Holiness is one of those things that perhaps we don’t think about enough, or perhaps don’t really know what to do about it… Maundy Thursday seemed like a good time to think about some of these things.
I used a few newspaper articles to help with this sermon, most of which are linked in the sermon. I was also helped by Giles Fraser’s challenging article on forgiveness. The commentaries which I found helpful are Thiselton’s 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary and Tom Wright’s John for Everyone.
Holiness. Holiness. What does that mean? What does that look like? Is that something that is just for the professionals? Or just for the really keen? Those perhaps who come to a Maundy Thursday communion service?
Well, these two passages are about holiness. And this service is about holiness. Maundy Thursday is when we remember Jesus washing his disciples feet and celebrating the Last Supper. And that’s what holiness looks like feet washed and a meal shared. Holiness looks like feet washed, people served, tables put away. It looks like those little actions that we do, or fail to do each day. Those little actions that draw us and others either more tightly into God’s kingdom, or just a little bit further away.
Holiness looks like a meal shared. It looks like a Passover meal shared. A meal in which everyone was invited to take part in the escape from Egypt. Not just remember. Not simply remember that Moses led God’s chosen people to freedom. But actually be one of those fleeing Israelites. Be one of those Israelites escaping from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land. To take part in that escape, that crossing of the Red Sea, those celebrations as the power of God was shown to be greater than the might of Egypt. That’s what Passover was about. A celebration and participation in the event that defined, that set apart the Israelites as God’s people.
Because of course that is what holiness means. Holiness is being set apart for God. Being set apart for what God is calling you to do. And what does that look like? It looks like feet washed and a meal shared. That was how Jesus revealed God’s love, how Jesus showed God’s truth and God’s glory.
That’s why it’s entirely appropriate that this week, this Holy Week, 40 Anglican bishops and 600 other church leaders called on the leaders of all the main parties to take action over the ‘national crisis’ of hunger here in the UK, as shown through the rising numbers of people using food banks. Hope, they write in their letter, drives us to act. As they might have said, the hope that we take part in when we take communion, the hope of God’s freedom. The call to holiness that we hear as we celebrate that freedom. The practical work of being holy. Which is why Cameron’s response falls short by only talking about love and hard work, as important as they are, but missing out on holiness, which includes forgiveness, justice and mercy.
So, what does holiness look like? It looks like feet washed and a meal shared. Jesus has done these things and is now praying for his disciples, those whom have been set apart, made holy for him. That’s what the word sanctify means. It means make holy. Jesus prays that the truth will set apart, will make holy, his followers. He thanks God for them, and God to protect them and to make them holy. In other words, we are given the power and help to be holy This isn’t about a guilt-inducing call to be better or else. This is about seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to help us, seeking to help and to challenge each other, to work together, so that together we become holy, become set apart for God.
But, of course, we know that that doesn’t fully happen straight away or as well as we might really like it to. We’re reminded of this in the events of tonight and tomorrow. Shortly, we’re going to listen to the song ‘Stony Ground’, in which Peter asks “Surely this is stony ground on which to build your kingdom? Surely Lord you might have found a better man than me?
Another example of that is in the call to holiness that Paul makes to the Corinthians in the passage we heard read. In the verses before the bit we heard, Paul talks about how the actions of the Corinthians are failing to live up to their call to holiness. They are still acting as if the class of a person matter, as if rich people were in some way better or should be treated as more important than poor people. Or, as if rich or poor are defined by what they have or don’t have. Paul reminds them of what the Last Supper was all about. He reminds them of the invitation to be part of God’s kingdom, to take part in the escape to freedom of the new covenant. This isn’t just about remembering, it’s about being part of, about God’s kingdom breaking into this world as we take part in this meal.
Which is why we then hear those difficult words of Paul about drinking judgement on ourselves. In other words, unless we recognise the holiness of what we are doing, and try and respond by seeking to be holy, we make things worse. We make things worse because we respond in the opposite way. We respond by trying to set God apart for us, not by seeking to be set apart for what God wants us to do. That’s why we have confession and the Peace in communion services. They are ways of helping us to think about what being holy means.
And so an important part of this call to holiness is a call to forgive. Forgiveness is hard. We know that. But I think that we make it harder than we should be. I think that we make it harder because we think that it’s about feelings. We think that to forgive someone we have to be able to feel warm and fuzzy when we look at them. We really don’t.
A deeply moving example of forgiveness is that of Maureen Greaves. Her husband was an organist who was murdered as he was walking to play at the Christmas Midnight service. A year after his murder, Maureen talked about how she had forgiven the two men who had killed him. She said:
“I remember my face was raw and dry from crying so much. In the hospital I couldn’t hug him or hold him at all. All I could do was hold his fingers, so many tubes and wires. I remember I started to pray, I believe I can talk to God, that he’s my father, so I talked to him.
“Then my thoughts turned to the person who had in effect killed Alan and I thought gosh, it’s Christmas Day, a holy night, and I thought what would Alan have done. He was better at forgiveness than me.
“When he found out I was someone who could bear a grudge he used to say to me: ‘We mustn’t give ourselves permission to act like that, Mo.’ And I thought Alan would forgive them. It’s Christmas Day. I didn’t want to carry the anger, all that destructive anger, in my life. My family said they felt I’d helped them with the way I choose to deal with it. That’s what matters in the end.
“I’m not saying I don’t want justice for Alan, I did. But I had to carry myself in a way that would help my children. Forgiveness means you are not seeking retribution or vengeance. Forgiveness is recognising that we are all in the same boat, we’re all the same, not perfect.”
Forgiveness and holiness aren’t about feelings. The Bible tells us very little about people’s feelings and a lot about what they do. We don’t know why Judas decided to betray Jesus, but we know that he did. We know very little about what Jesus feels, and a lot about what he does. Holiness, forgiveness, don’t start as things that we feel. They start as things that we do, choices that we make.
And that forgiveness includes forgiving ourselves. Guilt is a destructive emotion. The desire not to do whatever the sin is again is positive and healthy. Feeling trapped by guilt and shame isn’t. Sin needs to be sorted. And the message of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday is that sin has been and can be dealt with. That includes justice and reconciliation and reparation where necessary. But holiness and forgiveness are possible.
As part of remembering Alan Greaves, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins was set to music. In part the poem reads:
But the Bethl’em star may lead me
To the sight of Him who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou were lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
This week, Holy Week, is the destination of the Bethlehem star. It is the week where the past and the future come together so that our present is transformed. Forgiveness stops us being trapped in the past. Holiness gives us a new future to be part of. And Communion invites us to take part in that new future, right now. “My prayer is not” says Jesus “that you will take them out of the world”. Why? Because we are called to make the world holy through our actions. Jesus doesn’t call us to escape from the world, but to be part of it and so to transform it. To wrest it off the evil one, from whom he prays protection for us. To bring it back to God. That is our calling. To be holy, to forgive, to heal, to love, to bring peace and justice, so that God’s world is holy too. So as we eat and drink the bread and wine of the new covenant let us seek to be transformed by God’s Spirit. Let us seek to be made holy so that through our actions the world may be made holy and transformed into God’s kingdom. Amen.