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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Practicing Holiness
May 29, 2014

The world often sees the worst of the church – professing Christians doing or saying bizarre, scandalous, or hateful things that are abhorrent to most of the church. Such outrageous things are often notorious enough to garner press headlines, resulting in a terribly distorted public image of the Christian church.

But every now and then something in the church’s public witness is so beautiful that a very different narrative emerges. Not long ago the world watched, transfixed, as such a story unfolded in the unprecedented event of two popes simultaneously being canonized as “saints” of the whole church. While John XXIII and John Paul II were very different, each in his own way embodied the grace of uniting people from across national, ethnic, and religious lines in Jesus’ name. They were recognized as true saints because they were agents of God’s healing in the world. By being for the world they demonstrated profoundly that they were not of the world.

A “saint” is, by definition, someone set apart from the world. A saint is a “holy” one – the Greek word for “holy” is sanctus, the root of our English “saint.” From ancient times, God’s people have been set apart from the world by God, in order that they may live for the sake of the world’s wholeness. We are called to be “other” than the world in the same way that God is “other” than the world – “You shall be holy, for I am holy,” God says to Israel. (Leviticus 11:45)

Holiness is not something abstract in Scripture; rather, it is marked by unique concrete practices in worship and in daily life. One of the most salient features of God’s Law, as disclosed in the Torah, is its detailed specificity. Several times in Exodus God says to Moses, “Make sure you and the people you lead do everything exactly as you were told on this mountain.” Later on those rules would be adjusted, first by the prophets who proclaimed that God desires mercy more than sacrifice, and later by Jesus, who taught that the Sabbath was made for humanity, and not humanity for the Sabbath. The apostolic community testified that God seeks not mere external conformity to the legal code, but right living rooted in inward wholeness of heart. Yet for all the ways adherence to God’s Law is adapted over the span of Scripture, it remains constant that holiness is manifest in specific behaviors that mark God’s people as “other” than the surrounding world.

I recently attended a gathering of presbytery leaders at a Jewish retreat center. In many ways it was like other retreat centers, but its strict observance of Kosher reminded us constantly that it belongs to a community that embraces a particular practice of holiness. Every day we were made freshly aware that we were in a space that was tangibly “other” than the surrounding world. And I began wondering, "What about our way of life demonstrates that we are a holy people, set apart by God for the healing of the world?"

Of course, our public worship of God marks us as a people distinct from those who do not honor God. But holiness isn’t primarily about what we do in church. For the earliest Christian community that gathered after Jesus’ Ascension (which incidentally the church marks today as a special festival), the visible marks of holiness included sharing possessions in common, eating together, praying together daily, telling the story of Jesus, and taking care of one another’s needs. (Acts 2:42-47)

As with Jewish Kosher and Sabbath observance, holiness for the earliest Christians was marked less by practices they distinctively avoided than by practices they distinctively engaged. How does our engagement with one another and with the world around us mark us a people set apart from the world? How do we demonstrate that we have been transformed by the Gospel, and are not simply conforming to the surrounding world? (Romans 12:2)

The ancient church father Tertullian (c. 150-220 C.E.) reported the Roman world’s observation of the Christian church: “See how they love each other – they are ready even to die for each other!” This was a specific and truly radical holiness, behavior that starkly contrasted with the norms of the wider society. What about our behavior reveals the holiness to which God has called us? How do we demonstrate that we have been set apart to God’s glory for the healing of the world?

Yours in our shared calling to sainthood,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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