The Holy Catalyst

He who welcomes a holy man because he is known to be holy, receives a holy man’s reward
Matthew 10:37-42


In Old Testament times, one was recognized as a holy person through his or her response to the “Law of Holiness.” Holiness was measured by the level of one’s obedience to the religious law which regulated Israel’s community life, family life and worship experience. But more than that, the mark of true holiness presupposed one’s understanding of the basic reason underlying the nation’s complex legal code. The Old Testament “Law of Holiness” was based on the belief that life is a gift of God; that all earthly goods belong to God; that one of the duties of God’s human stewards is to share these goods with the underprivileged; that the elaborate temple sacrifices and other religious rituals signify the community’s disposition to return all things to God. In other words, the purpose of the religious law was to help condition people to order their lives in a certain direction.

There is, in the Old Testament, a simple story of hospitality extended to a prophet named Elisha by a married couple in a small Palestinian town. Elisha was a frequent visitor in the couple’s home. The wife suggested to her husband that they furnish a special room in their home for Elisha’s use. Why? Not because he was a celebrity or a wealthy man, or a politically powerful man, or a socially prominent man. In her own words: “I know that he is a holy man of God” (2 Kgs. 4:9). Not a particularly moving story, perhaps. Even in an Age of the decline of “holiness,” most anyone would be likely to agree that holy people are deserving of the welcome mat. But today’s Scripture Lesson is intended to do more than kickoff a “Be-Kind-To-Holy-People” week. In fact, the question raised for us in today’s Lesson is an extraordinarily difficult one: Who is a holy person?

Words like “piety,” “sanctity” and “holiness” are out of fashion in modern society. Now and then we may read about a celebrity making a pilgrimage to some “holy man” perched on the edge of a Himalayan cliff. And we may still hear an occasional “holy” pronounced at a testimonial for a clergyman in his declining years (or in his eulogy). But, the word “holy” is ordinarily reserved for characterizing the remote, detached life-style of the mystic. Consequently, very few of us ordinary folk are in danger of being identified with “holiness.” But this does not mean that we are exempt from Jesus’ call to “holiness.” The problem for us is that the Biblical meaning of “holiness” has become obscure and needs to be recovered.

For us, the New Testament people, there is but one standard of religious excellence, one model of sanctity by which we measure true holiness: Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “His life is life for God … you must consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6:10,11). Paul is saying, in effect, “Show me the person who is trying to pattern his life after Jesus and I’ll show you a holy person.”

In this Gospel, Jesus puts it even more succinctly. “He who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me … he who welcomes a holy man because he is known to be holy receives a holy man’s reward” (Mt. 10:40, 41). In other words, “It takes one to know one.” Jesus’ holiness proceeds from His knowledge of the Father, the Source of all holiness. Our holiness proceeds from our knowledge of the Lord Jesus, who is the Incarnation of holiness.

Holiness is the art of doing God’s Will. Moses spelled this out in 613 separate commandments. In today’s Lesson, Jesus is utterly specific: “He who will not take up his cross and come after Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt. 10:38). “Take up your cross and come after Me. Follow Me! Do as I say! Do as I do! Love God with all your being. Love your neighbor as yourself! Love one another as I have loved you!” There’s our definition of holiness! A holy person is one who loves as Jesus loves, one who loves even his “enemies,” just as Jesus loved those who crucified Him.

Let’s reflect a little more deeply on that. First of all, let us note that such love is the catalyst that society needs to mature in peace and justice. A catalyst is something which influences the chemical reaction between other substances, without itself being changed in the process. For instance, if you put hydrogen and oxygen together at room temperature, nothing happens. But if you put them together in the presence of platinum, they instantly combine into water. The platinum acts as the catalyst but remains itself unchanged. Jesus’ kind of love is the catalyst we human beings need to relate properly to one another. Jesus’ kind of love is the critical ingredient in decent human relationships.

Do you remember the situation Paul encountered in Corinth? He had started a Church there, and then moved on to other places. Before long things began to go wrong in Corinth. People were polarizing on even the pettiest issues: choosing up sides. Some said that Paul was the best preacher, but some preferred a preacher named Apollos. Still others liked St. Peter best. Some were indulging in illicit sex. Some were suing others in the courts. Some were hogging all the communion wine. Some were looking down their noses at others of lesser social standing. Topping it off, people were babbling like drunks at every meeting.

What advice did St. Paul send them to end the factionalism and friction? Did he tell them to get a new pastor or start a building program? What they lacked, Paul wrote, was the holy catalyst of love. What they needed, he said, was a love that is “patient … kind … not jealous or boastful … not arrogant or rude … not self-seeking … not prone to anger!” (1 Cor. 13:14). He said they needed a love that “is not irritable or resentful,” a love “that rejoices in the night,” a love “that believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” a love that “never ends” (1 Cor. 14:6-8).

That is as true in the twentieth century as in the first; as true in our town as in ancient Corinth. It is true in every family, in every Church, in every University, in every city, every nation. We have enough answers. What we need is the kind of love — the holy catalyst — which will make the answers work.

In the great bazaars of Istanbul, Damascus, or Cairo, one can see men sitting at their places in the section of the silversmiths. Beside them are piles of American coins. These are melted down, fashioned into little silver charms, and sold to the tourists. This is done in the most old-fashioned way. The silversmith drops a coin into the molten silver. In a little while the coin is melted down under the hot fire. Every once in a while the silversmith takes a sieve and scrapes off the impurities on top. Then he looks intently into the bowl. And if you should ask him, “What are you waiting to see,” he would say, “I keep it on the fire until there is no more scum, until I can see myself reflected as in the best mirror.”

This is what the Old Testament Prophet Malachi meant when he wrote that “God shall sit as a refiner of silver” (Mal. 3:3). God says, “I am going to make my people holy. I am going to keep them in the fire until all the jealousy, the hatred and the self-seeking has been scraped away. I am going to keep them in the fire until all that remains is the pure, shining, silver of patience, kindness, compassion, understanding and loving service. Then I will see My face in them, and I will know that My people have been made holy.”

There is the story of a time when God’s people came together to discuss His commandment, “Remember, keep holy the Sabbath.” They wanted to settle the question of when the Lord’s day begins. Some said, “The Lord’s day begins at sunrise.” Others said, “The Lord’s day begins at midnight.” And there was a third opinion: “The Lord’s day begins at sunset of the day before.” They weighed the pros and cons, but could not decide. Hopelessly deadlocked, they took the matter to a wise and holy woman. “When does the Lord’s day begin?” they asked. She replied: “It begins when it is light enough for you to see in another’s face the face of your brother or sister.”

As individual Christians and as a Christian Community, let us be constantly aware of our mission to be the Lord’s “holy catalysts.” Let us take up our cross and follow Jesus. Let us rejoice that the Lord’s day has begun!

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