Sunday, November 12, 2006

29 October 2006 - All Can Be Saved to the Uttermost

This is the last in the series dealing with "The Four Alls". The "last all" is "All Can Be Saved to the Uttermost"; otherwise known as the doctrine of holiness.

Keen readers will notice the use of the same illustration as the morning's sermon; these sermons were preached in different churches! Even keener fans for Rene Girard or James Alison may recongise some Girardian and Alisonian theological themes.

The readings are:
Galatians 5:16-26 and John 13:31-35


Holiness – What is it?

Holiness. What does it mean? Who can be holy? God alone? Or can human beings also be holy? Is human holiness the same as divine holiness or is it something different?

These are hardly simple and straight-forward questions that we have set before us for our consideration this evening.

As you will recall, we have been considering the four characteristic doctrines of Methodism as expressed by The Four Alls. All need be saved; All can be saved; All can know they are saved; And, this evening, the fourth and last of the Four Alls: “All can be saved to the uttermost”. Or, in other words, the doctrine of holiness.

John Wesley himself believed “that God had raised up Methodism chiefly for the sake of propagating holiness” And the twentieth century Methodist theologian, Eric Baker, believes that “holiness” is the defining doctrine of Methodism.

Yet the idea of human beings progressing toward holiness is not something that was unique to John Wesley. Personally, I believe that many of Wesley’s ideas about growth in holiness had their roots in Eastern Christianity – in some of the theological traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy.

I do not intend to explore this background at all this evening, but I simply want to point out that this thinking is both ancient – going right back to the beginning of the Christian Church – but that it was also rather new to Protestantism in Wesley’s lifetime. At the very least, John Wesley can probably be credited with being the spiritual father of the Protestant holiness movement, which was a large movement in both 19th century Britain and America.

There is also some controversy about what Wesley meant by holiness and I think the evidence suggests that Wesley’s beliefs were not entirely consistent over time. Within the broad holiness tradition – which has certainly included many Methodists – there have always been a range of views.

Some people thought that it was possible to become perfectly sinless in this life. This idea has probably died out in British Methodism, but I have encountered people in the US of the Wesleyan holiness tradition who have claimed to be perfectly sinless. As a friend of my observed, on the whole many of these people tend to be thoroughly unpleasant individuals - which gives you a hint of where my sentiments lie with respect to human sinlessness!

However, John Wesley certainly did seriously entertain the possibility of perfect sinlessness. Although he never claimed it for himself, he was – in my opinion - surprisingly willing to accept the testimony of some around him who did claim it.

Another possible way of looking at the whole issue of human holiness is the concept of “perfect love”. This was the definition that came to be accepted in British Methodism during the 19th century and you won’t be surprised to hear that this is the definition of human holiness that I personally accept – although I certainly do not claim it for myself either!

It’s the concept of “perfect love” that I’d like to explore briefly this evening.

Perfect Love

Of course, the best place to look for an example of a human being living a life of perfect love is Jesus himself. So what was Jesus’ life like and how did he live it?

The Revd Dr Colin Morris, the former BBC Head of Religious Broadcasting and Controller of BBC Northern Ireland, said the following about Jesus: “Jesus is the one who puts himself outside every barrier, frontier and fence we choose to erect in order to safeguard what is our own...”

I think that this is a fascinating – and accurate – image of how Jesus lived his life and I think that reflecting on this picture can give us a good picture of what it means to live a life of perfect love.

Human society is a place where we erect barriers or fences in order to keep “the approved people” safe inside and the strange or different people out. As human beings, we absolutely love to divide the world into the categories of “us” and “them”. We construct categories like illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, working class, middle class, peace-loving citizens, and terrorists. All these serve to define us – the good insiders – by what we are not rather than by what we are.

If we are inside our protective worldly fence, we don’t have to actively do anything particularly special. We’ve defined ourselves as “good” simply by virtue of being inside. We’re not “one of them” – those outside the fence: the misfits and troublemakers.

But if we think about Colin Morris’ picture of Jesus…we can begin to see what Christian love looks like. It suggests a picture of Jesus rushing outside of any human-constructed fence we erect only to stick out like a sore thumb amongst the outcast. He consorts with the dangerous stranger, the shiftless, the shameful and the sinful.

And every time the established power structure moves the boundaries to in order to “include” Jesus and show that he really is against our enemies after all, Jesus once again rushes outside to identify with those we cast out. It’s not so much that Jesus doesn’t want to be associated with us inside our fence, It’s that Jesus does want to be associated with the people we call our enemies.

So what do you do with a God who persists in consorting with your enemies? Well, you either learn from your God and learn to draw your own boundaries to encompass all categories of people (that’s the way of holiness) .

Or you are eventually forced to attempt to kill God. We know which option humanity chose.

Every time we insist that the friend of my enemy is my enemy, we can become painfully aware of our own participation in Jesus’ crucifixion.

Everyone Inside the Boundaries

This drawing of boundaries to encompass all categories of people is a sort of pictorial image of what I think that perfect love looks like - of what I think that human holiness looks like. If you still suspect that this is wishy-washy romantic nonsense, I’d like to draw your attention to Galatians 5:20, which says that one of the marks of individuals living under the rule of human nature is that…“People become enemies and they fight; they become jealous, angry, and ambitious. They separate into parties and groups.” By contrast, living under the influence of the Spirit of God is witnessed by a life of peace, patience and self-control.

This picture of love and holiness is a huge challenge. Including everyone inside our fences means everyone. Absolutely everyone.

We’re not just talking about having sympathy for someone who is a bit of a misunderstood eccentric, although that might be the case in some instances, We’re talking about standing up and saying “those who society names as our enemies are God’s precious children too”: Muslims and asylum-seekers perhaps.

We’re also talking about recognising the spark of God’s presence in a person who is truly and utterly vile and who has done the most horrendous things; perhaps rapists, paedophiles and murderers.

Maybe I can show love to an eccentric person, maybe I can show love to a Muslim person, but how on earth can I show love to someone who has brutalised another human being? Why would I even imagine that God calls human beings to this level of standing in solidarity with another human being if I didn’t have the biblical witness of Jesus?

Every instinct inside me screams “No! These people do not belong inside the fences. They do not deserve to have anyone standing with them in their life and their trials.” Well, of course, neither do I deserve that companionship, but God gives it to me anyway.

Jesus stands in solidarity with every human being. Rich and poor, native citizen and asylum-seeker. Every time we try to draw a boundary that keeps Jesus inside with us so that others may be named our enemy, Jesus moves outside the boundary to stand in the shoes of our enemy.

As individuals, as a church, as a human race, our calling is to push out our own boundaries out until we have learned to offer God’s love, hospitality and comfort to all people. It is that process of expanding our boundaries, of learning to do away with the category of “enemy” that is our growth in holiness.

This growth is not something that a person can do unless he or she has received the Holy Spirit. Holiness – perfect love – is the goal of our earthly journey: “all can be saved to the uttermost.”

God invites us to change, to expand the parameters of our lives, to break down the walls that divide us from other people and to see the image of God in all human beings.

We killed God, but in the resurrection, the expansive love of the creator God overcame our hatred. Christ is risen, death is defeated. Fear no longer rules the universe. God’s Kingdom is now and not yet. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen

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