Does it make sense to speak of holiness?

This Sunday the lectionary invites us to ponder John 17:6-19. It’s the middle portion of a prayer Jesus made to God, a few hours before he was arrested. Most Bibles supply it the heading “The High Priestly Prayer.”

For Christians, the most important question of life is “who is Jesus?” The answer lies in the cross on which Jesus was crucified; the blood of Christians which has flowed over twenty centuries; and the accounts of Jesus and the church in the Bible, the world’s most-translated book.

Anyone who has read or has scanned the four gospels in the Bible knows they are principally accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. Some gospels have longer introductions, some shorter. But the subject matter is the crucifixion. The subject matter is who killed Jesus, and why.

Sunday’s reading lies within the longest of Jesus’ recorded prayers. He prayed it in the hearing of his disciples. He wanted them to hear it.

He prayed it after he washed and wiped their feet.

He prayed it after the last meal he ate with the twelve men he’d travelled with and trained for about three years.

He prayed it after he told them he would soon be killed.

He prayed it after he set in motion his betrayal by Judas Iscariot[1].

He prayed it after he said to the eleven, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[2]

He prayed it after he scolded them for still not understanding.[3]

He prayed it after he told them that they would do greater works than he had, if they prayed, in his name, to do such works.[4]

He prayed it after he promised them the Holy Spirit.

He prayed it after he said to them “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”[5]

He said all of those things to them in the place where he ate his final meal with them. Then he said, “Rise, let us go from here.”[6]

It was dark. They walked together to the garden where he would soon be arrested. He continued speaking to them. He told them the world would hate them, would persecute them.

He urged them to remain in him, to abide in him, as I discussed in my column titled “Seriously? You want to be a friend of Jesus?” He urged them to “bear witness,” about him. He promised them the Holy Spirit would help them do so.

As they continued walking in the dark, they strained to hear. He continued to speak of troubling, terrifying, things. He told them[7]:

“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.”

They were deeply troubled. In the dark, each tried to see what the other was thinking, feeling. They’d left everything and followed Jesus. They’d stuck by him for three years. What had they gained? What was going to happen to him? To them? The darkness seemed to crush in on them.

Jesus responded to them. He spoke to them again of the Holy Spirit. He said the Holy Spirit would convict many who were not yet his disciples and add them to his circle of followers. The Holy Spirit would teach and encourage them, just as he had. Their sorrow would turn into joy.

By this time, they had paused. We don’t know whether they were sitting or standing. It was a cool evening. But they were hot and bothered. Their hearts were pounding. He said they would soon pray directly to the Father, just as he had. And they would see results[8].

Then, just before he prayed the High Priestly prayer, he shocked them again. He said:

“Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” [9]

And then, Jesus prayed his High Priestly Prayer. The longest of his recorded prayers. In this prayer, he repeatedly addressed God as Father. And as Holy Father. This is the only time we read “Holy Father” in the Bible.[10]

“Holy Father” must be at the heart of any discussion of holiness by a Christian. And because Jesus mentioned the Holy Spirit so often before he prayed the High Priestly Prayer, “Holy Spirit” must also be at the heart of any discussion of holiness by a Christian.

One third of the world’s population are said to be Christians. That is reason enough to speak of holiness. But there are many more reasons. Ideas of holiness are found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism.

Holiness often denotes the purity of “the Great other” and people’s sense of failure in the moral universe. Holiness often involves removing dirty clothes, removing shoes, washing, putting on clean clothes, burning incense, observing silence, going down on all fours, and much more. These are called acts of consecration, of separation from the world.

In the High Priestly prayer, Jesus said that he came to the world to fulfil God’s wish, to separate from the world those who belong to God. That he did it by manifesting God, using God’s words. That he’d left his glory, his place beside The Father, to come do the work. That those who saw God manifested turned their backs on the world and followed him. That, therefore, the world hated them. That the results gave him much joy. That his work was nearly done. That it was time for him to return to his glory. He signalled God that the time had come for the disciples to pray directly to The Father, and for Him to respond directly to their requests. So that the work of separation, of consecration, would continue. Rapidly.

Ultimately, for the Christian, what is holiness? The answer is in the words Jesus spoke immediately after he let Judas go out to betray him:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [11]

Peace be with you.

[1] John 13:27b. In the Gospel according to John, nothing happens without Jesus’ setting it in motion.

[2] John 14:6.

[3] John 14:9.

[4] John 14:12-14.

[5] John 14:27.

[6] John 14:31.

[7] John 16:1-4.

[8] John 16:26-28.

[9] John 16:32-33.

[10] “Holy Father” appears in verse 17:11b. Jesus also refers to God as “righteous Father” (verse 25).

[11] John 13:34-35.

4 thoughts on “Does it make sense to speak of holiness?”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *