by Margie Van Duzer
“As He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct: for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” …. Now that you have purified our souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart” I Peter 1:16, 22
“But you beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God. Look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on some who are wavering”…Jude vs. 20-22
My church community has recently felt that God is inviting us to consider what it means that our space of worship, our sanctuary, is to be understood as both “safe” and “holy.” In connection with a recent art installation many folks were invited to share their views on sanctuary. A few focused on holiness but I noticed that for most folks, the emphasis tended to be all on safety. What did it mean that our sanctuary was to be a place where people could come as they are, free to be themselves, and still experience the love and mercy of God? This captures the idea that sanctuary is a refuge and place of safety for all. And this emphasis makes sense. With all that is happening in our world, there is a pervasive sense of anxiety and fear that seems to be growing stronger of late. We want folks to feel safe in the presence of God. We want folks to be able to be honest about who they are without fear of rejection. Folks want to know that God loves them and desires to be merciful to them. I believe it is absolutely necessary for one to feel safe in order to truly experience the love of God. Hence, for years I have had (the perhaps arrogant?) audacity to argue against the famous line from CS Lewis’s Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe where Aslan, the Christ figure is referenced: “Safe?” Said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe.” I disagree with Mr. Beaver. I firmly believe we need to see God as safe in order to truly experience God’s love and mercy and feel safe ourselves.
And certainly there is historical precedent for this understanding of sanctuary. In the Old Testament there were hints of claiming safety at the altar. As early as the time of Constantine when the church community began to build sanctuaries for places of worship, the spaces were not only set apart for worship, but under certain conditions, fugitives had immunity from arrest while in the sanctuary itself. Even today some refugees seek protection from deportation in the sanctuaries of churches. Clearly, then a sanctuary is a safe place.
And yet… I have found myself troubled by the lack of conversation around what it means for our sanctuary to also be a place that is somehow holy. The very word, “Sanctuary,” comes from the Latin word Sanctus which means holy or sacred. The Greek word for holy, hagios, carries an implication of being set apart.
In the book of Isaiah, God is often referred to as “The Holy One” – It is there we have the famous line “Holy Holy Holy” referring to our God and Isaiah 6 captures this sense of the sanctuary well: “Woe to me. I am a man of unclean lips” Nothing particular “safe” about the flying seraphim and burning coals on our lips. So yes, in some ways the sanctuary is safe but it also is a place that is “other”, “set apart” where there is some sense of purity, righteousness and a sense of God’s awesome otherness. Yet, we as a church community are not talking so much about sanctuary being such a holy place, and I’ve been wondering why.
Perhaps talking about holiness can make us feel more distant and make us seemed removed from others. Perhaps a God who is high and lifted up seems less accessible, less safe. At a time when we want to be inclusive and loving, it may suggest an element of exclusivity. Holiness does not abide me “just being me, however I am.” It makes claims on me. It wants to touch my unclean lips with a burning coal. Maybe talking about holiness can feel judgmental. And if that is a possibility, maybe it is better to avoid the topic of holiness altogether.
This is where my reading of the above verses from I Peter and Jude have come alive for me. These verses clearly speak to the importance of holiness in our lives as Christians. But they also speak to the centrality of giving and receiving God’s loving mercy. Both are core attributes of God and both are to be central in our lives as Christians. If we are to reflect Christ in our lives, both are to be a part of who we are as God’s people. We are to be both holy and lovingly merciful.
When Peter and Jude were writing these words of holiness and mercy, there was much disunity and disputed theology within the church. It was an unsettled time. Peter exhorts his readers to live lives of holiness then soon after calls them to love deeply, even those they disagree with. Jude reminds his readers that they are to grow in their holy faith, and then he then immediately comes back to God’s mercy that leads to true life, full life. And after all of that, he exhorts his readers to be patiently merciful to those that are not as strong in the faith as they are. Holiness and merciful love all bound up together in faith practice.
I do not have a formula that puts all this neatly together. I can’t tell you what it looks like. I wonder, however, if some of what we have lost is an ability to imagine that we can be welcomed and loved – that we can be invited to enter the sanctuary just as we are confident that God’s loving mercy will enfold us – and yet also that in the presence of God’s holiness we may be called to change. Maybe. What I can say with confidence however is that somehow we must always remember that Scripture never lets us separate holiness and mercy. Both are intimately connected with each other and together they point to the very nature of God. And as God’s beloved community both holiness and mercy must be found in our sanctuaries and in our lives.