Texts: Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Theme: We're back on the ground floor of our faith this week. What our readings lack in excitement and drama they make up for with basic, fundamental principles. So something like "Back to Basics" might suffice. Brave souls might want to reclaim the word "fundamentalists" for those who are committed to the fundamental principles of our faith – good luck with that one. I'm leaning towards "Being and Doing", the former having something to do with holiness and the latter with loving.
Introduction. Let's be honest, if we were free to choose any three readings to reflect on, preach about, read or listen to, none of this week's readings would make the cut, would they? We begin with Leviticus, not the tastiest entree on the menu on the best of days; but this week it does have a fundamental challenge for us. The challenge is to be "holy". St Paul is also taking us back to basics: the gospel message is not something he made up, but something given by God. And things get no easier with the gospel passage, which is really two passages joined together with no obvious connecting thread. But here the basic principles are expressed in love, of God and of neighbour, which Jesus says encapsulates the whole of the law.
Background. In a sermon I preached a few weeks ago in St Barnabas, Warrington I asked the congregation how comfortable they would feel if someone asked them if they were a Christian. Would they feel any more or any less comfortable if they were asked if they were Anglicans? And finally, would they feel any more or any less comfortable if they were asked if they were disciples of Christ. Over the years I have often noticed a certain hesitancy on the part of some people to simply say, "Yes, I am a Christian." Among answers to that question I recall hearing are: "Well, I like to think so"; "I try to be"; "Not a very good one, I'm afraid"; and (my all-time favourite) "That's not for me to say". The diffidence that these replies display reflects the fact, I think, that even among Christians there is a belief that "Christian" is an ethical status: to claim to be a Christian is to claim to be a good person, and therefore boastful.
Generally, we feel no such diffidence in acknowledging that we are Anglicans: to be an Anglican seems to be simply a statement of fact, meaning no more than the church we attend (or used to attend, or would attend if we were going to attend any church, or in which we were baptised as an infant) is or was Anglican. To be an Anglican does not seem to connote any particular ethical standard.
As for the third option, we just hope that no one ever asks if we are a disciple of Jesus Christ, and thankfully they don't.
But this week we have an even tougher question to consider. Are we holy? According to Moses, God told him to say to "all the congregation of the people of Israel, 'You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.'" How comfortable would you be if someone were to ask you if you are holy? Would you not be quick to eschew any claim to personal holiness?
Part of the difficulty here may be that this is simply not a term we use much in ordinary conversation. When we do, it is usually in a derogatory way: we speak of a "holier-than-thou" attitude, which is probably much the same as being "self-righteous". So what does "holy" mean in the context of this verse from Leviticus? Perhaps a good starting-point is to notice that it is not in itself a command to do something, but to be something. It is not a command to go about doing holy things or even thinking holy thoughts. To love the Lord our God and our neighbour is, says Jesus, a summary of the whole law of God; but the command to be holy seems to "precede" the law in some sense. The God who gives the law is "already" holy: the law proceeds out of his holiness.
Things become holy by association with God. It is a term we use for things to denote that association. Thus, the Bible is the "Holy Bible"; Communion is "Holy Communion", and the table is the "Holy Table". Pre-eminently, of course, the Spirit of God is the "Holy Spirit". Perhaps when we hear or think about the word "holy" the first Scripture that comes to mind is the story of Moses at the burning bush: "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." What makes it holy? The presence of the Lord God makes it holy. We might say that any place or thing closely associated with God becomes holy by contagion – it catches holiness from God.
What we are talking about here is, at least in part, consecration. Places and things are "consecrated" to God, set aside for a particular purpose closely associated with the presence of God. That's why our churches and other holy sites are so important to us: it is not that God's presence is confined to these places or things and can be experienced nowhere else – God is everywhere and in that sense everywhere is holy – but there are special places where over time people have particularly experienced the presence of God and become especially holy for us. That is why we must always be careful to "protect" those special places – those "holy" places - from inappropriate use. [That is why I and no doubt many others took such strong offence at the recent use of St Hilda's Collegiate School Chapel for a fashion show.]
And so to people. What does it mean for people to be holy? It means to be consecrated to God, to be set aside for God: it means to dedicate one's life to God. We still use the term "consecration" in respect of new bishops. We still speak of ordination to the "Holy Order of Deacons" and to the "Holy Order of Priests", and, far more importantly, we still speak of Holy Baptism." In each case we invoke the Holy Spirit, not just to empower us to do something, but to enable us to become something – to become a holy person. As the presiding priest says in our first Eucharistic liturgy (at page 421), "In him you have made us a holy people by sending upon us your holy and lifegiving Spirit.
So are you a holy person? YES, YOU ARE!
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18. Perhaps the first point to stress is the insistence by Moses that he is simply passing on what God told him to say to the people. This is not the great and powerful leader announcing his "speech from the throne"; this is Moses the prophet speaking God's word to God's people. And the second point is the one already made in these notes: the call is to be holy. Everything else – not only the snippets in verses 15-18, but the whole of the law - follows from that. The law defines and describes the appropriate behaviour for holy people.
Taking It Personally.
- It's time for the bathroom mirror exercise. Go into the bathroom, close the door, look yourself straight in the eye, and say "I am a holy person. All that I am and have is consecrated to God." Repeat regularly throughout the week.
- Work slowly though verses 15-18 as a spiritual checklist. Which item challenges you the most? Which have you breached in the last week?
- Focus on verse 15. What do you make of the commandment not to be partial to the poor?
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8. St Paul makes it abundantly clear just how tough it was to be an apostle (evangelist) in his time. Roughed up in Philippi, he made it to Thessalonica but faced tough opposition there. But he wasn't motivated by personal desires or agendas; he was there to proclaim the gospel entrusted to him by God, and in doing so his central aim was to please God. He reminds them that he didn't try to butter them up with flattery and pretence (cf. the Pharisees and Herodians in last week's gospel passage!), nor did he seek personal gain or praise from them or others. On the contrary, he cared for them deeply and sought to share with them, not only the gospel, but his own life. We might say he consecrated himself to them during the time he was with them.
Taking It Personally.
- Do you find St Paul's personal testimony helpful or off-putting? Does he talk too much about himself?
- On the contrary, does the degree of hardship he faced in travelling and proclaiming the gospel message add to the authenticity of that message?
- What do you know of some of the apostles and evangelists who brought the gospel to New Zealand in the early years of the 19th century, from Samuel Marsden onwards? What dangers and difficulties beset them?
- What do you know about the beginnings of your faith community? Who were the pioneers of that community?
- End with prayers of thanksgiving for our faith pioneers in this land.
Matthew 22:34-46. There is something of the nature of a "F.A.Q. Sheet" in this chapter 22, at least from verse 15 onwards. First the Pharisees and the Herodians asked about the lawfulness of paying taxes to the emperor (last week's gospel passage). Then the Sadduccees blew their opportunity with a ludicrous question about a woman who successively married seven brothers, apparently to challenge his belief in resurrection after death. (She's widowed six times and no one sees the need for a post-mortem?) Next in line are the Pharisees who, it seems, have ditched the Herodians and are having another go by themselves. They want to know (at least, they pretend they want to know) which commandment is the greatest. Presumably this "test" is designed to lay him open to a charge of making light of any other commandment than the one he opts for. But Jesus draws two together from the Mosaic Law, on which he says all other commandments, and the teaching of the prophets, are based. So far, so good.
But then Jesus is reported to have asked the Pharisees a question that simply does not sound like Jesus, or, indeed, like a question about a live issue at that time. It is much more likely this "debate" arose around the time when the Jews and Christians were going their separate ways. Perhaps one of the issues was about Jesus' "status" vis-a-vis the great King David. After all, Jesus showed no objection when he was addressed as "Son of David" by, for example, Bartimaeus, so why is he supposedly taking umbrage now?
Taking It Personally.
- The mission of the church is usually said these days to be five-fold: proclamation, nurture, social service, social transformation, and care of the environment. Which is most important to you?
- Where does worship fit in?
- Of the two great commandments, which is more important to you?
- Notice that in Matthew's account, the first is said to be the greatest, but this "ranking" is absent from Mark's version (in 12:29-31). What do you make of that?
- Imagine you are next in line to ask one question of Jesus. What would your question be?