Written by Rick Power – Senior Pastor, College Church of the Nazarene, Olathe, Kansas, USA
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Here in America, we understand about property, about owning things. Our capitalistic economic system places a high value on ownership, private property, the accumulation of things I can call “mine.”
After selling our home in the U.S. and being away for 18 years, I now, once again, am a homeowner. I have a house with my name on the title. (Or, at least, my name is on the mortgage.) I know where my property ends and my neighbor’s begins. They mow their grass, I mow mine. If their dog marks his territory on my grass, I feel a bit violated. That’s my property!
When I was a boy living over in Kansas City, Kansas, we had some wonderful, mysterious, woods behind our home. I loved to play back there whenever my parents would let me. My friends had named creeks after themselves: Steve’s Creek, Roger’s Creek, George’s Creek. It was all just one creek, but they had claimed different sections of it for themselves. (I moved into the neighborhood too late to get my own creek.) To this day, I wonder, “What would it be like to have a creek with my name on it?”
We like to own things. We put our name on them. Sometimes we put our mark on things just to show ownership, but sometimes we do it because we feel a special connection with something we’ve created or worked hard to acquire. A signature on a work of art, initials on a uniquely designed gun or guitar or surfboard; a signed copy of a book.
When you take pride in something you’ve built or created or worked to own, you mark it with a sign of your ownership. You want to leave no doubt that it belongs to you.
We even do this in relationships. Think about marriage. In marriage, we don’t use the language of ownership, but of commitment–covenant love relationship. We give ourselves unreservedly to our spouses and we mark that relationship . . . with rings, with names, with covenants.
God’s Mark of Ownership on His People
In biblical times, a seal was a mark of ownership or authority. A unique seal would be placed on wax or clay or even stone. A signet ring might be used to place a distinctive mark. “Signet” comes from the same root as “signature;” it shows you have left your unique sign. There were royal seals used by kings and emperors, but common people also used seals to mark ownership of their property.
The Bible teaches that we belong to God. “You are a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19)And we learn that our Father marks us as his own cherished possession. How does he do that?
Ephesians 1:13-14 “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.”
“Marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, showing we are God’s possession.”
He’s talking, of course, about sanctification–the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. To sanctify means to consecrate something, to set it apart for a holy purpose. But it also means to cleanse and to make holy.
This is exactly what Jesus prays for his disciples in John 17. He prays to the Father, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” In chapter 16, Jesus has already explained that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. These things are inseparable: the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, the truth of the Gospel.
Holiness as a Lived Reality
In sanctification, God sets us apart as his holy people, his prized possession. But he doesn’t just call us holy; it’s not only a change in the way God sees us. He also makes us holy by sending his Spirit into our lives. The Spirit’s work is to fill us and cleanse us, to set us free and make us like Jesus.
This High Priestly prayer of Jesus is a prayer for holiness. He prays, “Holy Father (v. 11), . . . make them holy (v. 17) . . . that they may be truly holy (v. 19).”
Eugene Peterson: “When the ways and means by which God works interpenetrate the ways and means by which we work, we have a name for it: Holy.”
“Holy” is the best word we have for the all-encompassing, all-embracing life of God that transforms us into a uniquely formed and set-apart people. Holy is never a pious abstraction. It is never a quality that can be understood apart from the bodies that we inhabit or the neighborhoods in which we live or apart from the God who made us, saves us, and blesses us. Holiness is something lived. It is the life of God breathed into and invigorating our lives.”
And this is what Jesus prays for in John 17; that all the marks of the Spirit’s presence will be known among his disciples. What are some of those marks?
1. Verse 6: We receive and obey his word.
We obey his commands, including the commands to seek first the kingdom, to love our enemies, to be peacemakers, to love each other as Jesus loved us.
2. Verse 11: We are one in Christ.
We let our unity be a testimony to the Spirit’s presence in us and among us.
3. Verses 18: We are in the world as Jesus was in the world.
Not retreating, not avoiding the world; we’re not a holy club that’s hard to get into, but we are found lovingly moving into the world with the gospel of grace.
4. Verse 13: We have the joy of the Lord in us.
Holiness is not a long-faced, wrinkled-forehead, grim undertaking. We don’t belong to the First Church of the Furrowed Brow. Who wants to be a part of that? Belonging to God through Jesus is a life of joy. We’ve been rescued, saved, set free and we overflow with joy.
As Peterson said, holiness is not an abstraction; it’s not an idea–it’s a lived reality. It shows itself in Christlike love. And though we may struggle to define it in words, we know it when we see it. We would all rather see a sermon than hear one. That’s why God sent his Son, “the Word made flesh,” so we could see his glory, “the glory of the One and Only Son, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.” The work of incarnation continues in people marked by the Spirit of Truth. And we know it when we see it.
Flying home from Hawaii this week, we were exhausted. You know how it is, when you get home, you have to recover from your vacation. On the final day, we tried to get one last dip in the ocean, one last run on the beach, one last sushi meal with our daughter. Packing, returning the rental car, enjoying that wonderful experience in the airport security line, then finally on the plane and in our seats to try to sleep on the 9:00 pm to 5:00 am flight from Honolulu to LA.
We change flights at Los Angeles International, walk like zombies onto our 6:00 am flight to Salt Lake City, work our way back to row 30, hoping to get into our seats and sleep a little more. But, there’s already a person in Vicki’s window seat–a small Asian woman who looks more weary than we do. So, we don’t fuss about seat assignments; we just take the middle seat and the aisle seat and as we settle in, Vicki exchanges a greeting with the lady. And in response to a question about where she’s going and why, she bursts into tears. She’s Vietnamese, her name is Sen, and her English is hard to understand. But we hear her say she’s on her way to Montana because her 19-year-old son, attending university in Missoula, made the bad decision to jump from a bridge into a swift-flowing river and was swept under in the current. After a full day of searching, they weren’t able to find his body. She’s on her way, by herself, to go stand by the river and wait and hope they find her son’s body.
Probably just a coincidence, right? This broken, grieving mother gets on a flight, can’t find her seat, and just happens to sit in the seat of a woman who loves Jesus and who also loves Asian people. Probably just a coincidence. But when we serve the One who prayed that we would be holy as he is holy, that we would be in the world as he was in the world,these coincidences seem to happen much more frequently.
So, I watched and prayed as Vicki, wide awake now, listened to Sen’s story, tried to console her, held her in her arms and prayed with her. And I thought to myself, “There it is. That’s the mark of the Spirit, the Spirit of truth who fills our hearts and gives us the character of Jesus so that, in this broken, hurting, sin-filled world, we can manifest his love and compassion and grace.”
They’ve called off the search for the boy’s body. The river is swollen from snowmelt in the mountains. When we talked to Sen by phone, she said she would return home to California on Monday. We asked the pastor in Missoula to make contact with her and offer support. It’s a very sad story.
Jesus prayed for us, not that we would be taken out of the sad stories of the world, but that we would be protected from the evil in the world; that we would be fully engaged with the world in redemptive ways, just as he was. So, when the opportunities come, when the divine coincidences happen, don’t pray to be removed from them. Don’t try to avoid the world. Instead, thank your Father that he trusts you to be a representative of his holiness in that situation of need.
You are his beloved child, his cherished possession. He has marked you with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, by which you are sanctified, made holy, made like God.