A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:48 ESV
And Moses spoke to all the children of Israel, saying, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). And Jesus spoke to his disciples, saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Well, that sets the bar of living pretty high, doesn’t it? Who among us is ready to stand and say that we are either holy or perfect? Is such a thing even humanly possible? Or could it be it is an ideal, or a goal toward which we may aim? Or could it be that human holiness or perfection means something totally different than what we may think?
There was a movement in America that began in the mid-19th century that was actually called the “Holiness Movement” that stressed the possibility of human perfection. The idea emerged from Methodism (or Wesleyan theology) and John Wesley’s teaching and doctrine having to do with a second work of grace (sanctification) that leads to Christian perfection. Holiness adherents believe that a “second work of grace” or “second blessing” can take place after personal salvation, an experience that enables one to live a holy life. Several factors in European and American religious history served to support the Holiness Movement: the Protestant Reformation, Pietism in Germany, Quietism in Quakerism, the Evangelical Revival in England, the First Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening in America, and the American camp meeting revivals. All of these smaller movements lent support to the idea of the Holiness Movement and those who were drawn to it.
Although the Holiness Movement had its roots in Wesleyan theology, leading personalities from a number of denominational backgrounds would also play a role, such as Congregationalist Thomas Upham, Presbyterian evangelist Charles G. Finney, Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith, and Salvation Army co-founder Catherine Booth, just to name a few.
Traditionally, adherents of the Holiness Movement have expected members to obey strict moral and behavioral rules, including prohibiting any use of alcohol, any form of gambling, any form of dancing, any movie-going, and so on. Holiness groups also have often placed prohibitions upon owning or watching television; women wearing makeup, jewelry, shorts or swimsuits; and other such things.
Over the last 150 years or so, a number of denominations and smaller associations have splintered off the Holiness Movement, including the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of the Nazarene, Church of God, Salvation Army, Pentecostal Holiness Church, just to name a few that we may be familiar with.
The question is, as I raised it early on, Is a state of holiness and human perfection really possible? Such an idea may be predicated on the belief that humans – when first created – knew such a state of perfection, before the so-called “Fall from Grace.” Perhaps the idea is that if there ever was a time when humans, as created by God, were really innocent and free of sin before falling to temptation, then with God’s grace humans could return to such a state of perfection. But such is predicated on the fact that one takes the creation accounts in Genesis literally. If, however, one does not interpret the Genesis creation accounts literally – as many of us may not – then there never was a state of human perfection, and subsequently a “Fall from Grace” to begin with. If that is the case, then perhaps there is another way altogether to interpret the biblical injunctions to “be holy” and/or “perfect.”
Let’s consider first Jesus’ injunction – at least as Matthew records it – to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What is really meant by that word “perfect”? The connotations of the Greek word that is translated “perfect” in most English Bibles means “ended,” or “complete.” In fact, the Common English Bible translates the verse this way: “just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” That puts a whole new spin on it, doesn’t it? For you see, when we consider the verse “be perfect” or “be complete” within its context (and we should always interpret a verse within its context), we find that Jesus has been talking about showing love and forgiveness in all our relationships: with our enemies, relatives, neighbors, societal relationships, and so on. So the import of the verse is to be complete or perfectly inclusive in demonstrating love, compassion, and forgiveness in all our relationships, as God is complete or inclusive in demonstrating love, compassion, and forgiveness to all. Jesus’ injunction to “be perfect” has nothing to do with moral perfection; at least not in this particular instance.
Then as we consider the word “holy” in Leviticus, we find that it means “separate” or “set apart.” As we think about the time and circumstances, there were good hygienic and dietary reasons for the emphasis upon being separate or set apart. A lot of the “holiness laws” in Leviticus were concerned with not getting food poisoned or contracting and spreading contagious diseases. Such is to say that there were practical as well as religious reasons for the “holiness code” within the covenant community.
Some of the laws had to do with being different from the peoples around them, not participating in their worship of idols, indulging in their questionable practices, and so on. Some of them were aimed at establishing and maintaining a well-ordered society and protecting the family unit, property rights, and so forth. Granted, as we read the book of Leviticus today, we may think some of the prohibitions to be a bit extreme, silly, or down-right bizarre. But regarding this particular chapter in Leviticus, biblical commentator John H. Hayes notes, “The ethical teachings of the OT find their apex in this [19th] chapter [of Leviticus] . . . ‘Holiness’ is understood as more than just ethical excellence; it is behavior that imitates God’s behavior” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).
Therein is the crux of the matter in regards to the idea of holiness. For if we again consider the verse, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” within its context, we find that it all has to do with the way God’s people were instructed to live in relation to others: looking out for the poor, stranger and aliens of the land by leaving remnants of grain and grapes for them to gather; respecting the property of others; dealing honestly with others; paying decent and honest wages to workers; dealing justly with everyone-rich and poor alike; not taking vengeance or using violence; but instead, loving your neighbor as you love yourself. These are the instructions that come right after the injunction to “be holy.” To “be holy” is to demonstrate behavior that mirrors or imitates the behavior of God.
And so, when we think of being holy in these terms – in a way that affects how we deal with others in society and in our daily lives; and when we think of being perfect as being complete in showing love, compassion and forgiveness in all our relationships – then it portrays holiness and perfection in a whole different light.
My honest gut conviction and belief is there never was a time of human perfection. There never was a time of human innocence and so-called “Fall from Grace.” Rather, I have been wont to believe that humankind could progressively move toward a more perfect state, if we could learn to live together in love and compassion as Jesus taught us. But the idea that any one human might have some mystical experience that would impart human perfection seems to me to be a bit out of reach. Maybe there is some holy man or holy woman somewhere in the world today who has reached a state of complete holiness or human perfection. But I have never yet met one. And I am not sure that is a possibility for most of us.
But the good news is all of us can be more “holy” as we care for others as God is said to care; and we can strive toward being more perfect, as Jesus described it, as we learn to care more for the less fortunate and learn to relate to others with forgiveness, love, and compassion. Such is my perspective on being holy and perfect. As such, may it be so for us. Amen.