The Corinthian church is this very young church that is trying to find its footing and discover how to live lives that are faithful to Jesus in a very difficult context. Corinth, in the first century, was a tough place. It had a bad reputation as a corrupt city, deeply immersed in a pagan philosophy that was very far from God. And so Paul writes this very personal letter to the 50 or so disciples of Jesus who were the Church at Corinth. And like Paul always does, he writes to encourage these disciples about the importance of being completely devoted and obedient to Jesus. And at the heart of this letter is Paul’s foundational belief that followers of Jesus are called to a lifestyle of holiness.
In fact, holiness is how Paul characterizes the Identity of these disciples. Being born-again – holiness is their born identity. “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people…”
Holiness. I don’t know how often you’ve heard this word used. Or even if you know what holiness means. It’s a word that has probably gone out of style and out of use. But holiness is a word and the defining characteristic of what it means to follow Jesus. Holiness defines our rebirth as people of God and our identity in Christ. God is daily and constantly at work within us making us who he intends us to be; making us whole and complete; maturing in our ability to live as Jesus lived.
To the Corinthians Paul proclaimed without doubt, their identity – sanctified in Jesus and called to be a holy people – right in the place where they lived. They were to be like Jesus in a place that was often challenging and far from God.
What a real and practical connection for us. Holiness, as our identity – characterizes how you and I live right here and right now. We have the opportunity to live Jesus’ way in a community and with people who might be far from God.
John Wesley clearly envisioned what we as Methodist Christians could prioritize. He said, “The essence of Methodism is holiness of heart and life…By Methodists I mean a people who profess to pursue holiness of heart and life, inward and outward conformity in all things to the revealed will of God.”
Just as Paul was sure about the identity of the Corinthian Christians, Wesley was certain of the identity of Methodist Christians. Holiness is the hub of the wheel. Holiness is the driving force.
But if our identity is to be holy people; maturing in our ability to become like Jesus – how does it happen? How do we become holy? Do we do certain things? Does holiness mean that we try to look religious? Does holiness mean that we go to church; or small group; or that we serve? Does holiness mean that we don’t watch certain movies or don’t listen to a particular music? We can’t define holiness by and we can’t be holy by simply monitoring our actions or abstaining from things that look bad. Holiness does not begin in actions. Holiness begins in relationship with God and is then revealed in our living.
Holiness starts with God. Our holiness is defined by God’s holiness. Turn with me to Isaiah 6:2. This passage directly addresses the character of God. God is holy. Isaiah emphasizes that God is separate and above everything. There is nothing higher than God. To say that God is holy is to affirm that God is set apart – wholly other.
In 1Corinthians, Paul confirms to the church that they are called to be his holy people. This idea runs through Scripture – the call to live in an identity as a holy people separate from the values and life-styles that are far from God. Our born identity as people of God is an identity of separation. Not physical separation that moves us to hide away and have no interaction or connection. But a separation which causes us to say yes to God’s ways and no to the ways that cause brokenness, pain, injustice, hatred, discrimination and evil. Our separation is bound up in the holiness of God; we reflect, live in and become the holiness of God so that Jesus is seen in us.
I fear that often we are shaped more by the values of our culture than by the values of God. And our identity is compromised. So how can a lifestyle of holiness be realized?
Remember it all starts with God. If we are holy as God is holy we will be a people who are always open to the presence of God and constantly seeking and excited about the presence of God. A number of years ago, a woman in Kansas City walked into a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop. While waiting, she turned to find actor Paul Newman standing behind her! He was in town filming a movie and was now standing behind his biggest fan.
He smiled at her and said “hello.” She took one look at those legendary blue eyes and her knees almost buckled. Her heart was in her throat. She tried to speak, but not a sound came out. Mortified, she turned around, paid for her ice cream, then quickly walked out of the store. Outside, she sat down on a bench and caught her breath. As she calmed down, she realized she didn’t have her ice cream cone. She was debating walking back in to get it when Paul Newman walked out. “You looking for your ice cream cone?” he asked. Speechless again, she nodded. “You put it in your purse with your change.”
If you or I were to come face to face with a celebrity we admire, I imagine most of us would behave in much the same way. Are we just as excited about God? Are we longing to see God? God is constantly revealing himself – he is looking for people who will be present to him and aware of him. Seek God in places like prayer, Bible study, Communion, in Life Groups. You will see God! You will live into your identity. We will find God when we seek him.
And then, in the presence of God, our holiness is realized. In relationship with a holy God, our lives reflect God’s life. And we live in front of people a distinctive life – a life that resonates with God’s values and priorities.
We are re-born to be holy – it is the foundation of a life with God.