Readings: 2 Corinthians 6:16-18, 7:1; Luke 6:31-36; Exodus 29:36-46; Isaiah 52:9-11; Ezekiel 36:25-28; 37:26-28
Our readings for this second Sunday of Luke (the seventeenth after Pentecost) bring us face-to-face with an uncomfortable part of our faith: we are to be different. The passage from 2 Corinthians is part of a slightly longer section in which the apostle Paul enjoins the Corinthians to be holy. Now we know already from his letter to the Corinthians that they sometimes struggled with the kind of fleshly sins that were prominent all around them, and that had earned Corinth a reputation similar to that of California today. Just as our generation had that dreadful pop- tune “Californication,” so folks in Paul’s day coined the verb “to Corinthize,” meaning to be sexually immoral in as many ways as one could imagine. Though the Corinthians were bidden by St. Paul to hold to good theology (of the cross and resurrection) and to avoid more spiritual sins such as that of party-spirit or greed, he seems to spend a lot of time trying to correct them in the area of their sexuality: incest, same-sex relations, lust and fornication, are all detailed. It is surprising, then, that some have considered this passage not to have originally been written by the apostle, but taken from some other sub-Christian, perhaps Jewish, source and added to the letter. Our verses from the passage for this Sunday instruct in this way:
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. (2 Cor 6:16-7:1 RSV).
It is perhaps true that we find here more priestly language than we are used to in the rest of Paul’s letters: what is unclean, and the language of separation. However, the emphasis upon our being the temple, on our being children of God, and on both external and internal sins, is very much in line with what Paul teaches elsewhere. So too are the echoes of various passages of the Old Testament, which the apostle seldom quotes outright, but which he gestures towards.
After all, throughout the Old Testament, both in the Torah and in the Prophets, God reminds his people Israel, despite their weakness and rebellion, that they are to be holy as He is holy: they are to be different from the nations round about, separated unto Him. (That is what “holy” means). As they were commanded in Leviticus, “You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine (Lev 20:26 RSV). It was for this reason that the Tabernacle, and then the Temple, was placed in the midst of the people, with sacrifices prescribed to deal with Israel’s sinfulness, from priest to commoner. The LORD tells Moses in Exodus:
Every day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement. Also you shall offer a sin offering for the altar, when you make atonement for it, and shall anoint it, to consecrate it. Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar, and consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become holy…. It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak there to you.
There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory;
I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. 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 (Exodus 29:36-46).
Of course, we know that the animal sacrifices, the bull and the lambs, did not really deal with sin, for they had to be continually offered. But they were a continual memorial of the people’s need to be made holy, and of God’s willingness to continue to meet with them, so that they could be sanctified, made holy, by his glorious presence. He was as willing to dwell among them as he had been to liberate them!
As we move further into the OT, we read about God’s promise to do even more than what was being done for the people in the Tabernacle and the Temple. Both Isaiah and Ezekiel speak of a time when God’s presence would be more immediate, and when the people would be cleansed deeply from within. And even while the prophets sounded forth God’s promise, they also had something to say concerning how God’s people would be different, holy, and separated to the LORD:
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 52:9-11 RSV)
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God…. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. 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. (Eze 36:25-28; 37:26-28 RSV)
Isaiah says, “All shall see the salvation of our God…Depart, go out, touch no unclean thing.” Ezekiel says, “Then the nations will know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forever.” This happened, of course, with the Incarnation of God the Son in our midst. When God the Light comes into this world, the darkness flees away. When what is contaminated is touched, it is healed. It also happened when God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the Church, making their hearts new and responsive, and able to walk in his ways, keeping an everlasting covenant of peace. When God dwells with and within His own people, making them a new humanity, a new sanctuary, a holy kingdom of priests, then the world sees something brand new, a new creation!
So it is that we are no longer simply metaphorically sons and daughters of God (for He has created us from the dust), but truly his offspring—for Jesus is not ashamed to call us siblings! We are born not simply of human parents, but of God Himself, and so can learn what it is to be in the world, but not of the world. Holiness can be made “complete,” or “perfect,” as this passage of 2 Corinthians describes the new situation. It may be helpful to remember that this passage about our being a holy temple comes directly after the apostle has made the astounding statement, “God made the One who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that we might become, in Him, the righteousness of God.” He takes what we are to give what He is!
And, of course, this is what Jesus was anticipating when he gave his luminous sermon on the Mount or on the level place, to his earliest followers:
And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:31-36 RSV).
We hear the very same themes as the epistle reading and our readings from the Old Testament: be different from other people; be like God Himself! Now, of course, the direction that this goes is quite surprising. We understand the “snob” appeal to “be different” and not to run with the crowd—don’t be vulgar, don’t be like those fools, you are better than that! You are of a higher breed! But this is not the logic followed in Jesus’ sermon, or in the theology of St. Paul, either. We are to be separate for the benefit of others, not to show ourselves better than them. God showed his divine love in that God the Son died for us who were not grateful, and for our benefit, not simply to exhibit His glory. And so, too, with God’s people. Anybody can love his own tribe—but you should love not only the stranger, but even those who are not good to you! God’s most startling characteristic is His mercy, and it is to this divine mercy that we are called. In Christ Jesus, we see God giving Himself to the ungrateful and the selfish, having mercy upon all of us. It is to this high calling that we are directed. Be like God, not to show off, or because you have self-respect, but because this is part of God’s mission in the world. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful,” giving and expecting nothing in return.
This weekend we remember our father in Christ, the apostle Ananias, who was also one of the seventy whom Jesus sent out to preach during his ministry. Having learned so much with Jesus and the twelve Apostles, Ananias was made strong enough to obey God when the murderous Saul first was illumined by Christ on the road to Ananias’ home-town of Damascus. This courageous man was prepared to meet with one who had been out to hurt him and those whom he loved. Tradition tells us also that he was the first Bishop of Damascus, who went out to preach at Eleutheropolis, where he healed many, showing the mercy of God. When the prefect of the city tried to convince Christians to offer sacrifice to idols, Ananias gave a firm and good example, refused to comply, and was tortured. Then, as he was being stoned, he prayed, like the proto-martyr Stephen, for those who put him to death.
So then, we have before us the radical command of Jesus to be as God, the reminder of the apostle Paul that we are the very sanctuary of God, and the luminous example of Ananias, who witnessed with his life to the holiness and goodness of our LORD. We are called to be different—for the sake of others, and for the glory of God, who aims to make all things new. “Holiness” is not a quaint idea of past days, nor a thing reserved for Liturgy and Heaven, but something that God intends to bring to maturity in us and among us through His Holy Spirit. As we have come to the time of harvest, and see the mature crops of fruit ready for us to enjoy, let us take the gospel passage, the epistle reading, and the example of Ananias as bracing challenges, and glimpses of hopeful harvest that that God intends to gather, with our co-operation. For no one can even imagine the things that He has in store for those who love Him!