So it’s been another week and another set of headlines about the church in this country. And was the news about the church’s work with the poor, the refugee, the homeless? Did it witness to a family of love, peace and grace; did it report our sharing of good news of great joy for all people? I’m afraid not. Instead, once again, Christ’s body was portrayed as confused, divided and prejudiced over the issue of same sex marriage. For after three years of dialogue and hundreds of thousands of pounds spending, the House of Bishops gave a report which maintained that marriage in church should only be between a man and a woman, and services should not be held to bless same-sex relationships…only for this report to be voted against by the House of clergy.
For those who might be interested, the rejected report looked at scriptural and theological arguments concerning the complex issues and concluded that…and I quote…’it would not be lawful for a minister to use a form of service which either explicitly or implicitly treated or recognised the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as equivalent to holy matrimony’.
It went on to suggest that…’while lay people might choose in conscience to enter a faithful, stable, sexual relationship with someone of the same gender, the same choice should not be open to ordained ministers who wished to continue exercising their ministry’ for they have made promises of the ‘holy orders’.
So, civil marriage does not equal holy matrimony; and those in holy orders must behave differently to those who aren’t. It would seem, then, that the real debate behind the headlines is over the question of holiness. What is it; who has it; and what does it require?
Who here is feeling holy today? Anyone want to come up and show us what holiness looks like? Anyone? Well, as ever – you’re so very blessed to have with me with you for I’ve been living a holy life for…well, two and a half years at the very least. I had to, you see, for in this building, about here, on the day of my ordination, Simon asked me, “Do you promise to live a holy life and to maintain the truth of the Gospel, whatever trouble and persecution may arise?” To which, I replied, “Relying on the strength of Christ, I do.” So there you have it – embodied holiness. This week, if you’re unsure what to say or how to act, just think “What Would Phil Do?” and you’ll be fine. Here endeth the lesson.
Although…come to think of it…I suppose I didn’t act that holy when I avoided a call from my Dad yesterday because I simply couldn’t be bothered to talk to him…and perhaps I didn’t look that holy when I was enjoying that last pint at a friend’s farewell do last week…and I’m not sure that I was filled with holy laughter when told exactly what I could do with my sweet chariots at the match last weekend. All of which makes me feel a little uneasy about my ordination promise. For did I promise the impossible? Come to think of it, why was I promising to be holy in the first place? Doesn’t promising to be holy at ordination suggest – as explicitly stated in that Bishops’ report – that ordained ministers are to be holier than everyone else? Such a belief would seem to fly in the face of our reformed cry of the priesthood – the equality – of all believers!
Before I disappear down the rabbit hole altogether, let’s turn to scripture and ask the spirit for some illumination.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
Here’s a fun fact for you – that reading from Leviticus is the only Leviticus passage in the entire 3 year lectionary cycle…which is especially interesting given the fact that the book of Leviticus records more words from the mouth of God than any other book of the Bible…including, of course, the words that opened today’s passage:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
So holiness is not just for the ordained, it seems!
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel ‘You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall be holy.
I wonder what picture that word – holy – conjures up for you. Perhaps it makes you think of holier than thou fictional characters like Dot Cotton, Ned Flanders or even Jane Eyre’s pious Mr Brocklehurst who spoke of hell and damnation and starved the orphaned girls of the Lowood Institution for the benefit of their souls whilst treating his own daughters to everything they might desire.
Or perhaps it makes you think of holy ground and an image of Moses removing his sandals on Mount Horeb.
The Old Testament is, of course, replete with such examples of the miraculous, often even dangerous, conditions that are witnessed at holy times and places – such as the thunder and lightning and smoke that surrounded the holy mountain of Sinai when Moses received God’s commandments; or…my personal favourite…following decades of planning and construction, when Solomon dedicates the new temple and prays that the presence of the Lord may fill it, and the Lord does fill it with fire and a thick, choking cloud so that the priests have to head out the Temple! In these instances, holiness should come with some sort of health warning: may cause fire, earthquake and asthma attacks…
So, holiness might engender unusual circumstances but what do we really mean by the word ‘holy’?! Well, look it up in any Biblical dictionary and it will say ‘other’ ‘separate, ‘set apart’. So when we sing ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty’, we’re saying that God is totally other, different, set apart, from every other created thing. “There is none like you among the gods,” the psalmist tells us, “nor are there any works like yours”.
Israel, then, believed that their God was totally set apart from all the other gods and in turn, that they were to be a people set apart from the rest of the world – and this was to be seen in what they said and what they ate; in their farming and even their very flesh, through the rite of circumcision for men. Their sense of being a separate, elect people called by a separate, totally other God pervaded their worship too so that they praised God in a set apart place at set apart times. Set apart priests who had to follow set apart rules about clothing and cleanliness protected the holiness of the set apart Temple;
“They are holy to their God,” we read in Leviticus 21 “and they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord, I who sanctify you, am holy.”
By the time Jesus was on the scene, being holy had become synonymous with being pure and the priests had established a system in which the holiness of God and the Temple was protected by a series of purity laws which kept out those who would threaten it.
So the land of Israel was considered holier than any other land; the walled city of Jerusalem holier still; the Temple Mount more holy; the Court of the gentiles even more holy; then the Court of the Women, the Court of the Priests and finally – the most holy place on Earth – the inner sanctuary of the Temple where God resided – the holy of holies.
Strict rules were in place concerning entry for each holier place – so that non-Jews could only get so near to God; Jewish women a little nearer; then physically able Jewish men; priests and finally the High Priest who could only enter the holy of holies once a year. So being holy was about being set apart and the holiest of them all was from a set apart gender of a set apart tribe from a set apart people who followed set apart rules to be in the presence of a set apart God in a set apart place in a set apart time of year.
No wonder, then, that they had trouble with the rebel from Nazareth – the preacher who touched lepers, spent time with women, healed gentiles, forgave sins and predicted the destruction of the Temple. He challenged their whole understanding of holiness and apparently threatened to destroy God’s house. So they put him to death, they hanged him on a cross – an unholy way to die – and when they did, Matthew tells us, the Earth shook, the rocks split and the Temple curtain – the veil that separated off the holy of holies ; the very boundary of God’s presence – was torn in two from top to bottom. This was no coincidence but is meant to show us that our ideas of holiness had to be turned upside down.
When we had decided that God was separate from creation and found in a set apart, sacred places, Jesus came along – surrendering the set-apartness of God to become one of us, to eat and drink with us, to party and weep with us on the streets and in the homes of those who wouldn’t make it far into the Temple. When we had defined and confined holiness to set apart people, times and places, God in Christ had extended it to all. He became human, he took our flesh, so to make us holy. He walked our Earth so making all ground holy ground. In such a way did Jesus, the Most Holy One, forever blur the lines of the sacred and profane.
All of which is wonderful and confusing and breathtaking yet what does it mean regarding our calling to be holy as God is holy? Well, I’m still working this one through myself. But what if, instead of understanding holy to mean separate or set apart, we think of it more as being different or other? Jesus joined us in the messiness of life yet when he did, he was still other, holy, radically different to the prevailing culture;
“An eye for an eye, you say? How about turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give all you have? Love your neighbour, you’ve heard? How about love your enemies and pray for those persecute you too?!”
Jesus’ holiness wasn’t a pious, miserable, holier-than-thou kind of existence but a radical, grace-filled, different way of life. His holiness didn’t mean disconnecting from the world but transforming it.
Perhaps, when you come to think of it, that’s exactly what we find in Leviticus for right after it says ‘be holy as God is holy’, we’re told that such holiness will lead to us caring for the poor and the foreigner, treating others with integrity, letting go of grudges and forgiving our neighbour. Perhaps that’s even why God filled Solomon’s Temple with smoke – for the priests and the whole community to be pushed outside the gold-encrusted sanctuary so they might be holy on the streets and in their homes. Perhaps.
In any case, I’m just pleased that I don’t have to rescind my ordination promise just yet, for I am called to be holy – we all are. This week then, let’s strive once again to be a people known for external blessing, not for our internal quarrels. Let’s forgive enemies, pray for those who persecute us, care for the poor and foreigner; let’s be cheek-turners, peace-makers and world-changers; let’s be different, be magnificent, be holy for our wonderful, all-loving God is holy. Amen.