How shall we live as God’s holy people in a post-Christian age? Should we even talk about holiness when such talk, especially when linked to purity, sounds like a worrisome form of extremism? These are serious questions. It could be argued, however, that the cultural context of Western liberal democracies (WLDs) needs a revisioned view of holiness that is embodied in the public sphere.
Although there are vast differences among WLDs, they have as their common heritage the interweaving of the Judeo-Christian religious traditions, and the Greco-Roman civil and judicial patterns. All of this has been mediated through the Enlightenment project to modern secularism. Almost all WLDs have a constitutional Bill of Human Rights or a Human Rights Act. The gains have been significant. Laws usually protect the powerless and the vulnerable.
But attitude – humankind in its inner dysfunctionality – and practice lag behind. “Securing our borders” from the “other” is the new mantra. Fueled by a paranoid press, xenophobia is rising at an alarming pace. The trend in many WLDs is towards the introduction of laws and regulations that limit the rights of non-citizens, the “other.”
The gains in human rights, globalization, the advance of technology, and the triumph of free market economics coincide with a cultural shift in WLDs. The optimism of the recent past is now considered naïve. The capacity of “science” and technology to fix things is questioned. The explanatory power of the grand narrative of human progress has all but collapsed. In its place has come a resistance to any grand narrative.
The end of a grand narrative is, however, a loss. People fear social change and search for identity, meaning, and security. Heretofore dominant societies are under threat as power is eroded through the impact of globalization and migration. Socially constructed assumptions about shared history and shared experience no longer convince. In these circumstances, boundaries become more prominent and social cohesion is diminished. Visible minorities in particular are “othered.” They then choose an identity that isolates them even further. People search for justice and peace, but see only the projection of power. They hear the cries of the hungry, powerless, and abused, but cover their ears and spend vast sums on building gated communities and securing borders.
Into this vacuum religious answers are reemerging in unimaginable ways. Can the grand narrative of the gospel still speak in this context? And does God still call a holy people to be on God’s mission, in God’s world? I believe the answer is yes. But we have some work to do. Perhaps the place to start is to revisit Scripture and from that basis, ask how we should live.
Holiness in Scripture’s Story
“Holiness” runs throughout Scripture even when the term itself is not present. It establishes the calling and identity of Israel, defines its mission, and governs its practice. It determines the physical shape of the wilderness community and the furnishing of the tabernacle. It dominates the construction of the temple and the function and practice of the priesthood. It inspires the sectaries in Qumran and the Pharisees. John the Baptist and Jesus lead holiness movements. After Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and the outpouring of the Spirit, the Jesus movement continues on the mission of the Messiah. Scripture ends with the holy God in the center of the holy people in the holy place.
Undergirding this story and giving it meaning is the identity of God: God is the holy, creator God. God alone is holy in essence so human holiness is always derived. The story begins in the creation narratives: God’s creation culminates in making humankind. Created in the image of the Triune God, humans are hard-wired for relationship with God, each other, and the rest of creation.
But when humankind resists its place in the created order, every relationship is distorted. No longer is the relationship with God unclouded; and the relationship between men and women, the primary model of God’s relationality, is fraught with pain, sorrow, and mistrust. Instead of holding its symbiotic place in creation, humanity becomes parasitic and exploitative. No longer is being holy the normal state of humanity. Instead, the unnaturalness of the marred relationship with the Creator and creation becomes the norm. Humanity’s plight is hopeless and helpless: only the creator God could rescue, redeem, and heal. Scripture tells that story.
A relationship with the holy God presupposes that the people are holy. Purity is related to holiness. But holiness must never be reduced to purity. When they are treated as synonymous, a hard, cold, exclusive, performance-driven pseudo-holiness may be the result. This notion of purity is antithetical to the loving mission of the holy God and an impediment to living out holiness in WLDs.
Purity as a category is also problematic in social discourse. Not only does it lead to simplistic moralism, it fuels sinister ideologies and horrible atrocities that have at their center a notion of purity. If purity is a toxic term in the social and political realm, is there any way that it can be revisioned to remove its odious connections to racism, sexism, anti-migration, ethnic cleansing, and the like? This is indeed a challenge. What is needed is a radical return to theology, properly so-called, reflection on the character of God. The call to be holy must take its cue from the being and identity of the gracious triune God, rather than constructing holiness from a checklist of purity targets. Only then will purity be understood in terms of holiness rather than holiness defined by purity.
In late Second Temple Judaism, the boundary between those who are the people of God and those who are not centered on circumcision, food rules, and Sabbath. But Jesus, the holy one of God, is redefining God’s holy people away from conventional boundary markers. Adherence to food rules cannot be the criterion. Neither can tightly defined Sabbath observance.
The identity question comes to a head when Jesus’s biological family comes to take him away from those gathered around him. But in a shocking response, Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35, NRSV). Those around the Holy One represent the restored people of God, called to proclaim God’s good news.
This restored people of God is a new social reality. They do the will of God because they are entrusted with the mission and message of Jesus, and, most importantly, are with Jesus. Jesus transforms them into the holy community – the restored kingdom of priests and the holy nation. Their core characteristic and identity is profoundly simple: holy people are those who do God’s will. They follow him in his mission of bringing the lost and bleeding into security and health rather than acting as gatekeepers to protect the holiness of God.
If this is Jesus’s agenda, how does this play out in the early church? Acts starts with the ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh. The turn of the ages has come. This good news is to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. All this is clear in principle from Pentecost onwards. But Acts shows that understanding the implications does not come easily. Two episodes are particularly interesting.
Acts 8 has Philip, Peter, and John incorporating believing Samaritans into the people of God through baptism. Then Philip is sent by the Spirit to meet an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke tells us very little about this man, but what he does is significant. And it is complicated.
The eunuch came to Jerusalem to worship. But according to Deut 23:1, a eunuch is excluded from the assembly of God’s people. Now he is on his way home, perhaps somewhat bemused and certainly perplexed. So he starts reading Isaiah. So much of what Isaiah says is breathtaking in its vision of hope. But his personal reality also strikes him: he is on the fringes of the people of God. A Gentile could be circumcised and convert to Judaism. But for a eunuch, full membership in the people of God and participation in worship are out of the question. It is to this person that the Spirit directs Philip.
We are not told all that the eunuch has read from the Isaiah scroll. He may have read, “Thus says the Lord, . . . [S]oon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. . . . [D]o not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs . . . I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off (Isa 56:1, 3-5, NRSV). But so far as he can tell, this great day has not arrived.
Then Philip, starting with Isa 53 told him the good news: the day has arrived! Perhaps the Spirit also directed Philip to explain Isa 56:3-8. This seems possible because the eunuch asks. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The question may be loaded with the delicate issue of his sexual impurity lying just below the surface. “Can someone like me,” he asks, “excluded according to Scripture, really be part of the renewed holy people of God?” If so, Philip’s answer is clear because “both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him” (Acts 8:35-38, NRSV). Welcome to the holy people of God!
Some commentators think this story explains the expansion of the gospel to Africa. So the emphasis is on the Ethiopian eunuch. But could the emphasis be on the Ethiopian eunuch? Isn’t it at least interesting to think of the advance of the gospel to Ethiopia through the ministry of a Spirit-filled eunuch?
The second episode (Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:7-12) is agenda-setting. The story starts with the devout Gentile, Cornelius, receiving an angel from the Lord telling him to summon Peter from Joppa. Cornelius obeys, sending messengers. Meanwhile, Peter is in prayer, gets hungry, and asks for something to eat. He falls into a trance and sees a feast, including unclean animals, set out before him. He hears a voice that orders him to kill and eat creatures some of which he knows to be forbidden to God’s people (see Lev 10:10; 11). The same sequence is repeated twice more and then the vision disappeared.
This was no ordinary messenger. Peter has heard this voice before (Luke 9:35), so this is another extraordinary revelation to Peter. But Peter is resistant with good reason. He is not being asked to set aside a tradition of the elders; he is being asked to violate the commandment of Scripture. The voice does not demand that Peter change his views on what is clean or unclean. Rather the voice says to him three times “‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’. . . While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them’” (Acts 10:15, 20, NRSV).
By the time he arrives at Cornelius’s house, Peter knows what the vision is about: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). After he tells the story of Messiah Jesus to the assembled Gentiles and the Spirit comes on them, Peter’s decision is telling: “‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:47-48, NRSV).
Unsurprisingly, this welcome of Gentiles causes consternation. When Peter is called to explain himself, he points to the work of God: it was God who gave the Spirit to the Gentiles, so, most significantly, Peter says, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). Later, at the Jerusalem Council, when opposition was rising from an increasingly conservative early church, Peter’s response shows even greater understanding. First, God through the Spirit creates the people of God by purifying their hearts; this is the work of the Spirit without reference to any of the usual criteria. Second, even the established criteria in Scripture when used as boundary markers applied by us can be a hindrance to the work of God. The Spirit of the triune God is not confined to our interpretation of our sacred texts.
On this Paul and Peter agree: God shows no partiality. The heart of Paul’s theology is revealed in that pregnant phrase: “in the Messiah.” God’s good purposes are to gather up “all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even the Messiah” (Eph 1:10, NRSV). Paul sees everything – past, present and future, mediated through the person and work of Christ.
But welcoming Gentiles without circumcision continued to divide believers. For Paul, this is not just a social problem; it’s a theological problem. In a breathtaking move, Paul states that this means of determining participation in God’s holy people, this command laid down in Scripture, has been abolished through the Messiah’s death: “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might . . . reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross” (Eph 2:15-16. NRSV). This stunning conclusion by Paul needs to be fully appreciated. Even the purity laws have been taken up in Christ’s purifying death. Thus, all who are in the Messiah are part of God’s holy people since “in the Messiah the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place for God” (Eph 2:21-22, NRSV). And for Paul, this is a present reality, not something that will happen in the future when death obliterates all divisions of race, gender, status. In Christ these divisions are ended already. Differences remain but in the people of God there is no place for any division. Christ has broken down the barriers – put an end to the hostility by absorbing it all in his death.
Lived Holiness in the Twenty-first Century
What, then, does lived out holiness look like in a post-Christian context? At its heart, the answer is simple yet profound. God’s people are called to embrace God’s story and, filled with the Holy Spirit, to live out their place in God’s mission in word and in deed. A few suggestions of ways to move forward may be appropriate.
First, we need to reread our Scriptures with our Jesus-glasses on. Reading strategies can be atomistic and disconnected as if our view of the Bible were the same as a fundamentalist reading of the Qur’an. But Scripture has more to say to us than we imagine. It is the story of the triune creator, holy God of love and grace, who calls, redeems, transforms, empowers, and sends people into God’s much-loved creation, on the one hand, and of the response of people to this love of God, on the other. The story of God deconstructs the human story of division, domination, and violence. Only a rereading of the narrative, understood in the light of the life-death-resurrection-ascension of the Messiah, will enable us to offer meaning, significance, and hope for those who have lost all of that in the shattering of secular grand narratives.
Second, we need to embrace the Other. When we see others as persons created in the image of God, people for whom Christ died, we reflect the call of God to be holy people. The Other is no longer a category of outsider, but is named and loved because God names and loves. God’s presence is experienced in our communities when God’s healing and reconciling love is at work in our broken lives and dysfunctional families. But, more importantly, it is seen when we love the Other. Holiness then looks like compassion, with cruciform love that seeks justice for all, even those who hate us.
Third, we need to reconfigure purity. Purity matters but the notion of purity that emerges from our rereading of scripture is not other-creating but, paradoxically, boundary-destroying. The pure in heart love as God loves the world. Thus, those who look the least likely – Gentiles, eunuchs, the ritually impure – are welcomed into the renewed people of God because they are purified through faith by participation in the Messiah and his mission. The purity that matters is this pure-in-heart, motivational center of people who together are aligned with the will of God. Its primary external expression is loving God with all the heart and our neighbors – especially the Other – as we love ourselves. This kind of purity is transformative in our communities of faith. It also embraces those who have not yet been brought into God’s holy people. It is God-reflecting – faithful, generous, compassionate, welcoming, redemptive, transformative, holy love.
Fourth, we need to celebrate the presence of grace in God’s world. We do this through worship in word, sacrament, and mission. But we also look for and celebrate the evidence of God’s prevenient grace already at work in this broken world. Thus, this kind of holiness is generous, lived in the power of the resurrection and longing for the consummation of all things in Christ.
In sum, the call to be God’s holy people in the twenty-first century is no different from the call in all of Scripture: it is to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. On these hang all the law and the prophets.