The words holy and holiness have been hijacked. They have come to mean something like “being separate from everything evil or bad in this world.” I don’t think that’s what they mean, despite the fact that they have meant that to me every time I have heard them up until today. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with being separate from everything evil, or living in a way that is clean and sinless, except for the fact that this is impossible. And the fact that being separate from evil things is impossible makes me not want to even try to be holy. If being holy is ultimately impossible, why would I try to become holy? And, if God is indeed holy, that means that he is separate from me, because I am not, nor will I ever be, holy. That is not comforting.
I was in an office at church today with some songwriters like myself and some quasi-theologians as we were trying to work through the books of 1 and 2 Peter, mining them for ideas for songs to write for our church. It was a strange and cumbersome experiment that was mostly frustrating for the first hour or so. We talked about little things that we thought were beautiful or frustrating or confusing and we were getting nowhere. I have a difficult time interacting with the book of 1 Peter. Its got a lot about holiness and salvation and all of these things that don’t connect with me anymore. I don’t think about holy living. I don’t think a lot about salvation in terms of leaving this world. And this is basically what 1 Peter is about, at least on its surface.
But somewhere in the second hour, we landed on what seems to be the main point of Peter’s letters. Peter is writing to people in exile in the 1st century, less than 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of the church. These people are facing persecution and suffering unlike anything we can really relate to. Peter is comforting them by telling them that rescue is coming. That though they suffer hardship now, this is not the end of the story. Jesus is coming to make things right, and soon.
We started talking in a hypothetical situation that I think is quite poignant in order to help us interact with this message of hope and comfort for those who are suffering. Imagine yourself as a prisoner in a concentration camp in World War II. Everything is terrible, and there is little hope that it will ever end, that rescue will ever come. Then you overhear on the radio that the Allied Forces are advancing on Germany. Hope is somewhat restored. Someday, you don’t know when, you will be rescued. Its just enough to keep you going everyday. Soon it will all be over. If you hold out just a little bit longer, you might see an end to your suffering. I imagine this is the point of Peter’s assurance to his audience that the present suffering will soon end. We know it didn’t, and that Jesus still has not come back, but that hope is enough to continue living in the way of Jesus. It’s a metaphor, and its not perfect, but it helped me at least to interact with this message of hope and comfort.
What seemed odd, then, was that, along with Peter’s assurance that rescue is coming, he called the followers of Jesus to live holy lives. To put off the old sinful habits they were so accustomed to and to live in a new way. How could he have the audacity to do this? How is this comforting? How is being separate from the sinfulness of the world going to end their suffering? Won’t it simply increase it?
But Peter wasn’t saying this at all. He called them to love sincerely and deeply. He told them that they were now God’s people with a mission to demonstrate God’s ways in this world. This is the same message that Moses gave to the people of Israel after they were delivered from the hands of the Egyptians. He gave them the Law, which showed them how to be the tangible, visible, expression of God’s way of living in this world. They were to be the light of the world. They were to be “like God” to the people around them. They were to be holy. Jesus said that the whole Law of Moses hinges on two commands: Love God and love your neighbors. That is what it means to be holy.
Being holy is not being separate, but set apart. Being set apart from the old way of living and to demonstrate a new way, God’s way. To show the world what God’s ultimate desire is for all humanity and to call them into that new way of living. To actively participate in setting things right. To be a light in the darkness that draws people out of the darkness. Peter is telling the first Christians that they have been set apart for this purpose. This remains to be our purpose in life. To be set apart as a city on a hill, a light in the world, as little Christs who bring life into dead and dark places. Being holy means to love deeply, no matter what circumstance you find yourself in. Whether your circumstances are good or bad, be holy. Whether your government is good or bad, be holy. Be an arrow pointing to a better way of being, no matter what is going on around you.
So, some day things will be set to right. We can be assured of this. But, in the meantime, we are called to a new way of living that begins the process of setting things right today. Already, and not yet.