February 2017: Love is wholeness

Love is a VerbThe following is an excerpt from Love is a Verb: A one-year spiritual practice resource, written by Leo Hartshorn. The resource explores the 2017 convention theme Love is a Verb through the lens of Richard Foster’s six spiritual streams. Download the entire booklet from the Mennonite Church USA resource center.

The holiness stream

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written,‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)

The story of Jesus’ temptations follows his baptism in the Jordan River and immediately precedes his public ministry in Galilee. The Spirit, God’s agent in his baptism, leads Jesus into the wilderness, which echoes the Exodus story. The wilderness was also considered the haunt of demons. Jesus, the

“New Israel,” is tested in the wilderness but remains faithful to God. He is tested by the devil particularly as to his role as “Son of God,” a term also used in the Hebrew Bible of Israel, and as God’s ruling king (Note the words “You are my beloved Son” at his baptism and that each temptation begins with, “If you are the Son of God.”). The devil represents the evil power behind the kingdoms of this world. Will Jesus remain true to the nature of his calling as Son of God, harbinger of the reign of God, or will he succumb to a role defined by the devil, power and empire?

His first temptation or test by the devil is to turn the desert stones into bread, manna in the desert. Jesus has been fasting for 40 days and nights, echoing Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. Will Jesus use his power to satisfy his own hunger — not at God’s, but at the devil’s, bidding? This test does not pit spiritual against physical needs but rather raises the question of Jesus’ ultimate trust and allegiance. And yet, behind this temptation lurks the test to see if Jesus will feed the multitudes and perform signs in order to secure his rule among the people. In an agrarian peasant society, where almost 90 percent of the people live in poverty, will he pander to the populace and win the people through their stomachs? Will he lead a kingdom based solely on social reform? It is, for Jesus, a real temptation.

To affirm his allegiance to God, God’s word and God’s reign, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, a text concerning the Exodus wilderness. Although Jesus will feed the hungry, the reign of God is more than bread alone. This is not a one-time temptation for Jesus; each of these tests symbolizes recurring temptations throughout his ministry. For example, when Jesus provided bread for the people, they wanted to take him by force and make him king (see John 6:15).

In his second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the holy city and places him on the pinnacle of the temple. The Jerusalem temple is the seat of economic and religious power, where all nations will eventually be gathered together. In Jesus’ day the temple has become a tool of exploitation; the elites are ruling over the common people. Will Jesus throw himself off the temple at the devil’s bidding, miraculously land and reveal himself as the true Lord of the temple? The devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12 concerning God’s protection to encourage Jesus to perform this miraculous floating feat. Again, Jesus quotes from the wilderness experience in Deuteronomy 6:16, when Israel’s faithfulness to God was tested and they failed. Jesus will not fail the test nor falter from his sole allegiance to God.

In his third and final temptation, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. The devil, who claims to hold the power of all earthly empires, offers them to Jesus, if Jesus will bow down and worship him. In Jesus’ day the Roman Empire dominated the known world. The political world of ruling by domination is understood to be the devil’s domain. It is not the reign of God. One can imagine what it would realistically take to gain and rule the empires of the world like a Caesar — and the violent means required. These possibilities are laid before Jesus.

Jesus demands that Satan leave and quotes from Deuteronomy 6:13: You shall worship and serve only God. Unlike the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, who turned to idolatry, Jesus remains faithful as God’s Son.

The holiness stream

Holiness is not about rules and regulations or moral perfection, but rather wholeness of life lived within God’s will. The heart of the holiness tradition is about wholly living life according to God’s purposes. We see this stream among the early Anabaptists, Wesleyans, Puritans, Pietists, Assemblies of God and Pentecostals.

The Holiness Stream focuses on a holy life of virtue and purity of heart and action. A person’s life flows from the wellspring of the heart. If the source is stagnant, the stream is stagnant. Striving to live a transformed life of sanctity is not an end in itself but a means of faithfulness and allegiance to God.

Strengths in this tradition include:

1) It focuses on the goal of reflecting the glory of God in one’s life.

2) It centers on the heart as the wellspring of action.

3) It provides hope in character transformation.

4) It calls for spiritual disciplines in order to grow in godliness with the help of God’s grace.

Pitfalls in this tradition are:

1) It can lead to legalism, substituting external requirements and actions for the work of the heart.

2) It can turn into a form of works righteousness, whereby we try to earn God’s favor through moral effort.

3) It can develop into perfectionism, causing us to judge others based upon our own standards of moral achievement.

The holiness stream and the Anabaptist tradition

From its beginnings, the Anabaptist movement had a strong strain of holiness. The concept of Gelassenheit, or self-surrender, reflected a desire to wholly yield to God’s will. A strong ethical dimension in the Anabaptist tradition emphasized discipleship. At the center of that ethic was an active, demonstrative love for God and one another.

The Anabaptist emphasis upon the believing community extended holiness beyond individuals to the church as a corporate body. Early Anabaptist theology made a dramatic dichotomy between the church and the world into two distinct realities. The Anabaptist concept of the “pure church” reflected a desire to form a church wholly separate from and in nonconformity with the world. The practices of mutual counsel and church discipline were efforts to form a holy church.

The strengths and the pitfalls of the holiness stream are evident in the Anabaptist tradition. The virtuous lives of early Anabaptists admirably reflected Christ to the world around them. They were able to maintain a critical distance from the temptations of the world and the violent rule of its empires. And yet, the concept of the pure church and the disciplines needed to maintain it often turned into harsh legalism, moral perfectionism and a graceless and merciless kind of works righteousness. For some, holiness became equated with dress and avoiding worldly pleasures.

The holiness stream and Love is a verb

In connecting these two themes, let’s consider the heart as the source of moral action. Expressing love in action calls for purity of heart. Examining our relationship with God, our motives and our heart is key to action that is truly loving. The heart, from which love springs, is the source of godly action. Holiness connects purity of heart to social action. James puts it this way:

Religion, that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 1:27 (NRSV)