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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Tangled Up with Others

Nearly everyone in society is interested in the individual. People want to sell me something to ease my pain, remove my fears, make me beautiful, make me feel better. Even Christianity is full of voices that encourage an individualistic focus. Quite frankly, I wonder if they and I are reading the same bible. The bible is clear that personal change is only a fraction of the full reality of the Gospel.

Yet, we all have heard many sermons treating the text like a manual to resolve problems or remove challenges or a guide for self-help. Such preaching not only disrespects the text but minimizes the human dilemma. This temptation should prompt us to wonder if we believe the text or have faith in the plan of God.

We would do well instead to highlight what is happening in the text and help listeners understand how each of our individual stories intersect with the stories of others. Instead of trying to remove challenges we should embrace them as opportunities to walk together through the struggle. Instead of accepting society’s desire to isolate us from one another by convincing us we can be stronger selves, we recognize individuals as being part of something bigger. Preaching should shed light on how individuals live as participants in community.

Since each of us see things through our own eyes, it is not always evident that our lives intersect with the lives of others or how they fit into the activity of God. Since these things aren’t always obvious to us, it is the duty of preaching to bring us into this territory. Preaching reveals there is more to the activity of God than strengthening the lives of individuals. Preaching pulls everyone into the place where self becomes tangled up in the lives of others and the activity of God.