April 24, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
After his wife died, C.S. Lewis once wrote that he thought that his grief might be less if he intentionally avoided the places he and his wife Joy had frequented by limiting his travels to only those places where they had never been together. So he switched grocery stores, tried different restaurants, walked only along streets and paths that he and Joy had never taken. But it didn’t work. To paraphrase Lewis, “I found out that grief is like the sky above—it is over everything.”
The two travelers in Luke 24 seem to think that by getting out of Dodge maybe they, too, could walk away from their grief, leave the bad memories of the previous Friday behind. Jerusalem had become like an empty house from which all the children had gone. It was haunted with memories. It was haunted by hope deferred. Jerusalem was the place where their dreams had died. It was more than high time to hit the road and see if they could leave their troubles behind.
As Frederick Buechner asked in his classic sermon on this text, where is your “Emmaus?” We all have one.
Maybe it’s the mall where the noise of commerce and the rush of people keep you from thinking about life. Maybe it’s a bar where the booze and the beer nuts help numb you to the more bitter truths that swirl outside the windows of that darkened, smoky room. Maybe it’s a matinee at the movies where you go to take in what Hollywood proudly touts as “escapist fare.” Maybe it’s the TV remote that takes you away from it all as you mindlessly channel surf every single evening. We try to escape our troubles. That’s when we head to Emmaus. Maybe we can escape our grief and troubles.
Of course, it doesn’t work now and it did not work very well then. Grief is like the sky . . .
The two followers of Jesus thought Emmaus maybe would be the place to go but as they trekked that way their conversation kept circling back and back and back again to the death of the One they had loved, the One in whom they had hoped. Had hoped. What a wretched pluperfect that is.
In fact they were talking about all that—failing singularly to forget their troubles, in other words—when the clueless stranger came up to them. “Shalom! What’s up, friends?” The question catches them up short. After all, doesn’t everybody know the latest?! “Where have you been, friend” they ask. “You must be the only one in the whole county who hasn’t heard about the recent disaster!”
It is probably a sign of the enormity of their grief that they reacted like that. In truth, there could have been lots of people who hadn’t heard this. Sure, to the disciples this was headline news, but to some people it may have been noted only in passing. Just another Roman crucifixion. Happens all the time. It was just a side story buried on page 3 of the “Jerusalem Gazette.” Big deal. Pass the Sports section.
Well, this stranger on the road must have been one such clueless tourist because he didn’t seem to know a blessed thing about any of it. So they explain things to the stranger, more or less admitting in the end that the One on whom they had pinned their hopes did not pan out. They had made, it appeared, a rather large mistake. We all make mistakes, of course, and when the mistake in question is no more significant than burning your breakfast toast or accidentally calling “George” “Harry,” you can pick yourself up and move on. But when the mistake you’ve made is more along the lines of trusting a neighbor who ended up molesting your child or trusting your husband only to find he’s been a serial adulterer for decades, well then you feel not just embarrassed or a bit upset over your mistake but shattered by it. “How could I have gotten things that wrong?” we want to ask ourselves.
But then, suddenly, the stranger, who had appeared so clueless a moment before, changes. He has the audacity first of all to call these disciples foolish, and before they can object to this, the stranger has launched into a quite serious and thorough Bible study. And after that, the rest of the trek to Emmaus just flew by! With breathtaking sweep and exegetical precision, this anonymous fellow traveler re-tells Scripture’s story. It is Israel’s story, all right, but the stranger tells it in a quite new way. The last time they’d heard anyone talk about the Bible in such an invigorating a fashion was . . . well, never mind.
Before they knew it they were standing at their destination. With a slight wave and a nod the stranger says, “Nice talking with you” and then keeps walking. So Cleopas pipes up, “Sir! Look, the sun is setting which means the thieves along the highway will be coming out soon. It’s not safe to travel alone–stay with us at least tonight.” The man agrees. After having washed the dust of the journey off faces, hands, and feet, the three find a place to eat. Before they knew what’s happening, the stranger reaches for the flat bread, lifting it up in a strikingly familiar way. He then gives thanks, breaks it just so, and hands it to Cleopas and his friend. They knew instantly who he was but just as they are ready to cry out, “Jesus!” he was gone.
“I knew it!” Cleopas exclaims. “Didn’t you wonder about this, too! The way he taught us, the way he applied Scripture, wasn’t it eerily familiar all along!” Then, stuffing the bread into their pockets, they sprint back to Jerusalem, covering those seven miles in record time. A little of their thunder is stolen, however, in that before they can spill the beans of their news, the others say, “The Lord appeared to Simon Peter!” They then share the news of their encounter, making special note of the fact that Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Grief is like the sky. It’s over everything.
But so now, apparently, is hope.
If you compare Luke 9:16 with Luke 24:30, you will discover that the verbs are basically identical in the Greek as Jesus takes the bread, eulogizes (or gives thanks) for the bread, breaks the bread, and gives the bread to his disciples.
Even as the words are nearly identical in the Feeding of the 5,000 and the room at the Emmaus Motel, so the actions would have been unmistakable to the disciples. And there can be little doubt that the whole thing is also semaphore for the Lord’s Supper. In fact, if you zoom all the way forward to Acts 27:35, Luke repeats this set of taking, thanking, breaking, and giving as Paul feeds his shipmates just before their boat is wrecked by a storm. Again, there can be no mistaking the sacramental presence of Jesus, the bread of life.
In the ancient Greek myth The Odyssey we read the epic tale of Odysseus. Odysseus was the valiant warrior who fought so bravely in the Trojan War. But, according to legend, his homeward journey after that war was interrupted for many years as the gods had decided to test Odysseus’ true mettle through a series of trials. His journeys carried him far and wide as he encountered mythic beasts and lands, many of which have passed into common parlance: the Cyclops, the Procrustean bed, Scylla and Charybdis, the sirens’ voices.
Meanwhile, back at his home, Odysseus’ wife and family presume he must have died en route back from Troy. Finally, however, the day came when the gods released Odysseus and he arrives back home at last. But instead of simply waltzing through the front door and crying out some Greek equivalent of, “Honey, I’m home!” Odysseus decides that he wants to determine if anything has changed during his long absence. Did his wife still love him? Had she been faithful? In order to find out, Odysseus disguises himself so as to approach his home looking like a stranger in need of temporary lodging.
The housekeeper, Euryclea, welcomes the apparent traveler and performs for him the then-standard practice of foot-washing. As she does so, Euryclea regales the stranger with anecdotes about her long-lost master, Odysseus, whom she had also served as a nurse when he was young. She told the traveler about how long her master has been missing and she noted, too, that by then Odysseus would be about the same age and of about the same build as the man whose feet she was washing. Now when Odysseus had been a young boy, he was once gored by a wild boar, leaving a nasty scar on his leg. As Euryclea went about her servile task, suddenly her hand brushed against that old scar and instantly her eyes were opened and she recognized, with great joy, her beloved friend and master!
Recognition scenes like that have long exercised a strong pull on the human heart. Sometimes this can be used for comedic effect, as in any number of episodes on the old I Love Lucy show when Lucy would disguise herself so as to worm her way into one of her husband, Rickie’s, shows. And you always waited eagerly for that moment when Desi Arnaz’s eyes would widen right before he’d exclaim, “Luuucccy!” But such shocks of recognition are also the stuff of high drama, as in The Odyssey and any number of plays, novels, and films across the centuries. And, of course, in also Luke 24.
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Author: Doug Bratt
Peter’s first Pentecost sermon’s aftermath at least suggests that preaching and teaching the Scriptures is a bit like brandishing a lethally sharp sword. Since it can cut very deeply, its handlers want to be both very careful and prepared to help stop any bleeding our proclamation may cause.
Reading the lesson the Lectionary appoints this Sunday may feel a bit like beginning to watch a television show or movie in its middle. So Acts 2: 14a, 36-41’s preachers and teachers will want to spend at least some time reviewing its context. How much time we spend doing so may depend on whether we preached or taught verses 22-36 on the previous Sunday.
The Holy Spirit can certainly use any of several approaches to the lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Its teachers and preachers may choose to focus on Acts 2’s portrayal of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Luke presents evidence of that transformation, in a sense, with the way Peter’s audience addresses the apostle.
After all, before Peter even stands up to preach on the first Pentecost, at least some of those whom he addresses have accused the Eleven of drunkenness (2:13). The next time they speak, however, they call Peter and the other apostles “brothers” (37). That change seems to signal a shift in the crowd’s posture from hostility to familial tenderness towards Peter and the others.
A second sign of the Spirit’s transforming power is the affect Peter’s Pentecost “sermon” or “lesson” has on those who first hear it. It doesn’t have a lot of good news in it. Peter’s message bluntly draws sharp contrast between what his audience did with Jesus and what God did with Jesus.
Yet no one tries to dispute his claims. No one even tries to evade guilt for what he or she did to Jesus. Instead, because Peter’s message affects them so deeply, because it’s almost as if that message has caused them physical pain, that they ask what they need to do in order to make things right between God and them.
Will Willimon (Acts, John Knox, 1988, p. 36) writes about this response, “The power being offered here is not that of Peter’s homiletical ability to work the crowd up into an emotional frenzy or in the crowd’s sincere inner determination to get themselves right with God. The story of Peter’s Pentecost speech is told so that there is no doubt the power is of the Holy Spirit.”
The results of Peter’s preaching is a humbling reminder to those who teach and preach not just Acts 2, but also all of the Scriptures. We prayerfully and carefully prepare to preach and teach God’s Word. We also work to communicate as thoughtfully and winsomely as we can what the Spirit and our studies have shown us about that Word. But changed hearts and lives come only through the transforming work of God’s Holy Spirit. Preachers and teachers can only long to be messengers who don’t get in the way of that Spirit’s work.
So how does Peter, by the power of that Holy Spirit, respond to the convicted members of the crowd’s plea for help? He invites them to “repent and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ” (38). The Greek word for “repent” is metaneo, which refers to not only a changed mind about something, but also changed behavior. In other words, Peter seems to invite his audience to adopt a new perspective on Jesus’ death and resurrection that, in turn, produces the new behavior that is faithful obedience.
Part of that faithful obedience is submission to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ “for the forgiveness of sins.” It is allowing God to draw near believers, their children and even all “who are far off” (39). To be baptized is to allow God to unite us to Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. It is to allow God to do what God created us for in the first place: to transform our rebellious relationship with God into an intimate relationship with the Lord.
Within that transformed relationship, Peter promises, members of his audience will receive forgiveness of their sins, that is to say, a transformed status in the eyes of the Lord. The apostle also promises they’ll receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” the very presence of God in the hearts and lives of those whom that Spirit has transformed.
However, as Willimon goes on to note (p. 37), Acts 2’s preachers and teachers shouldn’t assume this sequence of “cut to the heart,” repentance, baptism, forgiveness and Holy Spirit is a kind of step-by-step template for salvation. This is, instead, an account of the conclusion of Peter’s speech. The crowd’s reaction shows that the Spirit who stormed into Jesus’ disciples on the morning of the first Pentecost has now also swept into those who listen to those disciples.
So we shouldn’t be surprised by our text’s dramatic conclusion: “Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (41). We might even say that’s about 3,120 more than were part of “their number” when the day of Pentecost began.
After all, it’s not just members of Peter’s audience whom the Spirit transforms on that day. The Spirit also transformed Peter from an impetuous and uneven disciple of Jesus into his first preacher. On top of that, the Spirit transformed the 120 believers (2:15) from waiters into those in whom God lives by the Holy Spirit. And, perhaps 2,000 years later, the Spirit is still transforming people, including preachers and teachers, and adding them to the disciples’ original number.
As we read about them in this Easter season, all of the first Pentecost’s remarkable transformations (and more) point to the amazing difference Jesus’ resurrection from the dead makes. It shows how Jesus shares his righteousness through the forgiveness of their sins that Peter’s first audience experiences. We also see how the Spirit is busy raising to a new life of faithful obedience in not just his audience, but also in Peter.
It’s fair to wonder if Peter’s preaching would have the same kind of impact on 21st century audiences as it did on the first Pentecost’s. In fact, it’s worth asking if modern audiences would even give him the chance to talk the way he did 2,000 years ago.
In her book, Speaking of Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation, Barbara Brown Taylor notes that the words “sin, “ “damnation,” “repentance,” and “salvation” sound as if they come “from an earlier time when human relationship with God was laced with blame and threat.” The words seem to judge us, which is why a lot of Christians don’t say them anymore.
We go for grace instead. No confession of sin these days. Preachers like to say that like the waiting father in Luke 15 Jesus died with his arms wide open. But we need the old language, because God’s calling is for us to bless others. Yet we can’t do that till we are saved, experiencing not only forgiveness of sin, but also new life, “new vision, new values, and new behavior.”
But this, says Taylor, is tough for us. It’s easier “for us to rely on God’s forgiveness of our sins than it is to believe that God might support us to quit them.” But we can’t quit them if we aren’t allowed even to talk about them. It’s no help to stop talking about sin. We just keep doing them. The waiting father’s kiss forgave all, “but not because the son was innocent. The son was guilty and he knew it, which is what gave the kiss its power.”
When Taylor was a baby a priest baptized her in a side chapel at a Catholic church. The priest took her in his arms and “began saying all kinds of terrible things about me. He said that I was sinful through and through, that I had the devil in me, but not to worry because the waters of baptism would soon wash me clean as snow.” At this Taylor’s mother said to her father, ‘we’re getting out of here and never coming back.’ She chose a Methodist church after seven years of staying away, and nobody there ever said a word about sin.”
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Author: Stan Mast
Clearly, Psalm 116 was chosen for this Third Sunday of Easter because it is a Psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death. It reverses the order of things in ordinary life, where we move from life to death. Here the Psalmist moves from death.to life, like Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection. Indeed, Jesus could have spoken the words of this Psalm; perhaps he did in his private times of worship post-Resurrection. It is a perfect Psalm for us as we live in the afterglow of Easter and anticipate our own death and resurrection.
Our lectionary reading for today inexplicably chops the Psalm into arbitrary chunks. Most scholars see three sections in the Psalm, but our reading breaks off part way through the first section and picks up again toward the end of the second section. We miss big, juicy parts of this lovely Psalm, like verse 7. “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” One could preach a whole sermon on that text alone.
But we preachers do that kind of textual slicing and dicing all the time for homiletical purposes, even though it would make our exegetical professors roll over in their graves. I’m going to do a bit of that here, though I don’t think it is illegitimate. I’m going to focus on verses 1 and 2 and 12 and 13, because I think that Psalm 116 is all about the centrality of prayer in a life of thanksgiving.
The Psalmist wrote this lovely Psalm because he was once in deadly danger. “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome with trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, save me!’” Here the lectionary reading cuts us off, so we don’t know what happened next. But the opening words have already shouted the answer. God answered his prayer. “I love the Lord, for he heard my prayer; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.” Now he wants to spend his days giving thanks for that resurrection experience. But what is the best way to give thanks for such deliverance. “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?” That, I take it, is the central question of the Psalm.
How many of our listeners can say those words of verses 1 and 2? I ask because over the years I counselled more than a few believers who would have changed the Psalm a little. “I love the Lord, even though he has not heard my voice. He did not hear my cry for mercy. In fact, he seemed to turn a deaf ear to me. I called on the name of the Lord, but he didn’t save me from my trouble. I’m still in it. I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed, and it hasn’t worked.” So instead of celebrating with the Psalmist, they questioned, “Why should I pray when it doesn’t work?”
In my Reformed tradition we often refer to the old Heidelberg Catechism for guidance when we wrestle with deep theological questions that are also intensely practical. In Question and Answer 116 (quite a coincidence, eh?), we hear an answer to our question that seems both counter-intuitive and counter to the facts of our lives, both theologically wrong and personally false. I should pray “because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us (that’s the counter-intuitive, theologically shaky part of the answer) and also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly (that’s the part that doesn’t seem true to our lives).” As we speak to folks who struggle with prayer because it doesn’t seem to work for them, that old Catechism answer might be a helpful way to think about Psalm 116.
We should keep praying because prayer is the most important part of the thanksgiving God requires of us. That’s exactly what the Psalmist says in verse 12 and 13. “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.” The “goodness” is answered prayer. And in gratitude for answered prayer, he prays more. Indeed, the Psalmist says that three times (verses 2, 13, 17). “I will call on the name of the Lord.”
That is the surprising answer to the question asked by gospel singer Andre Crouch in his famous song, “My Tribute.” “How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me? Things so undeserved, yet you gave to prove your love for me; the voices of a million angels could not express my gratitude….” Then Crouch answers his own question at the end of his chorus: “Just let me live my life, let it be pleasing, Lord, to thee….”
That’s the usual answer to the question asked by the Psalmist in verse 12. Just live your life in a way that pleases God. The main way we give thanks is to be obedient. We all know that. Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments?” But now the Catechism, echoing Psalm 116, says, “No, the most important part of thanksgiving is not obedience. It’s prayer.” That’s astonishing. And it will change your prayer life if you believe it.
How can that be true? Well, consider this undoubtedly apocryphal story. Once upon a time there was a very good king who ruled his subjects with both firmness and generosity. He gave them all they needed and he demanded that they show their gratitude and love by obeying his laws. But his subjects decided they did not want to be under the king. They wanted a democracy in which they took care of themselves and set their own laws. So they launched an armed revolt against this very good king. But it was no contest. With overwhelming force, the king quickly conquered them.
Then he hauled the rebels into the royal court for sentencing. Expecting to be executed for treason, they were astonished when the king pardoned them, one and all. They were overcome with surprise and gratitude. “How can we thank you enough?” they cried. “We’ll never disobey again. We’ll serve you as slaves. We’ll give our lives to you. How can we thank you?” The king surprised them again when he answered, “You can thank me by treating me like God. Bend your knees, bow your head, and simply ask me to supply all your needs. It’s not enough that you keep my laws. I want you to actually pray to me.”
Now that’s an audacious, blasphemous thing for a king to ask, but it is exactly what God asks. Pray to me as the main way to show your thanks. At its heart prayer is simply saying, “Lord, I love you and I need you.” That’s what God wants more than anything from us—not our little gifts, not our pitiful attempts to do his will, but our love, our hearts poured out in prayer.
The Psalmist reminds us that God answers prayer in a wide variety of ways that sometimes leaves us wondering, was that an answer to prayer? Sometimes he saves our souls from death, as the Psalmist says in verse 8, while other times he simply keeps our eyes from tears and our feet from stumbling (also in verse 8). Sometimes he answers with fire from heaven and other times in a still small voice in a deep dark cave, as in the life of Elijah. Sometimes he delivers us from evil, but other times he uses us to make his kingdom come in the midst of evil. Sometimes he gives us our daily bread, while other times he bends our will so that his will is done on earth in us.
Whatever shape God’s answers take, the most important part of giving thanks is more prayer. It’s a circle—problem, prayer, answer, thankfulness, more prayer. Indeed, one of my professors talked about the “triple circularity of prayer.” That strange expression was his of getting at the complex relationship between God’s grace and our prayer. It is the grace of God that draws us to Christ and moves us to grateful prayer. We receive that grace by faith and then we pray to express our gratitude. And in those prayers we ask for more grace. And in response God gives us grace.
Do you see the circle, the triple circle there? It’s all of grace, from beginning to end and in the middle. Yet prayer is important, because, says Catechism, “God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for them and thanking him for them.”
It’s very mysterious, and that mystery keeps some of us from praying as God requires. We think, “God knows what I need. God will give what God wants to give. Why should I pray? It can’t possibly go any good.” The Psalmist wasn’t hampered in his prayers by such theological second guessing. The Psalmist was in trouble and he prayed. God heard and God answered. The Palmist was grateful and he prayed. Simple, because he didn’t let his theology get in the way of the most important part of thanksgiving.
That’s exactly what Jesus says to us in Matthew 7. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened.” Note the commands. Why should we pray when it doesn’t work? Because Jesus, our Savior and Lord, commanded us to do it. Don’t let your theology keep you from doing what Jesus told us specifically to do. If your theology says prayer isn’t necessary, then your theology is wrong in some fundamental way. The Jesus who came from the bosom of the Father and who perfectly knew God’s mind said, “Ask.” When asking doesn’t seem to work, “Seek.” And when seeking doesn’t work, “Knock, knock and knock.”
And note the promises—“it will be given, you will find, the door will be opened.” If we come to God in prayer through Jesus Christ and in the way Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer, God will answer. We might not get what we asked for, but God will answer. We might not find what we were looking for, but God will answer. The door that gets opened might not be the one we knocked on, but God will answer.
God doesn’t expect us to understand his ways anymore than a 3 year old can understand the ways of her parents. What God expects is that we keep praying even when it doesn’t work, because his own Son said, “Ask, seek, knock.” Keep praying, even it doesn’t seem to work, because Jesus said it will.
If we believe what Jesus said, we’ll be able to say this lovely thing the Psalmist says in verse 7. “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” He is talking to himself, calming himself, like a child soothing herself as she slips off into slumber, snuggling in, cuddling up to the heartbeat of God’s love by reminding herself of how good God has been. “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you. I love you. I need you.” And Jesus says, “I hear you. And I loved you first, and I love you best, and I always will. So keep praying.”
Here’s a way to think about prayer as the main way we give thanks for the resurrections in our lives. Think about your holiday celebrations, especially at Christmas. That is such a magical and miserable time of year. We’ll get together with family and friends, hoping for a wonderful time. But it is often a time of considerable tension and pain. We exchange gifts around the Christmas tree, trying to be merry and grateful. In fact, we are unhappy about the state of our relationships. What we want to say is, “It’s not your gifts that I want. Just tell me and show me that you love me.” That’s why prayer is the most important part of thanksgiving to God. By bending the knee and bowing our heads and talking to God, we say, “I love you and I need you.” That’s a greater way of showing gratitude than anything else.
1 Peter 1:17-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
Years ago I read a book by the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. And it became clear in reading it that he is someone whom I can describe only as a thoroughly secular person. This particular book was a kind of memoir in which Bourdain narrated his story. Of course, I read books all the time that are written by people who do not share my Christian faith, and this comes through in various ways. So I am accustomed to that. Even so, this memoir struck me as an exceptionally vivid example of watching a secular, god-less person in action. Even though I found some of this book to be distasteful, sometimes it is instructive to be reminded of what life can look like when people are shorn off from not just Jesus as Lord but from any sense of God whatsoever.
But here is a key impression I took away from this reading experience: what saddened me was not just his cocky flippancy regarding just about everything. What weighed on me was not just his casual reporting of lurid sexual goings-on nor his frequent use of coarse and profane language. In the end, what made me sad was not what showed on the outside of his life but the way that external behavior revealed his lack of a moral center or core. My gut feeling was that if you walked into this man’s moral control room—kind of the moral equivalent of the emotional control room depicted in the animated movie Inside Out–you would discover an empty room, a vacuum, a hollowness of character, nobody pulling the control board levers or throwing the switches on the panel.
Peter directs us to ponder our own core or center. In the verses just prior to where this lection begins in verse 17, Peter lifts out of the Book of Leviticus what had long been a central verse for the Jews: “Be holy, as I am holy, says the Lord your God.” Even as holiness was a defining feature to God’s people before Jesus arrived, so it must remain now for those who follow Jesus as Lord. Holiness matters. But what is it? If we were pressed to define holiness, the odds are that most of us would quite quickly begin talking about outward behavior. Being holy would soon become equated with being moral. We’d say that being holy involves being separate and distinct from the wider society. Indeed, in the past holiness was commonly defined negatively in terms of all that Christian people did not do.
And so in certain eras we were told that holy people are the ones who do not smoke, do not drink, do not dance, do not attend movies, do not play games of chance. Holy people follow the Ten Commandments, especially the laws about stealing, adultery, and lying. Holy people do not work on Sunday nor engage in activities that require other people to work such as going shopping or eating out in a restaurant.
Of course, there is more than a little something to all that. The same Book of Leviticus that tells the people to be holy as God is holy is chock-full of rules governing outward behavior. For ancient Israel, holiness was defined by following a rigorous set of laws that would create lifestyles very distinct from the surrounding nations of that time.
The holiness code covered everything. No segment of daily life was exempt. Holiness rules applied to how you conducted yourself sexually but just as much to how you patched a torn pair of pants. The laws that pointed the way toward a holy lifestyle hit on the kinds of activities you’d expect (like not stealing your neighbor’s stuff) but also addressed matters you might not expect at all (like the fact that you could eat a grasshopper if you wanted but not a beetle). The distinctiveness of the holy life before God ran the gamut from how to treat a skin rash to dealing with mildew, from the treatment of strangers to the length of the hem on a priest’s ceremonial robe.
Given all of that, how easy it is to fall into the trap of thinking that holiness is all about the following of a bunch of external rules. It is easy to think that you could determine a person’s relative holiness by way of a checklist. Just write out all the laws governing behavior, put a little box next to each one, and then see how many boxes you can check with a red pen. The more boxes you can check, the holier you are.
But as it turns out, that’s not what holiness means after all. This is something Peter learned, and it is reflected in verse 13 (again, just ahead of this lection but vital to understand what follows). Peter tells his readers to get ready for action, which all by itself sounds like the focus is going to be on outward, visible behavior. But a closer look at that verse shows that Peter locates this “action” within people’s minds. Actually, Peter invokes here a kind of oxymoron to help make the point very vivid. Some translations have opted to render this as “prepare for action,” but in the original Greek, Peter wrote, “Gird up the loins of your minds.” In the ancient world, if you were told to “gird up your loins,” what that meant was you would hoist up your robe and tuck it into your belt so that you could run without getting tripped up by your own clothing. Today we might talk instead about “rolling up your sleeves” so you could get to work.
So this is a very physical image. The image really is one as literal as taking off your suitcoat and rolling up your sleeves so that you could dive into some task at hand. But the oxymoron part comes in that Peter is telling the people to roll up the sleeves of their minds. Holiness begins not with what we do on the outside, not in a set of actions that anyone who is looking can observe and evaluate. Holiness begins on the inside. In fact, if being holy does not begin there–if what we do on the outside is not rooted within our minds– then no matter how moral any given action might appear to be, it is finally just a shadow of the real thing. True holiness shows itself in how we behave but only because that action on the outside flows seamlessly from how we think on the inside.
That’s why there is that tight linkage in both the Old and New Testaments between the nature of God’s holiness and our holiness. When we are told to be holy as God is holy, this extends well beyond just outward acts. One of the key characteristics of God that makes him holy is that there is never any contradiction between who God is at his divine core and how he acts and speaks. God never thinks one thing but does another. God never does something that, in the back of his mind, he would really rather not do.
What’s more, as theologians have always asserted, God can never be compelled to do something. God, being God, cannot have an external obligation, he cannot have a set of rules outside of himself to which he has to conform. God can be obligated only to God’s own self because if there were some higher (or even some other) set of rules that even God was obliged to obey, then the source of those external rules would be the real God.
In other words, God is holy not just because of what he does but because what God does always reflects who God is. God does not perform an act because it’s the holy thing to do, rather God’s acts are holy simply because God is the one who does them. God never has to stop himself before doing something so as to ask, “Let’s see now, should I do this or shouldn’t I? Maybe I’d better check the rulebook first.” No, the moment God is motivated to do something, it is by definition holy because it flows from the divine core. God defines holiness because of the utter consistency God has within Godself and because God is, of course, perfectly good and loving at his core.
So if our holiness is to mirror God’s holiness–if we are holy as God is holy–then we must begin on the inside by rolling up the sleeves of our minds because that is precisely where any God-like holiness is going to start. God’s holiness flows out of his core. Ours must do the same if it is to be God-like. That is why in verse 14 Peter goes on to say that his readers must not revert to behaving the way they used to before being transformed into new people by God’s Spirit. But even there did you notice that Peter does not target simply bad behavior but he says that their prior bad behavior was the result of their ignorance. Again, Peter is directing his readers to the inside of their minds. Holiness begins by having rightly ordered desires, God-shaped thinking processes.
But if we aim at thinking God’s thoughts after him, of leading lives in which our behavior reflects first of all our thinking, then although we should still be conducting our behavior along certain lines, we will sense also the joy that comes only when you do what you do not because you have to, but because you want to. We want joyful holiness and we want that joy to flow from the inside. As Peter says so poignantly in verses 18-21, the joy of it all stems from the knowledge of just how we became God’s people to begin with. We were bought with the precious blood of the Lamb, and so now everything we do stems from the enormous love we feel for that Savior who gave up his all for us. It’s love for Jesus that makes us finally want to get beyond obedience and into the joy of a holiness that reflects who we are as people who love the Lord God.
In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey tells a poignant story that illustrates this pretty well. The story was told by Arun Gandhi, the grandson of the famed Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi. When he was a teenager, Arun Gandhi lived in South Africa. One day, not long after Arun first got his driver’s license, his father asked him to drop him off at a meeting in the city and then to take the family car in for some repairs at a nearby garage. “Once you drop the car off,” Arun’s father said, “you can spend time downtown doing whatever you like. But be sure to pick the car up when it’s finished and then pick me back up here not later than 6:00pm sharp.” Arun jumped at this chance to spend some time in the big city. But he lost track of the time and next thing you knew he was late getting the car back from the garage and a half-hour late picking up his father. “Sorry I’m late, father,” Arun said, “but the car took longer than they thought and I had to wait a whole hour at the garage. That’s why I couldn’t get here at six like you asked.”
What Arun didn’t know was that his father had checked in with the garage already at 5pm that day and found out that the car was ready to be picked up then already. So not long after they drove out of the city, Arun Gandhi’s father asked him to pull over to the side of the road and he then explained to his son that he knew the truth. “I am deeply troubled,” the father said. “What would cause my son to lie to me? How have I failed as a father that my son would not trust me with the truth? I must reflect on this.”
The father walked the rest of the way home, but told his son to follow him slowly in the car so that he could see by the car’s headlights. It took six hours to get home with Arun driving the car at a snail’s pace, all the while seeing his father’s hunched back as he pondered his failure as a father. But Arun knew this was not some stunt meant to induce a guilt trip within his teenager’s heart. He knew his father was a man of utter integrity and if he said he was going to reflect on his own failures, he meant it. Arun was stricken to the core and hence, he later testified, “I never told a lie again.”
In the end, Arun changed his outward behavior, but not so as to obey an external rule. His father’s loving reaction caused him to re-orient his mind. He no longer told lies not because he wanted to avoid getting punished but because he loved his father and the change in his behavior stemmed from this love. He stopped lying not because he knew he mustn’t but because he no longer even wanted to do so. So also for us: our holiness must stem from love. And our love comes because, as Peter says in the end, we have now tasted that the Lord is good.