Tag Archives: Holiness

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.

Life, and Light, Under the Bucket

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people, not at all meaning the people of this world...
1 Corinthians 5:10 (NIV)

There once was a Christian man, raised in a Christian family. From his infancy he attended a Christian church and then was placed in Christian school where he had many Christian friends. He listened exclusively to Christian music on the Christian music station and read Christian novels from the Christian publisher that he purchased from the Christian book store. During high school he involved himself with Christian athletes and in his senior year he attended the Christian prom with his Christian girlfriend. After graduating from Christian high school, the young man attended a Christian college. He went on several Christian missions to the third world and interned at two different Christian organizations. He met a good Christian girl from a Christian family, and he married her. After graduating from the Christian college, the man returned to his hometown to start a Christian business, listed in the local Christian business directory, and joined a Christian men’s group to help him raise his Christian family. And, it started all over again.

Jesus said,

“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

If I was the enemy of Light, and I wanted to keep the Light from penetrating the darkness, I would simply convince the Light bearers that “holiness” was totally dependent on keeping their Light hidden under an overturned bucket of social, cultural, and familial exclusivity. Then, I would sprinkle in the notion that those in darkness will either be  1) somehow attracted to their little circle of exclusivity under the bucket or 2) deserving of the hopeless, eternal darkness outside.

What the hell?

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 21

via Flickr & gawwdkristen

God spoke to Moses: “Tell Aaron, None of your descendants, in any generation to come, who has a defect of any kind may present as an offering the food of his God.” Leviticus 21:16 (MSG)

One of the tasks of my job is helping companies establish a standard for quality when it comes to serving customers on the phone. My experience is that most companies establish a low standard because they want to make sure that all of their employees can meet the standard with very little effort. Some companies establish a very high standard so that their employees must work very hard to improve their performance and reach their goal. I have never watched a company set such a high standard that a perfect score always meant an exceptionally great service experience. Even with the toughest quality scales, you can listen to calls that received the highest possible score and find opportunities for improvement.

As I read today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but see a parallel. I read the list of rules and expectations for the priests and I felt like I was reading a list of performance management expectations from God’s HR department. And, the scale was unbelievably tough. The smallest defect in person or performance rendered the priest unfit to serve on God’s team.

Once again, I find myself left with a clear picture of a holy God demanding holy perfection. The result is a quality assessment scale which sets the bar so high that no one ever reaches 100. And, that is the point of the scale. When we finally realize that we can never reach the demands of moral and spiritual perfection from holy God, we will be ready to understand God’s priceless gift and sacrifice God made on our behalf.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 20

via Flickr and modashell

“Set yourselves apart for a holy life. Live a holy life, because I am God, your God. Do what I tell you; live the way I tell you. I am the God who makes you holy.” Leviticus 20:7-8 (MSG)

When I was a child, the rules of the house were strict and the punishment for infraction were (at least to my child’s mind) severe. Childhood was when the folks “laid down the law” and taught life lessons in black and white terms. As I grew into an adult, I watched the authoritarian parental regime wane. I was given free rein to live on my own, make my own choices, and learn from the consequences of my own foolishness.

As a parent, I gained an even greater perspective. Parenting is about preparing children for life. It starts with helping them understand basic black and white rules for their safety and propriety. It progresses to teaching them principles for successful living and eventually becomes an advisory role as you assist them in grappling with the mysteries of this life journey as they walk it for themselves.

I find it helpful to view the authoritarian rules of Leviticus and their stiff penalties in view of the big picture. It’s easy to get mired in the minutiae and lose sight of the whole. On the surface, the purpose of the law was to protect the people by keeping them spiritually, morally and physically safe and healthy. But on a larger scale, in the linear life cycle of God’s relationship with humanity on Earth, the long list of black and white rules would teach us it is impossible to attain holiness and spiritual wholeness by simply keeping the rules. Keeping the rules cannot, and will never, address the fundamental issue of our sinful condition. It is not the symptomatic behaviors that are the problem, but the underlying sinful nature of our hearts. Like the common cold, you can treat the symptoms and dry up a runny nose, but the virus remains inside affecting the whole body. To address the root problem will require healing that can’t be found within ourselves.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 10

That same day Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, took their censers, put hot coals and incense in them, and offered “strange” fire to God—something God had not commanded. Fire blazed out from God and consumed them—they died in God’s presence. Leviticus 10:1-2 (MSG)

When I was a young child, I went to my grandparents house with the rest of my family. I have only vague recollections of the exact circumstances, but I know my sister and I were running wild (probably on a sugar high from the candy we consumed from Grandma Golly’s genrously large candy bowl). Somewhere along the line, likely having been told to settle down, I mouthed off to my dad disrespectfully. I was immediately taken behind the Grandpa and Grandma’s garage and received a spanking, which did not hurt me but which I remember to this day. I learned a lesson in that moment that has stuck with me the rest of my life. My father loved me, but he was also my father and deserved my respect. He should not, and would not tolerate me mouthing off to him.

The story of Nadab and Abihu is a hard one to wrap our minds around, but it illustrates an important lesson. If my earthly father, who is every bit a fallible human being, deserves my respect and honor, then how much more honor and respect does my Heavenly Father deserve who is the holy Creator of the universe? At the time of Leviticus, God’s people were like young children in their understanding of who He was. I believe God was trying to teach the entire nation some very basic concepts like a parent teaches their toddler.

I wonder if we sometimes focus so much on God’s grace and forgiveness that we lose respect for God’s holiness and omnipotence. Perhaps it would do me good to, spiritually speaking, be taken out behind the garage once in a while when I forget. It might remind me that God is my Heavenly Father, but He’s not my ol’ man.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and olavide
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