we talk about others.

I spent most of our time together waiting for someone to talk about how holiness occurs in relationship. While God can perform His work in whatever way God desires, it is evident He has chosen the church to nurture and disciple one another. Perhaps some will resist this thought, but the New Testament appears to support the idea that holiness is a group project. We need one another. Perhaps that is the primary reason I am so grateful for the people I gathered with at this conference.

6 – Preaching about holiness can easily fall into the trap of simply repeating terms from a systematic theology text. This occurs despite our repeated emphasis that Wesley did not write a systematic theology. Yet we continue to preach a systematic theology. Perhaps this is most puzzling for me. We know a systematic theology, no matter how honest or helpful it may be, is always less. Always. This is not only wise counsel for sisters and brothers who adhere to a systematic theology different than our own, this is wise counsel for us also.

Much of what occurs in a setting like this is preaching to the choir. From one grateful to be part of the choir, I am glad for some diversity of thought. Though I may have questions about some things, I am glad to be part of this body. I was raised by this bunch and raised on this message. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Thank You Dr. Dennis Kinlaw

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”

Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”

I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.

Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”

It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!

Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.

I Corinthians and Holiness

The Corinthian Church is addressed early in the letter as “holy ones.” Because of this I expect to find a different group of people than those I read about. Instead, the further I read, the more I begin to think that designation was a mistake.

These people are jealous, full of strife, they boast in their own wisdom. There is immorality among them and they are arrogant. They are covetous, idolaters, drunks, swindlers, fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, revilers. Just saying, these do not sound like saints to me. Yet I Corinthians never revokes the statement that these are “holy ones.”

I Corinthians does go on to say “such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in Christ Jesus.” I Corinthians is a reminder that holiness is not an individual project. To be called “those who have been sanctified” is to acknowledge that holiness is the work of God and that we become holy together.

Living on the Frontier

Pope Francis has been talking to theologians.  His letter addressed to the theological faculty of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina is summarized in a recent article of the National Catholic Reporter.  Any of us who spend time as interpreters of scripture could benefit from his reminders.

Those of us who believe that theology is for the church will find a kindred spirit in Francis.  He says that theology is not simply an academic exercise to be practiced at a desk, but should be taken to the frontiers.  He goes on to say “the good theologians, like the good shepherds, smell of the people and of the road” and “pour oil and wine on the wounds of humankind.”

Francis compares studying theology to living on a frontier where the Gospel meets the needs of the people in an understandable and meaningful way.  “We must guard ourselves against a theology that is exhausted in the academic dispute or watching humanity from a glass castle.”  Francis goes on, “theology and holiness are an inseparable pair.”

It is good for each of us to be reminded that the Gospel belongs on the frontier.  The pope implies that to do otherwise is to run the risk of taming the mystery.  In order to move forward we must live it out on the extreme boundaries.  May we smell of the people and of the road.

Romans and Preaching

People arrived in Rome for a variety of reasons; commercial purposes, immigration, and some involuntarily as slaves. Some early Christians among them, they resided in areas where other foreigners were concentrated, including Jews. Jews and Christians would have had some things in common as they assembled in the synagogue and celebrated the feasts. However, the words and actions of the Christians likely sparked tension as things like observing the law and the inclusion of the Gentiles would have created some controversy. Eventually, this escalated to the point where Claudius evicted all Jews in AD 49.

The letter to the Romans is written with this knowledge in mind. Also, the knowledge that after Claudius had died the Jews who had been banished were permitted to return. Upon their return, it appears that all Jews were at a disadvantage in Rome and that Jewish Christians were at a disadvantage in the church. Paul writes the church at Rome in order to present a Christian perspective about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, inside and outside of the church.

A young emperor Nero was not yet antagonistic toward Christians at the time of writing. Still it was important to discuss how the church should live in this environment. While we do not find a theology of how to respond to the state, Romans does describe the state as a servant. Government is a gift from God to minister justice and peace. The church should not take justice in its own hands and should live as civil civilians.

There are some things about this relationship that remain blurry, other things become quite clear. Romans does not give the state divine permission to do as it pleases. The state does not mirror the will of God. There is no indication that the state rules now and the Lord will take over that role in the afterlife. Jesus is not, as Brian Zahnd said in a recent conference, “the secretary of after-life affairs.” He is Lord now. Jesus could not endorse the politics of Rome any more than He can endorse politics in America. He already brings His own politics. This would have been a significant downer for an emperor who promoted his own divinity and the emperor cult. He would not have been pleased to hear that he was servant to a God he did not know. Christians then, could not worship Nero but they could pay taxes.

Paul the letter writer desires to deal with questions that concern the people of God. Namely, how to live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. At a risk of oversimplification, the letter deals with the status of Gentiles who are not Christian (chapter 1). It deals with the condition of the Jews, then the condition of Christians (2-8). Discussion then focuses on non-Christian Jews (9-11). The letter concludes with a sermonic application of how all Christians should learn to live together in the non-Christian world (12-15).

Romans 12-15 works as a sermon from a distance that emphasizes that Christians live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. That is why we find there a sampling of gifts that are relevant to the Roman situation in the late 50’s. That is why we find Paul bringing up the theme of holiness or sanctification. When Paul talks about this subject he is not talking about ritual or theology. He is talking about behavior. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” The emphasis is not on the language one knows or uses but the behavior one exhibits. For Paul, as Romans makes clear, this is the behavior that must be demonstrated in the world.

Paul’s letters, including Romans, are theology in progress. Paul is not repeating doctrine that has already been articulated. As Ben Witherington suggests, he is theologizing as he writes. And his aim is always to shape the behavior of his churches. Theology is not theory for Paul, but a tool for creating community. The same could be said for preaching, then and now. Preaching is a tool to shape behavior and create community in a non-Christian world.

Read the Old Testament Laws for Life

Our congregation is currently in conversation with Read the Bible For Life by George Guthrie. Guthrie has structured the book as a series of conversations between he and scholars who have invested themselves in scripture. In the conversation between he and J. Daniel Hays, several things stand out about reading and applying the Old Testament Laws. We are hoping that listening in on this conversation will prompt us to join in. The following paragraphs share some highlights.

The people of God faced strong pagan influences. The people who were already residing in the Promised Land worshiped idols and would have a powerful, negative influence on Israel. Leviticus is aware that these influences can draw people away from God. The Old Testament Laws suggest that God’s people should not mess with unhealthy spiritual influences from culture.

The presence of the Lord changes everything. Leviticus highlights these changes and explains how Israel was to live with Holy God in their midst. They had to keep numerous mundane commands that stressed separation. They couldn’t mix two kinds of seeds. They couldn’t mix two kinds of cloths. These everyday reminders were to help them remember that there were demands to keep them separate from unholy things.

Read the Old Testament Law. Read it remembering that we are still the people of God and still live in community with others. Read it asking what the laws teach us about God and human nature. Read it as coming from out of a narrative story. The Law is connected to deliverance from Egypt, the establishment of covenant, and the life in the Promised Land.

We do not want to read the Old Testament laws as specific, literal laws. We want to read them as inspired revelation about God, and how we should respond to Him. God has written His law on our hearts. God is serious about holy living. It is no coincidence that the New Testament quotes from Leviticus 19 that we ought to “be holy, because I am holy.”

To Obey or Not to Obey?

Some friends and I have been reading The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight. In a chapter subtitled “What Do We Do and What Do We Not Do in the Bible?” he looks at Leviticus 19 and asks how we know what to pick and what not to pick when we read the chapter. It is a good question. He includes an exercise where he asks others to vote on what commands from the chapter are important to obey and which are not. No matter the results, one thing we likely agree on is that Leviticus is no less Word of God than other books of the bible.

While we still preach the importance of being holy and of not spreading slander, the rest of the chapter we seem to dismiss. We do not keep the Sabbath. We do not harvest only a portion of crops. We do not worry about planting two kinds of seed. We do not worry about garments made of two kinds of material. We do not worry about eating medium rare meat. We do not worry about cutting the hair at the sides of our head or trimming our beards. We do not think that tattoos are sinful. We do not think it is sin to stay seated when old folks walk into the room.

McKnight is correct to point out that Moses is not just giving suggestions for students who would like to live as he does. These are commands that are rooted in the holiness of God. Yet, we dismiss most of the commands found in Leviticus 19. So, McKnight concludes (rationally I must say) that either we are wrong in our dismissal of these commands or we have categories that help us to know what to apply in our lives and what not to. We tell ourselves that these commands are from a bygone era. Or that these commands are part of some Old Testament code or levitical code or holiness code or a ceremonial code but not a code for us. What we would like is to have a code that reveals what we must obey, what is unnecessary and what is not even recommended.

McKnight goes on to note that “smack-dab in the middle of this chapter” we find “love your neighbor as yourself.” Somehow we know, probably because of what Jesus said, that this command is applicable to us today. McKnight asks some pretty good questions and sums them up with; “Essentially the church has always taught that the times have changed and we have learned from New Testament patterns of discernment what to do and what not to do.”

Something that may be worth saying about the laws in Leviticus and elsewhere is that the bible is more than laws and that each law is connected to a particular context. Something that I think McKnight does brilliantly is ask the questions that many have asked quietly. By putting these questions out there it validates the questions of others and reminds us that it is ok to wrestle with the words from God. To my friends who have been trying to get me to read McKnight for some time, I should have listened to you sooner.