Marked Out: Holy

Colossians 3:1–11; Ephesians 5:18–33; Matthew 5:13–16

The Trouble with Holiness
Just this last week, Angela and I (…) along with about forty others took a bus trip to explore the quaint Civil War town of Gettysburg. The town itself is really quite nice. On average the town has about eight thousand residents that live there year round, but over the course of the year they receive between a million and million and a half tourists who come to their town. Why do people come to the town after all of these years?
I think part of the answer to that question is that on this land so many lives were lost. It is estimated that in the course of the three-day battle that over fifty thousand people were either killed, wounded, or captured. It was one of the bloodiest battles to have ever been fought up until that point.
A few months later in November of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg and dedicated a portion of the region to be a cemetery for the fallen Union soldiers that fought in the battle. In what has become one of the most famous speeches in history, the Gettysburg address, Lincoln named the area on which this cemetery was consecrated as “hallowed ground.”
As we learned recently during our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, to be “hallowed” is to be set aside from common use to holy purposes. So, as the United States government estimated it, the land for the National Cemetery in Gettysburg was holy because it was being taken out of common use. It was no longer going to be used for farms or fairs, picnics or playing, but was now to serve as the final resting place for the honored dead of this most bloody of Civil War battles.
And, if we think about it, we sometimes have a problem with the idea of holiness. As I am wont to say, the church by and large has confused this aspect of holiness with legalism on the one hand or perhaps narrowly defined holiness in terms of a list of behaviors one should avoid. (…)
But true holiness is more than that. First, holiness is an attribute of God. Holiness is the very aspect about God that makes God distinct from the rest of Creation. God has created this wonderful universe we can see and observe but God is also distinct from it. God inhabits and fills all of this world but also exists and has always existed as distinct from what God created. That’s sometimes tough to wrap our heads around, but it is an important distinction.
And secondly, holiness is also a state of moral righteousness as well. In God there is no darkness at all. All that God does is by definition holy and if we want to see what the moral aspect of holiness looks like, we only need to turn toward Scripture and observe how God is portrayed in its pages.
The Church’s Holiness
But, if you remember from two weeks ago now, we learned that one of the earliest creeds of the church, the Nicene Creed, has in its article on the church the following statement: “I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”
In the Creed then, the holiness of God is somehow transferred onto the church. We talked in our last sermon about just who the church is, the body of Christ called out of every nation, tribe, and tongue united around the confession that Jesus is Lord. The Church unites around the creeds and confessions to proclaim her unity in the face of a divisive culture.
But in what way can we say the church is holy? I mean let’s be honest. The church as an institution is in serious decline. Numerically, the number of people who claim to be Christian is dropping every year in the USA. The number of people who are members of churches is dropping as well.
And morally…well, the church is not doing too well either, is it. Charges of rampant sexual abuse by clergy has made the news. Why, even in our own United Methodist church we can’t escape from the taint of sin, can we. We all know our church is divided over issues today. But that pails in comparison to the horrible abuses that some of our clergy and laity have committed. At one local Lebanon church just a few years ago a pastor was found to have murdered not just one wife, but likely two of his wives. At another church in our district, a pastor was found in possession of child pornography. But it’s not just the clergy we need to be worried about. No, one of the lay members of our conference was arrested at our Annual Conference session for assault—at a church conference no less.
How in God’s name with things going on like that—things like murder, sexual corruption, and violence against fellow Christians can we ever dare pair the words “Holy” and “Church?”
I have to admit that when I first heard about all of these things, my first reaction was to be made sick to my stomach. I am connected by degrees to all of these churches. The church with the murderous pastor was later served by a friend of mine, and the church with the pedophile pastor was served by another friend of mine. This wasn’t something I heard second-hand in a book, it is something my friends have had to deal with personally in their ministry.
And, if we were looking for moral perfection as some sort of standard for the holiness of the church, I would have to admit that there are no churches that fit that bill. The church is full of filth, sin, and shame—today, as it was since the beginning. Famously, St. Augustine was known to say something like this: “The church is not a museum for the saints, but a hospital for the sick.”
We are all a little sick in terms of sin, if we dare admit it. We all have our failings. Some are quite visible others silent—but deadly.
The only difference between a sinner and a saint is quite simple actually. The only difference between a sinner and a saint is the acknowledgement of that sin and a desire to turn from it.
Famously, John Wesley only asked one question of people who professed interest in becoming a Methodist. He merely asked, “Do you wish to flee from the wrath to come?” In other words, do you wish to turn now from your sin before the consequences overtake your life? Do you wish to avoid harming others, doing harm to yourself, and degrading society? Do you instead wish to be a force for good?
Two Types of Holiness: Moral and Positional
And so as we briefly review our Scripture for today, we’ll see that there are two dimensions to the holiness of the church that run parallel to each other.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we see the first aspect of holiness, which is more familiar to us, that is moral holiness. Moral holiness is imitating God’s perfection by turning away from the ways of darkness and seeking to walk in the light.
In this passage we find the following:
Colossians 3:5–10 NASB 2020
Therefore, treat the parts of your earthly body as dead to sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, rid yourselves of all of them: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you stripped off the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created it—
That’s a startling image isn’t it? Putting to death parts of our physical body—or at least those parts of us that are prone to sin. And when you look at these things—almost all of these things have a common thread working in them, don’t they? They have the common thread that they break community—they break the peace that should exist among people, particularly among the people of God.
And so, from one standpoint then, the church is the body of Christ who all desire to turn away from those practices and attitudes that break community, shatter relationships, and alienate people one from another.
From another standpoint, the church is the body of those who are being remade—remodeled from the image of worldiness into the image of the Creator himself, Jesus Christ. (…)
But in our other passage from Paul this morning we learn another aspect of the church’s holiness, her positional holiness. And by positional holiness I mean the church’s holiness as it related to her head, Jesus Christ.
Now, this passage from Ephesians 5 has been used as a bludgeon against women in particular in an abusive manner for centuries by men seeking power. They extract from this passage the command in Ephesians 5:22 for wives to be subject or submit to their husbands and use it as a billy club to force women into a subservient role.
I think Paul would be mortified about how we have used this verse. Because in the context the entire passage from Ephesians 5:18 to to 5:33 is all about the relationship of Jesus to the Church. The other relationships mentioned there are really illustrations and applications of how that is to be lived out.
Let me explain: First, the passage does really begin in verse 18. It tells us how to be filled with the Spirit, to walk in the Holy Spirit as Christians…and then Paul drops the hammer in verse 21:
Ephesians 5:21 NASB 2020
and subject yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.
Subject yourselves---one to another—in the fear of Christ.
How can we ever take this statement of mutual submission and ever twist it to be one sided is beyond me…but I know how many pastors get around it, the simply cut out verse 21 and start at 22. Then it can sound not only patriarchal but like the Bible sanctions it. That is why a text without a context is a pretext to make it say anything you want.
So, if this passage isn’t all about wives submitting to husbands unilaterally (which it isn’t), then what is it about?
Well, it is about a marriage but not of earthly origins. It is about the marriage of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. In Christ divinity meets humanity in one Person.
And Jesus’ people, the Church are often referred to as the Bride of Christ to be presented before God without spot or wrinkle or any defiling mark.
In other words, the church becomes holy because her head, Jesus Christ is holy. We are holy in a positional way because Jesus, being true God is holy and we are united with him.
Living it Out
But how do we live this out? How do we in the face of rampant immorality even in our own ranks live out this holiness?
First we cannot do it as the morality police.
Secondly, we cannot do it as an isolate group that retreats from the world.
We function as a battlefield hospital.
We gather around word and sacrament each moving on to perfection. One body with many parts.
We are holy because Christ is Holy but we are called to be salt and light in the world. Salt is a purifier and light exposes evil. The church does this by first using its implements on itself before it helps others. Amen.