Tuesday 31 October 2023

You shall be holy

Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18 Be holy as I am the Lord am holy

1 Thessalonians 2.1-8 Seek to please God who knows our hearts

Matthew 22.34-end The commandments of love


You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Leviticus 19.2)




To a modern ear, including many contemporary Christian ears, the word ‘holiness’ is a bit of a taboo.


A cynical, jaded, disenchanted viewpoint twists what holiness is.


It’s an insult when you’re called ‘holier than thou’.


To talk about holiness and being holy sounds to many as if we are talking about something removed from reality or like we have a superiority complex over the messiness and mirk of the world.


If we think being holy is about being removed from the world or looking down our noses at others then we’re far from the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Bible.


The Bible’s view of holiness is clear: God is holy and he calls his people to be holy.


This is nowhere clearer than in the book of Leviticus, from which we heard a passage this  morning.


In a nutshell Leviticus, an underrated and all too often ignored book, is saying first encounter the holy God, then act as a holy person in the world.


We can, and should, aspire to be holy so as to engage with the world and transform it.


It’s a good moment to consider this because on Wednesday (1st November) we celebrate All Saints’ Day.


Holiness is not threatened by the world, but the world is threatened by holiness.


That is why those who aspire to be holy are so often disdained by the world, why Christians who seek to reflect God’s holiness are mocked: saints are agents of transformation not simply content with the way the world works.


So without an appreciation of the holiness of God we get nowhere.


It’s when people act holy without knowing the holiness of God that they become ‘holier than thou’. Ironically too this is when humanists and atheists trumpet their slogan ‘Good without God’.


When we act under our own steam and not God’s then we are transmitting our own egos and preferences not God’s: human goodness is rooted in God’s holiness


Holiness starts in humility before God, and the starting point of humility is kneeling before the holiness and majesty of God in worship and adoration.


That’s why effort goes into creating beautiful holy spaces, like this place, into beautiful dignified worship, as we do here, so that we cultivate a sense of the holiness of God.


So worship is as much about apprehension as comprehension; in other words, it is about catching a vision of the holiness of God, not reducing it to a social club worshipping a false god of community ideals or worthy acts.


In our liturgy we find this expressed in the words of the Sanctus and Benedictus, two short Biblical texts in the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer:


Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus


Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts.

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.


That text says that the holiness of God fills heaven and earth; God, whose holiness infuses our actions to be a blessing when we come in the name of the Holy God.


The prayer continues, ‘Lord, you are holy indeed, the source of all holiness…’


This holiness spills out from worship into our lives.


That is what Jesus says to the lawyer in their encounter in the gospel reading.


The lawyer asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is and he gets answers from the law; the Law of Moses.


First, Jesus answers by quoting from Deuteronomy, in the Old Testament, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”


Then he answers by quoting from Leviticus, also the Old Testament, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”


Holiness is worked out, and revealed, in living out the commandments, first – as Deuteronomy points us to - in adoration of God, that is in worship, and secondly – as Leviticus points us to - in love of neighbour.


The Biblical view is clear that worship and ethics are not separate but integrated so that, “holiness and purity are only achieved when right living and right worship are bound together.” (p116)


Right worship is worshipping God as revealed in the life of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the wisdom of the Church we are given the means to do that, most supremely in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.


Right living is shown in justice, integrity and love: in being just in our judgements; not badmouthing others; not hating them, even those who might be worthy of our hatred.


This teaching is embedded in the scriptures and Jesus Christ draws it out and lives it, for he is not just a gifted teacher or guru but the presence of the Holy God in the world.


In the life of Christ we see love and compassion that reaches even to those who mock him, betray him and would have him killed.


The call to holiness begins in humility and calls us to look beyond ourselves.


To look beyond ourselves - first to God and then to neighbour - means that we don’t become self-consumed by our own anxieties and obsessions.


Rabbi Julia Neuberger reminds us that the Hebrew of Leviticus 19.18 is best translated, ‘love your neighbour as you yourself would like to be loved’ (Address to the Legal Service 2017 at Southwark Cathedral).


In other words, love and appreciation of self begins in the loving of God and love shown to our neighbour not the other way round; give your neighbour the love you desire not the love you have for yourself.


It sounds on one level that we have moved from talk of holiness to talking about ethics.


But therein lies the point of today’s gospel, the two are bound together: love of neighbour that is always rooted in adoration of God; this is where holiness is to be found.


So let’s be bold about seeking to be holy!


Not because we are superior but because we are humble enough to acknowledge the holiness of God and to know that love of neighbour is not about us, but is our response, in love, to the holiness of God, whereby we are called ‘holy’.


You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

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