03 October 2018
Notes on holiness
Holiness is for all – not a speciality for a few.
Discussion starter on holiness
In the beginning…
‘God declared, “It is good.” Holy, wholesome, perfect, fit for purpose, sorted – approved of. All of creation is holy because it was made by God and approved by God. Even wasps are imprinted with God’s kite mark of approval!!
OFSTED rating ‘Good’ quickly became ‘not good enough’. I’d rather be excellent than ‘good’ but that’s to do with my ego, rather than a relationship of trust in which I accept that with God I will always be good enough and that is enough.
In our creation myth - Holiness in the ‘Garden’ was a connectedness and openness with God and with creation – the arrival of shame moved Eve and Adam from a childlike, naïve state, to a state of hiddenness – of not wanting God to know where they were and what they were truly like.
Nakedness is a metaphor, rather than being a state of undress, it is a state of being entirely seen and understood. The covering with leaves is a metaphor for covering up, not being honest, not wanting to be perceived.
The burning bush – holy ground. Take off your shoes – sacred space. Moses encounters God’s holiness as a powerful and frightening thing – yet it was not destructive. The bush was not destroyed by God’s presence, rather it enabled God’s presence to be perceived – a sacramental offering. A living sign of God’s power and glory, yet one which did not disturb or destroy that which it had created. We are reminded of God’s promise to Noah to never again destroy the earth.
In Jordan (when Bala and I visited with All We Can) – removing shoes to go into any home – yes the practicality of cleanliness but also, the home is a sacred space – a space where people do not need to cover themselves (well their feet at least), were vulnerability is okay. Also – keeping your shoes on might be a sign that you are intending to make a run for it, that you are turning down the hospitality of the other.
Hospitality as a sign of holiness – the women’s food co-op in Irbid in Jordan. We visited during Ramadan and so the women we visited were fasting, however this did not stop them offering hospitality to those of us visiting. Refugees who had had to leave everything behind were willing to share with us. This was sacred ground – in the sharing God was fully present.
Buzz... Share stories of places that you think of as sacred – holy ground. What was it about the place that made it feel like that?
Mount Sinai – Moses enters the presence of God and lives– moreover, he shines with God’s holiness when he comes down the mountain – and he delivers the ten commandments. Holiness becomes codified. It moves from being about a relationship of openness, vulnerability and deep knowledge of ‘the other’, to a way of living designed to not anger the ‘other’, the source of holiness. A line is drawn between the creator and the created and all actions become defined as either holy or unholy. What food can be eaten, what fabrics to wear, what crops can be planted, when work can be done, how women should be treated during their menstrual cycle and following childbirth – and so on and so on and so on. Actions become defined as wrong or right based on a code of separation from God. Inevitably actions outside the code result in the need for punishment or some correcting – so holiness becomes about rituals, sacrifice, penance and punishment and God is no longer central to the story, rather the focus becomes the cultic practices that define a particular people who see themselves as having a special relationship with God and want to do all they can to maintain that relationship. It also leads to the exclusion of those perceived to be a threat to that relationship – because they are ‘unclean’ – so the shepherds that were sent by angels to visit the Christ child would be deemed unholy, their work taking them away from the cultic practices that would allow them back into the life of the ‘holy’. Again, excluding people because they do not fit into a particular code, a set of rules defined by one group, is not confined to the Bible – again and again in human history we have seen the tragedy that enfolds when any group is defined as ‘other’.
This codification of holiness is not limited to the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. We can see it in the monastic traditions, in strict Christian societies such as the Amish, the Brethren, even dare I say, the Methodists! At its extreme such codification leads to horrors such as the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust – the rules become everything and anyone who lives by any other code than that of the powerbase becomes anathema. All this is a long way from the garden – a long way from a holiness that recognises each person as being created in God’s image and being considered by God as ‘good’.
Buzz ….what other examples of holiness can you see in the Old Testament? Which appeal to you and which do you find problematic?
As Israel became established and settled in her identity, she structured her community by allocating certain people as priests. The men of the Levite tribe would take on the mantel of priesthood and only they could enter the holiest of holies. Holiness now became the business of a small group, with special knowledge, handed down from generation to generation. Holiness becomes now a thing of secrecy.
I remember a friend telling me how when he was a child he would sneak into the balcony at his church during communion to watch what was going on. Hopefully today, as we welcome children at the Lord’s table, that would not happen – we do not have secret ceremonies where only the inner circle or the chosen, or those clever enough, old enough, holy enough are allowed to join in.
Of course, we do order our activities and certain people are authorised by the church to undertake certain ministries and activities but none of this is in secret, nor does it depend on being born into the right family. The minister is no more or less holy than anyone else.
Holiness in the New Testament
The incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ takes us to a very different understanding of holiness than that of a codification of what is ‘allowed’ and what is not ‘allowed’.
Paul has to get quite shirty with the early churches because time and time again they try to put back in place codes which divide their communities into the deserving and undeserving (just like we do with those who are poor today). The issues over circumcision and what can or cannot be eaten are perfect examples of missing the point that Christ demonstrates that holiness is about an inner relationship with God that bears righteous fruit, rather than about our actions being able to make us righteous.
The need for penances, for sacrifice is done away with – not in my view because Jesus substituted himself for me and carried my sins on the cross (though I know there are those who would put it in those terms and it is one of a number of understandings of atonement that hold an honourable place in our tradition) but because Jesus restored holiness to being about an open, honest relationship with God, in which nothing needs to be covered up, nothing should be hidden away and shame is not a part of God’s intention for creation. Our moral basis for any action or inaction stems from our relationship with God, with each other and with the whole of creation. No longer is it a list of rules that dictates what is holy and that which is not. To be holy is to be like God and we can see the pattern that we might model ourselves on in Jesus. To be holy is to love those that the world finds unloveable, to raise up the downtrodden, to comfort the broken-hearted, to work for the release of captives…
Holiness is not a state of ‘otherness’ or being so heavenly that we are of no earthly use – rather it is, like Christ, to be so connected with the world and with God that we cannot see the separation between the two – we are caught up in God and therefore cannot fail to respond to the needs of a broken world. In holiness there is wholeness, connectedness and wisdom – above all in holiness, there is love. In loving ‘the other’ whoever that might be we are more fully able to be the ‘good’ creation which God approves of.
Such a connection with God leads to a oneness with our neighbours, which develops empathy and in this there is hope for transformation.
Buzz… Can you share examples of empathy and hope in the Bible or your own experience, that you might use if preaching or leading a Bible study?