Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Test of Holiness

 A few years ago, I was out running errands on a Saturday and stopped to get gas.  I zipped my credit card through the card reader, entered my zip code, and then saw a message that said, “Card not accepted.”  I tried again.  This time, the message said, “Pay inside.”  I was instantly irritated, because I was in a hurry, and now I would have to interact with a human being.  But I went inside and explained my predicament to the man behind the counter.  First of all, he didn’t seem sufficiently sorry for the inconvenience I had experienced.  He offered no apology, no “Machines…what’re you gonna do?”  He didn’t offer me some free ding-dongs to assuage my fury.  He simply asked, “How much gas do you need?”  I said that I didn’t know.  I just needed to fill up.  He said he couldn’t do that.  He needed to know an exact amount before I started pumping.  I said, “Look, I’ve done this before.  I leave my credit card with you, you turn on the pump, I come back here and sign when I’m done.”  He said that wasn’t possible.  Essentially, he was telling me I was wrong.  I was a liar or a fool, or both.  And he did this in poor English, which made it even more irritating.  As an aside, when I am angry, I don’t think rationally.  In fact, I think in ways that are comically absurd.  For instance, in that moment, I took his poor English as a personal affront, as if forty years earlier, as a boy in Pakistan, he intentionally refused to learn English simply so that he could annoy me someday. Finally, I gave in and made up some arbitrary amount of money I thought I would need to spend to fill up my car and he dutifully punched in the amount, swiped my card, and asked for my zip code.  He then said, “I can’t accept this card.”  Well, that did it.  This was obviously intentional on his part.  I took back my card and said, “You just lost my business.”  I said it loud enough that other people in the store could hear.  I sincerely hoped that the guy ion the store who was carefully choosing some Corn Nuts to go with his Big Red would say, “Well, if that perfectly reasonable fellow won’t patronize this establishment, perhaps I should take my business elsewhere as well.”  I stormed out.  Later, I related this story to my wife.  My wife—who is supposed to take my side in all things—said in an irritatingly gentle voice, “You know we just moved, right?  So perhaps you used our old zip code instead of our new one…”  I knew then that she was right.  I had yelled at a perfectly innocent Pakistani.  I was the jerk.
Here is why that story matters: We tend to think of holiness in terms of religiosity and morality.  The standards can be rather arbitrary, depending on who you talk to.  I know that when I was growing up, I judged the sincerity of a person’s Christianity by how often they went to church, whether they read the Bible regularly, and whether they drank alcohol or used foul language.  Your own standards of judgment might have been slightly different.  But when someone asked Jesus to reduce the Christian faith into its most basic form, He said there were two commands that every other command was subordinate to: Love the Lord and love your neighbor.  And in fact, those two commands are inextricably linked.  According to 1 John 4:20, if you don’t love your fellow human being, you don’t love God.  In other words, the way we treat people is the true test of holiness.  And on that Saturday afternoon, I failed.  It really didn’t matter that I had been to church that Sunday, got up that morning and spent time in the Word, or that I didn’t have any alcohol in my system, or that I didn’t use any curse words.  The way I treated the man in the gas station rendered all of that moot.  I was a hypocrite at that moment.  There was no holiness in me. 
            Our relationships matter to God.  And as we continue to study Colossians, this handbook on holy living, we come to this passage (Colossians 3:18-4:1) that deals with some of our most important relationships.  There are longer passages that deal with these issues, particularly Ephesians 5 and 6.  But here, very briefly, we see one key concept for each of these important relationships.  The point is not that if you’re a truly holy person, you’ll have perfect relationships; but that your holiness should be evident in how you treat the people you spend the most time with.  It would have been very easy for me to respond graciously to that man in the gas station; that’s what makes that story so embarrassing for me.  But it’s much harder to be consistently holy in the way I treat my wife, my kids, and the people with whom I work, because they see me every day for hours a day; they see me in a variety of situations. They see the parts of me no one else gets to see; the stuff I tend to hide from the rest of you.  They see my true character.  So this Sunday, we'll take a look at our most important relationships through the eyes of Colossians.  We'll see the standard God holds us to.  And as an additional bonus, you'll get to see me deal with a couple of highly controversial topics--the closest thing you'll ever see to a preacher walking a high wire without a net! 

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