12 February 2023

The Gospel reading for this week continues with the Sermon on the Mount with a focus on holiness – but with a twist. In fact, pretty much all of the readings this week speak about holiness, but with a different angle than we usually think of when the word is mentioned today. Holiness, in this week’s readings, is all about social justice, non-violence and community (and, by extension, if I may be permitted to interpolate into Paul’s letter a little, hospitality).

What a wonderful opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct what we believe about this often unpopular word in our worship and preaching this week!

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18: God calls the people to holiness, instructing them to treat one another with compassion, integrity, justice and fairness.

Psalm 119:33-40: A prayer for God to teach the psalmist God’s ways and to give understanding, commitment and reassurance to help in following God’s ways.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23: Christ is our foundation, and we all build our lives and community on that foundation so that we become together the temple of God’s Spirit. To do this does not require human wisdom, or following particular leaders, but recognising that God has given us all things in Christ.

Matthew 5:38-48: Jesus teaches his followers not to seek revenge or pay-back, but to treat those who oppress and harm them with grace and generosity, and to love even their enemies and persecutors.

The idea of ‘holiness’ appears in all of this week’s readings in different forms. In Leviticus the people are commanded to be holy as God is holy, and this holiness is revealed in their treatment of one another and their seeking for justice. The psalmist prays for a life that is directed by God’s ways and God’s commands, and for the strength to pursue this life faithfully. Paul challenges the church to be a holy temple for God’s Spirit by building their lives and community on the foundation of Christ. And, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches what ‘perfection’ or holiness is to be like – compassionate and non-violent, refusing to retaliate when harmed, and seeking the best even for those who consider us to be their enemies. What is clear here is that holiness is not about not doing things. It is about doing things that make a difference. It is not about avoiding so-called sinful behaviour, but about doing justice, compassion, fairness, non-violence and generosity. It is about caring for those who are vulnerable and poor, and treating all people with the same respect and dignity. Note: Interestingly, Luke’s parallel for Matthew’s “Be perfect…” is “Be compassionate…” (Luke 6:36 NLT).

GLOBAL APPLICATION: I’m not sure when holiness became synonymous with piety, but that does not seem to be what the Bible is trying to teach us about holiness – at least not this week. Both the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel point to the link between justice and holiness, and in a world where social justice can sometimes be labeled as unChristian, this is a message we need to hear. As a Methodist, my Wesleyan heritage is a huge help here. John Wesley spoke about holiness (Christian perfection) as both perfect love and “social holiness”. Jesus of course makes this all-encompassing when he includes even enemies in those who deserve love and justice. Even Paul’s teaching for the Christian community makes the foundation of Christ the platform on which this community is built, and through which we experience God’s indwelling Spirit. But what does this mean practically for our world? It means we need a world-wide “no-enemy” campaign – a global movement of people who refuse to view anyone else as an enemy, irrespective of religion, race, sexuality, language, economic status or even action. Martin Luther King Jr. made it clear that the essence of non-violent transformation was learning to love those against whom we work. Perhaps the most profound work of justice is this work of unconditional indiscriminate love (or compassion, if we follow Luke). And just maybe this is, as Wesley suggested, the essence of what it means to “be perfect as God is perfect”. What might our world look like if we worked harder at loving our enemies than we do at killing them?

LOCAL APPLICATION: At the most simple level Christian worship has so often been the cause of hatred and injustice, setting even believers against each other as “enemies”. Throughout history Christians have warred against each other – and this has not stopped today. We may not always use physical weapons, but we certainly use the weapons of the media, of words and of rejection. We do this against people of other religions as well, but as long as we do this, we fall short of God’s holiness, and we inflict death on both our enemies and ourselves. It is when the offer of grace costs us the most that we are most reflecting the grace and character of Christ. When we refuse to hate or attack or reject even those who are the most threatening and unloving, we begin to embody the “perfection”, the holiness which Christ teaches about. This may be expressed in small ways – like learning to worship to musical styles that we do not enjoy – or in large ways – like taking the hand of someone who we believe is completely wrong in their beliefs or actions. As I explore in Chapter Three (Becoming Holy) of my book The Hour That Changes Everything, holiness comes down to wholeness (integrity and authenticity), compassion and hospitality. These three characterics are what God offers us, and what we are called, in this week’s Gospel and Old Testament readings, to extend to others – even those we most want to reject or condemn. What would it mean for your church if you measured holiness not by attendance at church or small groups, and not by what your people avoid doing, but rather by the extent to which compassion and justice were extended to others?

Whole-y God
True Whole-iness

Hymn Suggestions:
A Charge To Keep I Have
Saviour Thy Dying Love
It Passeth Knowledge That Dear Love Of Thine
What Shall I Do My God To Love
God Of All Power And Truth And Grace
Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace (Link to YouTube video)
You Have Shown Us (Link to YouTube video – Song starts at 1:24)
God Of Justice (Link to YouTube video)
How Long

A Liturgy For the Celebration Of Sacrifice

Video Suggestions
Know The Word: Love Your Enemies