A Sermon On The Holiness Tradition

It’s weird to do a sermon on a tradition.  When we speak about tradition it’s normally about the sacred cows that we can’t touch or about the things that we have gotten over and no longer care about.  Rarely do we touch upon traditions from a balanced perspective, refuse to throw out babies with bathwater and immerse ourselves in history to understand best what we can learn.

I grew up in the charismatic tradition (which is closely tied to the holiness tradition and evangelical one), was enthralled by the social justice and incarnational tradition, and now I find myself deeply connecting with contemplative and mystic traditions.  All of them have deep roots with beautiful starting points.  Almost all of them also have problematic manifestations that don’t represent their pasts.  So our hope in looking at these traditions is to separate the wheat from the weeds.  But it’s also to explore our own faith now and have the tools to give it more life and substance.

In the 1700s, there was a guy named John Wesley.  This guy was an Anglican cleric and theologian.  Many of the great movements of Christianity came from John Wesley and the way he challenged  the status quo of the time.

Preaching outside to the working class created mass movements throughout England in which he rebelled against the Anglican tradition of ordaining only specific people and just started ordaining lay people to preach the gospel.  Because of his quick thinking and flexibility in who he deemed worthy to preach the gospel, the movements picked up a lot of steam and thousands of people came to know Jesus across England.  There are many things that we can attribute to John Wesley.  Namely the holiness tradition was deeply lived and proclaimed from John and that’s what we are going to dive into this morning.

I grew up in a tradition that taught that the word holiness meant to “be separate” which was interpreted to mean all sorts of things.  Primarily it meant for us that we weren’t supposed to be “unequally yoked with unbelievers,” which meant that we shouldn’t get too close with non-Christians because we are to be set apart.  It also meant that Christians were supposed to look different and be morally superior.  So this meant for us that we didn’t drink, smoke, swear, dance, go to movies, masturbate and a slew of other cultural moral obligations.  So the idea of the holiness tradition really may be a trigger.  It certainly was for John when he was going to have to do it as he told me he was glad that I took it on.  This was the first issue I took with the idea of holiness.  

The second thing that bothered me about the idea of Holiness was the individualism that it promoted.  There was this idea that God really wanted us to be morally perfect, and that was very much determined by cultural morality that was passed down.  The amount of guilt that many of us felt for failing to live morally perfect lives was very suffocating and was difficult to deal with as individuals.  Holiness for Wesley was very much shaped towards the church and it’s engagement with the people around them – not simply an individual’s choices to participate in specific activities or not.

However, the more I understood the Holiness roots, the more I started to grow a great respect for what it was.  The Wesleyans have always tied holiness to love.  A love that was manifested through the body of Christ that was proclaimed through loving acts to the world around them.  Love is an idea I can get behind.

God is love—love lived out through the power of the Holy Spirit in a community of gifted individuals playing one musical piece in different parts, a holy symphony. Holiness is life lived by people in the fullness of the Holy Spirit who are empowered to offer a drastic alternative to the world around them. Love is the melody running through the community, underneath the community, and all around the community. The Christian community is not a place of jarring instruments singing different songs, or a place of gossip, conflict, rejection, pain, strife, and hatred. It is a place where the Spirit’s fruit is present in abundance, so much so that the world around the Christian community can’t help but join the melody. It is a community that is so unified, so melodious, so beautiful that it stops others in their tracks. Those on the outside can’t help but peer in, and watch with awe and wonder, and notice the unity of the symphony. Instead of the emphasis being on the solo Christian striving to live a holy life, it is on a holy people,  a symphony. It is a collection of individuals all uniquely gifted, sometimes polarizing opposites, yet unified in the same symphony.

– Tara Beth Leach

The Holiness tradition begins with the basic idea that God is love, and because we acknowledge and embrace that love from God, that we cannot help but love God and everyone and everything in return.  Everything from this tradition is based on this basic concept.  

We love because he first loved us.

– 1 John 4:19

This idea I think is a really powerful one.  Imagine, that our lives are so fixed on perfect love that all of our life is completely absorbed into this love.  This is what Wesley defined as holiness in his writing called “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.”  When you are fully fixed on God (“perfect love”) then the direction that your life has taken is one of perfection.  The Christian term for this direction towards perfect love is called sanctification.   This emphasis on sanctification became the hallmark of Wesley’s movement. He often said that the mission of Methodism was to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.”

The verse that is referred to often is:

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

– Matthew 5:48

But the word perfect here translates to mean “wanting nothing necessary to completeness.”  It’s the same word that Jesus uses to the rich man when he tells him to go sell all his possessions.  If you want to be complete and need nothing else, then give away everything that is confusing you and making you think you need that thing in order to be complete.

Q: When you hear words like holiness, sanctification, perfection what do you think?  Do you have a positive reaction to these ideas or a negative one?  Has seeing how these terms came about through Wesley given you a different perspective on them?

Now, like I said, like every movement, it starts to get complicated.  This complication is one we would be very familiar with.  Whenever there is an ethic, or a direction set, there is this desire to achieve it.  If the God of the universe expects something from you, then you want to be extra sure that you do that thing.

So, for instance, let’s look at the Hebrew Bible, and the command that God gives to the people of Israel that they should keep the Sabbath holy.  It’s clarified a bit.  Keep it holy by not working. Rest instead.  Well it’s important to make sure we define what work is and what rest is.  So we create a nice long document outlining what this looks like.  You can sweep your floors at your home, but you can’t do it as a job at your employer’s house.  You can watch a movie at home, but you can’t go to the theatre because it employs people which means you are aiding someone else breaking the law.  The list goes on.  You want to really focus on the fine print of what this means to make sure that you don’t break God’s command.

There is another fascinating thing that we do with commands.  Let’s say that God gives a command that you cannot go into the Temple on Saturdays.  Everyone says OK.  Let’s put a fence around the Temple, about around the perimeter of all the temple grounds, just to make sure no one goes in it.  Now what ends up happening here is that everyone says “don’t go past that fence, it’s meant to stop you from going into the temple.”  This is just an illustration to show how we build commands on top of each other in order to best serve the first command but then we act as if the consequences to the second tier command that we made up is the same thing as the consequences to the first tier.  We really do this with everything.  Even our modern justice system is just law after law stacked on top of each other, all as important as the one before it.

So it makes sense that a movement like Jesus’ or Wesley’s that is focused primarily on love turns into a whole bunch of rules that become just as important.  Don’t drink.  Don’t swear.  Etc.

And slowly over time, this is what the holiness tradition turned into.  Wesley warned against the dangers of alcohol abuse in his famous sermon on the Use of Money and then following his lead, Methodist churches became pioneers in the Temperance movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.

And this is a great example of what we need to be mindful of in every tradition.  This is what Paul speaks about over and over again in being dead to the law and alive in Christ.  For Paul it was about leaving the law behind, and allowing the Spirit (of the law) to guide our steps forward.  

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

– Romans 8:2

It is the Spirit of all these traditions that are beautiful and all of these traditions have strayed from their original intent.  But this is the nature of all things.  We respect traditions because of their intent and how their intent applies to us today.  We don’t respect them necessarily because of how it’s applied for everyone else.  Holiness (perfect love) to a 21st century white family in Sarnia, ON is going to look drastically different to holiness to the black woman in the 19th century.

Q:  What kind of risks does it open us up to to only focus on the “Spirit of the law” rather than the “letter of the law?”  What are the benefits of keeping to the letter of the law?  What about for raising children?

Focusing on holiness, or perfect, or perfect love, for Wesley was deeply tied to his understanding of life’s purpose and meaning.  For Wesley, true happiness and contentment came through the journey towards this ultimate state of being.  A True Christian was marked by two inseparable qualities: holiness and happiness.

Wesley taught that True Christianity fulfilled all of a person’s deepest, truest desires, making the Christian a happier, more productive person. When pressed to define “the character of a Methodist,” he answered, “God is the joy of [the Methodist’s] heart. … He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy, as having in him ‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life’, and ‘overflowing his soul with peace and joy.”

And so this is what I think we can take from the Holiness Tradition.  Let us be a community that strives to be so full of perfect love that we can truly experience the joy/contentment that is available to us through Christ. 

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