theologyontheunderground

Random thoughts and questions


The wearable lightness of being

What does holiness look like?

What makes a person (or a people) holy?  What are the traits that would mark them out?

Some images that may pop up in your thoughts…

  • Holy people make sure they are there ahead of time. (To quote a recently and oft-heard maxim ‘To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, to be late is unacceptable.’)
  • Holy people are always washed and presentable(because Godliness is next to cleanliness)
  • Holy people are very straight-laced and never lose control, emotionally…

Really?  Holiness is not actually about piousness, respectability or being stiff-upper-lip English.

I seem to remember that Jesus was noted as turning up in his own time, rather than on other people’s timetables, that he wept over his friend’s death, and that wearing sack-cloth and ashes was a Biblically acceptable way of showing grief.

Chris Wright points out this list that follows the ‘stark headline of Leviticus 19.2 “You shall be holy…”’:

Holiness in Leviticus 19 involves:

  • Respect within the family and community (vv. 3a, 32)
  • Exclusive loyalty to YHWH as God; proper treatment of sacrifices (vv. 4, 5-8)
  • Economic generosity in agriculture (vv. 9-10)
  • Observing the commandments regarding social relationships (vv. 11-12)
  • Economic justice in employment rights (v. 13)
  • Social compassion to the disabled (v. 14)
  • Judicial integrity in the legal system (vv. 12, 15)
  • Neighbourly attitudes and behaviour; loving one’s neighbour as oneself (vv. 16-18)
  • Preserving the symbolic tokens of religious distinctiveness (v. 19)
  • Sexual integrity (vv. 20-22, 29)
  • Rejection of practices connected with idolatrous or occult religion (vv. 26-31)
  • No ill-treatment of ethnic minorities, but racial equality before the law and practical love for the alien as for oneself (vv. 33-34)
  • Commercial honesty in all trading conditions (vv. 35-36)

As Chris Wright points out – this entire list is ‘thoroughly practical, social and very down to earth.’†

‘Holy’ in its first definition means ‘a characteristic of God’ and then secondarily ‘belonging to God’ (ie the tabernacle and its fittings which were dedicated to Him.)  It’s only at a third level that ‘holy’ becomes a trait of how God’s people are supposed to live.

Looking at the list above, how would it be if God’s people were known for the whole collection of standards rather than mainly the ones which focus on the ‘religious’ aspects of life?  In other words, the Church stood for social and trade justice, strong families, ethical dealings with one and all as much as matters of faith?

At this juncture, Christian friends of mine from all directions who are involved in international development, who are campaigning against both international and domestic poverty and debt, who are running parenting classes and  refugee projects (amongst many other things) are jumping up and down and shouting at me ‘What do you think we are doing?’

My point is that these are things are seen as secondary characteristics of a religious institution, rather than the distinctives of a justice-loving, practical, socially-concerned, holy people. They’re spin-offs, not foundations.

Lunch time conversation involved discussion of a charity telethon that took place at Westminster Central Halls and the comics who were presenting the event being very aware that they were in a church.  If the ‘integrity, compassion and justice’ Leviticus 19 holiness were the prevalent characteristic of God’s people, I doubt that this would have been such a big deal.

Holiness is actually a missional issue.  To quote Jesus on the subject, after calling his followers ‘salt and light’, in other words be distinctive change-makers where you are, he gives us this purpose:  ‘Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.’  (Matt 5.16, CEV).

Bless others – live holy lives – make a difference – so that God will be made known.

† pp. 125-126, Chapter 7, People who represent God to the world, ‘The Mission of God’s People’, Zondervan , 2010


2 Comments

I’m leaving, on a jet plane… Well, leaving anyway.

Exodus.

It’s a word usually following the preceding ‘mass’ (as in mass exodus).

Which is a surprisingly Biblical image.

A mass of people leaving, quitting the place where they were, walking out the door, turning their backs and going.

But leaving from where and going to do what?

In the book of Exodus, the people who were the descendants of Jacob, were leaving Egypt and going to… well actually, physically, they weren’t sure.  At the time, the important thing was that they were leaving.

They were leaving behind a whole bunch of stuff.  An economic status – where they were slaves, living tools for the Pharaoh to direct in building projects.  Politically, they were resented outsiders, who were being oppressed by threats against all their boy children.  Socially, their lives were being interfered with by this threat of infanticide by the Egyptian army.  They were also escaping a spiritual regime where one man stood in for the many gods of the Egyptian pantheon.

In other words, they were escaping from slavery to freedom – and in that, the geographic location of ‘where to’ wasn’t the priority.  This liberation is the result of God’s intervention and his command to Moses. He was their rescuer – their redeemer.

Their Exodus is a journey (physical and literal) that has economic, social, political and spiritual meaning.

As a result of this journey, a nation was born – one with a unique identity because of the way it came into being and the relationship they were gifted by God.   Not only were they rescued, the whole company was given a purpose – to be God’s people before the nations.  They were given laws that dealt with the release of slaves in a very particular way; there were laws about corporate justice systems and individual responsibility, about celebrating their freedom and keeping their freedom.

The exodus is the prime image of rescue and redemption throughout the Bible.  In describing Jesus, the exodus underlies the descriptions being used. The various aspects of the exodus – economic, social, political as well as spiritual – are all reflected in the language that the followers of Jesus employed as they talked about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  So for instance…

  • Economically – debts are forgiven, the price of redemption is paid and slaves are freed.
  • Politically – the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’ was a subversive and dangerous one to the Roman overlords whose diktat was ‘Caesar is Lord’;
  • Socially – the new Christian community cut across boundaries – national, economic, gender – and brought new relationships into being.
  • Spiritually – there is a new relationship with God as Father.

In other words – the many dimensions of the cross are portrayed.

What would it be like in your situation, if the message of the Gospel was not just a spiritual one, but also economic, political and social?

The cross is not a way to escape humanity’s ills – its a way to engage with them.


Do not pass ‘GO’…

The first command is ‘Go’.

In the stripped down version of Abraham’s blessing from God in Genesis 12, the first element is ‘Go.’

This is the directional word that sets the trend for the people of God.  From now on, they have an assigned task, they are’ sent out’-  a ‘missio’ in Latin.

The people of God have a mission.

It’s outward looking, forward –facing

Actually, Abraham’s mission was not precisely any of these things.

His mission was first to actually ’go’ – to move.  Not metaphorically, in a ‘It’s been a real journey.’ X-factor kind of way – Abraham was told to pack his belongings and move house.  Or re-pitch his tents, leaving the city of Haran (in what was then Upper Mesopotamia and is now in the south east of Turkey) and travel through the Fertile Crescent to what we now call Israel.

It was forward facing if he didn’t want to trip up as he walked.  It was outward looking – because he was outdoors looking around.

But the place he was called to was definitely not the place he started.

Many (most?) church programmes are based on an ‘attractional’ model.  Come into church and see what we’ve provided for you – the most obvious definition of the word ‘church’ being the building that the people of God meet in – rather than church being ‘the people who gather’ (the original definition).  Most Christians’ understanding of the aim of ‘outreach’ is to pull people into the church building for one purpose or another. Few would say their mission was to go out into the community and do whatever programme they have in mind there, where the people are.

‘Come in’ is diametrically opposite to ‘Go out to.’  How did that happen? 

Most people blame the Emperor Constantine. He inaugurated the era of ‘Christendom’ where Christianity was the officially sanctioned religious option.  The Church legitimised the authority of the ruler as being part of God’s providence and the ruler recognised the church’s structure as having authority within the land.  This synergy (be that good or bad) existed across Europe for more than a thousand years, in various forms.  During this time, the church was the place where people gathered for many reasons, not just worship, but as a place where rents were received, tithes paid, manorial courts were held, where social business was carried out.  This church did not have to go out to the people – by necessity, they came in.

Then the industrial revolution changed the pattern of living, as people transferred from a rural life to the cities; the church (in its many forms, by now) was no longer the legal, financial and social hub – it was one factor that was a part of the life of the city, along with law courts, public houses, civic societies and the mills and factories of the Industrial era.  In 1851 in the UK, the census recorded that there were more people living in cities and towns than working on the land.  (Thank you, QI, for that fact!)   The central role of the church had been taken away from it – but the idea that people came to the church had been firmly entrenched.  Hey, this was an idea that had worked for nearly 1500 years!

It is notable that as Christian reform movements happened, one quite common element was that the reformers went out to the people – Wesley with the Methodists and William Booth with The Christian Mission being two obvious examples.  The early day Christian Mission continued this ‘going out’ theme with the use of various premises for their meetings – an ice-house, a jam factory, a boat-house and a dance hall, amongst others.

It is also a fundamental characteristic of the current ‘missional’ church movement that its direction is relentlessly outward – Christians going to the places where people meet, being salt and light in locations where they can meet a need, start a conversation, be a blessing and start a community there.

Going back to Abraham – he obeyed and he went.  Not perfectly – but he went.  He left behind people that were dear to him, practices that had nurtured him, the familiar, the comfortable – and he struck out into the unknown, trusting that he was called.

It may be time for us to think about going, too.

And when we’ve thought and prayed about it – to go.