Readings: 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; Luke 5:1-11
Ex 29:45-46, Lev. 26: 12-13; Jer 39 (32 MT) 37-40; Ez. 37:27-28; Isaiah 52:1-11
“Make holiness perfect in the fear of God”
This Sunday, the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, we read a passage from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that makes many Protestants cringe. Indeed, though there is no textual reason to think so (every ancient manuscript includes this passage, with no significant variants!) many contemporary commentators believe that it is not Pauline, but has been put into the letter by a writer related to the Essenes or by an opponent of the apostle. After all, these are verses that stress our effort, and seem to be in collision with the gospel of grace: in Protestant terms, this is a “works-righteousness” passage.
However, we approach this passage having just remembered the “beloved disciple” of Jesus, John the evangelist, whose feast day (according to his repose) is Sept. 26. His were the eyes that saw the light firsthand and that proclaimed Jesus as saying, “the work of God is to believe in him whom he has sent;” yet also, in holiness, the beloved reclined upon His breast, accompanied him to the cross out of all the fleeing apostles, and welcomed the Theotokos into his home. John’s intimacy with our Savior was born of his faith, and shown forth by his works! Because of this holiness, the kontakion for his repose calls him the “virgin disciple.”
But what is holiness? The passage for Sunday in 2 Corinthians teaches us the inner nature of holiness, by means of numerous echoes of the Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets. Our lectionary prescribes 2 Cor 6:16-7:1, but we will also consider the two previous verses13-14, because they add clarity:
Do not be mis-mated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them,” says the Lord, “and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.
The passage is full of direct commands, rhetorical questions, and allusions to key Scriptural passages. Clearly the apostle is very concerned here about the Corinthians, to whom he had preached the gospel, and with whom he had a long and difficult relationship. It is helpful to remember that these Christians lived in a hotbed of immorality, for Corinth was the equivalent of California in his day, and “to corinthize” was the slang for such behavior (sexual perversion, drunkenness, cursing, extortion), just as we speak today of “Californication.” As the apostle reminded them in his first letter, they had been “washed” and “sanctified” (1 Cor 6:11) of such a life. Yet, old habits die hard. Here, yet again, he reminds them of their calling to be “holy” as God is holy. This holiness involves both mind-set and action. It involves remembering that we are called to be entirely devoted to God, and not to idols, and so St. Paul takes the same tone as the prophet Elijah, who said to the Israelite people, you cannot worship both God and Ba’al:
“Do not be mis-mated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?”
Of course, he is not telling them to have nothing to do with unbelievers: this would contradict his words in 1 Cor 5:9-10, where he says that they are indeed “in the world.” What it does mean is that they cannot take part in or agree with darkness, Belial, and unbelief. The difference between worship of the true god and something else is like light and darkness: there can be no compromise. It is not likely, of course, that the Corinthians were actually in danger of worshipping the false gods of Gentile fables, any more than we are: but there is a subtler form of idolatry, when we put our own passions, position, pride or pleasure before God. And so the prophet reminds them, by quoting the Scriptures, of the necessary mindset and actions of holiness.
The apostle takes us back, for example, to the consecration of Aaron and his sons for the tabernacle, in Exodus 29, quoting particularly verse 45-46:
“And I will dwell among the people of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God” (Ex 29:45-46 RSV).
By means of sacrifice, blood, and special garments, God in this chapter instructs Moses to consecrate priests to serve on behalf of the people in the holy place. However, He then says that the entrance to the tabernacle, with its offerings, will be the place where “I will meet the Israelites” so that the tent “shall be sanctified to my glory.” The blessing of his presence, then, is extended to the people at large, as we also hear in Leviticus 26: 12-13—“I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more. I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.” In Leviticus, this promise and reminder come after the Lord has given a prohibition against idolatry, and called the people to keep his commandments. His presence, then, depends in part upon their loyalty to him, and their remembrance of his mighty acts of deliverance. They have been called to “walk erect” and not to be yoked, or enslaved to a life of idolatry and degradation.
But there was to be more: it was not simply a matter of quid pro quo, of God blessing because they obeyed. For God had called them to “walk erect”, which would mean to go even beyond the original covenant, to be more than obedient servants, but actual sons and daughters of the living God. What an inviting intimation of holiness! God’s plan was to call a people to be like himself, and we see intimations of this in the prophetical passages to which St. Paul alludes, especially in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but also in Joel and Isaiah.
Jeremiah 39 LXX (chapter 32 in the Hebrew text) speaks of the horror that the people of Israel have lived, even offering up their “sons and daughters” in slaughter to false gods. But God had another plan, to humanize, or rather divinize, all of his people, calling them “sons and daughters” and to inspire them with his Spirit (cf. Joel 2:28). Here is that promise in the rest of that chapter of Jeremiah, another clearer hint, or promise, or intimation of holiness:
I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.
(Jer 32:37-40 RSV; 39:27-40 LXX).
He will bring them back, unite them to himself and to each other, and teach them true fear or reverence. What God intimates here is the everlasting covenant that was brought into effect by the Lord Jesus, when God the Son took all of our humanity upon himself in order to free us from sin and death, and in order to bring us, in the ascension, sanctified, as an offering to God. As St. John Chrysostom puts this moment of triumph in one of his sermons,
Christ … made to be blessed our [whole] race. … … Therefore he offered up the first-fruits of our nature to the Father, and the Father was so amazed with the offering, both because of the worthiness of the One who offered and because of the blamelessness of the offering, that he received the gift with his hands that belonged, as it were, to the same household as the Son. And he placed the Offering close to himself, saying, ‘Sit at my right hand!’ (Sermon in Ascensionem D.N.J.C., Migne 50.446, original translation.)
We have been made, in Jesus, to sit at the right hand of God’s favor, to be separate and holy to him. Picture yourself sitting in the very place of the Theotokos, beside the Lord himself, gathered to him, and never turning away from him again. This is the promise, the intimation of holiness, given by the prophet Jeremiah, and it is repeated by the prophet Ezekiel, where God says, “My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore” (Ez. 37:27-28 RSV).
How is it that the nations will know that we, God’s Israel, are sanctified? This happens when they can see the presence of the Lord in our midst, by how we live together, what we do, what we say—as we “perfect holiness” and remove, by God’s grace, all corruption of spirit and body. Just as we are helped by icons to see the living God, so the world is helped by us, God’s living icons, to see that He is present and active in our midst. Like the priests of the Old Testament, we have a high calling, for we are to be made into “a kingdom of priests” serving our God eternally. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it in For the Life of the World, we are not merely homo sapiens (human beings made to think) but even more basically homo adorans (human beings meant to worship).
This is an astonishing thing. Our awe, or fear before the Lord is not the fear of damnation—for God the Son has rescued us. But it a true awe, nonetheless, for we have been called to handle holy things—indeed, we have called to BE holy vessels!
Remember the high point of our Divine Liturgy? We are reminded, “Holy things are for the holy.” The implication is, of course, that we are the holy who are preparing to receive the holy gifts. And rightly, as part of our preparation, we respond, with truth, “One is Holy. One is Lord Jesus Christ. To the Glory of God the Father, Amen!” Properly speaking, only God is holy; yet he draws us into his holiness, surprisingly sharing his nature with his creatures, through the Incarnation, through the Spirit in our midst, through the divine gifts. And later, as the priest begins the critical point of the Liturgy, he expresses a similar appropriate reserve:
No one who is bound with the desires and pleasures of the flesh is worthy to approach or draw nigh or to serve thee, O King of Glory: for to serve thee is a great and terrible thing even to the Heavenly Powers. Nevertheless, through thine unspeakable and boundless love toward mankind thou didst become man, yet without change or alteration, and as Lord of all didst take the name of our High Priest and deliver unto us the ministry of this liturgical and unbloody sacrifice. For thou, alone, O Lord our God, rulest over those in heaven and on earth: who art borne on the throne of the Cherubim; who art Lord of the Seraphim and King of Israel; who alone art holy and restest in thy Holy Place. Wherefore I implore thee who alone art good and art ready to listen: Look down upon me, a sinner, and thine unprofitable servant, and cleanse my soul and my heart from an evil conscience; and by the power of the Holy Spirit enable me…to stand before thee…For I draw near unto thee, and bowing my neck I pray thee: turn not thy face from me, neither cast me out from among thy children; but vouchsafe that these gifts may be offered unto thee by me, thy sinful and unworthy servant…
As the priest says this, we, too, are engaged in our deliberate setting aside of care, our movement away from the cares of this world, which is a movement into separation to God or holiness: “We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing to the life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn, let us now lay aside all earthly care: that we may receive the King of all, who comes invisibly upborne by the Angelic Hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
The priest solemnly recites the psalm of repentance (50 LXX/ 51 MT), and we say the prayer of the thief, well aware that what we are doing together is indeed a fearful thing. We are serving the Lord, we are approaching the great Glory: he is with us and shall be in us. All these actions of the Liturgy have been made possible only because of the prior mighty acts of God, yet we are working together, with minds, tongues, hands, feet, hearts—all that we have. In us, the great summons of Isaiah 52 is to be accomplished:
Awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean. Shake yourself from the dust, arise, O captive Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. For thus says the LORD: “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money…Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.” How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Hark, your watchmen lift up their voice, together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Depart, depart, go out thence, touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her, purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the LORD. (Isa 52:1-11 RSV)
Yes, “touch no unclean thing” and “purify yourselves”: we are back to 2 Corinthians again! The picture is of a host of people serving the Lord, bearing the vessels that belong to him—the vessels of our own bodies! These are humble dwelling places, but they can be made pure, and to this we are called. As St. Paul puts it earlier in his letter to the Corinthians, “”We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7)
What some might have feared is a call to arrogant self- will— “Make holiness perfect”— is in fact a tribute to the One who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. We are, amazingly, not only passive clay in the hands of God, but pots made of body and spirit, designed to be transfigured and to be used forever as his dwelling place. Perhaps now we only have fragile tents by which to house the Holy Spirit, but the Temple that we are being made into will last forever—God has “given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor 5:5) that he has prepared us “for this very thing.”
I have no doubt that this would have been shocking to the apostles when they first were called. The disciples who heard Jesus teach from a boat to those on the seashore (Luke 5:1-11) did not know that they were meant to be apostles, fishing for men. But, confronted with the glory of the Lord Jesus, St. Peter responded truthfully, “I am a sinful man!” We give great thanks that Jesus did not do what Peter suggested (“Depart from me!”). The divine Mercy is not to leave sinners and mortals isolated, but to come closer to them than their own breath, bringing them to repentance, cleansing them, and remaking them so that they can indeed become not only fishers of men, but joyful servants of the One who called them! Yet again, we come to see that true holiness involves fishing in the world, influencing those who have not heard the gospel— not a separation that is smug or self-satisfied. St. Peter would be cleansed and used by the Lord, and so will this happen to us, again and again, as we come before him, to be made ready for his use in the way that God has planned for each of us. And so, with the reader of the epistle, we rejoice,
Make your vows to the Lord our God and perform them.
God is known in Judah; His Name is great in Israel.
May His name be great in the whole world, which he made, and which he will bring, in holiness, into the new creation!