Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 26th January 2011
“Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do ” 1 Peter 1:15
Back in the 1960s, a tape recording was made of children from Dublin’s north inner city retelling Bible stories in their own way. Ten years ago, the stories were put into a cartoon animation called ‘Give up yer aul sins’. One of the lines that sticks in the memory is a child recalling John the Baptist sending his disciples to question Jesus. The child’s version of the question they asked is, ‘Are you really God, or are you a shocking holy saint?’
The childhood innocence of the story telling has a beauty about it and it also manages to express some profound truths. ‘Are you a shocking holy saint?’ The word ‘shocking’ and the word ‘holy’ are not often words that you find used in conjunction with each other, but perhaps they should be.
When we look at Scripture, holiness is something that is shocking; holiness is something that has a profound effect upon people who encounter it. Look at Moses’ encounter with God in the desert; look at the stories of Jesus being transfigured; look at the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost—these are shocking holy moments; these are encounters with holiness that are so profound that they change the people who are there.
One of the best books I ever read on holiness was Arthur Robinson’s, ‘The Personal Life of the Christian’. It was first published in 1902, republished in 1980 and, more than a century after it was written, it still contains a lot of common sense. Robinson recounts two stories of Spirit-filled people, the first from a man who hadn’t much regard for anything that was not down to earth:
A mission was being conducted in a pit village of the county of Durham. The schoolmaster of the place was a hard-headed north countryman; and it might have seemed that he was inclined to be somewhat hard-hearted too. At any rate, he had no great belief in missions, and did not think much of emotional religion. He was extremely reserved about the whole matter. But there was one topic upon which he was always ready to talk. Speak to him of a man who five-and-twenty years before had been the vicar of the district, and at once a chord was set vibrating within him. Asked one day whether he thought that his old vicar, who had become famous in the Church, was still the same humble and genuine man that he had been in the days when he had known him first, he replied at once in tones that were almost indignant; ‘Why,’ he said, ‘you have only to shake that man’s hand to feel that he is full of the Holy Ghost!’ He could not have explained it, but he could quite well recognize the fact”.
Holiness is not something that comes from ourselves; it is something that comes from God. The man in Arthur Robinson’s story is felt to be holy not because of anything he said or did, but because the schoolmaster sensed the Holy Spirit at work. Holiness is a process; it is about sanctification, about being made holy through the Holy Spirit present in our lives.
Arthur Robinson goes on:
Not indeed that it has always been necessary to shake a man’s hand before coming to a similar conclusion. An Archbishop of York told his Ordination candidates of a young clergyman who had been appointed to a country parish. His stay in it, as it proved, was not to be for long. He was scarcely more than thirty when he died. After an interval had passed, a friend who known him well visited the place, eager to discover what kind of impression he had made. Meeting a labourer, he asked him the question, ‘Did he think Mr. – had done any good?’ Again there was no sort of hesitation in the answer, ‘I never saw that man cross the common yonder, sir, without being the better for it.’
Ordinary people in ordinary places who seemed somehow to possess extraordinary qualities: imagine a handshake being sufficient to convey a sense of the Holy Spirit, imagine being seen walking in the distance being enough to create a sense of well-being in the person who catches sight of you. It is very hard to live out such lives, but that, by the grace of God, is what we are being called upon to do.
Being a faithful member of Christ’s church is about sanctification, about this ongoing process of being made holy. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 we read, “God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth”.
Life and faith are inextricably interwoven; faith should bring holiness, it should bring the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. What should we be like to be holy people? The fruit of the Spirit, says Saint Paul, in writing to the church at Galatia, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the things that we, the ordinary members of the church, are meant to be showing in our lives.
“Ah”, we say, “don’t we come to church and keep the Commandments? Isn’t that enough?”
Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler who comes to Jesus? He would have been in the synagogue every Sabbath, he had always kept the Commandments, but still his heart is in the wrong place.
If we do not produce the fruits of the Spirit that Saint Paul writes about, then we have to ask ourselves whether we are Spirit-filled people, if we are seeking the sanctification in our lives that God desires, if our hearts are really in the right place.
The story of that first Day of Pentecost is a shocking holy story, it is the story of lives being changed by God’s presence because it was only through God’s presence that the disciples could fulfil what God had planned for them.
Perhaps we are like the Durham schoolmaster in Robinson’s story, being a hard-headed lot; hard-headness is part of our Protestant upbringing. But perhaps we are worse than the schoolmaster in being sometimes hardhearted as well as hard-headed, if we hear the Gospel story and remain unchanged by what we hear. Jesus encountered some very hardhearted people. He looks down on Jerusalem and says, ‘O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not’.
Jesus does not compel; those who turned away from him were free to do so. Similarly, the Holy Spirit does not compel, the Spirit will work where hearts are open in welcome. Seeking the way of holiness, the way of sanctification, means the Holy Spirit coming into everyday life and, that can be something very disturbing, very frightening, very shocking.
Being Spirit-filled people is to be like the people Robinson described, recognized as Spirit-filled by no more than a handshake or being seen walking across the common. It’s not something easy, in fact it’s not something we can do at all, it’s something that God does through us, if we will let him. Dare we be holy people?