Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
My earliest memories of worship are opening every Sunday singing: “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.” I didn’t know what the word holy meant except that it was associated with God. God was holy. The hymn taught me to sing: “only thou art holy, merciful and mighty.” So it is a bit confounding to open Leviticus and find that Moses is to tell the Israelites that they are holy (Lev. 19:2). On the same Sunday we find Paul writing to the little Corinthian church made up of the “low and despised in the world” (I Cor. 1:28) that it is a “holy temple” (I Cor. 3:17). The church of my upbringing has been careful to leave holiness to God. We are keenly aware of the danger of a “holier than thou” attitude. Say the word “righteous” and we instinctively add the prefix “self”. The truth is that we don’t talk about holiness very much. Then along come these texts which each say to the church: “You are holy”.
I suspect that the discomfort about holiness in the United Church of Canada comes not only from fear of the sin of pride. It also arises from the sin of sloth. Called to a distinctive life as witnesses to God’s coming reign we would rather fit in than stand out. To say that God is holy is to say that God is other, that God is not us, that God is odd. As a child I had no inkling that to sing “Holy, holy, holy” was the equivalent of singing “Odd, odd, odd”. It wasn’t in our ecclesial DNA to be odd. Relevance was our more most cherished virtue. We did not think that being odd was relevant.
Yet each of these texts proclaim that the most relevant life that the church can lead is the distinctive witness of a people who mirror the holiness of God. In the Holiness Code of Leviticus we dig into the roots of the prophets’ concern for the marginalised. Moses says that the LORD says that the vocation of a holy people is to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). We have imagined that this neighbour love is a universal human inclination. What, after all, is so odd about loving your neighbour? But then we read the specifics of this neighbour love: no seeking revenge, no bearing grudges, no showing partiality, no profiting at another’s expense, no keeping your crops or produce or profit to yourself. We don’t have to look very far in the church to discover a grudge held here, special favours shown there, secret longings for revenge in our hearts and tight fists keeping close watch on the budget purse strings.
Then, in case such a life of neighbour love is not odd enough, Jesus ups the ante: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43). Jesus calls an odd people into existence. Some find Jesus and his community offensive. They are enemies of Jesus and of the church. The church that shaped me did not spend a lot of time on this passage. We were confused about enemies. On the one hand, it was somehow assumed that a true Christian would not have any enemies. On the other hand, we knew very well who our enemies were and they were regularly other churches that we did not approve of or agree with. Making enemies in the neighbourhood because we took following Jesus so seriously that we would cause offense was not in our repertoire. Now all these years later here is Jesus, out ahead of us, preparing us for holiness by commanding us to love the enemies that we are in the process of making by following him.
I have learned that the best place to begin practising enemy love is in my own congregation. It seems that Jesus always manages to call someone into this little flock who takes offense at what I say or how I go about my calling. There was a time when I wished - even prayed - that such enemies would one day decide to move on. Then I realized that as soon as this happens Jesus calls someone else to come and be my enemy. He knows that I am not good at loving my opponents - theological or otherwise. For one thing, I am in the bad habit of bearing false witness when describing their position. I am not well-formed in the practice of enemy love. But this is no excuse not to keep practising. After all, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that enemy love is the thing that will set his holy people apart from Gentile neighbours who are as fully capable of loving their loved ones as you and me.
Last, but not least, comes Paul who knows that constructing a community on the foundation of Jesus Christ, the great enemy lover, is a long-term project in which many skilled builders take their part. He says that God’s holy people look like fools in the world (I Cor. 3:18). It is his way of saying that Jesus’ church is odd. We had hoped that our neighbours would think of us as wise, up to date and in touch with the times. We are learning, instead, to hope that God will think of us as holy.
- Edwin Searcy
an edited version of these lectionary notes was published in the Christian Century, February 2011