Monday, August 27, 2007

The True Meaning of Holiness

St Luke's story of Jesus' visit to the synagogue describes an encounter between right and wrong.[1] A place of worship might seem a surprising place to find wrong being done. Do we expect to encounter wrong-doing when we come to church? Isn't it a place where we expect to find only goodness, holiness, purity and love – a haven of peace and tranquillity in a sinful world? Isn't it supposed to be 'the house of God'?

The conflict between right and wrong in the synagogue that day hinges on two totally different understandings of what it means to be holy, and therefore what it means to encounter God. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews sets out the difference very starkly in his description of the difference between Moses' understanding of God and the understanding which Christians have.[2]

At Mount Sinai, when Moses took the people of Israel into the desert to receive the Law, the God they encountered there was terrifying. There was blazing fire, and darkness, and tempest – a huge and frightening thunder storm. And then there was a voice which could not be endured, like finger nails scraping on a blackboard, which told them that if even an innocent animal set foot on the holy mountain it must be put to death for invading God's holy space. Only Moses could safely approach this awesome place – because he was God's chosen prophet and leader – and even he trembled with fear because he was meeting a God who demanded total purity.

Contrast that experience with the Christian's encounter with God. We come not to a wilderness place lashed by thunder and lightning, not to Mount Sinai enveloped in threatening cloud, where we can only stand at a distance and listen to God's terrible voice; we come to the New Jerusalem, where we find a completely different kind of mountain top experience. This isn't a tempestuous encounter, it's a celebration, a festal gathering where angels, and the righteous who have been made perfect through their faith in Jesus Christ, party with the assembly of the firstborn, the original band of disciples and apostles. There isn't anything fearful or terrible about this encounter with God, instead its a joyful occasion filled with praise and rejoicing.

And yet some things don't change. God is still the judge of all the world and if we refuse to obey the one who is speaking to us from the New Jerusalem we do so at our peril, for we need to be made righteous if we are to enter God's presence. But there is a new covenant, or understanding, in place between God and creation. It isn't the covenant which Moses mediated to the people of Israel, which was based on fear. It's the covenant which Jesus mediated to us through his death on the cross, which is based on love.

The writer of 'Hebrews' pauses here to comment on the futility of the way so many human beings behave. Like the teenager who killed eleven year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool last week, there are many people who imagine that our significance and our sense of worth and importance come from our own power and status. For the vast majority of people who think this way, that sense of power and status is based on the size of their pay packet, the model of car they drive, the clothes they wear, the person on their arm when they go out at night, or the neighbourhood they live in. For some fitness fanatics it might be based instead on the size of their biceps or the distance they can run. For criminals it comes from carrying a knife or a gun. That's the kind of power which the Bible says Cain wielded when he murdered his brother Abel. It's a kind of power based on competition with our fellow human beings, and even on violence and aggression. But true significance and power, the kind that cannot be shaken or destroyed, comes from the total opposite. It's based on self-sacrifice, compassion and love. That kind of power, the power of Jesus, speaks a better word and has a far more enduring legacy than the fleeting power which is based on bullets and guns, or money and what it can buy. If we fail to listen to this enduring message of love we shall find ourselves back in the position that the cowering people of Israel were in at Mount Sinai, and there will be no escape from God's consuming fire.

Ancient Greek people imagined that heavenly things were more permanent and real than anything on earth. The writer of 'Hebrews' can't resist drawing on this idea. Whereas Mount Sinai, where the people of Israel had their terrifying encounter with God, was on earth, the New Jerusalem and the mediator of the new covenant are in Heaven. That simply underlines, for the writer, the permanence of the new deal which Jesus is offering. Perfect holiness, a holiness which nothing can diminish or tarnish, comes about through following the example of Jesus, not the example of Moses.

Centuries before the New Testament era, the Prophet Isaiah has a similar insight.[3] If the people of Israel get rid of slavery and exploitation, stop pointing the finger at wrongdoers and speaking evil of other people, if they offer food to the hungry and help the afflicted, then they too will leave the darkness and gloom of the tempest behind and find themselves basking in the bright sunshine of noonday. The Lord will then be able to guide them continually, and satisfy their needs and make them strong. They will flourish like a watered garden. They will be like a spring of water that never runs dry. And they will find themselves living in, and helping to build, the New Jersualem.

So far, so good. But the Prophet adds a further twist. If the People of Israel really want to be holy, acting with justice and compassion will not be sufficient. There is one thing more that they will have to do. They will have to refrain from trampling on the Sabbath by pursuing their own interests on God's holy day. Only if they follow the Ten Commandments by honouring the Sabbath, and stop using it to go their own ways and serve their own interests, will they receive the promises which God made to Jacob, that he would be the father of a great nation whose influence would spread to the ends of the earth.

Christians have used this same passage to justify keeping Sunday special and no wonder, because surely even Jesus would not have approved of treating the Sabbath just like any other day, as an opportunity to make money and get things done. This is what the leader of the synagogue must be thinking when he keeps telling the crowd, 'There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.' He's on solid ground, isn't he? The Bible appears to back him up. The nation of Israel will never flourish while people ignore the Sabbath and forget to keep it holy.

Jesus accuses him of being hypocritical because, he says, no one would leave a dumb animal without water on the Sabbath so why not heal human beings on the Sabbath too? But the leader of the synagogue isn't against healing people. He just thinks that someone with a chronic illness, like curvature of the spine, can safely wait until another day to seek a cure. Even if it 's contrary to God's will that she should suffer in this way, and even if we see illness as the work of Satan rather than an unavoidable bi-product of creation, isn't it more important to focus on God – and to take delight in worshipping him – on his holy day?

So why is this encounter a clash between right and wrong, and who is in the wrong here? The answer, of course, is that the leader of the synagogue is wrong, even though he seems to have the Bible on his side. And he's wrong because, while it certainly was important to keep the Sabbath holy, he's operating with an out-moded idea of what holiness means.

Holiness is about helping people to be put right with God. That should always be our first priority, at any time and in any place. If it means missing church, or interrupting our routine, or changing our traditional way of worshipping, so be it.

And being holy is the same thing as having compassion on those in need and loving our neighbours. Isaiah was right about that. But he would have been mistaken if he had imagined that keeping the Sabbath holy and honouring God was in conflict with helping people in need.

Actually, of course, he never says that it s. He says that serving our own interests on the Sabbath is wrong. No where does he say that we cannot help other people. The leader of the synagogue is jumping to conclusions. He assumes that serving the interests of other people will always be the opposite of taking taking delight in God., but the cross, of course, is the evidence that he is wrong. The crucifixion of Jesus is the most holy moment in history – the moment when God's glory is most perfectly revealed. But it isn't a moment when God is being honoured. It's a moment when God in Jesus is being put to shame and made to suffer because of his great compassion for humankind.

Finally, encountering holiness requires us to be open and receptive to what God is doing. And God can't be put in a box. The way God encountered people in the past may not be the way God chooses to encounter us today, or tomorrow. Just because God met people at Mount Sinai doesn't mean that he couldn't also be encountered on a cross. And just because we can often encounter God in prayer, or worship, or contemplation doesn't mean that we can't also encounter him in action and in other people.

One of the things that is most characteristic of people's meetings with Jesus is that it's a decisive moment in their lives. There and then they have to decide how to respond to him, whether to recognise that they are meeting someone holy who has been sent from God, or whether to see him as someone who is challenging God's will. The leader of the synagogue makes the wrong call. Because he's trapped in one particular way of thinking about holiness, he sees Jesus as an unwelcome disturber of sabbath worship. But the entire crowd rejoices at the wonderful things which Jesus is doing.

Can we, like the crowd, be ready to welcome changes and challenges, and to rejoice at the wonderful things God is still doing through his Spirit working in our Church, and in our world, today?

[1] Luke 13.10-17
[2] Hebrews 12.18-29

[3] Isaiah 58.9b-14

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