March 13, 2022

Paths of Christian Spirituality: The Holiness Tradition (Lent Sermons Series)

The Second of six Lent sermons explores the heart-tradition of Holiness, marrying an inner life with God, to an outer life of growing towards perfection.

James 3:13-18; Luke 14:25-33

In a week where some Western politicians have been beginning to publicly ponder whether the assassination of Vladimir Putin would be a just, if not moral, act, I want to take our thoughts back to the Second World War, when a similar decision was reached in regard to Adolf Hitler, not by an American Senator, nor by a Allied General, but by a Christian pastor considering how best to live a life of holiness in the midst of the evils of war.

His name, if you have not heard it before, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a theologian and pastor, one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century. He was part of the so-called “Confessing Church”, the Protestant rump who had refused to compromise with Nazism, because they saw it as an enemy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1937 he had written a famous book – still a spiritual classic today – called The Cost of Discipleship in which he criticised what he called “cheap grace” , a form of going-through-the-motions substitute for Christianity, with all the blessings and none of the sacrifice and cross-carrying that following Jesus Christ demands, and which he saw abundantly among his fellow Christians who aligned themselves with National Socialism and which, without doubt, he would seen alive and kicking in Western Christian churches today, although our compromise is probably with capitalism and consumerism, allegiance to which is destroying the climate among many other of its darker consequences.

For Bonhoeffer, being a disciple, being holy, had this world, practical consequences. He had joined German military intelligence as an agent in 1941, which was a centre of opposition in the army to Hitler and was therefore implicated in the famous von Stauffenberg plot, which nearly killed the Fuhrer in his Prussian bunker with a bomb in July 1944. Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed on 9th April 1945, just weeks before the Nazi surrender.

All of this seems a long way from the video we’ve just watched, and the invitation to try not to speak negatively of anyone for just one day a week. But the tradition of Christian living and spirituality which is our subject today, the Holiness tradition, invites us to draw a straight line between the thoughts and focus of our hearts, our inner compass which Jesus invites us to direct towards him, and the outward consequences of our actions, whether that be trying to fulfil a Lenten discipline in order to grow closer to God, or acting in such as way as to learn to think and act graciously and compassionately towards others as we saw in the video, or – at the most extreme – deciding that it is a moral necessity that a murderous tyrant be disposed of, in order that the suffering of millions might be spared.

So let’s start not with assassinations but with chocolate and booze. I know that many of you try and give up things for Lent. But the Holiness tradition asks a pretty fundamental question of you and me about these sorts of things. Why are you doing it? Don’t for a minute think that it’s anything particularly Christian to spend a few weeks away from booze or chocolate; instead, let’s ask ourselves what the motivation for such a decision is. Is it to shed a few pounds or to save a few quid? Or is it because your heart tells you that a particular habit had a tendency to draw you away from the things of God or the priorities of the Gospel and that, by learning to do without these things, we are training ourselves in some way to learn to rely on God a little more, or to make ourselves more available to do the work of God in the world? This is the core of the Holiness Tradition of Christian faith – that our hearts and our actions need to be aligned to the holy work of God that we see in Jesus Christ and which the Scriptures tell us is the lifelong work of God in the life of the believer from the moment of faith to the moment of death. We can spend this Lent thinking we have done pretty well if we are a few pounds lighter or feel a bit healthier at Easter (assuming we don’t go straight back to our old habits), but if we have not grown closer to our holy God and the way of Jesus Christ then it’s really not worth the effort. It is, Bonhoeffer might say, another example of cheap grace.

A biblical example of this Christian perspective can be found in the small letter of James which is sometimes criticised as being very Jesus-lite by some theologians. But, even in this short passage we had read today, we can see the connection between living a good life, a godly life, and the training of our hearts to focus on Christ. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

I don’t know about you but I’m really prone to settling for less than the ideal. And that can just as much go for what God promises and desires for us. We can easily fall into the trap of assuming that being a Christian is a path to self-improvement, a way of helping us be a little bit better, a little less irritable, a bit more prone to charitable acts, or even an escape from addiction. All of which are fine but which fails to understand that God is not seeking to improve us but to transform us. This is the way to understand Jesus’s pretty uncompromising words in our Gospel reading today, words about hating “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself”, which we may find deeply offensive; or the direct way in which Jesus says that we cannot be his disciple if we don’t give up all our possessions. The Holiness tradition of Christian spirituality takes the idea of Christian perfection utterly seriously, takes God at God’s word about “being perfect”. C. S. Lewis puts it like this, “The goal towards which God is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal.”

Now you might have started to feel that this tradition of Christian living is not for you, that it’s for the super-Christians, and there has always been a risk that those who take holiness seriously can become a bit super-spiritual and sneering of the efforts of others. But the call to be holy, and to allow what we believe about the way in which knowing God in Jesus Christ to shape every aspect of our living, including the bits we hoard back, is the call to every person who walks the way of Jesus. I can remember the moment this tradition first grasped my heart and convictions as a young Christian. I read a Lent book about the Cross and, in its pages discovered the extent in which Jesus had suffered for me. Holiness is always personal you see. The tradition invites you to see that Jesus didn’t just die for the sins of the whole world, he died for your sins, he offered his life in your place and mine. And, faced with such deep spiritual and emotional revelation, that Jesus had died for Simon Butler, in my place, my heart was profoundly touched. What could I do but to offer my own life in return? What could I do to show my love for Jesus Christ, just as he had shown his love for me? This is the basic question that the Holiness tradition asks us all, new Christian, died-in-the-wool Anglican, and the cynic who sees Christians as always failing to live up to their Master’s example? Friends, that cynic is onto something. Take the accusation of hypocrisy to hear. For it is the voice of the Spirit addressed to the believer.

And then, the 64,000 dollar question: how on earth to grow in holiness, towards perfection, and away from hypocrisy. Two insights from within the Holiness tradition.

The first is practice. Examine your heart, compare your living to the Jesus you read about in the Bible and the way in which Christian saints whose example you admire, as I admire Bonhoeffer, have sought to live out their faith. You will find that they take seriously the regular practice of the disciplines of the Christian faith, perhaps most of all, reading the Bible, prayer and regular self-examination. And you will also discover that the result of spending time asking ourselves how we measure up when we compare ourselves to Jesus and his saints, often results in seeing that these people regularly practice what they see, and make serious attempts to grow and change through sincere and regular attempts to change their lives through cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to change and to become more like Jesus Christ. Perhaps, so early in Lent, there’s time to take a different tack: to step away from those Lent disciplines that you know are really all about becoming a better version of yourself, and embracing ones that will enable you to be more like Jesus. Focus on your heart say the great Puritan teachers, some of the most sincere representatives of the Holiness tradition. It is when our heart changes, by the prompting of God and the strengthening of our wills, that our actions will change and our priorities shift.

Which leads to the second, and undoubtedly more fundamental insight about how we as Christians become more holy. And that is through Love. At the heart of everyone who has ever encountered the heart of God, whether by glimpse or overflowing flood, is the experience of knowing themselves loved by God. This, says the Holiness tradition, is the key thing of all, the thing that gives us the power to change and be changed: to know oneself loved by God. Famously, the greatest of all Holiness Anglicans, John Wesley, had his heart “strangely warmed” at a meeting in Aldersgate Street in May 1748. Up to that point, his religion had been sincere, genuine and rigorous but always came with a sense of failure and guilt. But through knowing himself loved by God, Wesley found the power of God which not just changed his own heart but gave him the power to change his life. Like all of us, after that moment, he had his setbacks and doubts, but it was the moment at which he discovered the true route to holiness, which is through living out of a sense that God loves us in Jesus Christ from the bottom of God’s heart. As his hymn-writing brother Charles put it, articulating a key insight into the Holiness tradition I invite you to explore and ponder today, “Finish, then, thy new creation; true and spotless let us be. Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee.”

Attend to your hearts brothers and sisters. Make space in them for God. Allow him to occupy them as God’s throne. And live your lives for Christ accordingly. Amen.


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