Being Holy

February 23, 2014   Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18   1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-17

Rev. Catherine Purves


          “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  That is what God directed Moses to say to the people of Israel.  “You shall be holy.”  If you think of someone being holy, what do you envision?  Is it a pious looking person with hands clasped in prayer adorned with a halo?  Is it someone off by themselves endlessly pondering the mysteries of God in Scripture?  Is it a pure, saintly person who never seems to put a foot wrong?  Is that what holy means and is that what being holy requires?

          If being holy means we must be almost other-worldly and entirely focused on heavenly things, then we might wonder about the directions that follow the divine command, “You shall be holy,” because they seem to be very worldly.  Our set reading for this Sunday does skip over a few verses.  They briefly warn about the danger of idols, the importance of keeping the sabbath, and some particulars about how to offer sacrifices. 

          But when we pick up the divine directives at verse 9 we see that being holy is about how you farm your land, and how you run your business, and how you treat your neighbors and your own family.  It looks like being holy is all about how you manage ordinary, mundane, this-worldly things.  God doesn’t command us to sprout wings and fly off to join the angels.  God tells us to leave some crops in the fields for the poor and the alien.  God tells us to treat our neighbors and our employees fairly, to care for the handicapped in our midst, to be honest and honorable in all of our dealings with others.  God tells us that we must not hold grudges or hate anyone in our families.  Being holy is about how we live in community.  It is about our life and our relationships in this world.

          When we read these verses or others like them, we can’t ignore the heavy drumbeat of the commands:  “You shall not… you shall not… you shall not.”  And after each “You shall not” comes the corresponding exclamation point:  “I am the Lord… I am the Lord… I am the Lord.”  It’s hard not to imagine a very stern looking God pointing an accusing finger at each one of us, singling us out, and saying, “YOU!”  It doesn’t show up in our English translations, but many of the “YOUs” in our passage are plural.  This is not so much an individualized ethic that we are each asked to adopt so that we can levitate ourselves to some holier than thou place.  This is a community ethic, a way of life that Israel as a whole is commanded to adopt.  If we lived in the south, we could helpfully paraphrase it, “You all shall not… you-all shall not… y’all shall not.”

          I was thinking about that and the fact that we are called to a this-worldly holiness as I was reading a commentary on our passage this week.  The author was describing a community event that was held in her inner city church.  This was in a neighborhood that was dealing with racial tensions, the threat of violence, and serious crime.  The three-day event was called “Holiness in the Hood.”  It was an effort by that church to witness to a different way of living together, a way that would protect their children and promote racial harmony.  They did it in very ordinary ways:  by playing basketball together in the church parking lot, giving away free snow cones, grilling hotdogs and hamburgers in the side yard of the church, and organizing safe games for the neighborhood children.  Holiness in the hood is very much a holiness that is in this world and that addresses the problems of this world, community problems as well as individual problems.  

          As we start to think about the many, many problems that confront our neighborhoods of Bellevue and Pittsburgh, we are challenged by the “You all” commands of God.  How can we practice holiness in the hood?  How can we work together, grow together, change together, and so together become holy as the Lord our God is holy?  We are all called to a kind of hands-on holiness that will make a difference in the world.  What can we do?  What must we do together to embody holiness in the hood?  That is a question for us to consider corporately.  So, I put it to the Session, the Deacons, and the Trustees who together plan, provide for, and call us to engage in our shared ministry as a church.  What must we do?  I’m not going to answer the question for you…all.

          The question of what it means for the church to be holy was also of interest to Paul.  In the few verses that we read from 1 Corinthians, Paul admits that he thinks of himself as a skilled master builder.  He laid the foundation for the church in Corinth.  Then he and others in the church began to build.  While a number of biblical writers seem to be fond of this kind of architectural imagery, we would do well to remember that “the church” in the first century was never an actual building.  It was a group of people, a community, a congregation without walls, a church without a sanctuary. 

          What Paul is writing here is quite revolutionary.  He says, “Do you not know that YOU are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in YOU?”  Once again, the YOUs here are plural, so Paul is saying, “you all are God’s temple.”  This is revolutionary because the Temple in Jerusalem was where God’s Spirit was meant to dwell.  That was where the people went to be in God’s presence.  It was the holy place where they could draw near to their holy God.  Now, Paul was saying that this struggling group of Christian converts in Corinth – and they were not an impressive lot – nevertheless, Paul is saying that they are God’s temple, that God’s temple is holy, and that they are, therefore, holy.  How did that work?  And how does it work for us?

          It works because the foundation of that “building” (that wasn’t really a building) is Jesus Christ.  He is our foundation and he makes us holy.  The author of another commentary that I read on this passage recalled the fact that when he was a boy growing up his church had this verse etched on its cornerstone:  “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”  As a child he was afraid that meant that they had squashed Jesus under their building.  I expect that Jesus has been squashed under many of our church buildings.  When we think of the church as a sacred edifice, a building that has simply replaced the temple of Jerusalem, then it becomes a place where we go to experience the holy.  What Paul was saying was much more radical.  The church was not a place or a building; it was a people, a people gathered and sent out to live holy lives in the world.  That people was grounded and built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  That fact alone, that relationship that they all shared, was what made them holy.  Now the Temple has been replaced by a living, growing, serving community of faith in the world.  You all are that new temple.  You all are that community of faith in the world.  Holiness in the hood.

           Being holy is being the community of faith God has called us to be, the people he has made us in Jesus Christ.  We cannot do that as individuals.  The YOUs are almost always plural.  Only our foundation is singular.  Our community of faith and ministry rests on Jesus alone.  Let us take care that we do not squash him under the weight of our building.  Rather, let us welcome his sanctifying power in our midst, and, like the early church, let us be willing to be sent out into the world to live our faith together… y’all.