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The Mystery of Godliness

May 22, 2017

“The Mystery of Godliness” 1 Timothy 3:14-4:10 © 5.21.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Every afternoon of the work week, our miniature dachshund Chloe sits on the arm of the loveseat in our living room and waits for Susan to come home from the office. Then, every evening, she snuggles down between the arm of the couch and Susan’s left side. Or if she’s in a different mood, she curls up in Susan’s lap with a throw pillow over her. On the weekends, Chloe is at Susan’s heels everywhere Susan goes. If we’re outside, and Susan just goes around the corner of the house where Chloe can’t see her, the dog stands at the gate between the back yard and the carport and whines until Susan returns.

Chloe’s devotion is an example of what we might call “doggieness” or “dogliness” but in humans, when directed toward the Deity, we would term “godliness.” It’s passionate loyalty, the desire to be with the one we love, the distress we feel when God isn’t near. That sort of godliness is expressed by the biblical terms qeosebeia (theosebeia) and qeosebhV (theosebās). We think of the medieval saint caught up in ecstasy, the martyr willing to give his or her life rather than deny Christ, the African-American preacher I saw at a funeral who at sometime during his sermon entered another realm and had to be brought back down to earth by two colleagues.

The great 20th century poet Rainer Maria Rilke put down in rhyme such deep self-giving to God. In The Book of Pilgrimage, he cried out: “Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you./Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you./And without feet I can make my way to you,/without a mouth I can swear your name./Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you/with my heart as with a hand./Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat./And if you consume my brain with fire,/I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood” (II.7 in Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God: 163).

Only a very few will ever be so godly, so devoted in such a way. But there is another sort of godliness that is commendable and biblical, if not always so passionate and self-effacing. We might call it “formal godliness.” Notice I didn’t say “a form of” godliness, which is a term for hypocrisy in the scriptures. No, this is what the author of 1 Timothy is talking about, and, as we will see, is also part and parcel of the Presbyterian tradition we celebrate today.

We may be puzzled by the author’s reference to a “mystery of godliness.” But in the Bible, a mystery is not a puzzle to be solved or a case to be cracked. It’s paradoxically a secret revealed and made known to all by God. It’s a gracious disclosure of how people can be and are saved, how they may live a worthy and holy life.

And that’s what’s so interesting here. The writer, a disciple of Paul, finds the ultimate clues to living a godly life in a hymn that was currently in use in his community. It’s a creed of sorts that summarizes the story of Jesus. And while we are delivered by the Person whose story is recounted in the hymn, it would have been in a liturgy that the author’s community heard it as they sang or recited. In short, worship shapes and guides life. Godliness can be and is taught and reinforced and nurtured in regular gathering with the people of God. Perhaps that’s why the Greek word eusebeia (eusebeia), which we heard translated as “godliness,” can also mean “religion,” an organized way of being pious.

On this Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, it’s worth noting that our standards old and new agree on how God’s people become like him, which is the meaning of “godly,” of course. “Godliness” is being like God, acting as God acts. The Second Helvetic Confession, written by a Reformer named Heinrich Bullinger in 1566, has more to say about godliness than any of our other affirmations. The sacraments, even when administered by the unworthy, are effectual for the godly. Property and money are to be used for godly purposes, and the space for worship is to be arranged for “decorum, necessity, and godly decency.” For Bullinger, the godly evidence that they are such by frequent attendance at worship, by wise decisions with money, and by their discipline.

Godliness could and ought to be taught, according to Bullinger. In a section entitled “Youth to be Instructed in Godliness,” the Reformer observed: “The Lord enjoined his ancient people to exercise the greatest care that young people, even

from infancy, be properly instructed. Moreover, he expressly commanded in his law that they should teach them, and that the mysteries of the sacraments should be explained. Now since it is well known from the writings of the Evangelists and apostles that God has no less concern for the youth of his new people,…the pastors of the churches act most wisely when they early and carefully catechize the youth, laying the first grounds of faith, and faithfully teaching the rudiments of our religion by expounding the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the doctrine of the sacraments, with other such principles and chief heads of our religion. Here let the Church show her faith and diligence in bringing the children to be catechized, desirous and glad to have her children well instructed.”

Fast-forwarding to our own century, the new Directory for Worship notes how worship and the church year shape our lives, forming us as God’s people. “[The] pattern of the Christian year keeps us centered in Christ as we seek to proclaim the story of our faith, grow as Jesus’ disciples, and serve Christ’s mission…. An order of worship offers a meaningful and reliable structure for the church’s encounter with the living God. Over time, an order of worship helps to shape our faith and faithfulness as the people of God, becoming a pattern for how we live as Christians in the world.”

We learn and grow in godliness as we hear Scripture read and proclaimed, sing psalms and hymns, recite creeds and prayers, offer our resources and ourselves in corporate worship, and regularly come to the Lord’s Table. There are other practices, too, by which we grow in godliness. Personal prayer and meditation. Journaling. Walking a labyrinth. Playing and singing music. Dance. Service in mission to others. But as spiritual director Diana Cheifetz notes, even ordinary activities not usually thought of as religious can bring us close to God, especially when traditional practices don’t seem meaningful anymore.

Following the author Anthony Bloom, she suggests this: “Identify an activity you love to do alone, something that doesn’t require too much mental exertion or interruptions (knitting, gardening, working in your woodshop, listening to music, etc.). If you are tight on time, think of spaces you have to yourself that you can use to be with God: walking on your lunch break, waiting in the car to pick up a child.

“Do that for fifteen minutes a day, say, for the next month, consciously inviting God into this space. This is not a time to worry about accomplishing anything, but to just be before God, to share this time with God. Keep an open heart and mind. And see what happens.

“The great comfort is that God is ever seeking us out” (http://www.pcusa.org/news/2017/5/15/re-ruling-elders-spiritual-leaders-may-15/).

The author of 1 Timothy would approve. He disdained what are known as “ascetic” practices, which deny the body, such as in the forbidding of marriage and insisting on abstinence from certain foods. He wanted God’s people instead to celebrate what God had given. At the same time, though, he recommended disciplines in godliness that would bring great gain in this life and in the one to come. Like physical exercise that makes the body strong and healthy, training in godliness, consuming healthy stories instead of silly myths, would benefit the believer.

The writer is promoting an active faith, one that brings benefits, that works itself out in toil and striving for the sake of giving and sustaining hope. A commentator put it this way: “[G]odliness is no static, stained-glass word. It is active—kinetic obedience that springs from a reverent awe of God…. Godliness is not piety as we generally think of it—upturned eyes and folded hands. Godliness cannot be cloistered. The godly among us are those people whose reverent worship of God flows into obedience throughout the week. Only God-struck doers of the Word can rightly be termed godly” (http://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/what-is-godlinesses-paul-s-first-letter-to-timothy.html). Our Directory for Worship insists: “The proclamation of the Word is incomplete if it fails to evoke the response of the people of God…. When the Word is proclaimed, we are called, above all, to discern Jesus Christ, receive his grace, and respond to his call with obedience.”

Speaking of obedience leads us to ask whom we obey, and of course, that’s Jesus Christ. A major, overarching theme of our tradition is the sovereignty of God and its corollary the rejection of idolatry, and it’s the rule of Christ, whom God exalted, that we particularly recall today as we celebrate his ascension. This festival, which is coming up Thursday, is typically linked with the seventh Sunday of Easter, but I moved our observance to this Sunday because I think godliness is most of all following the example of the One who embodied God, who was the paragon of godliness.

The Jesus who ascended was the same Jesus who taught us the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule and paid attention, especially in Luke, to the left-out, the voiceless, the disenfranchised, the people on the margins. Now as Sovereign, he calls all the earth to heed his commands, to do his will.

The prophet Isaiah told us what society looks like when especially those in power follow the way of God, acting with wisdom and godliness, and when they don’t, being foolish and ungodly. We heard the text from one translation, but I want to share this very plain paraphrase from Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson: “ But look! A king will rule in the right way, and his leaders will carry out justice. Each one will stand as a shelter from high winds, provide safe cover in stormy weather. Each will be cool running water in parched land, a huge granite outcrop giving shade in the desert. Anyone who looks will see, anyone who listens will hear. The impulsive will make sound decisions, the tongue-tied will speak with eloquence. No more will fools become celebrities, nor crooks be rewarded with fame. For fools are fools and that’s that, thinking up new ways to do mischief. They leave a wake of wrecked lives and lies about God, turning their backs on the homeless hungry, ignoring those dying of thirst in the streets. And the crooks? Underhanded sneaks they are, inventive in sin and scandal, exploiting the poor with scams and lies, unmoved by the victimized poor. But those who are noble make noble plans, and stand for what is noble.”

The kinetic, faithful godliness the commentator spoke of earlier consists then in doing the opposite of what wicked, ungodly fools and crooks practice. Godly people speak wisdom. Their minds devise strategies for doing good. They try to discern and tell the truth about God’s purpose, including the words “I don’t know” rather often, I would think. And most of all, they care for the poor, providing food and drink, symbolic of all basic necessities, that satisfy and sustain. They raise their voices on behalf of those who are robbed of voice by circumstance, class, and despair. The godly discern when a cause is right, and lend their influence to make sure justice is done. Ungodliness is a practice, a way of life, that gets hold of your very soul. So must godliness be; it has be part and parcel of who you and I are and want to be. Doing justice, showing mercy, telling the truth are the habitual practices of the godly. As they walk humbly with God, they see what God is like, and imitate what God does, as he is known in Jesus, the One now ascended to rule at God’s right hand.

The blogger and pastor John Pavlovitz late last week quoted the well-known saying that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. If we are godly, if we display godliness, then we lend our hands to bend that long arc. Here is some of what Pavlovitz said: “We who occupy this space and time need to understand that the arc of the universe does not bend without us. It never has. It never will.

“Humanity is the irresistible force shaping the crescent we stand upon together; every single life and every infinitesimal, seemingly unimportant decision adjusts its path in ways we can’t always perceive. With each decision, the curvature changes ever so slightly….

“Friends, this means that we are the arc benders.

He then made clear his personal commitments and desires: “I want to be an arc bender.

“I want to live leaned toward justice.

“I want my choices in the small and the grand to contribute to the holy momentum of the planet.

“I want my presence here to yield more compassion, more goodness, more decency than when I arrived.

“I want my abundance and privilege to be spent on behalf of those who have less of such things.

“I want to spend the remaining of my days shoulder to shoulder with other passionate, resolute arc benders, deliberately altering the curvature of the universe toward justice, by the sweat of our brows and the defiance of a love that will not cease.

“We don’t wait for the Universe to bend, my friends.

“We move together—and we bend it” (http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/05/18/bending-the-arc-of-the-universe/).

The poet Malcolm Guite specifically relates such work to the ascension of our Lord: “we our selves become his clouds of witness/And sing the waning darkness into light,/His light in us, and ours in him concealed,/Which all creation waits to see revealed” (https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/a-sonnet-for-ascension-day/ ).

The mystery of godliness turns out to be no mystery at all. We don’t need to be rocket scientists or brain surgeons or any other kind of genius to figure it out. We don’t have to be spotless saints or world-denying ascetics, pious priests or selfless martyrs. Godliness is simply about consistent, faithful obedience to the Sovereign Lord, dogged devotion to the One now seated at the right hand of God, engagement with the world God loves rather than running from it. Each and all of us can and do display godliness to our neighbors, our families, our community. We practice it when our worship has shaped our lives in the direction of justice, when we share a vision of a world made new, when we carry out our tasks with integrity, interest, and imagination with gratitude for all God has given us and called us to do. It’s living nobly while all around others are acting like fools and scoundrels. It’s living with discipline, embracing truth, and most of all, living with hope when it’s so easy to give into despair.

Great is the mystery of godliness. Great is our Sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ, ascended on high.

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