When I was attending elementary school in California in the 50’s we had air raid drills. The siren would sound, we’d huddle under our desks, the teacher would draw the blinds, and we’d crack jokes. Great fun, unless we connected these exercises with the pictures of ground zero at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The seasons would change, spring to summer, fall to winter, but the Soviet Union was, we assumed, eternal.
Then along came Pope John Paul II, someone whose encounter with the holy God saved him from that assumption. Like Isaiah, when you feel the foundations shaking and hear powers beyond your imagination calling out “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts” you never quite see nations and states the same way. He returned to Poland, preached—like Peter—Jesus as “Lord and Messiah,” and Poland and the Soviet Union never quite recovered.
The section from which today’s epistle is taken, in fact, zeros in on holiness: “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
‘Holy’: our culture tends to have an allergic reaction to the word, which in common usage shows up primarily in expletives or phrases like “holier than thou.” Now, although we’ve all eaten really bad food and had bad music inflicted upon us, we still seek out good food and good music. So this sermon is an exercise in recovery: what’s holiness about, and what might it mean?
The holy is, first, the completely other. It’s someone from a two-dimensional world encountering somehow a three-dimensional world. It’s Hamlet encountering not some ghost, but Shakespeare himself, Captain Kirk encountering not the Klingons but the accountants at Paramount. Very unsettling, but good for us. We fall into the habit of thinking that our world’s the given, and may wonder if God is a figment of our imagination. We forget that our world depends on God remembering us, that our world has in itself all the permanence of a soap bubble. To encounter the holy is to encounter a bit of that reality.
Holiness, second, what is set aside from common use, and drawn into the service of this completely other. It’s like what happens in most homes: some things are for when company comes. And some things, some people, are set apart for God. If we’ve been baptized, we’re in that category. And we set ourselves apart again at every Eucharist. As Prayer B puts it “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” We place ourselves at the service of this Holy God. Which brings us to the third of four dimensions of holiness.
Holiness, third, the character of God we are called to imitate. And what this means is laid out in considerable detail in the Law of Moses. It’s easy to forget how much of this is simply good news. The Sabbath. Historically, the alternative to the Sabbath was pretty much working every day —unless you’re among the ruling elites. An eye for an eye is harsh, but a real improvement on both eyes for one eye, or multiple teeth for one tooth. Now, from the start we Christians have had trouble reaching agreement on the application of some parts of the Law, but all have agreed that the call to holiness is central.
“You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Like the audience for this epistle, many in our congregations are written off by society. Recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1Co 1:26 RSV). But Peter here wants us to remember that we have received an invitation whose honor puts any other honor in the shadows: God Almighty addressing each one of us: “Be holy—like me.” What does it matter what’s in my wallet if that invitation’s in my wallet?
This call to holiness is at the center of the questions put to the candidates in baptism: putting off the old nature & putting on the new. It keeps us occupied all our lives, individually and corporately. Individually, battling our cherished addictions. Corporately… when in the 19th Century Anglicans in the UK fought against slavery and child labor and in the 20th Century Episcopalians here fought against segregation that was about holiness.
Which bring us to the fourth dimension: holiness as dynamic, the core of mission. When Moses encountered the burning bush —“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground”— the result was not a new retreat center. (Pharaoh might have put up the money for that!) It was a return to Egypt and to struggle: “Let my people go!” Peter gets a glimpse of the holy and says to Jesus “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The result, not a retreat center, but “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It’s an outrageously mixed metaphor: “I will build” —something stationary; “not prevail” —the church as battering ram for God’s Kingdom. (Recall John Paul II in Poland.)
Holiness, then: the completely other, what is set apart, how we imitate God, mission.
Lest all of this sound a bit abstract, there’s a lovely illustration of how it plays out in today’s Gospel. Jesus encounters two disciples heading for Emmaus in mourning. They think they have all the information they need. One says: “some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.” But they know not to trust the testimony of slaves, children, and women. How do they know? The chief priests and other leaders have been telling them so, the same chief priests and leaders who’ve just engineered Jesus’ crucifixion. Holiness—the completely other, the imitation of God—means taking a second look at what our culture tells us. Holiness means listening to the voices we too easily discount.
In our first reading Peter is faced with an audience who 52 days ago had made it quite clear that they preferred Barabbas to Jesus, and whose working theory about the apostles’ behavior is that they’re quite drunk. That’d be enough to encourage any of us to keep very quiet. But Peter has responded to God’s call to holiness, and so Peter tells the story, and many that day pass from death to life.
For John Paul II, holiness meant inviting the peoples of Eastern Europe to personal and corporate holiness—including the labor union Solidarity in Poland. And one day, the Soviet Union I had grown up learning to fear simply disappeared.
“You shall be holy, for I am holy,” this wouldn’t be a bad time to hear and respond.