When Roxanne’s son Michael (we call him Mikey) was even younger than now, maybe two years ago, he believed I was like a holy person who is very close to God up high and has come down for him. One day, after a worship service, on his way out, Mikey, pointing his finger at me, asked his father in a small voice, “Pa…can we go home with God?” You know, to a child with a pure heart, I, in a long white robe and a colorful stole, could be seen more than just a human. Then his dad, Garon, replied gently yet definitively, “Mikey, I told you, he is not!” And I supported Garon, “Sorry, Mikey, I am not the one you imagine.”
I still remember this moment not just because it was funny and Mikey was so cute, but because that moment always leads me to think about the true meaning of holiness. “You shall be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). This is what God tells to the people of God. “If you want to be in a close relationship with me, you shall be holy, for I am holy.” But how can we become holy? In what way? Let’s think about the meaning of holiness today. We feel something or someone is holy when this particular something and someone is set apart for God and dedicated to God. Right? Little Mikey saw me godly because I was wearing this white robe that distinguishes myself from him and other church members. This sanctuary also evokes a sense of holiness because it is consecrated and dedicated to God. So, it is clear: to become holy, we should be set apart for God. But the question here is, what does it really mean to be set apart?
In today’s Gospel story, there come the Pharisees who set themselves apart from others by keeping the law. And you know what? Their name “Pharisee” means “separated one.” Anyway, in the story, they encounter a group of fellow Jews, Jesus and his disciples. And the Pharisees are taken aback by the disciples’ unholy behavior. They were eating food without washing their hands! That’s a violation of the tradition of the elders, which here means the purity law (halakha). For the Pharisees, there were many laws to keep them clean and undefiled. The Gospel tells, they even had the laws for “washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (Mark 7:4). But why did they follow all these rules? For hygienic purposes? Not really. They basically followed the purity law because they believed that it’s the way to set themselves apart from others, and so, to keep them holy. That’s how they maintained their exclusive relationship with God.
Here, we see that there is nothing wrong with the origin and purpose of the purity law. And if we take a close look, what Jesus thinks is the problem is not the spirit of the law but the attitude of the Pharisees toward the law. Jesus calls them hypocrites, because they keep the law to be externally distinguished as holy people, rather than to be truly holy in their hearts. To Jesus, being physically set apart is not a serious concern. What’s essential is to set one’s heart apart for God and keep it holy. Even though the Pharisees keep every law and every tradition of the elders, if their hearts are filled with judgment, they are much more defiled than the disciples who break the purity law. So Jesus admonishes the Pharisees, saying, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8). To Jesus, the heart of the matter is our heart on our journey to be holy, our heart in close communion with God’s holiness. Yes, setting our hearts apart for God is the way to be truly holy.
Now we understand that to be holy, we should set our hearts apart for God. Still a question remains, “How can we set our hearts apart for God? In what way?” In today’s Gospel story, Jesus doesn’t miss this point. He says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:14-23). In short, to be truly holy, we should set our hearts apart from what? From those evil intentions! Jesus is asking us to check our hearts whether there are any evil intentions or not. And he is asking us to do it frequently and every day like we wash our hands, like we brush our teeth, like we take shower to keep us clean, like we check our appearance and outfit for our daily life and for Sunday worship service.
How to live a holy life in communion with our holy God? Jesus teaches: we can set our hearts apart for God by keeping them from evil intentions.It is such a simple and yet onerous way to follow, isn’t it? But for the people of God who are called by Jesus Christ to experience his grace and love in the power of the Holy Spirit, this is the true way of life. Our Methodist church originated from a small group of students who gathered with John Wesley at Oxford University over 200 years ago. Their gathering was called “Holy Club,” and people around them mockingly said, “they are Methodists,” because they keep a method to live a holy life.
Their method was simple. They met every week and checked their hearts and their intentions. They confessed their sins—as we do every Sunday following the tradition—and they encouraged one another to be everyday disciples, to redirect their lives to the path to holiness. Here are some of “22 Questions” they asked to themselves every day and shared in their meetings. Why don’t we read them together?
If we are called Methodists still today and if we call ourselves Methodists, there is a good reason for us to keep this proud faith tradition. Sisters and brothers in the Lord of holiness, on our way to holiness, let us focus on the matter of our hearts than on anything else. “In the Bible the heart is not simply the organ that pumps blood through the body; it’s a metaphor for a person’s innermost core or spiritual center. ‘Heart’ is shorthand for ‘the total person,’ for ‘one’s whole being or self.’” Let us dedicate our hearts totally and unreservedly to God and to be holy in heart, for our God is holy and God sees, tests and searches for hidden intentions of a human heart. Let us make our church be the place where our hearts matter more than our rules, where our hearts beat for the good news, for the love of Christ, and for the glory of God’s kingdom. Amen.
Heidi Husted, “Matters of the Heart (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23)” inThe Christian Century, August 16-23, 2000 p. 828