WORDS MADE FLESH
Just as in the surrounding culture, words pass in and out of fashion in the Church. Two which have become as unfashionable as anaglypta wallpaper and patterned cardigans are sin and holiness. We use them in our liturgies of praise and confession, but it feels like they have become tamed and stranded in formal acts of worship. Sin is believed to be something only bad people do when they prey on others or undisciplined people do when they break diets. In other words, sin has been despatched to the margins of only the truly evil or the prosaically trivial. In an era where the search for self-esteem prohibits saying unpalatable things about ourselves, it is as if sin is not allowed to make public appearances other than under the strictest controls which Sunday services provide.
This trend is linked to the loss of a sense of the holiness of God. Scripture speaks of ‘the kindness and the severity of God’, but we easily lose interest half-way through that compelling phrase because it doesn’t fit with the kind of God we choose to believe in. People often ask why it was necessary for Jesus to die on the cross to atone for our sins, the inference being that God could surely have found an easier route to the same goal.
The belief that he had to die this way highlights how deeply our sin offends a holy God and how radical a solution his love had to find. Our sin could not be wished away by the waving of a magic wand. It could only be purged by the blood of sacrifice.
The constant refrain of scripture is ‘be holy, for I am holy’. In other words, God accepts us with a view to transforming us into his likeness. This is something I think we are struggling with today because the zeitgeist is about accepting ourselves as we are. Sometimes this creeps into our praise, where we thank God for accepting us and then end our prayers before he can ask us some awkward consequential questions. Personal holiness has been at the heart of all forms of Christian renewal in history: a willing embrace of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to change us from within. And it lies at the heart of our mission today.
Christians are called to live distinctive lives, where others might see the reality of God in the way they talk and act. This is the challenging goal we are set. We must not succumb to false humility as a way of disqualifying ourselves from this task (‘oh I’m not the holy sort!). Instead we should believe that God is the one who fills us, who both begins this work and brings it to completion, and that what he is looking for from us is willing co-operation. Despite its connotations, holiness is not other-worldly, it is evidenced in the kind words and practical thoughtfulness of a thousand weekly actions. The sinfulness and holiness we speak of in our confessions and collects are far more than the abstract nouns we have limited them to being.
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