By Matthew Croucher

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2 Kings 2: 1-12 Mark 9: 2-9

On holiness.

What is holiness?  It seems like a relatively important quality to understand for anyone aligned with a religion, particularly an Ambrahamic one, but like many important concepts it is challenging to define.

One of the key things about the concept of holiness in religious and sociological history is that it sets some things apart: words, places, people, rituals, objects – even thoughts.  And that means that there are some things that are not holy.  If there is tapu in the world, there must also be noa, by definition.

What do you think about the idea that the universe can be divided into the sacred and the profane, either as a dichotomy or perhaps on a sliding scale?

And if this idea holds water, what is the contrast between?  Clean versus unclean?  Things set apart for special occasions versus those things fit for ordinary use?  What is Godly versus what is human?  Light versus dark?  Sanctified versus sinful?

I’m not so sure that much of this captures the essence of holy.

Gerard Manley Hopkins says “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things”. He explains his conception, a concept he named “inscape” further:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

(God’s Grandeur, G.M. Hopkins 1877)


Have you ever stolen brief, squinting glimpses of the sun when it is partly hidden by mist, just enough that your retina doesn’t burn out, just enough to see the outline?  I’m always amazed, and it seems worth it even if I still get spots in front of my eyes for a few seconds.  One way that people both in the distant past but also in the present go about looking at God reminds me of looking at the sun.  God, it can be understood, is so ‘other’, so awesome, and so perfect that to be fully in God’s presence would be to burn up like a moth in a candle.  This is a God of transcendent perfection, a God of judgement, even if that judgement is conceived of as simply the inevitable consequence of standing too close to the sun rather than being a purposeful act of divine retribution.

e.e.cummings says:

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(untitled, E.E. Cummings 1950)

The Hebrew writers of the books of Kings were familiar with this concept of God, and their Elijah had been graced to become almost as close to God as Moses.  It was obvious to them and to their hearers that holiness of this kind would be stronger than death itself, and that Elijah’s crossing from this mortal world to the holy domain of God would naturally give rise to fire and to tempest, a kind of conflagration at the margins of the holy and the earthly.

This is a God who deigns to accept human individuals for reasons so unfathomable that to call this “love” can only be a weak approximation.  It is ‘Amazing Grace’.  In an odd extension of my metaphor of needing to squint to look at the s-u-n, this God needs to squint every time I pray so that it is Jesus that God sees and hears, not me: perhaps God squints in such a way as to see the s-o-n.

Rob Bell, author of “Love Wins”, which the Thursday night homegroup dipped into over the end of last year, wonders if we become the kind of worshippers that the kind of God we imagine would choose, the kind that a God that we have projected our desires onto would need.  If there’s any merit in this thought, then the followers of the God of Transcendent Holiness would surely join Cranmer in his Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” (Book of Common Prayer, Rite I, Church of England)

This God looks for that in us that seeks to be freed from sin.  And I am not suggesting this morning that this is wrong or inferior any more than Jesus would have suggested that the Old Testament God was now dead.

But there are other ways of understanding holiness, which will shape in turn our understanding of God, which Rob Bell suggests might then help to shape how we develop.

In our Christian tradition, the pre-eminent solution is to look at the person of Jesus.  Saint Irenaeus puts it this way in a much mis-quoted discussion about Christ from the second century CE: “For the glory of God is the living person [Jesus], and the life of [humanity] is [this] vision of God [in Jesus]” or in a more direct but old-fashioned translation, “For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God.” (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 4.20.7, trans. Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons)

In this view, God reveals themself and seeks to be understood and most importantly, met through the teachings, life story, and person of Jesus, a God not only made material and tangible, but made human.

In this way of thinking and being, many things can be revealed to be holy; perhaps, in the end, everything.  All of creation is holy because it is all God-breathed.  And every person is holy because we too are created, made, indeed, in the image of God.

For me, the holiness in people is very, very important.  I would struggle to be passionate about caring for older people struggling with addiction, or people with dementia, or older people with major psychotic illnesses, or Elders who carry so much trauma and damage that their way of being in the world is twisted into a caricature of adulthood – I would struggle if it wasn’t for sometimes, just sometimes glimpsing the holiness in them.  Or more often, being able to have faith that this holiness is there even though the scales remain on my eyes.

I have wondered if I would end up substituting “humanity” for “holiness” and ditching religion for radical humanism, but each time I have only done so insofar as I understand that what makes a human like me worthwhile is that I am loved and grounded in a passionate God.

Jesus put it this way: God is like a woman who turns her whole house upside-down to look for one little lost coin.  Jesus’ God is like a shepherd with a flock of one hundred who goes searching at dusk for one lost sheep.  This God of the New Testament gospel writers is willing to accept crucifixion on the thorny tree of human pride, fear, and stupidity to demonstrate the Way rather than appealing to either the zealot armies of Israel or the angelic hosts of heaven.

This kind of holy love is counter-intuitive and difficult to accept.  This kind of holy love isn’t about being deserving, because Zaccheus gets loved.  It isn’t about steadfast obedience, because Peter gets loved.  It isn’t about cleverness, because the crowds who are like sheep without a shepherd get loved.  It isn’t about wealth or poise or acceptability, because village prostitutes and Samaritan housewives and beggars by the pool get loved.  It isn’t about health and wholeness, because the possessed and the unclean get loved.  And it isn’t even about faith, because Thomas gets loved.

Frequently, we are told, Jesus gets frustrated with how slow his disciples are to actually ‘get it’ when it comes to what God finds acceptable, despite them being the ones closest to his lived example.

So one day, he calls, Peter, James and John and heads up a mountain.  We heard what happens.  To our heroes’ astonishment, Jesus is transformed – the Greek is “metamorphosed” – into someone so filled with light it is hard to look at him.  I love the “Frend Oxy Power” detail: “his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” (Mark 9:3)

And to top it off, Moses and Elijah are there; Moses to demonstrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the purposes of the Law and Elijah to demonstrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the promises of the prophets; and there’s even a heavenly voice to underline that Jesus is to be understood as the crux-point between heaven and earth.  Peter certainly thought so, writing later that “… we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18)

There’s clearly something about this story that Mark and Matthew and Luke all thought was extremely important for us to know.

Thinking about my understanding of holiness, I got to wondering, what if the idea that it was Jesus who was transformed is not the only way of understanding the message the first century Jesus People were trying to convey in this story, albeit with the words and concepts of their Judaic perspective?  What if it was the disciples that were transformed?

What if it was their ability to see that temporarily metamorphosed, so that they truly saw, for the first time and in a way that marked them forever, that their charismatic but decidedly difficult rabbi, all-too human, and very flesh and blood, was in fact Holy.  Holy-of-Holies holy.  Rip the temple curtain holy.  Yet still with them: touchable, and perhaps even in need of a tent to sit in.

What if Jesus wanted his disciples to transcend the blinkers that came with everything they had been taught about holiness and law and prophecy and to see, to really see for the first time that God’s love was already available, that God’s love was always intended for them and for everyone, that God’s love was woven into the very fabric of reality?

The gospel stories and the Acts that follow make it clear that it took Jesus’ death for this resurrection to occur, and even then it was a halting, fragile thing.  But by a few years after his death they really were ‘getting it’ and this vision of the world became the single most important fact of their lives.

Is holiness perhaps not a state of the thing observed, but a quality of God inside all observable things, inside you and inside me, which requires only for us to be transfigured to see, as with the eyes of Christ, what has been there all along?

If this is what our God is like, then what kind of disciple will you and I develop into?  How can I help you in this transfiguration?  How will you help me?

Gerard Manley Hopkins finishes his sonnet, “God’s Grandeur” like this:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


E te whānau, may we increasingly see with the eyes of Christ and grow into holiness.

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