Holiness: Personal Piety or Relational Integrity?

Delivered August 25, 2002 by Danny O’Brien
former Baltimore Area Director for Young Life, now Vice-President of Operations for Senior Campus Living (who also spoke at Central’s 2000 All-Church Retreat).

Theme: Holiness is not about personal piety; it’s about relational purity, relational integrity, relational passion, loving God and loving a world that desperately needs to know him. One person at a time.

Sermon Text:
Isaiah 6:1-8
and 1 Peter 1:13-16

I am reading from Isaiah 6 verses 1-8 if you want to follow along in your pew Bible it is on page 47.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

The New Testament reading is from 1 Peter1: 13-16 found on page 857 in your pew Bibles.

Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Please join me in prayer. Heavenly Father we ask for your blessing upon these next moments that we spend together as we open your Word, as we ponder what it means. Lord I ask you to open our hearts to what you would have for us and Lord that we all leave here we would leave as changed people having fallen more in love with you and with a greater capacity to love one another and understand what it means to be holy as you are holy. In Jesus name. Amen.

It’s a privilege to be back at Central among friends. In fact, I remember 15 years ago, my wife and I moved here to join the Young Life staff here in Baltimore and we moved here on a Saturday and the next Sunday morning we came to Central, the first church we visited and at the time in which you say hi to one another, as you all did a moment ago, we turned and said to somebody, “Hi, I am Danny O’Brien” and the woman said, “I was praying for you this morning.” I said, “That’s pretty good because I just rolled into town last night. How did you know I was in such need of prayer?” She said, “Well I am connected to Young Life and we got the newsletter and said that you were coming to town.” And from that moment for the last 15 years we have had a very warm place in our heart for Central and enjoyed speaking at the retreat a couple of years ago. I guess people forgot how painful that was and they invited me back.

We are going to talk this morning a little bit about what it means to be “Holy.” And I don’t know about you but that’s a hard word for me to identify with. What it means to be holy and I think that if there were two sentences and I could only agree with one and one is I am a sinner and the other is I am holy, it’s a lot easier for me to identify with the one I am a sinner, than it is for me to identify with the one that says I am holy. Now the reality is, both are true in our lives. We are sinners and through Christ we have been made holy, but I don’t know about you, and maybe you identify with that more readily than I, but that is a hard concept for me to identify with.

Over the last few weeks as I have been thinking about this idea of what it means to be Holy, I have done a few man on the street interviews. Not actual cold calls, but just asked people what do you think it means to be holy? And it is interesting that the picture that I get from most people is some kind of a monk. You know, when I asked, “What do you think it means to be Holy?” Well somebody who spends all of their time in prayer and reading the Bible and kind of set off by themselves. And I was even reading a book a few weeks ago on the history of Islam and the religious scholar who wrote the book said in their introduction and she comes from the Christian tradition, she says that basically to lead a truly religious life, which probably she would correlate with a holy life, the one in the Christian tradition needs to be sort of divorced from real life in order to lead a truly religious life. And I thought that was interesting. Now as I asked some people who weren’t connected to God necessarily or involved in any faith and you ask them what a holy person was, some of the answers I got were pretty negative. They would say somebody who thinks they are better than everyone else, or somebody who is sort of holier than thou or they are a holy roller and I thought wow that is really unfortunate that that word, which is such a great and powerful word would be misconstrued by people. And then I asked the real theologian in our family, my wife, what her definition of holiness is or what she thinks it means to be holy and she said, “to be like Jesus.” That’s a pretty good answer and I am trying to trick her still, I said then, “Okay well then what would a holy person do?” And she said, “Well I think they would do what Jesus did.” And I thought that was a pretty good answer.

You know what does it mean to be holy? This passage calls us to be holy, as God is holy. Well that’s a high calling and that’s a difficult calling and I would say this, that I think a misunderstanding of what it means to be holy has undermined the ministry of the church for generations and I think that we have missed the mark on what God’s definition of holiness is. Now what the word holiness means at its core, it to be separate or set apart and so in being holy we are called to separate and set apart. But I believe in many ways the church has separated itself in all the wrong ways and has become like the culture in which we live again in all the wrong ways. (You know there are some believers who would say that in order to be holy we must separate the sacred from the profane. If the people of God are sacred and about the things of God, then we need to be separated from the culture and really removed from the culture. So we set up our own sort of subculture of Christianity and create obstacles and barriers for those outside the faith to enter in and create sort of our own little holy huddle. Often times that holy huddle has its own set of rules that really have nothing to do with the way Jesus led his life. We say, well over here I don’t drink and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls who do. We’ve got a whole list of moral tenants that we decide are what it means to be holy and the key word there is what we decide what it means to be holy.

And there was a group in Jesus’ day that actually lived very much this way, although they really read the word and tried to follow it in many hourly ways and those were the Pharisees. In Luke, Chapter 18 it says this. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable. Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice per week and give a tenth of all I get. “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” ” I tell you that this man rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself, will be exhaulted.” See I think a lot of us would say those who say prayers and read the Bible and go to church services and fast and give, that would be a holy person. Well the Pharisees did all of those things in spades. They knew the scriptures. They prayed the prayers. They fasted. They gave. They attended services and Jesus railed on them, time and time again for the fact that they didn’t get it. And so this idea of separating ourselves and following the rules, I don’t think that is what it means to be holy.

Now there are other believers that some sort of separate themselves too much. There are other believers who say, well what we need to be, is we need to be just like the world and conform to the world in all the wrong ways and their lives are no different. I don’t know about you, but I vacation at the beach and I will tell our son, we have two sons 12 and 2 1/2 and we will tell our 12 year old to go out play in the surf, the 2 1/2 we keep a better eye on, and so the 12 year old will say he will swim between this lifeguard stand and this lifeguard stand and if we didn’t go out and get him sometimes, he would wind up in New Jersey. You know he goes out and he plays and he gets out there in the current and he drifts further and further up the shore, and he loses all track of where he is because he is just out in the surf enjoying himself and in the current. Well the current in our society is powerful as well and it’s not swimming in the same way that God wants us to swim and so in the same way that unless you keep your eyes fixed on a fixed object on the shore, you could easily get way out of range of where you would like to be. In the same way as believers, living in a culture whose value system is very different from Gods, if we don’t keep our eyes fixed on a fixed object, that being the Word of God, we can easily conform to the culture and wind up way out of bounds. Well, if we are not suppose to separate ourselves so far that we are disconnected from the world, or we are not suppose to assimilate so much, that we are just like the world, what does it mean to be holy? To be set apart?

You know it says this about Jesus. He was like us in all ways, but without sin. And if Jesus is the model, maybe that’s a model for us. I believe that there are ways that we are to be set apart and separate and distinct from the world and the first is in our identity. It says here in 1st Peter, Chapter 1 that we just read a moment ago, “Set your hope fully on the grace to be given to you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Set your hope fully. Now, for me the most difficult part about that sentence is the word fully. I would like to set my hope fully on the grace given to me when Jesus Christ is revealed and in many ways in my heart, I want to do that. When I am honest with myself, I set my hope on Jesus Christ and I also sort of hope that my 401k plan holds up. I set my hope on Jesus Christ, but I hope my company doesn’t go bankrupt. I set my hope on Jesus Christ, but I also want people to like me. I set my hope on Jesus Christ, but I also probably hope in a lot of other things that have no lasting value and frankly are not worthy of my hope. Maybe you don’t struggle with that as much as I, but what God calls us to do is to set our hope fully, to say that all of who I am is really wrapped up in this idea of my relationship with God and it is to set our hope on the grace given to us. Not to set my hope on my own ability to follow the rules, because frankly I don’t have a very good ability to follow the rules. I am not a very holy person when it comes to following the rules in and of myself, but I can set my hope on the grace given to me that I a sinner have been ushered into and invited into a relationship with the creator, who could help me live life the way it was intended to be lived.

Well that does not set me apart from everyone else who is out there in desperate need of God’s grace except for the fact that my identity is wrapped up in God. Part of that is also in 1st Peter, Chapter 2 it says this,

“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. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Part of what it means to have our identity wrapped up in this idea of being one of God’s people, is that we are part of a group of people, we are not just an individual. I think that American evangelical Christianity has focused too much on the individual and me and Jesus and have I asked Jesus in to my life as my personal savior. Now that is an important question to answer. But our relationship with God is not strictly vertical. There is a horizontal relationship as well, that we are part of the people of God and part of our identity is to be connected relationally to other believers. Paul said in 1st Corinthians, that we are the body of Christ. The hand cannot say to the eye, I don’t need you and the eye can’t say to the hand, I don’t need you. We need each other. We are connected to one another. The Bible knows nothing about a Christian by him or herself. Not to be gross or graphic, but a Christian by him or herself is like a horror film with like body parts laying everywhere. It’s not a pretty site. It’s not what we are called to. What we are called to is to be connected to other people in relationship, who are also connected to God. Our citizenship is not of this earth. Our citizenship is in heaven, but it doesn’t divorce us from relationships with other people. We are called to have a separate character. 1st Peter 1:14 says this, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you once lived in ignorance.” Romans 12 says, “Do not conform to this world, be transformed by the renewing of your mind that you might prove what God’s will is.” As I shared a moment ago, this world is easy for us to conform, for us to drift along with the culture. But God calls us to have a separate value system and it’s his value system.

You know the world’s value system is this. Look out for yourself. Look out for number one. If you don’t look out for yourself, no one else does. We need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and kind of be rugged individualists. It also says this, very often that we are to use people and love things. God’s value system is, we love people and use things. In fact, all the law and all the prophets, would you agree that’s God value system? All the law and all the prophets? Well someone came to Jesus one time and said, “Good teacher, what’s the greatest commandment?” He said, “Well, the greatest commandment is this, Love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And the second is like it, Love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commands hang all the law and all the prophets. This entire book right here, the entire council of God’s word can be summed up in those two commands. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. God’s value system is about relationships. I think it is very difficult to love people and not relate to them. You know if I said to my wife, “Honey, I love you, but I am not going to spend any time with you or relate with you.” Well on one hand, she might be relieved, but I think in a greater sense she would find that unfulfilling. I think she wants a relationship and I want one with her. A connection. We can’t love one another and be disconnected from one another.

Now I say that all the laws and all the prophets mean love God and love your neighbor, I am not saying don’t read this book. There is a lot of detail there that you might be interested in and I know God’s interested in. But it all comes down to relational terms. God’s value system is all about relationships and I think what we have done as believers often times, that we have said that holiness and character is about following the rules, not about relationships. But the interesting thing is that in many churches we actually create different lists of rules or we create a hierarchy of rules and we say that some sins are worse than others and so people who struggle with some sin, have great difficult finding grace from a church and people who struggle with other sins, are accepted warmly. Someone who struggles with the sin of homosexuality has a great difficulty in finding a church in which they can find grace and love and connection. Yet an unrepentant gossip is often welcomed warmly. And so we create a hierarchy of sins and say some are worse than others. So we create distinctions that are not God’s distinctions, but our distinctions.

You know Jesus was like us in every way, but without sin. But with whom did he spend his time. There were the Pharisees who did all they could do to follow the rules and he railed on them. Jesus spent his time with prostitutes, with tax collectors, with sinners. He was accused of being a gluten and a drunkard, because it was guilt by association. The people that he spent time with were not religious and the religious people were appalled at the fact that Jesus would spend his time with these people who are so far from the faith, that they thought that he must unfaithful himself, that he must be unholy. Well if Jesus is our model of holiness, shouldn’t we be spending time with those very people that he did? In fact, wouldn’t it be fantastic if other churches in town criticized Central Presbyterian Church for being a place that had all of these sinners? The sinners felt comfortable there. I think that would be a church that Jesus would like to go to and be part of. So our character is not one of setting up lists of rules and following those, but it’s relationship. Loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Third is this. We do have a separate calling. We saw in Isaiah a moment ago that Isaiah saw God. He saw God in the heavenly range and he saw these six winged seraphs flying around and the whole heavenly host singing Holy, Holy, Holy. And in Hebrew repetition is emphasis and triple repetition is ultimate emphasis, so here is the holiest being that could ever live, God almighty and Isaiah saw him. And when Isaiah saw the show, he didn’t say, “This show is awesome. I would just like to move in right here. Let’s make some popcorn. This is great.” He didn’t say that. He said, “Woe to me, for I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” He saw God in his holiness and he became aware of his own sin. And it’s interesting in Isaiah; Chapter 5 his attitude was very different. Before he saw God here is what he had to say, Chapter 5, verse 8 “Woe to you who had house to house and joined field to field until there is no space left and you live alone in the land.” Verse 11. “Woe to you who rise early in the morning and run after drinks and stay up at night until you are inflamed with wine.” In Verse 18, “Woe to you who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness, this cart with ropes.” In Verse 20, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil and put darkness for light and light for darkness.” Verse 21, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes.” Verse 22, “Woe to those who are heroes and champions of drinking wine.” See, in Verse 5 before he sees God it is woe to you, you wicked person. Woe to you who don’t follow the rules. Woe to you who do all of those things. And then he sees God and it’s woe to me! Woe to me! Because I am a sinner. You know it’s interesting God didn’t say, “Yeah, that’s right. Woe to you pal, see ya.” He didn’t say that. He forgave him. He took coal from the fire and touched his lips and forgave him for all of the venom that he spewed and then God said, “Who will go for me. Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah says, “Here am I. Send me.” And he went out to be God’s vehicle. To be God’s ambassador to the world that desperately knew him and it’s just like Peter.

Remember Peter in Luke, Chapter 5. He gets in Jesus’ boat and Jesus gets in Peter’s boat and Jesus says, “Peter, let’s go out and catch some fish.” And Peter says, “Master, we have worked hard all night. We haven’t caught a thing, but because you say so we will.” They go out, they put down the nets, and the nets fill up with fish to the point where the boats are almost sinking. Peter doesn’t say, “Hey Jesus, this is fantastic. Can we go fishing tomorrow? You are really a good fisherman.” He didn’t say, “Jesus this is great. Can you join our fishing business? We are going to become millionaires.” He said, “Jesus depart from me for I am a sinful man.” When he saw God in his presence, Peter became aware of his own unrighteousness. He said, “Depart from me.” But Jesus didn’t say, “Yeah you are a sinner. Go jump in the water.” He said, “No, no. From now on you will catch men.” And he gave Peter forgiveness and a calling. You see one thing that is different from the world. The world lives for themselves. We live for a calling. We live for others and that calling is a calling to people. He said to Isaiah, “Who will go for us.” It’s go to the people. Isaiah said, “Here am I.” Jesus said to Peter, “From now on, you will catch men.” And our lives can be about something bigger than just accumulating; something bigger than just living for ourselves, but it can be about changing the eternal destiny of people by introducing them to their savior.

Now what does it mean to be holy? Two keys. The first is this. We must encounter God if we want to be holy people. We are called to be holy. The only way we can become holy is to see God for who he is. And I would say this; I don’t think God cares one bit if we say prayers. I think he loves it when we go to him authentically and open our hearts to him in prayer to encounter him. I don’t think God cares if we memorize the Bible. I think he loves it when we believe that this is God’s word, living and active and we open its pages believing that we will be transformed by the truth, by encountering God in the scriptures. I don’t think God cares if we fast. I think he loves it when we deny ourselves that we might experience him. I don’t think God cares if we give. The elders of the church might care, but I don’t think God cares. I think he does love it when we give of our money and we say God this money isn’t mine, it’s yours. It didn’t come from my effort; it was a gift from you. I don’t trust money, I trust you. And we give of our resources that we might experience God. The spiritual disciplines are not an end, they are a means. The Pharisees practiced the spiritual disciplines and they missed God. What God wants is for us to encounter him and the spiritual disciplines are a great means of encountering God when we go with a heart that wants to encounter God and not just pump up our own righteousness.

The second key I think to what it means to be holy is this. That we would see all of life in relational terms. Everything that God is about, is in relationship. That we would love God with all of or heart, mind, soul and strength. That we would love our neighbor as ourselves. Even that neighbor that we can’t stand, even that neighbor whose lifestyle appalls us, even that neighbor that is very different from the way that we are, those people who are hard to love. You know there is a passage in scripture that I think is difficult for especially American evangelicals to reconcile and it’s Matthew 25 and it is one that is familiar and it says this, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from anotheras a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” At the end of the day when all is said and done, Jesus is going to call everyone together and he is going to separate them and those who are called into eternal glory and the inheritance with God forever, and those who will be separated from God forever and that separation is not based on who has prayed a specific prayer or not, this is not what this says.

What it says then the King will say to those on his right, “come you who are blessed by my Father and take your inheritance. The kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world, for when I was hungry you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.” And then righteous will answer him, “Lord when did we see you hungry, and feed you, or you thirsty and we gave you something to drink. When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?” The king replied and you know the words, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” You see unless our theology finds its way into our activity, it has no power and it’s not real. What does it mean to be holy? It means to love God and it means to love people. Jesus said by this all men will know that you are my disciples. By the size of the Bible you carry around? No. By the bumper sticker on the car? No. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, by the way you love one another.

One final warning in 2nd Timothy, Chapter 3 it says this and I will ask you, do you think these words describe our society today? It says,

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self- control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”

Does that sound like our society today at all? I think it is a pretty good description. And then it says this. “Having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.” I would pray that it would never be true about me that I would only have a form of godliness, that my relationship with God would be reduced to religious activity. I would pray that I would have a relationship with God that is alive, in which I am encountering Him and being transformed by Him, that I am loving Him with my whole heart, mind, soul and strength and that compels me to love other people and when God says, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” That I would say, “Here am I. Send me to be engaged with other people.” See holiness is not about personal piety; it’s about relational purity, relational integrity, relational passion, loving God and loving a world that desperately needs to know him. One person at a time.

Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, your word calls us to be holy as you are holy. It can only happen as your Spirit works within us to transform us, that your value system might become ours, that your identity might becomes ours and that your calling might be fulfilled in our lives as you intended. Help us Lord to encounter you every day and to see our lives in relational terms, that we might be a lover, a lover of you and a lover of your people. In Jesus name. Amen.