Introduction to the Series: Over time through overuse and bad theology words of faith come to lose their meaning or to mean something they did not originally mean. Take “faith.” We often use “faith” to refer to belief. Faith, we suppose, is what we do with our heads. But belief is seldom what the Bible means by “faith.” Belief is important, but it’s not the heart of faith. As James warns: “You believe that God is one? You do well. Demons also believe, and they tremble.
“Faith” is a word that we seem to be losing and a word worth retrieving. There are many others. “Providence” comes to mind. “Election” is another. In the first two posts of the series, I decided to take a word that seemed smaller than those, less crucial in the sum of things, “holiness.” And I still have too much. This is the second post on “holiness.” I had thought to do one, but it was too much for one, and so I did two,, and now as I finish this one, I have more to say, but I’m sure you will agree, let’s leave that for another time.
Holiness has to do with vocation. And with church. And with politics. I’m calling it:
HOLINESS AND THE VOCATION OF THE CHURCH (AND EVERY CHRISTIAN)
In the previous post, I presented rather in rather brief and incomplete fashion the idea that holiness in the Bible is related to vocation. I do not mean by this that there are holy vocations—priest, say, or pastor—and vocations that are not holy. The Bible presents a quite different idea of vocation, one that involves all of us together (and individually). It’s that idea I mean to explore in this post. It’s important not only for what Christians as Christian should be but for what the church should be, and in our time this perspective has largely been lost.
Let me begin with an inner biblical conversation—just a bit of it. The conversation is about what it means to be the people of God. A key passage in this conversation is Exodus 19. Moses and the people are at Sinai, camped in front of the mountain (19:1-2). Moses ascends the mountain and there he is given the instruction to say to the people on behalf of Yhwh:
“You have seen what I have done to Egypt. I have lifted you up on eagles’ wings, and I have brought you to me. Now, if you truly listen to my voice and keep my covenant, you among all the peoples of the earth will be my personal possession, for the whole earth belongs to me. You will be for me a priestly realm and a holy people” (19:4-6: my translation)
There is much in this short passage that cries out for comment. It is among a handful of defining passages for what it means to be Israel in the Old Testament. It has a constitutional force. I’ll leave all that for another time. For our purposes here focus on that last sentence: “You will be for me a priestly realm and a holy people.” The two operative phrases, “a priestly realm” and “holy people” work together. What makes Israel a “holy people” is that they are “a priestly realm.”
Holiness in the Old Testament is primarily related to the realm of things dedicated to God: altar and temple, sacrificial animals and the sacrifices themselves, the liturgy and the priests. The temple sanctuary was called simply “The holy;” we’ve added for the purposes of our own language, “place”: “The holy place” and the “the holiest place” (holy of holies). It’s not accidental that the first time we hear the trisagion, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord Almighty,” is in a vision of the temple (Isaiah 6:3).
Exodus 19:6 declares that it’s not just the temple or the priests or the divine liturgy that is holy; Israel itself is holy, and it is holy precisely because it is dedicated as priestly realm. It’s not just that Israel has priests or that it has the Abrahamic faith but that it is as a people priestly. The vocation of Israel as the people of God is priestly.
What does this mean? Consider what priests do. Two things. First, priests portray the presence of God in worship. They direct the eyes and, one hopes, the hearts of the people towards all that which is beyond us—toward the ineffable God. They do so primarily by enacting worship. In ancient Israel, worship centrally involved sacrifice. These sacrifices, whether animal or other, were directed to God.
This priests do first. Call this aspect of being a priest “looking up.” It’s rather like the person who looks up in a big city. Soon everyone else is looking to see what she sees. This Israel is to do first: look up to God and by doing so draw all other nations to do the same.
The second thing that priests do is pray for those who have been entrusted them. If the first task is to direct the eyes of the people to God, the second task is to direct the eyes of God to the people. Look, the priest says to God in prayer, look at these hurting, wandering, hoping people. Have mercy on them. And not just on them, but on the earth, this damaged and changing planet. Call this “looking out”—both looking out at the people and looking out for them. The heart of the vocation of this ancient people of God is to enact the love of God towards all of God’s creation.
It’s this second task more than the first that the people of God tend to forget. As the Bible reminds us, the people of God like to believe that God is concerned with no one and nothing other than they themselves. The larger purposes of God are forgotten, and with them the priestly role of God’s people.
And this applies not just to ancient Israel but the church. 1 Peter 2:9-10 picks up on Exodus 19:
“You are a chosen lineage, a priestly realm, a holy nation, a people who belong to God so that you may proclaim the glory of the one who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light—you who once were not a people, but now are the people of God; who once were not given mercy, but now have been given mercy.”
Once again, this is constitutional. It’s as if one more ethnic group (the Greek for “a holy nation” uses ethnosfrom which we get “ethnic”) were introduced to the world, but this one set aside to be priest to all the others in the way I just described: looking up and looking out.
This is what makes us holy. Not that we are better than others, but that we have been dedicated by God to this vocation and to these tasks. And not individually, but together, as church. This is a holy calling, but like Israel of old we often misunderstand and misappropriate the call. We suppose that God calls us for our sake instead of the sake of the world. Instead of being a “priestly realm” and therefore a people for others, we reverse it: in place of serving, we seek to be served.
Or at least, so it seems from what I see of many churches these days. The church has become a bastion of white nationalism, the defenders of what used to be. It’s concerned not so much to act in priestly fashion toward other people but to keep other people out. It’s about us and not them, which is precisely the opposite of what it means to be a “priestly realm” and a “holy nation.”
Ask this: what should a priestly people do in a time of COVID? Care for others, protect them, would seem the ready answer. We are called to be a priestly realm not for our sake but for the sake of the world, and if we are to serve the people to whom we are called—our neighbors as Jesus’ parable has it—then we should do what we can to arrest the spread of the virus by doing at the least the simple things that are available to us: wear masks, get vaccinated, maintain social distance. That many churches have become places of resistance to these things in the interest of individual liberty seems to me to be a violation of our priestly calling. Instead of seeing God in us, others see selfishness and a lack of love. Instead of the holiness of our vocation we too often substitute our own idea of holiness, an idea that mimics holiness but does not actually make us holy.
One last point, reiterating what I have been saying all along: holiness is not what we achieve but what we are. Or, perhaps better, what we are called to. And if we are called in all our brokenness to these holy tasks, then it should be hard for us to see that holiness is all around us. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s much quoted lines:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
What this means is that nothing of all that God has made has only instrumental value. Nothing is simply for your use or mine. Trees are not just for the chopping, rivers not just for the damming, people not just for whatever use I might make of them. I cannot judge the value of things simply by the value they have for me. Each created thing has its own vocation, a vocation granted it by God, and it’s for that vocation that it is holy.
One day we will see this more clearly. Zechariah says,
On that day, the little bells on the horses will be inscribed “Holy to Yhwh.” And the cooking pots in the house of Yhwh will be like fancy ceremonial vessels before the altar. And every ordinary pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to Yhwh of hosts. And those who do the sacrifices will come and take these pots and cook in them, and in that day, there will be no “Canaanite” in the house of Yhwh of hosts (14:20-21).
“There will be no Canaanite.” To be “Canaanite” is to be the other, those excluded from the people of God, those considered not holy. And the pots and pans not just in the temple but in the kitchens of Jerusalem will be holy. And not just the pots and pans but those who wield them. And not just those of Jerusalem but those of the world. And not just people but the planet, this whole beautiful planet that we have so desecrated. Holiness is everywhere.
This is our faith. Faith, says Rachel Held Evans, is the act of taking off our sandals before all that is holy. And, strangely enough, we will learn this from those whose spirituality and culture we once attempted to destroy. When the natives of this land speak of the land itself, they do not say they own it; they say that they belong to it. When the people we live among in the Pacific Northwest speak of the Orcas in Puget Sound as members of their family, as “our relations under the sea,” they speak of a kinship that goes deeper than mere human culture.
Nothing has just instrumental value—value for the use we make it. This is why we need the word “holiness”: to remind ourselves that we are holy and that we live among holy things, and this requires of us to live respectively, as those called to be priests in God’s garden.
Holiness is everywhere. Every bush is burning.