When I was a child, my mother kept her fine china in a cabinet in the dining room like most American mothers. The collection of bowls, platters, plates, cups, and saucers were made of the finest materials, decorated with classy white flowers and leaves, and edged in platinum. Our particular set of china was “Grace Fine China, Concerto” made (ironically enough) in Japan.
I remember being told once as a child that china are special dishes you use to serve a meal when important people come to your house. I suppose no one that important ever came to our house, because in the eighteen years of living in my parents’ home, I don’t ever remember using that china. Presidents Carter, Reagan, or Bush never came to our house for a meal, so the china remained housed in the china cabinet, put away for a special purpose, set aside and protected from the daily use of holding cereal and milk, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and fried pork chops.
Our china was too exquisite, too elegant to be covered with ketchup and fish sticks.
It was special.
It was sacred.
It was holy.
A Holy Nation
The Apostle Peter, in building up and encouraging the churches in his care, calls them “living stones…being built up as a spiritual house” with Jesus as the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:5). Some people tripped over this cornerstone, but not the church, not those who believe in Jesus the Messiah. Peter further describes the living stones with these words:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV)
As the mercy-receiving people of God, we have received the moniker “holy nation.” As those who are being transformed into the image of God who is holy, we bear the marks of holiness.
We are special.
We are sacred.
We are holy.
We confess as much in our creeds. We confess “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” To be holy does not necessarily mean we are “religious,” even though our religious practices form us and perfect us in holiness. To be holy, like my mother’s fine china, means we are set apart for a special purpose. We are a royal priesthood, holy representatives sent into the world to make known the goodness of God and the way to true human flourishing. Unlike my mother’s china, we are not reserved for the “important people.” We are sent into every person’s world.
Don’t Drink, Smoke, or Chew
Our holiness isn’t a matter of how we dress or what kind of food we eat. The various holiness revivals and movements throughout the history of American Evangelicalism have sadly reduced holiness to a short list of moral codes not found in the ethics of Jesus Christ. This short list can be summed up by the old fundamentalist adage: don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls who do.
As the sacred people of God set aside for a purpose, holiness cannot be reduced to a list of personal choices. To choose to live out our identity as a holy people is to live as a distinctively different people who demonstrate the life of God in a dying world. As the sacred people of God, holiness cannot be reduced to a list of personal choices. Click To Tweet
Help From the Early Church
The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus is a late, second-century Christian letter of unknown origins. It can help as we seek to forge an identity of holiness without the baggage of fundamentalism. The early Christian author writes:
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life….
But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. (5:1-2,4)
What makes us holy is not what we eat or how we dress. The demonstration of our holiness is the “constitution of (our) own citizenship.” In other words, what marks us as holy is the way we love. The only bi-laws in our constitution are love. The only bi-laws in our constitution are: Love God. Love neighbor. Love one another. Love enemies. Click To Tweet
This constitution, the way these Christians lived, contradicted expectations because their manner of living was so different. One important example was the Christian value for all human life. Infanticide was an acceptable practice in ancient Roman culture. It was not illegal to discard a baby if the child was deformed, a girl, or in anyway unwanted. Exposure was the common practice. Babies would be tossed in the garbage dumps outside of Roman cities where they would die from exposure. Christians were known for rescuing these discarded babies and even adopting them into their own homes.
The letter continues:
In a word, what the soul is in a body, this the Christians are in the world. Click To Tweet
They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.
In a word, what the soul is in a body, this the Christians are in the world. (5:5, 6:1)
We dwell in our own particular countries, many of us in the United States. We dwell in this country, but only as sojourners. Our citizenship is in heaven and from heaven, so our identity is first and foremost as the peculiar, set-apart, holy, people of God. We share in all things in the communities where we live, but we endure ridicule and insults as strangers who belong to a global community of faith.
Bearing Witness to the Alternative Way of Jesus
The communities many of us live in are filled with fear and anxiety, anger and angst made exponentially worse by politicians drunk with power and blinded by dualistic, good-guys-and-bad-guys kind of thinking. These fear-mongers play on this anxiety and anger in order to garner votes. In light of the violence and fear so present in the United States, we as the people of God can be the soul in this maddening political body, by resisting the spirit of our age, resisting the anger, finger-pointing, and scapegoating.
We can be the soul, the salt and light, in our local communities by living as the people of love and mercy. In the face of mistrust, we offer faith. In the face of despair, we offer hope. In the face of hate, we offer love. If we are willing to look remarkably different than the world as we love one another as a holy people, then we have a chance, not to change the world, but to bear witness to the world of the alternative and life-giving way of Jesus. We do not change the world by our holiness; changing the world is not our task. Our mission is to love in such a way that people see King Jesus ruling and reigning over a kingdom of love. Jesus is the savior. He is changing the world. In the face of mistrust, we offer faith. In the face of despair, hope. In the face of hate, love. Click To Tweet