The Challenge of Holy Living

Jul 22nd  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  Colossians 3:12-17

One of the great challenges of faith – and matters of faith – is that like many other fields of endeavor, faith has its own vocabulary.  Last week, we talked about the very word faith and how some use the idea of belief when using the word.  An alternative, that makes faith a greater possibility, is trust.  Instead of believing in a set of doctrines and theological statements and arguments, and calling subscribing to those ideas and calling it faith, what if faith was about trust – trusting in God, trusting in the life Jesus came to live and demonstrate to us, trusting in the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, to guide us, strengthen us, and empower us to live as God calls us to live?  What if faith was about trusting in God instead of those other powers and authorities that tell us to trust in them?

 

One of the words of faith that challenges us, and even frightens us, is the word holy.  When we see, or hear, that word, we often hear that word as a synonym for sacred or divine.  That’s not at all wrong.  Whether you look at the ancient Hebrew, Greek, or even Latin, the words we translated as holy seem to mark something as sacred or divine.  The Holy Bible.  The holy saints.  Celebrating holy days.  We seem to be talking about something that is more tied to God than other things.

 

But, that word holy can also be translated as completely other or totally different.  The Bible is a book that is different from other books.  A saint is someone who lives their life differently from other people.  A holy day is different from others days because of what is being remembered and celebrated. 

 

And when we attached the word holy to living, a real challenge presents itself.  Most of the time, we will hear holy as perfect.  “Therefore, be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” we were taught from Matthew’s gospel. (5:48)  It was completely impossible, of course, because we were kids when we first heard it and had already assured our imperfection many times over and knew it.  Still, for many of us, perfection was held up as the goal of our lives.  We were expected to do it all just right and, if we failed (and they used the word if), God would most likely forgive us. 

 

So it was that the perfect and holy life was established as the unattainable goal.  We knew it was beyond our reach and capability.  Some of us still tried.  Others of us accepted their inevitable failure and lived as they please (which some of them continue to do to this day). 

 

Still, what if holy living wasn’t about perfect living, but other living?  What if holy living was about living in a way that is different from the way life tends to be lived by those around us?  What might that mean and what might that look like?

         

That’s where we are headed this morning.

 

When you look at the way we were called to live in the time of ancient Israel, we were called to be a holy people.  The mitzvoth – the commandments – were given to Israel by God to consecrate them – to set them apart – to mark them as different – among all the peoples of the earth.  The Ten Commandments – and the other 603 that interpret them – were given to set God’s people apart from the peoples they encountered and who sought to influence Israel to live in ways that were not God’s way.  This call to holy living was not intended to be a burden to us.  It was meant to be a source of blessing to us.  God was gifting us with a way of living into the fullness of the life God intended for us when God created us and blew into us the breath of life. 

 

The Book of Proverbs, from which we heard again this morning, is a collection of pithy, common sense sayings, that seeks to encapsulate in a few words the rich wisdom of God’s way.  They read like the little slips you find in fortune cookies.  They are that concise. 

          In our lesson for the day, we heard again:

          Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,

          when it is in your power to do it.

          Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,

          tomorrow I will give it” - when you have it with you.

          Do not plan harm against your neighbor

          who lives trustingly beside you.

          Do not quarrel with anyone without cause,

          when no harm has been done to you.

          Do not envy the violent and do not choose any of their ways;

          for the perverse are an abomination to the Lord,

          but the upright are in his confidence.

 

There’s nothing terribly “churchy” or “religious” sounding about any of that.  If it is in your power to do good for someone, do it.  If you have something that your neighbor needs, share it.  Don’t connive and make plans to harm your neighbor.  Don’t pick a fight with someone who has not harmed you.  Put away your envy of violent people and avoid living as they do at all cost. 

 

It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?  It sounds rational and reasonable, doesn’t it? 

 

It is a sensible and logical way of living, isn’t it? 

 

And yet, it is rare to find people living in that way these days.  Proverbs is offering us a glimpse of what the holy life might look like and we can think of the many ways we seen the unholy life lived out all around us every day.  Read those words from Proverbs again and ask yourself the question of how many times you see people living that way and how many times you see people living the complete antithesis of that life. 

 

God calls God’s people to an other life, a  different life, a holy life.

 

When you go to the passage from the Letter to the Colossians that we read this morning, you hear a more pointed and specific call to holy living.

 

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

 

As God’s chosen people – different, set apart, and unique – and dearly loved by God, live this new and holy life.  That’s how the instruction begins.  Because we are God’s people:

              we are to be people of compassion, not people of indifference,

              we are to be people of kindness, not people of ruthlessness,

              we are to be of patience, not people of intolerance.

 

Because we are God’s people, we are to bear with one another – that is, to hold on to one another, forgiving each other as freely as we have been forgiven by God.  Isn’t that what we pray when we say, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors?”  Because we are God’s people, we are to “clothe ourselves in love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Love is the perfect ideal.  In our world, justice is love made visible.  Because we are God’s people, we are to live in the wholeness and blessing of all that Jesus Christ brings and through our lives we  bring the blessing of Christ to the world.  Because we are God’s people, we are called to be thankful and not practice the ingratitude and thanklessness that are all too common in the world today.

 

This is what holy living looks like.  This is authentic life, not the counterfeit that passes for life that is so readily seen all around us.  This is the life that leads to living in harmony with the planet, with our neighbors, and with God.  This is the life Jesus Christ came to show us and lead us into.  This is the life that really is life.

 

 

Too many people think that holy living is all about memorizing Bible verses, going to church, and never having any fun.  Too many people think that holy living means a life that is dour, grim and gloomy, and devoid of joy.  Too many people think that if you are going to live a holy life, you need to check your brains at the door and believe things that are completely unbelievable.  Do you ever wonder where people get such ideas?

 

The holy life, to which all of us are called, isn’t easy.  It’s a challenge of the first order.  It’s much easier to simply slide into the life that is being lived all around us.  It’s much easier to practice prejudice, promote falsehoods, and pander to the powerful.  It’s much easier to hate than it is to love.  It is much easier to harbor hatred than it is to forgive.  It’s so much easier to want more and never give thanks for what is already ours.

 

Holy living is a challenge, but it is a challenge worth taking.  Holy living is authentic living that brings peace and joy to our hearts.  It makes us healthier.  It makes us more of what God intended us to be.

 

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

 

There is the challenge that leads to real life.  For now and evermore.  Amen.