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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

A Holy People
February 16, 2012

I grew up in a church environment where we took seriously the quaint King James rendering of 1 Peter 2:9: “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people.…” Our church always had its fair share of peculiar folks in the pew, often from group homes of one kind or another. But the peculiarity wasn’t confined just to the “special needs” folk in our midst – all of us felt that God’s claim on us set us apart from the world in such a way that we were noticeably different. We didn’t drink, smoke, or chew, or run with those who do. The women didn’t adorn themselves in a “worldly” way, with make-up, jewelry, and the like. We tried to keep the Sabbath holy by avoiding not merely work, but also games. The list of visible markers that helped us to distinguish who was a serious Christian from who was not was as rigorous as it was lengthy.

Eventually I came to realize that gauging holiness by such visible signs was far too easy, and sometimes it was sheer wrong; holiness cannot be measured by external appearances. One of Jesus’ primary messages was to remind his followers of what God had said to Samuel centuries earlier: We tend to evaluate folk by external appearances, but God looks on the heart. (I Samuel 16:7)

Holiness is about more than merely looking “peculiar,” more than being visibly different from the world around us. It is about being wholeheartedly dedicated to a way of life that demonstrates the righteousness, peace and joy that mark the kingdom of God. (Romans 14:17)

Sanctification – a $64,000 word meaning “becoming holy” – is the life-long process of growing ever more fully to love God and to live to God’s glory. This process is in fact a three-way dance – each partner in the dance is necessary for the dance to work properly.

The first partner in the dance is God. God chooses unilaterally to claim us for himself, just as happened with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, where a voice came from heaven, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (Mark 9:7) God claims us – this is the first act of being made holy unto the Lord. Indeed, the term “holy” literally means being “set apart” to God’s glory.

God sets us apart from the world, with all its reigning laws of the jungle, to be a holy people. Period. Well, not quite a period. In fact, there is abundant biblical evidence that we are expected also to do give our best efforts to becoming the people God has called us be. God sets us apart, whereupon we have to set ourselves apart. We ourselves are the second partner in the dance of holiness. The Westminster Confession urges us to “improve our baptism” by willfully setting aside the ways of the old life, and taking upon ourselves the new way of life in Christ. (“Larger Catechism” Q. 167)

God is the first partner, and I am the second in the dance of sanctification. The third partner is – you! We are responsible for one another’s growth into sainthood, encouraging and admonishing each other to live worthy of the Gospel. This is why at Baptism, which marks the beginning of sanctification, the whole church joins in committing to the growth and welfare of the one being baptized.

Thus Scripture exhorts us not to forsake gathering with each other, so that we may continually “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24-25) We keep company with each other in order spur each other into being the holy people God intends us to be. Cutting ourselves off from each other’s company goes against the grain of God’s purpose in making us a holy people.

Sanctification is a lifelong journey that goes ever deeper, a three-way partnership between God, me, and the community God has given to encourage, nurture, and admonish me. It cannot be accomplished without all three partners working together. It requires as much patience as it does resolve – patience with God’s Spirit working in me, patience with myself as I seek to follow the Lord, and patience with the community that God has given me to help me grow day by day and year by year, in righteousness, peace and joy.

Growing with you in Christ,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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