Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 30, 2019
"Hearts Strengthened in Holiness" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, June 23, I began our summer series of sermons on prayer. I emphasized how prayer is mostly a matter of opening our hearts, paying closer attention to the workings of our hearts.
Our brother Paul in 1st Thessalonians 3:12 (1st Thessalonians has the distinction of being the first New Testament book written!): “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all …”
Paul continues his prayer for the church in Thessalonia by asking God to “strengthen your hearts in holiness.” In this edition of the Advance, I’d like to ponder what it means to have our hearts “strengthened … in holiness.” What might this mean for us?
Paul points out a possible understanding in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians 1:20–22: “For in him (Jesus) every one of God’s promises is a ‘yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’ to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.”
In other words, for us to be strengthened in our hearts requires us to become more aware of the anointing we’ve received in Christ through our baptism. In this anointing the Holy Spirit moved into our hearts to lay claim to what now belongs securely to God. We’ve been paid for, ransomed, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus so now we belong wholeheartedly to the One Who Made Us.
Since God fully embraced us in Christ, we’re called to have our hearts strengthened in holiness. To understand what this means, I propose this question: “Can any one of us become holy on our own?” The answer, of course, is no!
Not one of us can ever achieve holiness on our own. To believe we can become holy thorough our own actions or through our own will is a seriously unwell belief. On our own, we can only make a muddle of any attempts to become holy.
On our own, we can only stumble about in the darkness of religious ignorance, fighting each other over who has IT right. Religious ignorance, frankly, is loved in our land. Religious ignorance under-girds much of our fractured politics. No one - NO ONE - has it right when it comes to God!
By then, how might our hearts become holy? Through the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. As Catherine Mowry LaCugna notes in God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life: “Only the Holy Spirit can make us holy.” When we allow the Holy Spirit to do what the Holy Spirit does, then our hearts do, indeed, become transformed – strengthened in holiness.
As I mentioned on Sunday, our hearts are holy ground. Our hearts are much more than mere pumps to push the blood through our bodies. Our hearts are where the Holy Spirit of God works to bring about our complete transformation into the holiness flowing abundantly from God.
And what does it mean to be transformed into the holiness of God? It means we begin to more fully love everything and everyone the way God loves everything and everyone.
Why did God create? God created all there is in order to unite with all creatures and all creation. As LaCugna states it: “God is not self-contained, egotistical and self-absorbed but (is) overflowing love, (an) outreaching desire for union with all that God has made.”
She continues: “God conceives every creature ex amore (out of love) … God is assiduously with us and for us, desiring nothing other than to become fully one with each of us, to eradicate sin and death, and to live with us for all eternity … Entering into divine life therefore is impossible unless we also enter into a life of love and communion with others.”
To have our hearts grow in holiness means simply to become more loving; loving all that God loves! To be unholy means we’ve chosen not to love as God loves, not to love abundantly, to love narrowly. To be holy means we embrace everyone everywhere in an inclusive community of all God’s creatures. To be unholy is to set up barriers of exclusion to anyone. As LaCugna writes: “Language that eclipses some persons, language that silences, denigrates, or disheartens persons … is unholy.”
When we allow God’s Holy Spirit full access to our hearts, we begin our journey of discipleship in Christ Jesus. When we say “yes” to God’s Spirit, just as Mary said “yes” to God’s Spirit two thousand years ago, it’s then we begin the Spirit-powered process of transformation. This process of transformation is spoken of as salvation. And this process starts in our holy and human hearts.
When we allow the Holy Spirit into our hearts, then we can speak to each other heart-to-heart. Isn’t this how we all want to communicate with one another: heart-to-heart? Isn’t this how our hearts are strengthened and made holy?
Yet how often do we truly do this? I know in my own past I did not often speak heart-to-heart. I communicated in a more guarded way, the opposite of speaking heart-to-heart. I believe a great deal of our common communication is guarded and guarded communication does not arise from the holy and human heart.
As I age and reflect on my long-life, I find myself becoming more capable of heart-to-heart communication. I don’t need to defend myself as I did in the past. Heart-to-heart communication heals the heart and opens the heart to holiness.
Often in our world we live and communicate from the mind. Mind-talk isn’t bad but it’s not holy in the way heart-to-heart talk is holy. As the 12th Century Spanish rabbi Moses Ibn Ezra taught us: “(Only) words that come from the heart (can) enter the heart.”
As I mentioned Sunday, prayer is not a monologue. Prayer is a dialogue; primarily a heart-to-heart dialogue with the Almighty. To pray heart-to-heart necessitates not only openness and vulnerability but also the courage to open our hearts to the scrutiny of the Almighty.
This way of praying, this mode of communicating, necessitates trust in the working of God’s Holy Spirit. As Jurgen Moltmann notes in The Source of Life: “Through God’s Spirit, God confers inexhaustible trust on human beings, and through this trust we ourselves again become trustworthy … Through this great trust which God shows us, we acquire a firm trust in ourselves, and trust in our neighbor.”
Moltmann continues: “The Christian congregation is a matter of trust. It is a place where we put aside our natural mistrust and the protective cloak which we don in the day-to-day competitive struggle and fight for survival. (In the Christian congregation) we can open ourselves and trust ourselves to other people.” When we communicate heart-to-heart with God and one another, we grow in faith and live more fully in love.
Isn’t it clear that Jesus spoke to everyone heart-to-heart? Do we imagine Jesus sat around with his disciples discussing the weather or the sports scores? Jesus spoke heart-to-heart because of who he was and who he is. We’re called to do the same. We’re called to holiness and this call is heard most fully in the quiet sanctuary of the holy and human heart. Prayer is often a deep listening to one’s holy and human heart.
Our brother Paul in 2nd Corinthians 3:3 teaches us that we are all “letters” of Christ, “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” In other words, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Living God, has been “writing” on our hearts since our conception. But we should share with each other what God’s Holy Spirit has written on the sacred parchment of our hearts.
When we share what is written on our hearts, we’re truly speaking heart-to-heart. When we share these Spirit-authored holy heart writings, then we are surely being strengthened in holiness.
As believers, we cherish the Bible and rightly so! The Bible is the work of God’s Holy Spirit writing on many authors’ hearts over a period of almost a thousand years. So we rightly understand the Bible as sacred.
But the writing the Holy Spirit has authored on each of our hearts is also sacred and also holy. The more we share what is written on our hearts, the more we become holy. The more we share what is Spirit-written within us, the more closely we are bonded together in love and in Christ. The more bonded together we become in love and in Christ, the more holy we become.
Prayer is essentially easy. But it’s also decidedly difficult. Many of us, even those retired, are busier than we wish to be. We have neither the time nor the discipline to sit quietly and listen with our hearts - listen to our hearts. I’m as guilty of this as anyone I know - maybe even more so! Yet I know full well that I cannot be a true pastor to our beloved church unless I attend to prayer.
My hope is that over the next two months, as we explore the dynamics of prayer, I’ll again allow my heart to do what my heart was created to do. And, as I stated Sunday, we’d all well-heed the great African theologian, Augustine, who taught us that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee!”