What does it mean to be made holy? Perhaps when you think of being made holy, you imagine the saints of old, their lives dedicated to God and an almost sickening level of goodness that you could never hope to attain. Perhaps you think of holy places, sites of pilgrimage or places where you feel closer to God because of the prayers that have been said there for hundreds of years. Perhaps it calls to mind holy objects, such as the communion vessels that have been set aside to hold the bread and wine we use for the Eucharist.
What all these have in common is that they are common things — cups and plates, buildings and landscape, people — set apart for God in some way. For, in essence, to be holy is simply that: to be set apart for God.
It would be tempting to think of this as analogous to setting something aside for special — like the best crockery, a party dress or a Sunday suit. There is something in that, because there can be no more special or higher purpose than being set apart for God. In another sense, however, it is completely the wrong analogy because being set apart for God has nothing to do with being brought out only on certain days or special occasions. On the contrary, it is absolutely and thoroughly about day-to-day living — but day-to-day living in the fullness of God and that brings glory to God.
Being set apart for God is at the heart of our Gospel reading this week. Jesus speaks of how his disciples have been given to him by God the Father. That is, they have been divinely set apart, set apart by God the Father to be given to God the Son to bring glory to both. The disciples, in other words, are a gift — a gift to Christ and, through Christ, a gift to the world.
In verse 19, Jesus also speaks of how he sets himself apart:
“for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
We might wonder why Jesus needs to sanctify himself. After all, wasn’t his a life entirely set apart for God? The Passion translation puts this verse in an interesting and helpful way:
“now I dedicate myself to them as a holy sacrifice so that they will live as fully dedicated to God and be made holy by your truth.”
Jesus eyes are clearly on the cross in this verse. For him, ultimately, being set apart for God entails going to the cross, facing all the horror and violence that the world could throw at him and turning it on its head, disarming the violence of the world by not allowing it to have the last word. But this is also him giving himself — gifting himself — for the disciples, for the church, for the world.
I couldn’t read that translation of verse 19 without thinking of our Eucharistic prayer:
Made one with him, we offer you these gifts
and with them ourselves,
a single, holy, living sacrifice.
It is a profound moment in our liturgy that has profound echoes of today’s reading. Jesus, in this prayer, offers himself in sacrifice. And we, in the prayer we say each Eucharist, offer ourselves to God in the bread and wine that we have brought and that we ask should become for us the body and blood of Christ. In this action, therefore, we become one with Christ in his sacrifice. In the bread and wine that we have set apart for God, we are set apart for God, are sanctified, are made holy.
What does it mean to be made holy, to be sanctified, to be set apart for God? What does it mean for our day-to-day living? From what Jesus says in the passage, one thing it clearly means is to be set in opposition to the world:
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (verse 14)
It would be too easy to use a verse like this to justify a retreat from society, a retreat from our obligation to care for all our human neighbours and even our nonhuman neighbours, a retreat from our call to care not only for all living things but for the earth that sustains them. Indeed, that is the way some people read such verses but it strikes me that such an understanding is completely at odds with the self-giving of Jesus in his life and death.
I spoke a couple of times before Easter of how, in the Gospel of John, that phrase “the world” often refers to the system of violence and oppression, death and domination in which we are all enmeshed. This, not the earth that God has given us to sustain the gift of life, is the world to which we do not belong.
It is important to keep that perspective in mind as we mark Christian Aid week this Sunday. It is not that we give to our global neighbours simply because it’s a nice thing to do or even because it is generous. We give because it is an expression of the love of Christ at work in us. We give because we are set apart for God and God requires us to care for all. We give because it is holy work.
This year, Christian Aid is focusing on the effects of climate change on people in the developing world. In parts of Kenya, for example, droughts last year were followed by relentless rainfall which damaged crops that had struggled to grow. Many of the farmers do not have reliable water sources and are without means to capture and hold rainwater. They are finding that staple crops like maize and beans are being damaged and destroyed by the more extreme conditions they face. The solution — building a dam — is not complex but it takes resources. Resources that the farmers do not have but we do.
For Florence, a widow and farmer, the building of a dam just outside her village means not only that she no longer has to walk hours to collect water, but that she can grow tomatoes and onions and chillies to feed her children, that she can keep bees and sell the honey to make a living. Where once her existence was full of struggle, she is now full of life, love and laughter. This, too, is a holy thing, a gift. And, because the dam was funded by donations from people like us, this gift is an act of resistance to the death and oppression built into our consumerist system. This gift strikes a blow for life. And striking a blow for life is one of the most holy things that we can do.