Sermon - 19th February 2017
Swimming against the tide towards holiness
Scripture - Leviticus 19:1-17; Matthew 5:38-48
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
What is holiness?
Leviticus: the third book of the Old Testament in the Bible. To some of you, this may mean little; to others, particularly to LGBT people, the very name of this book is synonymous with those unpleasant texts which seem to condemn gay sex. Yet, the reading we have just heard contains nothing of that kind: indeed, the teaching contained in the reading about social justice is as relevant today, as when it was written.
Even though the text of Leviticus itself identifies Moses as the author, most Biblical scholars agree that he probably was not, and that the book was written after the return from Babylonian exile around 520 BCE. The name of the book contains within it “Levi”, the priestly tribe of Israel. It is, effectively, a working manual or an instruction book for the priests of the time with guidance on everything and every aspect of life in ancient Israel.
As many of you will know, many Christian churches use something called the Revised Common Lectionary, set Bible passages for each Sunday over a three-year cycle, looking at most important texts. The reading we have heard today is unique: it is the only one taken from Leviticus. This perhaps gives us some insight as to the lack of weight of significance given to Leviticus by Christian scholars as a whole.
Why is this text highlighted? It is because Jesus made specific reference to it in what He called the second most important commandment: “Love your neighbours as you love yourself” as recorded in Matthew 22, Mark 12 and Luke 10. We even reminded ourselves of the two greatest commandments – to love God and to love our neighbour – as part of our prayer of confession in our service today. In Jesus’ own words from Matthew 22:40:
“The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Our reading began with a call from God for us to “holy”, because God is “holy”. What does “holy” mean? It is a strange word, one which we use only in a religious context. In all English translations, it is an adjective, one characteristic; however, the original Hebrew uses a plural noun “qadeshim” – “the Holy”. Nouns express identity.
What is it to be holy? Holiness is not about having a halo, praying many times a day, going to church every week, or smiling serenely and staring into the distance with a relaxed expression! The reading gives examples. Ancient Israel was agrarian, so a good place to start was to give guidance about how to harvest the crops and leave some for the poor and foreigners in the land.
- Being a holy person is about honesty: not stealing, lying or deceiving.
- Being a holy person is about fairness and transparency: to workers, to people we have business dealings.
- Being a holy person is about justice: speaking truthfully.
All those who hold a judicial office in the UK must swear an oath that contains these words, clearly drawn from Leviticus 19:15:
“I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.”
This church is holy; the people here are the holy: our foodbank supports those who are strangers in our country. We open the doors to the many and diverse community groups that meet in our buildings. We fight for justice in supporting those with their asylum claims: writing a letter of support or attending court with someone is holiness. We make it part of our mission to remove stumbling blocks to demonstrate to the LGBT community the unrestricted and boundless nature of God’s love.
Leviticus was written several centuries before Jesus, before His death and Resurrection, His sacrificial death on the Cross which set aside once and for all time the purity regulations and the sacrifices detailed in most of Leviticus. Jesus’ teaching drew out the central strand from Leviticus: love, love for one’s neighbour, love for each other.
English is a poor language when it comes to words for different kinds of love. The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses the word “agape” in Leviticus 19:18 “to love your neighbour”.
“Agape” is the word used for God’s love for us, the sacrificial love: it is more than love borne out of respect and allegiance, more than friendship-love, and more than romantic-love.
But who is our neighbour and what does loving our neighbour involve?
<Reading: Matthew 5:38-48>
Jesus begins this final section of the Sermon on the Mount in a style that He frequently used: hyperbole or the extremes of languages to make His point.
Firstly, he mentions “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Jesus is actually quoting from the Book of Exodus and the rights of a husband if his pregnant wife is injured by another, itself an extreme scenario where the desire to protect the expectant mother and the unborn child evoke a strong emotional response in all of us.
Jesus’ teaching continues with further examples. In Roman-occupied Israel, a soldier could force someone to carry his things for a mile, a law which was certainly much hated, but Jesus takes this extreme situation and gives an example of the type of people Christians might be. Jesus does not stop there: He goes on and teaches that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
That is a big ask! To love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. To love the homophobes who have rejected us, used words and actions to hurt us, to pray for those who put us in prison and made us flee from the places we called home.
One interpretation of these verses could be that Jesus is advocating that Christians should be spiritual doormats and allow themselves to be abused by others. I do not accept this interpretation. Jesus’ teaching is to a calling that is not one of passive acceptance, but of active resistance.
Have you ever been swimming in a river or the sea and felt the current? If you are swimming with the current, it’s easy; but when you turn around and swim against the current, it is much harder. Or have you ever ridden a bicycle with the wind at your back: it’s easy; but on your return journey with the wind in your face, it’s much, much harder.
As LGBT people, God’s commandment to “love others as you love yourself” is a tall order. Many of us struggle to love ourselves, because of what we have been told by others, including by so-called Christians who have distorted scripture by forcing it into a mould that does not stand up to simple Biblical scholarship, of which the anti-gay verses in Leviticus are an example.
Loving our friends and family is easy: it’s like swimming with the tide, or cycling with the wind behind us. Being a follower of Jesus is about changing direction, swimming against the tide. Our reading from Leviticus taught us how we can be holy people; this reading reinforces that, and it goes further to demonstrate how Jesus exemplified holiness.
- Despite having hurt no-one – “an eye for an eye” – they crucified Him.
- Despite having struck nobody and actively spoke against violent reprisal at His arrest – “turn the other cheek” - they struck Him, gave Him 39 lashes.
- Despite having spoken out against injustice – “if anyone wants to sue you” – they gave Him a mock trial; the Romans forced Him to carry His cross.
- Despite being abandoned by most of His followers and heckled by the crowd – “love your enemies” – in His dying words, He forgave them.
Being holy people is not easy. Jesus swam against the tide: He taught us how to be holy people.