Friday, November 1, 2013

A Holiness Day

from Facebook:
Christ Episcopal Church in
Warren, OH
In The United Methodist Church, All Saint’s Day focuses upon “the church universal,” all Christians called to holiness, and also those members of local congregations who have recently died. My family and I are looking forward to singing "For All the Saints" (with its Vaughan Williams tune "Sine Nomine") this coming Sunday. I'm still dealing with my mother's 2012 death so, having a lot of subsurface emotions, I'm debating whether to go to my congregation's noon service today.

The Greek word hagioi, meaning “saints” or “holy ones”, is used in the New Testament many times to refer to followers of God. In some though not all early Greek manuscripts, it is the very last word in the Bible (Rev. 22:21). In that spirit, you could call this day "All Believers' Day," but if you’re like me, you hesitate very strongly being considered as “holy.” Nevertheless, the sanctity of God’s followers is a major biblical theme.

In the New Testament, the work of Christ includes sanctification of believers. As one writer puts it, “[t]hey [the believer/saints] are to be separated unto God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1) evidencing purity (1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 7:1), righteousness (Eph. 4:24, and love (1 Thess. 4:7; 1 John 2:5-6, 20; 4:13-21). What was foretold and experienced by only a few in the Old Testament [i.e., the power of the Holy Spirit] becomes the very nature of what it means to be a Christian through the plan of the Father, the work of Christ, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.”[1] The purity and justice to which Christians are called are Spirit-given gifts and, as such, are God’s own holiness born within us which empower our witness to others (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:21, 2 Pet. 1.4). The same author notes, “[God’s] character unalterably demands a likeness in those who bear his Name. He consistently requires and supplies the means by which to produce a holy people (1 Peter 1:15-16).”[2]

These ideas are linked to Old Testament ideas as well. As that author also notes, the word “holy” and its variants appear over 800 times in the OT, referring to God or the holiness of his people. The holiness of God is reflected in Israel’s life in the distinctions between unclean and clean, holy and common, and sacred and profane. We may be tempted to disregard Old Testament ideas of cleanness and uncleanness because of texts like Acts 10:9-16, but in Israel, these were God-given parameters for how to live and how to relate properly to God, not only according to God’s expressed will but according to God’s revealed nature, the Holy God who dwells in Israel. (cf. Zech. 2:13-8:23; 14:20-21).

The holiness to which Israel is called has the component of justice—which, again, reflects the nature of God who is holy, just and righteous. Holiness is never understood (properly at least) as only a concern for right ritual, cleanness, and restoration from uncleanness. Israel also witnesses to God through acts of justice, provision, and care for the needy (Lev. 19; Ps. 68:5).

In an important way, God’s call of holiness links the beginning of the Bible with the end, because the book of Revelation uses the Torah language of cleanness, separation, and holiness to show who, at the end of time, will share eternal life with Christ (Rev. 22:11-15).

But the Spirit also connects us even earlier in the Bible to the narratives of creation, for the church—which is born in and matured by the Spirit who was present at creation—-is a “new creation” in the world (2 Cor. 5:17).[3] We could say that, as God dwelled among his people through the tabernacle, he dwells among us through the Spirit. But as in the ancient times, God calls us to reflect his nature and witness to his holiness. In fact, we prove the very reality of God in so far as we love God and one another in the spirit of holiness.

These might be good ideas and scriptures for us to read and consider on All Saints Day as we remember those who have witnessed to God in the past. What are some ways we reflect God's holy nature in the ways we serve God and one another, particularly in our current time of growing economic need? What kind of witness would we like to be remembered for, when some future minister reads our names aloud on November 1st? I ask myself that a lot.


1. Much of these thoughts and references derive from the article “Holy, Holiness,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 340-344.

2. “Holy, Holiness,” 343.

3. Nils Alstrup Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), the essay “Christ, Creation, and the Church.”

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