Grace & Peace Magazine: How do you look at holiness preaching?
Timothy Stidham: I once looked at holiness preaching as preaching sermons on holiness passages. I would find a passage that focused on entire sanctification or maybe the process of holiness and then try to preach the best sermon I could to paint you into a corner where your only options were completely surrendering to God or going some other terrible way. Folks struggled to put that in a context. My other sermons were not pointing in this direction at all. As I listened to other preachers over the years, I noticed this same trend. I began thinking about a framework for preaching. In the meantime, I did some advanced studies in preaching myself and went through a D.Min program. I came across a line in a preaching book that said we are called to preach the gospel, not just sermons on texts; that got my attention. I thought about the nature of the gospel and what we call the radical optimism of grace. God was speaking to me to say every sermon can be about the gospel. After all, Paul didn’t say, "I’m not ashamed of sermons," he said, "I’m not ashamed of the gospel." To preach the gospel is to preach the radical optimism of grace. Sin is a serious and terrible problem that we cannot resolve on our own. There is no simple solution to it, but God has a resolution for it in Christ as we are connected to him. No matter how dark things are, God always has a plan to redeem us and move us out of darkness into the light; out of hopelessness and into hope. The model of preaching that I’ve developed through my teaching and my studies is to present the radical optimism of grace as a holiness sermon—helping people connect with a larger gospel story and believe in what grace can accomplish in our lives, in terms of a daily walk and connecting with what God’s doing to connect our stories into his larger story of grace.
G&P: Explain what you mean by the “radical optimism of grace” and how this is a good word for the people we preach to.
TS: It is the good news that God can save us from our sins and also transform us. God loves us and accepts us as we are, but God also has a big picture to work us into. He wants to heal and redeem every experience that we have had. He wants his fingerprints all over our lives. He wants us to be a living testimony to what his grace can do. His plan is specific and contains every experience we have in daily life. What do I do with unresolved feelings and unresolved relationships that I have? The radical optimism of grace says that God wants to redeem those relationships in the context of our relationship with him and our relationship with the body of Christ. We can support and encourage one another as we are experiencing God at deeper levels in our own lives. I used to think holiness was about never making mistakes and never harming anyone else. When that is our focus, it leads to being defensive about our behavior because we don’t want to be guilty of something. Over the years of working with people, I have come to believe that a stronger sign of holiness is being able to say, “I messed up. Can we start again? Can you forgive me? I care about this relationship. Can we move forward?” It is admitting our mistakes. It is not such a radical optimism that there is no room for humanity or that we turn into robots. It is the optimism of grace because even in our brokenness, we can bring everything to God; God can redeem our relationships and can move us forward in kingdom life.
G&P: How does proclaiming the “radical optimism of grace” affect your self-understanding and how you relate to people as a holiness preacher?
TS: It moves me from resident expert on divine matters into an incarnational model. I live among people and respond to them, try to encourage and help and empower them to experience what God’s trying to do in their lives. I see myself as an encourager, as a listener, as someone who is paying attention to life. That model forces me to pay attention to the details of everyday life among the people in the church family as well as my own experiences. I have found, not only in my own ministry context but working with young ministers in preaching classes, that this is the hardest work of all: discerning where God is at work and the message we have received and are trying to proclaim. It involves risk to name where God may be at work. But I think that’s why God needs pastors. We could download brilliant theology and amazing stories, but pastors are like local theologians who are helping their people discern the work of God where they live and in their neighborhoods. I don’t have to come up with some brilliant insight from a book. It is more listening for the voice of the spirit and listening to people’s stories. Often, they already have a good idea of where God may be at work. They simply need somebody to pay attention to that story and encourage them to say, “Yes, that does sound like the grace of God changing you.” I think that’s exciting to people. A light bulb starts to come on that their story is part of God’s story.
G&P: In his classic book, Pensées, Blaise Pascal talks about the interrelationship between “the motions of grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.” In other words, life’s circumstances and the condition of our heart can positively or negatively affect our ability to see grace at work around us. Is this type of dynamic something you are trying to model successfully with your life and preaching, so that your people will be more attuned to the motions of grace in their own lives?
TS: Yes. I try to live into a reality where the words from the pulpit aren’t so different from how I’m trying to live in relationship with people. That is where I like Thomas Long’s image in his book, The Witness of Preaching. I like his basic image that sometimes the pastor is rising up out of the community of faith to speak their faith back to them. That is one aspect of it, discerning what God is already doing in the lives of people and affirming that as the work of grace. People begin to believe their stories are connected to God’s larger story of redemption. It motivates people to invest in that relationship with God and to try to study, grow, and share. I heard a speaker one time discuss what makes up a good story. He said it is an interesting thing when you try to write a story or a script for a Hollywood movie. There are certain kinds of stories that have appeal and connect to others. The main character must be a person you care about, the story must have a goal that you think is worthy, and there must be a significant barrier between them and their ability to achieve their goal. The energy of the story is in trying to work that out. In other words, if a person has a selfish goal, the story never works. But if your story is about finding who you are and trying to identify with the struggles of others, this is the kind of movie that people want to see. This concept is completely congruent with the kind of story God is encouraging us to live. He wants us to live out a story that would inspire others; that is the kind of story God can bless. You don’t have to be a superstar; you just have to be a person who is paying attention and who is letting that grace flow through them to the needs around them.
TIMOTHY STIDHAM is pastor of New Hope Community Church of the Nazarene and Adjunct Professor, Olivet Nazarene University, Advanced Homiletics