“Purity Codes”

IIPet. 3

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Today, after the Coffee Hour, our Silent Auction will conclude—that will mark the end of our 69th Annual Christmas Fair.

Only a few years ago, all of our neighboring churches had similar events at this time of the year. Ours is one of the few survivors. I think that one reason our Fair has endured for nearly seven decades—besides the formidabl labors of our volunteers—is the quality of the items that we offer for sale. Many are handmade by parishioners. The used books and household items are in good shape.

They sell because they are, in marketing jargon, “new or gently used.” Or, in the Bible phrase that we heard in the Second Lesson, we sell things “without spot or blemish.”

The Lesson, of course, is not about retail success; rather, the author is referring to Christians who anticipate the final judgment of God. He writes, “…beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by at peace, without spot or blemish.”

Anthropologists would say that the author is supporting what they call a “purity code.” Such codes take the notion of physical purity and apply it to the moral life.

If you have a blemish on your face, you will feel less attractive; you’ll put some ointment on it to heal it and cover it up. You may even obsess about the spot. You may think that it’s all people see when they look at you!

The author of Second Peter is comparing the effect of such blemishes with our inner imperfections. Moral faults can also make us unattractive.

The text we heard in the Lesson doesn’t spell out what these “blemishes” might be. But the previous chapter of the Letter speaks at length in lurid terms of “those who indulge their flesh in depraved lust, and who despise authority… are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct.” These sinners, says the text, slander what they do not understand…They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation…They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed.”

Now modern Christians tend to be embarrassed by such language. We shy away from the notion of purity codes. The whole idea seems unreasonable, even primitive. This is particularly true of sexual morality codes. People’s private lives are their own business. Many of us, hearing the part of the Lesson that I just quoted, will feel that religion today can do without such moral systems!

Yet as much as we may not want to be “judgmental,” it’s hard to dispense with ethical pronouncements altogether. While we might give more leeway to consenting adults than the early Christians did, we would still condemn child abuse. And the Wall Street Occupiers are not the only Americans who would join the early Christians in denouncing greed.

The reality is, every culture in every time and place has a purity code. While our code, for example, doesn’t see the need to protect women from moral decisions like New Testament systems did, our standards for protecting children are higher.

As the headlines remind us, sin hasn’t gone out of fashion. However modern we are, the Advent theme of God’s Judgment is still relevant.

And the author of II Peter points to the source of this relevance. The sinners whom the author condemns are, he says, “irrational animals, creatures of instinct.” They satisfy their desires, even when their desires are harmful to others. They act on instinct, even when the instincts are destructive.

That’s why the Church has never been able to dispense with some form of moral code. The Church must say that some actions—like child abuse—are certainly, unequivocally, wrong.

The existence of people who follow their worst instincts also explains why the Church so often seems to be the bearer of unattractive judgment. As we heard in the Gospel for today, John the Baptist preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

And though our own statue of John the Baptist on our baptismal font portrays him as a benign youth, the actual adult prophet was an austere, angry figure who offended many with his judgments and eventually was beheaded as an enemy of the state.

Yet here again, the Baptist’s purity code was defensible. If he talked a great deal about sin—well, those sins were worth talking about! The Hebrew ruler who had him executed, King Herod, was a cruel despot. Herod was rumored to have murdered members of his own family and as Richard Strauss’s opera hints, he may have lusted after his own daughter, Salome.

Yet the preaching of repentance and forgiveness isn’t just aimed at those people who are spectacularly evil. We all need to hear it.

Even if we don’t commit horrendous sins, we all have blemishes on our souls. We all have desires like envy and anger that “draw us from the love of God.” We all have instincts that we would be better off not satisfying.

Now I grant that Christians can get too excited about their purity codes. We need to limit our judgments, so that we don’t fall into judgmentalism.

Jesus himself showed that purity codes aren’t the most important thing in religion. He healed on the Sabbath when it was forbidden to perform “work.” He discouraged ostentatious displays of religious piety.

And, most significantly, Christ broke the purity code that ordered religious teachers only to associate with reputable people. Jesus met with prostitutes and other notorious sinners. When religious authorities accused of him of being too forgiving, Jesus replied: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Advent is the season when we prepare for Christmas, and as part of our preparation for Christmas, it won’t hurt to remind ourselves of the ways in which we fail to be who we might be.

At the same time as we note the spots and blemishes on our souls, however, we should remember that even the stern prophet, John the Baptist preached forgiveness of sins.

Repentance isn’t an end in itself; it is only a means to the spiritual health and wholeness that God wants us to have. By the same token, purity codes aren’t the goal of faith but one way that God brings us to his peace.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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