Thursday, May 9, 2013
Happy or Holy?
It is often said that the Danish Lutherans were divided – either happy or holy. The happy ones followed Bishop Nickolai Grundtvig, the Lutheran who penned "Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand". The happy Danes focused on the outward gifts of God’s grace as they come to us in Word and Sacrament. The holy Danes were pietists and focused on the inner holiness of the Christian and how it is lived out in moral behavior.
Today it seems we are all Danes as Christians tend to fall into two camps. Those who believe God wants to make you happy and those who believe God wants to make you holy. As with anything, there is truth to both – unless, of course, you believe God wants you to be bad and sad. The problem is that we use these as crutches to steady a weak faith. If we are not happy, we fear God is not happy with us and so we work to fix our relationship in order to get the happiness we desire. If we are not holy, we fear that we cannot possibly belong to God and so we work to be holier so that we can be acceptable to God. Both have become gimmicks to explain Christian life in a way that makes it reasonable, easier to accept, and easier to live... cause and effect.
The truth is not easy or simple. Though at times we are happy, even very happy, Jesus insists that we will have trials and tribulation in this life in the world. He promises neither that we will be happy always nor that we will be made holy and therefore immune from temptation, sin, and despair. Our hope lies not in our happiness or in our holiness or even in us. Our hope lies in Christ. We are encouraged to hope and rejoice because He has overcome the world.
In the world we will have trials and tribulation. There is no way out. What is finished in eternity, still is not yet complete in time. Until He comes again, we face trouble, persecution, and test. We can't escape it. It is going to happen. Jesus has won. Tribulation in the life of the Christian does not diminish Jesus’ victory. But His victory is not complete until He comes again, until all His enemies are under His feet, and until this earth and this heaven gives way to the new heaven and new earth of His promise. Until that day and all things go their appointed end, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling as St. Paul says; with God’s all sufficient grace.
Take heart, dear people of God. Jesus has overcome the world. The world, the devil, and the flesh can afflict you but they cannot steal you from God. They can fill life with trouble but they cannot win. They can tempt you but they cannot condemn you. You belong Christ. Even now while you struggle against principalities and powers. Christ has overcome the world. Our hope lies not in us but in Him... always!
We can be happy but happiness is neither our comfort nor the goal of our lives. It comes and it goes. We all go through dry times when our hearts are sad and lives are filled with struggle. Happiness is not our comfort. Christ is our comfort. Happiness is not our goal. Christ is our goal. Happiness, or better, contentment and peace come from Christ.
We can work to be holy but holiness will not be finished in us until Christ raises us from death to the glorious flesh of His promise and to the heavenly glory beyond our earthly imagination. That does not mean we do not seek and strive to be holy. This is our calling in baptism. To be the holy people God has declared us to be in Christ. Neither can holiness be our comfort. We have no boast in ourselves. We have no comfort from progress in holiness. Our boast is Christ. Our comfort is Christ.
Christ has overcome the world and in Him we shall endure, we shall receive His promise, we shall share in His triumph for all eternity. The great problem of faith is that we attempt to take our comfort not from Christ but from momentary happiness or from progress in holiness reflected in better behavior. Our comfort, our strength, our peace, and our victory lies not in these but in Christ alone.
Think of your childhood. Once it was so tempting to measure your parents' affection in terms of gifts and things. Love was measured by what your parents gave you. But when things went bad and in time of need, you left these things and sought something else – the comfort of their presence and the embrace of their arms in love. So it is for us as Christians. It is our temptation to think happiness or holiness are the measure of faith. Yet when things go bad, none of these mean anything. We want and we need and we have Christ as our comfort and our peace.
His presence with us in Word and Sacrament, the promise of our own future tied up in His resurrection, these mean more than things. Our comfort comes not from earthly happiness or progress in holiness. Our comfort is in Christ alone, in what Christ alone has won by His life-giving death and His victorious resurrection. If we have Christ, then we have everything. We have a future without tear, sorrow, death, or struggle. We have holiness that cannot be stained because it is the holiness not of our achievement but of Christ's gift. If we have Christ we have everything. Tribulation cannot steal our peace, trouble cannot rob us of happiness, failure cannot take away our holiness... all of these we have in Christ. So all that remains for us is to remain in Christ, to hear his voice in His Word absolving our sins, to rejoice in His gift in the cleansing waters of our baptism, and to eat and drink His flesh and blood in the Eucharist. The work of the Spirit is to point us to Christ, to confirm our hope in Christ, and to sustain this hope from the allure of happiness or the despair of tribulation. Christ is our all, our everything, our happiness and our holiness, our joy, and our peace. Amen.