August 23, 2015

Contagious Holiness

I’ve talked before about my interest in shows and movies that generally fall under the comic book genre.  Superhero fare is, of course, my favorite, but I’m usually up for just about anything with a supernatural, mythical, monster theme (with the exception of shows that get too…soap opera-ish).  In any event, last summer a new series premiered that fit squarely in my wheelhouse called “The Strain.”  Now, I can’t in good conscience recommend it as it is awfully violent, but the story is pretty good.  The basic plot is that a super wealthy businessman who’s secretly interested in gaining eternal life for himself used his money and connections to sneak a vampire lord (not Dracula) into New York City and then set him loose on the population.  These vampires, or Strigoi, as they are called in the series, set about attacking the city with the world itself in their sites.  The two main heroes are a pair of epidemiologists named Eph and Nora.  The reason this is important is because early in the first season the pair discover that people become vampires not necessarily because of the bite of another vampire, but through these little worm-like things.  Once a person has been bitten, the worms invade their bodies, multiplying and spreading, and ultimately kill the host’s body in order to transform it into a Strigoi.  In this sense, vampirism is a sort of plague.

Let me get a bit theological with you and draw some connecting lines here.  Genesis 3 records the successful temptation of Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of which God had commanded them not to eat.  The result of this decision on their part was to release sin into the world.  The way this worked was that when Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s authority a change was wrought inside of them.  They took into themselves a kind of spiritual virus that became a part of who they were.  What more, this spiritual virus has been passed down from one generation to the next ever since.  Each of us is born with the seeds of this virus in us and as soon as we begin making conscience decisions it begins to manifest itself in our lives.  Now how exactly this happens is a matter of theological debate, but nonetheless we know that it does because we have eyes.  It expresses itself as the incorrigible desire to have what we want, when we want, how we want whatever the cost.  If this desire is left unchecked it will eventually spiral out of control and destroy us.  It will transform us into creatures that are a bare reflection of the glorious humanity God designed us to bear.  In the end, it will result in eternal death.  In other words, while the plot of “The Strain” certainly adds some made-for-TV drama (it was written by a horror film specialist after all), it bears a certain resemblance to the way things actually are.  The difference, though, is that we don’t have to get the sin virus spread to us by the bite of a monster; it’s already inside of us just waiting to come out.  We are the monster.

But, there’s another connection here that’s equally important.  As the second season has begun, the two heroes devise a plan: If they can construct a virus that is deadly to the vampires, perhaps they can use it to create a plague among the vampire population and put an end to the invasion.  If they can spread their good contagion, perhaps they can save the world.  Well, something not so dissimilar to that is true in our world as well and I’d like to talk with you this morning about what the connection is and what it means for how we do church.

I’d like to do it like this: When it comes to Christianity and Christians at a broad level, we have a lot of critics.  Some of them aren’t very fair.  Many aren’t especially reasonable in their critiques.  A few hit marks that are places where we could stand for some improvement.  But, when it comes to Christ, to Jesus, critics generally disappear like roaches when the lights come on.  Everybody likes Jesus (as long as they ignore some of the hard things He said anyway).  In His day, while He was pretty fiercely opposed by the people in power, among the average folks, everybody liked Jesus then too.  The reason is pretty obvious.  He had a way about Him—a kindness, a gentleness, a love—that set Him apart from everybody else.  He was different.  What more, this wasn’t just a morally neutral difference.  He was better than everybody else.  And I don’t mean that in an arrogant sense.  To say He was better wasn’t boastful, it was factual.  Jesus was kinder than anybody else.  He was more patient.  He was more loving.  He beamed with more joy.  He was…better.

Incidentally, we have a word to describe something that is both different from the things around it and also morally superior to them.  That word is holy.  We don’t call someone who is just a really good person holy.  You’ve been around folks who were really good people without thinking of them as holy.  We also don’t call someone who is just different from the people around them holy.  You’ve been around folks who were really different from the people around them and didn’t think of them as holy.  You may have thought of them as a nuisance.  No, it is when both of those elements are in place at the same time that we recognize someone or something as holy.

Well, as Christians, we believe holy has a source and that source isn’t us.  We aren’t naturally holy.  On our own we aren’t morally superior to anyone else.  On our own we really aren’t even different from anybody else.  On our own we’re just like everybody else: broken by sin.  God, on the other hand, is holy.  If we are holy at all it is because we are reflecting His holiness.  This has been the case for every single person who’s ever walked on the planet.  Except one.  Jesus didn’t simply reflect the holiness of God, He bore it.  He was the source of it.  And because He was the source of it He could share it.  In fact, He did share it.  His sharing of it was both intentional and incidental.  It was incidental because anytime someone encounters the holiness of God they come away changed by it, and to encounter Jesus was to encounter the holiness of God.  It was intentional because His mission here on earth was to announce and inaugurate the kingdom of God in this world.  He came to establish a kind of base camp for the divine rebellion against the powers of this world.  This rebellion is driven by the holiness of God.  The world apart from God is very gray.  It is flat and dreary.  There is no real beauty in it.  It is all death and no life.  It is unrighteousness and injustice.

The holiness of God, though, looks very different from this.  It is the opposite of the world at every point.  It is fresh and different and joyful and alive and creative and interesting and right and true.  It is the things that make God, God all balled up together.  It is in every possible way the antidote to the soul poison of sin in our lives.  Sin demands that we conform; holiness calls us to stand out and let the beautiful colors God made us to have shine forth.  Sin tolerates no individuals, no breaking from the pack; holiness calls us to be fully and uniquely who God made us to be.  Sin causes us to fold inward on ourselves, reducing and isolating us so that we neither impact nor are impacted by anyone else.  Holiness, driven by God’s character of generosity, always expands.  It spreads from person to person ever extending its impact.  In this way, God’s holiness—Jesus’ holiness—is contagious.

As we read through the Gospel narratives we see Jesus over and over again interacting with people who with very few exceptions leave Him closer to God than when they arrived.  Over and over again we see Him setting people apart in one way or another.  We see Him forgiving their sins rendering them more morally pure than when they first encountered Him.  And then…these people went on to infect others, expanding the kingdom of God and driving back the forces of sin as they went.  What more, if we are going to be consistent with His example and on board with His mission we need to be as eager about spreading this good contagion as He was.

In order to help you see this a bit better, I want to take you to a passage of Scripture that not only puts this contagious holiness on display, but it also has something to say for our practice of it.  This particular episode comes in the Gospel of Matthew and if you’ll grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures you can check this out with me. In Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ life, after the wild story of His birth, Jesus’ ministry gets up and running at full speed fairly slowly.  He gets baptized, is tempted, calls a few disciples, delivers the Sermon on the Mount, does some miracles (including calming the storm), and does some traveling around the region.  In chapter 9 Jesus returns home to Capernaum.  Now Capernaum wasn’t Jesus’ hometown (that was Nazareth), but after getting rejected by the good folks of Nazareth and rushed to the edge of town to be thrown off a cliff, He had relocated His ministry base there.  It is here in Capernaum that Jesus performs the rather dramatic miracle of healing a paralyzed man who had been lowered through the roof of the house He was staying in (probably Peter’s).  Jesus didn’t just heal his legs, though, He announced that his sins were forgiven prompting a theological tussle with the Pharisees.

Eventually the time came for Jesus to head on to the next place.  What happens next is dramatic.  Matthew records it like this in v. 9: “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth…”  Okay that wasn’t the drama yet, but let me give you some context before we get there.  A big nation with a small class of super wealthy people who don’t like to work concentrated in the far-off capital city requires a lot of taxes to sustain it.  I’m talking about ancient Rome.  In order to collect these taxes a nation must employ thousands of tax collectors each of whom are backed by the full authority of the state to get their jobs done.  Well in Rome each of these tax collectors was required to collect a certain amount of taxes.  Anything beyond that they could do with as they pleased.  Well, the natural result of this was that the official tax collectors were really wealthy guys.  And being so wealthy, they didn’t really want to work any more than the people for whom they were collecting taxes.  As a result, these guys would farm the work out to locals willing to endure the scorn of their fellow citizens in order to get rich themselves and enjoy the pleasures of luxury.  In Judea where the Romans were hated with a particularly aggressive passion, the Jews who served as the subcontractors for the Roman tax collectors were afforded their own special cultural status that was pretty much as low as you could go.  They were hated with a passion that sometimes even superseded that usually aimed at the Romans because they at least had the benefit of not being Jews to excuse the things they were doing.  The Jews colluding with them knew better and did it anyway.  They were considered so utterly morally reprobate that he label “sinner” was too good for them.  “Tax collector” became its own class of sinner.  You can see this throughout the Gospels in the many appearances of the phrase “sinners and tax collectors.”

All that is to say: as a tax collector, Matthew would have been afforded a permanent status of unclean and evil and traitor.  People would have gone to see him to pay their taxes and otherwise would have had nothing at all to do with him.  He would have been considered a traitor to his race.  So when Jesus, the holy and righteous rabbi He was, walked by Matthew sitting there at his tax gathering booth very naturally He said to him, “You filthy piece of trash!  I can’t believe you would turn your back on your own people in favor of a lifestyle of temporary luxury provided by the forces of evil in this world.  Rest assured, you’ll get your due when the time is right.”  And the crowds around them cheered and clapped and heaped scorn upon this vile traitor.  No, of course He didn’t do that.  No, as Matthew records, “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  And he rose and followed him.”

Here was a particularly concentrated dose of the symptoms of sin in the world.  Greed and treachery and jealousy and covetousness and idolatry.  Need I go on?  And so what does Jesus do?  He injects His holiness into the heart of the virus and immediately it’s washed away.  Matthew gets completely infected by Jesus’ contagious holiness and leaves everything behind to follow Him.  But there’s more.  Luke records that after this happened Matthew threw a huge party for all his friends.  And exactly what kind of friends do you suppose a tax collector—a member of the lowest cultural class among the Jews—had that he could invite to such a party?  This invite list would have been the Who’s Who roll call of skid row.  There were other tax collectors and other “sinners” of varying degrees.  And there in the midst of them was Jesus and the disciples.  You see, the thing about something contagious is that you have to be around it in order to catch it.  And, if you’re trying to spread a contagion, the more exposure you can get the better.  Matthew caught it, experienced the transformation God’s holiness causes in us, and immediately sought out all of his friends to get them exposed as well.  When they were guess what probably happened.  They went on to expose others, spreading the anti-virus, advancing the kingdom of God.

Well, given the message Jesus came to proclaim and which those who had been impacted by His holiness went on to spread it would seem to be a no brainer that everybody would want to jump on board with this.  Where’s the line to get exposed to this life-changing, contagious holiness so we can sign up, right?  Here’s the problem, what Jesus was doing was introducing a radically new way of thinking about God and it was slow to catch.  Now, a careful reading of the Old Testament through the lens of Christ shows that God hadn’t changed at all—indeed, He was pretty clear that the formation of Israel was all about creating a kingdom basecamp from which His contagious holiness could be spread throughout the world, driving back the forces of sin and making life better for everybody.  Rather, what Jesus was introducing was a new way of thinking about God as far as the people were concerned.  You see, over time, God’s people had come to think of themselves no longer as a sort of city on the hill, but as the guardians of a sacred way of life over and against the death the world around them embraced.  And, when you think about the way people have always been and examine the experiences the people of Israel went through that they began thinking like this should come as no surprise at all.  They had been burned more times than they cared to count and had learned to look at the world around them as the enemy.  Now, if someone wanted to come and join them that was great and all, but they had to jump through the appropriate hoops which grew increasingly narrow the closer to the “truth” you got.  Yet here Jesus was claiming to speak for God and throwing open wide the doors to fellowship with Him that the people had done such a careful job of closing and locking.  If He kept opening the doors like this there was no telling who was going to get in and then what would their nice, neat little community look like?

This mindset is put rather starkly on display in what comes next.  Come back to the text with me here at v. 11.  Matthew throws this party for all his sinful buddies and Jesus and the disciples are there hanging out, having a great time, and infecting all the people around them, “And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?  [Doesn’t he know they are evil and that if He hangs around with them too long they might start to drag Him down?  Besides, letting their kind into the fellowship of God will cheapen it for the rest of it.  We’ve got to protect His holiness in order to keep it unspoiled from the world.]’”  Okay, so I just added that last part in but they were probably thinking something along these lines.  That’s how people have thought about God a lot over the centuries…even the Christian ones.

We are sorely tempted to think about God’s holiness as a treasure to be guarded instead of a cure to be spread.  And again, if you think about it in the right way it makes perfect sense that even Christians today would do this.  The culture is changing around us.  A generation ago being a part of a church was generally considered to be a social advantage.  Sundays and Wednesdays were protected times.  A baseline biblical literacy pervaded the culture.  A basic understanding and acceptance of Christian values and virtues was assumed.  You could say “Jesus” in public without people thinking you were cursing or else being offended by your microaggression.  Today that’s not the case.  Today the church—or at least the Evangelical church—is increasingly becoming an embattled minority.  And what do embattled minorities tend to do when the world is against them?  They go the way of the Amish.  They hunker down in the bunker, close their ranks up tight, and wait for the storm to pass.  They protect their traditions at all costs and avoid any even potentially harmful entanglements with outsiders.  They forcefully expel any members of their group who get too cozy with the broader culture.  This is exactly what the Jews were doing under the Romans and it is what we far too often do in our culture today.  Sure we still proclaim the good news to the godless, but we tend to do it from the safety and comfort of our bunkers.  Again, there are lots of reasons for this, but the fact that we do it at all is the problem.

And as it turns out, Jesus had a response to this.  Look at v. 12: “But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”  Literarily speaking, this is an inclusio which is where one idea is repeated on either side of a central point.  Its purpose is to make something more memorable, and given how well this is remembered, I would say it worked.  In other words, though, what Jesus is sarcastically saying is this: “Folks who are already straight with God don’t need Me.  If you’re straight with God, you don’t need Me.  I’m going after those who are all torn up with sin in order to make them well by exposing them to the transformational holiness of God.  I came to draw them nearer to God.  This is consistent with what My Father has always been doing.  What My Father wants is not a bunch of religious exercises, but the expansion of His kingdom through acts of mercy toward those who are still broken by the sin-virus.”

So then, the question we need to answer is simple: which way are we going to think about the holiness of God?  Are we going to follow the lead of the Pharisees and many churches today (who, by the way, are endeavoring to work out their love of God they’re just driven by some wrong ideas about Him)?  Or, are we going to follow the example of Jesus and work our hardest to expose as many people to His holiness as possible?  Now, the answer to this may seem like it should be obvious, but let’s not jump too fast to any conclusions because our answer has implications that we may or may not be ready to embrace.  For instance, what does it mean if we are going to follow the lead of the Pharisees—that we’re all evil?  No, it will mean that we will likely have a really close community here.  Outsiders will occasionally break in, but on the whole, we’ll stay a pretty consistent size.  We’ll keep doing a lot of the same things over and over again each year and will have about the same impact.  We might develop a reputation in the community as being the place where everybody mostly has everything together…but where broken folks aren’t really welcome.  It’ll be really comfortable for us.  It’ll be safe and familiar.  Most everybody here will talk about what a great place Central is.  But, our real impact for the kingdom will be negligible.  We’ll celebrate a few small successes in ways wildly out of proportion to their size.  And we’ll see very little real life change happen.  People won’t necessarily move away from Jesus, but they won’t really move in His direction either.  We’ll keep ourselves fairly well inoculated from the sin-virus wreaking havoc around us, but that’ll be about the extent of our work.

Now, Jesus’ approach can easily be made to sound a great deal more exciting than the Pharisees’ approach, but let’s make no mistake: it’s a whole lot messier.  It means getting out into the community and getting involved with folks who aren’t like us.  We’ll encounter folks whose lives are messy.  That doesn’t mean, by the way, that our lives aren’t messy too—they are—we just tend to have well-developed church filters so the messes don’t hang out where everybody can see them.  It means that folks may connect here who have neither connection with nor understanding of our traditions and history.  They won’t know how we do things and they won’t really care.  It might mean we have to change the way we do someg things.  Most of all, we’ll start doing fewer things around here and a lot more things out there because that’s where the people who need the healing and help of the Gospel are.  They’re at Midway.  They’re on the ball fields.  They’re in the woods.  They’re at the Fair.  They’re at work.  They’re in their homes.

Not all that long ago we could rely on them coming to us—which allowed us to create really comfortable places for them to come.  Now they don’t.  We’ve gotten back to the way things had always been before, that is, we have to go to them.  We serve the God who seeks us with such a passion that He came to earth Himself in order to save us.  When our culture was so thoroughly Christianized that people came to church because they felt like they were supposed to (which was, believe it or not, an exception to the general rule of the last 2,000 years, even in the West) we forgot that in the Great Commission Jesus told us to go, not stay and wait for them to come to us.  But for a tiny slice of history that happens to be when most of us lived the most impressionable times of our lives people have never naturally sought out the church.  The church was out among them, spreading the contagious holiness of God, and they caught it and connected.  That was and is the way of Jesus.  Is this approach harder than the way of the Pharisees?  Yes.  But the results are far more in line with what He was doing than anything the Pharisees ever mustered whether those Pharisees were of the 1st century or the 21st century.

Our world is deeply affected by the sin virus that Adam and Eve unleashed on humanity.  The only cure is found in the contagious holiness of Jesus.  If we want to be on board with what He came to do, we need to be spreading it too.  Jesus’ holiness is contagious: spread it!  And the only way to spread it is to get out where the sin-sick are because the healthy don’t need the cure.  Jesus’ holiness is contagious: spread it!  Spread it because the world depends on it.  Jesus’ holiness is contagious: spread it!