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On Holiness

‘Be holy for I am Holy’ – its one of the weightiest sentences in scripture – one which is routinely both over-read and under-read – by which I mean – too often we presume we know what it means and that presumption blocks us from discovering more of what it means.

Maybe some of you, like me, grew up in a church where ‘holiness’ was a big word and a big deal. It was big for me in the Plymouth Brethren, but some of you may have come from or spent time in ‘holiness churches’ – especially some branches of Methodism or Pentecostalism – where a particular take on holiness was a crucial defining characteristic of the denomination.

What I will guess we may all have in common is that when we sat under teaching or preaching about holiness it was invariably earnestly and hotly focused on ‘personal holiness’ and within that issues like swearing, drinking, smoking and sexual ethics were the hottest topics.

Holiness was in any case, something of an austere and forbidding word, so that despite the explicit injunction to God’s people: ‘Be Holy’; many of us would have been reticent to apply it to ourselves. We had probably internalised some of the popular reverence for ‘holy women’ or ‘holy men’ as exceptional examples of Christian living and few of us saw ourselves in that elite category of premier league saints – saints of course being that confusing word which does double duty both as the ordinary word for all of the New Testament Christians in a place and in the tradition for elite, overwhelmingly male examples of exceptional piety who have worked miracles and in heaven, still have the ear of God for intercessions…This I suggest adds up to a problem for us when we come to read and hear this command from God, that these two dynamics of privatisation and of self-exclusion are at work.

In Trinity College Worship today we focused on the OT passage in the RCL readings for this coming Sunday 25th October, Leviticus 19, with its injunction ‘to be holy for I am holy’ and its explication of what that means in the life of the people. I suggested that the way it was to be expounded by Moses was going to scramble many of our inherited ideas about holiness.

The first way in which it does this is that holiness here is presented as a way of organising the whole of life for a whole society. It is very definitely not just about private morality. A breakthrough moment for me in seeing this came before I trained for ministry or studied theology, when I read a book by the late and much loved Mennonite scholar Alan Kreider. His book was called ‘Social Holiness’ and the title alone demonstrates the power of an adjective.

Given how I had been raised to understand the H word – it was a revelation and a revolution for me. I grew up in a church where if someone had said the F word in public it would have been the end of their leadership, but people quite happily said the N word. People would assume that their faith forbade gambling of any kind, but would also assume it had nothing to do with the level of wages they paid their staff or what companies they invested in. People were intensely homophobic and stigmatised those who lived in sin or had children out of wedlock – but they gave little if any thought to gay-bashing or domestic violence.

They had intense religious feelings and instincts – when the word holiness was mentioned – something trembled inside them – not consciously in a Rudolf Otto kind of way because no-one would have known who he was – but it was a word which scared and thrilled and inspired reverence – my question though is in what sense was their ‘idea of the holy’ like that of Leviticus 19.

Leviticus 19 expounds the way of holiness across multiple dimensions of ancient Israelite society. Beginning with 10 Words themes of honouring parents, keeping Sabbath and rejecting graven images, it also stresses the need for extreme care and scrupulosity around religious rituals of sacrifice. But then without skipping a beat, the text moves to address agricultural practices and how they are to be structured so as to ensure a primitive ‘welfare’ system is made available to the poor and the alien. This is done by imposing limits on profit taking. The reason given for insisting on this - because I am the LORD your God.

We move on to consider broad themes of social justice: not stealing, directly or indirectly from others, including by false accounting or withholding wages or defrauding. True and faithful witness is to be given in legal matters. We even get to disability ‘rights’ with explicit provision for the treatment of those who are deaf or blind. Why do we need to treat such people with respect? Because I am the LORD your God.

The courts are to be genuinely impartial, not favouring anyone at the expense of the truth. We are to resist slander and violence. We are commanded not to hate. We must reprove our neighbours when they need it otherwise we are accountable. No vengeance, no grudges – we are to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Now I am well aware that if we ranged across the whole of the Levitical law codes we would encounter material which is problematic and limited by context and culture. As always, we need to read canonically, in the light of the gospel and of our understanding across the church of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

But what does seem clear is that if we aspire to a biblical understanding of holiness, it simply will not fit within the narrow privatised confines of the interpretation many of us were raised with. ‘To be holy as our God is holy’ involves a whole way of living and one which recognises that our neighbours, who we are commanded to love as ourselves, include the poor, the alien, those who have disabilities of different kinds, the victims of violence and injustice. Just as we can speak of structural sin and of the ‘sinned against’ – perhaps we need to learn to speak of structural holiness and of those we are to be ‘holy for’ – which begins of course with God, but which then reaches out to our neighbours.

So time to reject the privatisation and the self-exclusion. If we take Leviticus 19 seriously, holiness is social and political and its for us, across every area of our lives.

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