Today we come to the end of our sermon series, “United Methodism 101”. We’ve looked at the history of the United Methodist church. We’ve looked at how the church is organized. We’ve talked about how the United Methodist church allows for disagreements on theology, as long as we believe in God and believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. We’ve talked about the method by which we decide what we believe. We’ve talked about how salvation is a process that takes place throughout our lives, and how it’s something that we receive only by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus. We’ve also talked about how one of the ways we receive God’s grace is through the sacraments, baptism and holy communion.
So today, we’re going to talk about what we’re supposed to do now that we’ve talked about all this stuff. Today, we’re going to talk about holiness. As United Methodists, we are supposed to live lives of holiness.
Now, when I say that word, holiness, I’ll bet an image comes into your mind, maybe more than one. Maybe you think of someone like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa. Maybe you think of some famous evangelist. Maybe you think of a monk, spending his days in a monastery reading scripture. Maybe you think of someone like the Pharisees, who thought they were holy even though they may not have been.
But you know, when we think of that word, holiness, we should think of two images. One of them is Jesus himself, the most perfect example of holiness there will ever be on this earth. And the other one is of ourselves, you and me.
We’ll come back to ourselves. Let’s talk about Jesus first. When we think about Jesus being holy, what do we think of? Well, probably a lot of things. We think of Jesus’ birth. We think of him talking with the rabbis at age twelve and stunning them with what he said. We think of Jesus’ baptism. We think of his death and resurrection. But when we think of Jesus’ actual life on earth, what are the two things we think of? We think of his teaching, and we think of his miracles. Those are the things that make us consider Jesus holy during his life on earth.
So what does that tell us about holiness? I think it tells us that there are two things that are important in living a holy life. One of them is to stay close to God. The other is that we go out and help people whenever and wherever we can.
The two are equally important. If we want to be holy, we cannot do one without the other. If we spend our days reading scripture and praying, but don’t do anything to go out and help anyone, how is that holy? That’s what the Pharisees did, right? They knew scripture backwards and forwards. They followed all the rituals. They said all the right prayers at the right times. But they never did anything to help anybody. In fact, they made life harder for people, giving them so many detailed rules and regulations that they could never even remember them all, much less try to follow them all.
And if we spend our days helping people, but don’t stay close to God, that really does not work, either. It can be done—there are people who we would consider “good people” who do not have God in their lives. But it does not lead to anything we would call a holy life. Just by definition, if for no other reason, it’s not possible to live a holy life without God.
One of the reasons Jesus performed the miracles he did was to show us that holiness is not just something to be. It’s something to do. When Jesus was on the earth, he helped people as much as he could, not just spiritually but physically. That’s what we’re supposed to do, too. It takes both. We’re supposed to both spread the gospel of Christ and also go out and help our neighbors, showing God’s love to them in actual, physical, concrete ways.
Now, let’s go back to you and me. How many of us here think of ourselves as holy? I’d guess not very many. In fact, I suspect that when I said you and I were the images that should come to mind when we think of holiness, some of you wondered what that was all about. Most of us here would just think of ourselves, as common, ordinary people. Sometimes we do good things, sometimes we do bad things. Sometimes we’re aware of God’s presence in our lives, sometimes we just go about our business. We’re just regular, common, ordinary folks. How could we be holy?
Well, think of it this way. Who were the disciples? They were just regular, common, ordinary people, too. They were not the smartest people around—think of all the times Jesus tried to explain things to them and they did not understand. They were not the richest people around. They were not the most skilled craftsmen, or the smoothest talkers, or the most educated people. They were just people.
The disciples came from all walks of life. There’s nothing in the gospels to indicate that any of them were thought of as remarkable or special. Had Jesus not called them, we would not even know their names. They’d have just been a few of the billions of people who’ve walked the earth in the past and whose lives have long since been lost to history.
Jesus took these common, ordinary, everyday people and used them as the foundation for the Christian church. How did he do it? Listen again to what Jesus tells them in the gospel of John: “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”
No one would have looked at any of the disciples and thought of them as particularly holy. In fact, no one would have looked at any of the disciples and thought of them as particularly anything. They were made holy by their faith in Jesus Christ and by their willingness to do the work that Jesus wanted them to do.
That’s how you and I become holy, too. It’s not because we’re so great. No one can become holy because they’re so great. Again, that’s the way the Pharisees tried to do it. We don’t become holy because we’re so great. We become holy because God is so great. God’s Holy Spirit works through us and enables us to be holy and live holy lives.
That’s why, in Paul’s letters, he kept encouraging people to do good works. Remember, Paul’s the one who said we’re saved through faith alone and not by works. But still, he kept encouraging works. Listen to what he said to the Colossians in our reading for today: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of Light.”
It all comes from God. Knowledge of God’s will comes from God through the Holy Spirit. We get strengthened by God’s power so we can do good works. God gives us endurance and patience to do what God wants us to do. It all comes from God.
In our reading from Second Corinthians, Paul says, “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things and at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” Again, it’s not because we’re so good. It’s because God is so good. It all comes from God.
The only way to live a holy life is to get involved. Get involved in your community. Get involved in society. Get involved in the world. That’s something United Methodists have always emphasized, from the time John Wesley got involved in issues like slavery, poverty, prison reform, war, and education. It’s something United Methodists still emphasize today.
Does that cause controversy sometimes? It sure does. Some of the things Jesus did and said were controversial, too. When we get involved in our communities, when we get involved in society, when we get involved in the world, we will sometimes be led to do things that not everyone agrees with. That’s true as individuals and it’s true as a church. If you’ve paid attention to the positions the United Methodist Church takes on a national or international basis, I’m sure there are times it took stands you disagreed with. There are times it took stands I disagree with, too.
But that’s okay, because as we’ve talked about before, there is room for disagreement within the United Methodist Church. In fact, not only is it okay, it’s inevitable. The only way to avoid controversy is to not do anything and not be involved with anything. That’s not the way Jesus lived. That’s not the way the disciples lived. It’s not how Jesus wants us to live, either.
That’s why, again, holiness takes staying close to God. If we stay close to God, we can disagree in love. We can come together to help people despite our disagreements and not let our disagreements keep us from doing God’s work in God’s world.
Jesus was the perfect example of holiness on earth. The thing is, though, we don’t need to be Jesus in order to be holy. All we need to do is open our hearts to God’s Holy Spirit. All we need to do is allow God to work through us. If we stay close to God, if we want to please God, and if we truly want to go out and serve other people, God will help us find ways to do it. Then, we will be living holy lives. That’s not just what we’re supposed to do as United Methodists. That’s what we’re supposed to do as Christians and as God’s children.