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  • Writer's picturemattlillicrap

Hand-Washing and Holiness

Corona-liturgies and Counter-liturgies Part 4

One of the most obvious habits which has been reinforced ad nauseam by the Covid pandemic is hand-washing. When I was a doctor I used to head off to the the wards each day with a bottle of hand cream in my bag and instructions to look after my hands better, and it has been a return to those days recently!

We’ve started using different language around contamination and contagion too, haven’t we? I’d never heard the term ‘PPE’ outside of a hospital until a few weeks ago. At church we’re having to think about the implications of the ‘deep-cleaning’ requirements when we use the building again.

The Bible has a lot to say about washing, and especially ritual hand-washing. That’s worth noticing because when you stop to think about it, do you notice how we’ve turned some of these hand washing habits into a pseudo-ritual?

For example, have you felt that slight niggle of anxiety when you come in from the shops or a walk that you absolutely mustn’t touch anything or anyone? What to do with that feeling? Get to the sink and hum happy birthday to yourself for those all-important 20 seconds or and it can be resolved. That’s a liturgy!

When you think about it like that it’s even more clear that this is a habit which will shape us. It changes the way we think about the world ‘out-there.’ Even more than before, it has become a world that we must ‘de-contaminate’ ourselves from. And the people we might come into contact with, whether directly by necessity, or indirectly by touching a surface they have also touched—they’re included.

And what’s the aim? To keep ourselves and others safe from a virus that causes death. Don’t miss that: the Coronavirus story is that death might be avoided by cleansing.

But we know that’s not really the way the story goes is it? Jesus doesn’t come saying, ‘keep that de-contamination up.’ He comes saying, “nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (Mark 7:15) He shows us that however hard we might work on cleaning the outside, we can’t hope to solve our deepest problem which really does lead to death.

So we need a counter-liturgy. As we wash our hands, sometimes many times a day, we need to hear those words of Jesus and then remember what stands behind them. He doesn’t point out our contamination to condemn us, but to point out our need for the deep cleansing from sin that only he can offer.

So, as we head outside more and more, and that hand-washing message becomes all the more important again, here’s an opportunity:

“Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

Learn these verses from Psalm 24 (v3-4) and Hebrews 10 (v19).

Say them aloud to yourself at an even pace and guess what?

It takes about 20 seconds…

But even as we claim our confidence in the purifying blood of Jesus, there is another direction that this habit can point us, which might be more challenging and sobering.

Those who trust in Christ have an unshakable new identity in him, and they’re called to live it out.

That’s a dynamic all over the New Testament. Paul calls us to put off our old selves and put on the new self. He calls us to live lives worthy of the calling we have received. Peter reminds us of the new birth we have received and therefore calls us to be Holy as God is Holy.

Sometimes, though, we 21st century Christians can be in danger of losing a focus on the radical New Testament call to holiness. Previous generations of our brothers and sisters call out to us down the centuries urging us to take that call to holy living seriously.

The thing is, in this life, even though we can be confident that we have been cleansed from it, before we see Christ face to face and are made like him, sin is the ever-present enemy-within that wages war on our souls. If it had its way it would destroy us. We underestimate this enemy at our peril.

That’s why Jesus was also so radical about sin, speaking of cutting off limbs, and plucking out eyes. It’s also why the book of Hebrews is so radical: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Heb 12:4).

These are tough words. Surely if they mean nothing else, they call us to make radical changes in our lives as we fight in the Spirit’s power against sin. There are sinful habits to be put off and other things which, although not sinful themselves, tangle us up and leave us unable to fight effectively.

Over the last few months our lives have been altered by the coronavirus pandemic in some very deep ways, and we’re willing to receive these enforced habit changes because we see how serious this all is. We’re dealing with an invisible enemy that would wreak death if it could. So we’ve changed our habits. We stay indoors, socially distance, wash our hands.

The challenge all these new habits raise is this: Are we willing to do the same in our fight against sin?

We’re willing to accept all kinds of constraints to fight against this virus, which is just one more signpost in the world pointing to the much deeper human disease, for which Christ is the only hope, and against which he calls and empowers us to go to war in our own lives.

So, what habits might something as simple as your regular hand-washing be urging you to shift in the fight for holiness in your life?

It’s worth taking on the fight, because it’s engaging in that fight in all the power Jesus provides which leads us onward, to glory!

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