Holiness indicates being set apart for a special purpose. The outward sign of being set apart could be following different rules from those around us, maybe trying to be better in some way than others. Is this what Jesus intended for his followers?
My sermon preached today at 2pm SLT explores what holiness means. The readings were Psalm 19, Deuteronomy 17:14-end, 1 Peter 1:13-end.
It was my birthday yesterday. Circumstances meant that it was not a day for doing anything special really. It was a working day and in the evening no one was around in RL to celebrate. I did have several good conversations online which I enjoyed and I also got lots of birthday wishes on Facebook. I’d received my gift from Phil on Sunday and one from our eldest son yesterday. I need to wait for the one from our other children – a print that is being done especially for me, called ‘Into the light’.
One thing I did for myself to celebrate was to give myself some time off. That’s not too difficult when you work for yourself! I took the time to finish reading the fictional Christian book ‘The Shack’. I would highly recommend it to anyone but unless you have no emotions at all I would advise having some paper tissues available. I won’t give the story away but within it the person it is mainly about, Mack, meets and converses with God. One of the conversations centres around what it means to be holy. God tells Mack that it is not about rules but relationship. That really resonated with me and I would like to unpack that a bit.
In the reading from Peter’s letter we find a quote from Leviticus 11:44: ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ Peter goes on to tell his readers that they were ransomed from the futile ways of their ancestors. The ancestors of the people he was writing to had really tried to be holy but Peter says it was futile. What had they done that was so useless? They had worked hard to follow God’s commandments. God set off with 10 commandments but gradually the Jews found 613 of them in the Scriptures, starting with ‘Go forth and multiply’ at the beginning of Genesis.
Holiness carries with it the idea of being separate, set aside for a special purpose. The Jews knew that they were God’s chosen people, a holy people and they were doing their best to set themselves aside from others so that they would be holy. Anyone reading the Old Testament can see that they really didn’t do terribly well with following all the rules despite their good intentions. By the time Jesus was born, they were still trying to do it right. The Pharisees were the ones who were most concerned about keeping rules. They believed that if the whole of the Jewish nation kept the whole of the law for one day, God’s kingdom would come on earth. You can see why they didn’t like prostitutes and other sinners as that kind of person stood in the way of achieving this perfect day.
If we look at how Jesus behaved we see that he often condemned the Pharisees for their rule keeping. The problem was that it had become an outward thing, and had nothing to do with inner holiness. The trouble with rules is that they can be used to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ and that’s exactly what the Pharisees did. They pretty quickly decided that Jesus was ‘out’ because he didn’t keep the rules. He was in trouble for eating with sinners, for not keeping the Sabbath holy (he healed on the Sabbath and that was classed as work), he didn’t expect his disciples to fast, he allowed them to pluck corn on the Sabbath, they didn’t wash their hands properly, and so it goes on.
The difficulty with rule keeping is not confined to Jesus’ time and before; it still happens now. It is so easy to decide that we know the right way to live and so we can then point an accusing finger at those who do not live as we think they should. It’s interesting that the word ‘rule’ meaning ‘the way to do something’, can also mean an instrument for measuring. We measure people against the rules and we find that they don’t measure up. Jesus said, ‘Judge not, that you be not judged’ but we tend to forget that and go on judging. It is usually with the best of intentions, to help others live a better life, but it is wrong. I know that if I start doing that I begin to feel diminished as a person. In the process of elevating myself as the one who knows best, I bring myself down to be a lesser person than I should be and pretty soon I feel it. The joy goes out of life, I look on others in an uncomplimentary way and relationships are soured.
So how should we attain holiness? Peter points out how his readers should behave: love one another earnestly from a pure heart. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Jesus gives a way of living that is based on love, on relationship. The irony of it is that these very commandments were in the Old Testament. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second from Leviticus 19:18 but somehow the Jews had spent more effort on all the other laws. It is possible to be holy, separated, by the way we interact with others, by the quality of our relationships. It doesn’t have to be by keeping hundreds of rules. If you read the Epistles, all the way through you see exhortations to love one another and it was that love which marked the early Christians out and drew people to faith.
God said to Samuel: ‘Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’. We read that Jesus knew what was in the heart of people, regardless of their outward behaviour. It was love that mattered to him, not keeping rules. Think how Jesus loved people into the kingdom. When he met Zacchaeus he didn’t start telling him how bad he’d been, how many people he had cheated and so on. Instead he affirmed him by asking to dine at Zacchaeus’ house. Out of that time spent in relationship came a transformed man who gave back all he had swindled out of people and more. The woman at the well was loved and accepted, not judged, and became a great evangelist.
It could be argued that loving people lets them get away with things, that it’s being too soft on them. We might think that if we accept behaviour that we think wrong, we are giving in to something unreasonable, climbing down in some way. Jesus allowed those he had created to nail him to a cross and leave him to die an agonising death. Surely that was giving in to the unreasonable. But it didn’t diminish Jesus in any way. While he was there on the cross he welcomed the thief beside him into Paradise. That thief had probably lived his whole life breaking the law, but in the last few hours of his life, when there was no way to demonstrate better behaviour, Jesus loved that man and welcomed him.
St Augustine said, ‘Love God and do as you please.’ If we love God we will become holy, transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus without the need of a list of laws to follow. The world needs more love, not more rules.