The prophets of the post-Christian world increasingly seem correct, though in Texas, their vision of the world may seem a distant glimmer. But according to the best surveys, religious participation continues to decline and church numbers continue to sink.
Far from being an occasion for despair, I want to ask whether this decline offers an unintended opportunity to revisit what it means for the people of God to be holy.
As the footprint of the church diminishes, I suggest we will find holiness means—more often than not—being in the midst of the gathering world rather than apart from it.
Upon one reading of the Old Testament, we might be tempted in the direction of images of the tabernacle and the holy of holies dancing in our heads. But one lingering thread from the Old Testament forbids this: God remains present constantly, even to a disobedient people.
God travels as a cloud by day, a fire by night, a presence in the tabernacle, a voice from the prophets, wooing and present to a people who distance themselves from God.
The scandal of God’s constant presence
Constantly present: It is this aspect of God’s own holiness that remains scandalous for us in the Gospels, as well.
Consider Luke 7:34-39:
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
We find the Holy One of Israel—God in the flesh—present to tax collectors and sinners, joining them at the table.
What Christ’s presence in the world means for us
To say that Christ is named among the drunkards and sinners is not to negate any of Jesus’ words concerning the behavior of the disciples or any of Paul’s concerns about the peculiar nature of Christian discipleship.
Christians are to be pure of heart, innocent as doves, loving, wise, obedient to parents, giving to those who ask, holding unwaveringly to the truth of the Gospel.
But to mirror the holiness of God in the world is not opposed to this life. Rather, it means—like Christ—being present in the midst of the world, faithful to God’s call, being willing to be counted among the disreputable by present-day Pharisees, so that in doing so, the presence of God might find its way to all corners of the world.
Avoid the temptation to glamorize God’s presence
There is a temptation to glamorize times when this way of Christ leads down dark passageways and into seedy underbellies.
As Luke unfolds, Jesus begins his ministry with John the Baptist’s approval and with the crowd’s acclaim, a crowd who quickly tries to throw Jesus off a cliff. But this journey away from public acclaim and into the dark is not meant to valorize the darkness, but to continue showing us that being holy is a matter of being faithful to God.
Romanticizing the martyrs ignores that they too often longed for quieter days. It is to ignore that Peter—though he was taken by the hands where he did not want to go—went to death out of faithfulness, not a desire to suffer.
If we desire to be holy in this new world, we must remember Christ’s vision of holiness is not one that separates holiness from proximity to sin but, rather, finds the two together more often than not: weeds among tares, sheep beckoning to goats.
A call to holiness embraces the call of God to be among tax collectors and sinners, and indeed to be counted among them by naysayers. In the midst of this call, we understand what it means for God to be holy: remaining present and faithful to those who would betray him.
Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian ethics and practical theology and the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene. Email him at Myles.Werntz@hsutx.edu.