St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 26th October 2014
What do you think is the greatest need of the church in this country at this time?
I guess you could come up with a whole long list of answers to that question…
… finance, young people, leadership etc. etc.
But today I want to make a pitch for something else that’s so sadly lacking in the lives of so many churches and that is holiness. Holiness is the one great doctrine that seems to be spoken about so rarely nowadays. You hardly ever hear church leaders talk about it in the media. You don’t find all that many books published on the subject, although I can recommend a couple of good titles if you’re interested. And it’s not generally something that church members chat about over coffee at the end of a service.
Yet holiness clearly matters to God. Listen to what the Lord Himself commands the Israelites in Leviticus 11:45: Therefore be holy, because I am holy. Or again listen to what the writer to the Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 12:14: without holiness no-one will see the Lord. Or again consider the solemn warning Paul gives to the church in Thessalonica in our reading this morning: The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. (That’s verses 6 and 7).
Do you get the message? The Lord wants us to be holy. Our holiness matters to Him. And in case you think I am just picking a few random texts, I could have chosen any number of passages which bear the same message. God’s greatest desire for our lives is our holiness. Because where there is holiness, there is goodness, there is truth, there is love. And the fact we do not even mention the subject of holiness today is I believe one reason why the church so often appears to be so weak and ineffective.
Unfortunately the problem with talking about holiness is that it is so often misunderstood.
First of all, people often think that holiness is for other people, special people like the pope, or dare I say it, the local vicar. They’re the ones called “Your holiness” or “Reverend”; they’re the sort of people God calls to be holy. Not the ordinary folk in the pews, who keep making a mess of their lives, or the average believer who just wants a plain, simple faith. If we’re honest, we haven’t got much time for holiness, and it sounds too unworldly and far removed from our busy, everyday lives.
Well, before you write off the idea of holiness completely, let me just ask one very simple question. Were the people Paul wrote to in Thessalonica somehow better or more religious than us? Did they live more Christian lives than we could ever aspire to? The answer surely has to be no. As you read these letters, you begin to see they had failed to grasp even some very basic points of the faith, and some of them were hardly living in a way that was pleasing to God. Yet despite all their faults and failings, Paul tells them how God has called them – translating verse 7 literally – not to impurity but to holiness. As I hope to show this morning, holiness is something we should all be passionately concerned about.
Of course, this leads to the second problem with holiness – that people generally do not recognise what it is. Holiness is not about believing you’re perfect or somehow better than the next person. I guess we have all come across someone at some time or other who has, as they say, a “holier than thou” attitude and there is no worse advert for the Christian faith than a believer who thinks he or she is better than anyone else just because they believe in Jesus.
Being holy, you see, isn’t about claiming to be anything other than who you really are. In fact, the way to understand holiness is to recognise that in God’s sight you are anything other than holy. You are a sinner, who falls short of God’s standards again and again, and who in the end deserves to be judged for those sins. Yet the wonderful good news of the Christian faith is that Jesus died in our place for all the wrong we have ever done, all the sinful thoughts we have ever entertained, all the harmful words we have ever let slip. And because Jesus died for us on the cross, the wonder and the mystery is that through His blood we become acceptable to God. Through faith in Jesus we are declared fit to enter into the presence of our Heavenly Father and know His love and His peace.
But our Heavenly Father wants our faith to make a real, practical difference to how we live day by day. That’s why He calls us to be holy. He wants us to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit so that we honour Jesus with our body, mind and soul. And when I say “us”, I really mean everyone single one of us. After all, the only way any of us can be saved is through the undeserved gift of Jesus Christ to us. Despite what we might be tempted to think, there are in God’s eyes really no first and second class Christians, where a select few try to be holy and the rest of us just muddle along. No, this calling to be holy is for each and every one of us. It is an essential part of being a Christian.
So, OK, you might say, what does a holy life look like? You’ve given me the theory, but where, as the Americans say, does the rubber hit the road?
Well, in this reading from Thessalonians Paul focuses on three particular areas, each one of them hugely important in themselves, and we can sum them up as follows:
Sexual purity (verses 3-8)
Brotherly love (9-10)
Honest endeavour (11-12)
Now of course there are plenty of other aspects to living a holy life, but I think it is worth asking why Paul chooses these three in particular. I would suggest that very roughly they cover every aspect of our life – how we act in private, in church and in our daily lives. And that’s important. After all, you can’t call Jesus Lord if you don’t let Him reign over what you do in private, or what you do at work. Either Jesus is Lord over all, or He is not Lord at all. You can’t set up exclusion zones which limit where He is welcome, or put up no entry signs outside your bedroom door. No, Jesus wants to reign wherever you go, whatever you do. That’s the bottom line about being a Christian, and it’s something we all have to take seriously.
I realise of course that for some people the whole question of sexual purity is perhaps less relevant nowadays than it would have been, say, thirty, forty years ago. The people Paul wrote to in Thessalonica were relatively young by today’s standards. But even if we feel we are too old for the teaching to apply us directly, it’s still important that we know what the Lord wants to teach us on the subject. Because I passionately believe we need to pass on the Bible’s teaching in this area to the next generation, and the generation after that.
After all, we live in a culture which seems to be obsessed with human sexuality, whether you look at the way certain products are advertised, or the programmes that come up on our screens, or the magazines that fill our supermarket shelves. And just as in the time of the apostle Paul, all kinds of sexual behaviour are deemed acceptable, no matter what the human cost to the individuals involved.
So how should we live in a world such as this? Paul is crystal clear: It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality. That’s a strong word “avoid” and deliberately so. Don’t see how far you can go without actually breaking God’s commands. Don’t try and work out what you can get away with. Avoid sexual immorality. So when you are attracted to that particular website, make sure you don’t click on it. When you find yourself drawn to someone special, make sure you put a rein on your imagination. As a wise youth leader said many years ago, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, not an adventure playground”.
Of course it’s all very well knowing that you have to avoid something, but you also need a positive alternative. That’s what Paul gives us in the next verse: that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable. Now if you have a Bible with footnotes you will see there is an alternative reading to verse 4 which is: that each of you should learn to live with his own wife in a way that is holy and honourable. There’s a lot of debate as to which reading is correct, but perhaps Paul meant the expression to be read both ways.
First of all, as Christians we are called to exercise self-control in many different areas of our lives, and nowhere is the need greater than in the area of sexual purity. But let’s be clear –if we try to exercise self-control in our own efforts, then sooner or later we will fail. All of us are faced from time to time with temptations which are too strong for us to resist. That’s why we need to consistently remind ourselves that self-control is a gift of the Holy Spirit. As I said earlier, living a holy life is not about relying our own strength but on the Holy Spirit. So whether we are resisting someone who is gorgeously attractive or just a tub of chocolate ice cream, the answer is the same – pray for the Holy Spirit, so that your Heavenly Father gives the strength that you need, and the knowledge you are doing the right thing.
And secondly, let us remember what a great and wonderful gift marriage is. There are some Christians who seem to think that anything to do with sex is wrong, and it is the great unmentionable that should never be spoken about. Actually, God has given us a tremendous institution called marriage where in their union one man and one woman are called to reflect the amazing self-giving love of Jesus, and as Christians we should do all we can to support, promote and protect this institution. The tragedy that parts of the church want to redefine marriage and move away from the Biblical understanding is one that cannot be overestimated. God has given us marriage for a reason, and it is something we should honour and respect.
I must move on, but I need to add a couple of further points.
To begin with, Paul himself was someone who was single. We know this from 1 Cor 9:5 where Paul talks about renouncing the right to a believing wife. It is something churches do not stress enough, that singleness too can also be a great gift from God. Paul would not have had such freedom to move from town to town, often at short notice, if he had a family in tow. The church needs to do more to help single people remain faithful to their calling, particularly in a culture where so often it is assumed everyone is sexually active.
And even as I speak, I am aware that the whole area of sexual purity is one that many find difficult. People carry with them a lot of pain and brokenness, either because of what has happened to them, or indeed what they have inflicted on others. It is so important when sharing teaching here to be gentle and to listen carefully. The church needs to be a safe place where we can trust one another, speak openly without fear of gossip or judgement, and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work.
It’s not too surprising, then, that Paul moves straight on from sexual purity to brotherly love (verses 9-10).
Let’s pause at this stage and look rather more closely at verse 9: Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. I don’t know about you, but when I began to look at this verse, I was rather puzzled. If Paul is saying that he didn’t need to write to the Thessalonians about brotherly love, then why on earth does he then go and do so? After all, as we have already seen in chapter 1, they had become a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. He tells them here in verse 10 that in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Surely they didn’t need to be told any more about love?
Perhaps to understand Paul at this point, it is helpful to know that he uses two different words for love in verse 9. The first one is the ordinary Greek word for love among like-minded people. This is Philadelphia – the sort of love that is easily spread (did I really just say that!?). And you don’t have to be a church to show this brotherly love. You could just as easily be a club or a charity or even a masonic lodge. Because whenever like-minded people meet you naturally have something in common. Put two members of the Green Army together, for example, and within two minutes they are talking about the team or next Saturday’s match and moaning about the manager. That’s Philadelphia.
But the love that we called to show as a church is meant to be more than ordinary brotherly love. It is meant to be agape love – the love as Paul puts it – is taught by God. And what is this kind of love? It is the pure, holy love that Jesus showed us when He died on the cross in our place for our sins. You see, the problem with brotherly love is that it is strictly for members only. The love one member of the Green Army has for another does not usually extend to someone who follows Exeter City or Torquay United. But the love that Jesus shows us really does extend to all – no matter what football team we support, or our background, or our age, or our education.
And it’s this love that we are called to show as a church. As Joy so helpfully reminded us last week, we are not a club. We are a place where our faith in Jesus Christ has to make a real difference. If we are going to be a safe place where we listen carefully to each other, build real bonds of trust, and help one another grow in holiness, then we need to be a community of agape love. We need to take seriously the command Jesus gave us to love each other as I have loved you (John 15:12) – no matter how different I happen to be from you, no matter what you have done, or what others think of you. We are called to love each other in a way that is sacrificial and selfless and pure, in fact in a way that shows that all our talk about Jesus is in fact real and changes lives for good.
And just as Jesus’ love really does reach out and extend to all, so our agape love needs to break out from the confines of our church buildings and our fellowship meetings. It needs to spread out into the workplace, into the home, into the school, into the streets. That’s why, thirdly, Paul goes on to talk about honest endeavour in verses 11-12. We haven’t really got the time to go through these verses now, but Lynda will return to this subject in four weeks’ time.
For now, the only point I want to make is that as soon as you step outside this morning, you are going to become an advert for the Christian faith. Whether you like or not, people will look at you and draw certain conclusions about who Jesus is and what it means to believe in Him. And this is where a holy life, a life lived in response to the wonderful, generous, unimaginable love of Jesus is just so important. Brothers and sisters, we are called to be different. We are called to show there is another way of living that offers more and that way is found in Jesus Christ. The problem with the church in this country at this time is that too often we seem more concerned to show that we are not different, that we really are like everyone else, that even in some quarters we want to share the same values. Today I want you to take seriously God’s call to holiness, because that is God’s calling to you.
As the apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.