29th October 2016
Sermon by Rev Dr Max Champion, Pentecost 15, 28th August 2016
Lessons: Psalm 15: Hebrews 13:1-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Do not neglect to do good … Let mutual love abound … Share what you have ... Don’t be side-tracked by false teaching … Remember ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.’ (Heb 13:1f)
At the end of the Letter to the Hebrews the tiny group of pilgrims to whom he is writing is reminded that, on the long march toward the heavenly city, they are to be grateful for the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before them and to behave in a manner befitting the love of Christ. They are to be a counter-cultural community on earth loyal to the One who was ‘crucified outside the gate of the earthly city’ (v11).
They are not to turn their backs on the world but to be embedded in the world as witnesses to the costly, life-giving love of God for the world in Christ. As they set their faces towards the future that God has promised in him they are to be signposts to hope in the time given them on earth!
They are to please to God, not themselves (v16). God is delighted when we do what is good, but not when (as so often) we act badly. Hebrews knows how easy it is for the ‘pilgrim people’ to neglect their earthly responsibilities.
Self-love, hatred and bitterness destroy a sense of community; see that mutual love abound (v1).
Rejecting outsiders cuts us off from angels and God; show hospitality to strangers (v2).
Self-pity can cause us to forget those suffering for their faith; put yourselves in their shoes (v3).
Promiscuity and adultery destroy fidelity; see to it that marriage is honoured (v4).
Greed and envy make us dissatisfied; don't be anxious, do good (v5).
‘Strange teachings’ may be fascinating; ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’ (v8). God's love is constant.
Sex, money, politics and religion are the proper concern of pilgrims. No area of life is excluded. On the way to the (heavenly) future the church is to be a counter-cultural community (on earth).
Here is a word for us! Many are obsessed with wealth and status. Others are hostile to migrants, aborigines and refugees. Others are deaf to the suffering of the persecuted. Others are flippant about sexual relations and the sanctity of marriage. Others crave a 'new faith;' dissatisfied with the truth of the Gospel.
It is enough to discourage the staunchest pilgrim! The power of cultural elites to set the public agenda is intimidating. Self-styled progressives, in the community and the church, are committed to social and legislative changes that discredit the great tradition of Christian humanism, grounded in God’s goodness-and-mercy in Christ. Instead, they embrace a deformed view of human existence grounded in doing one’s own thing.
As a result, many Christians are so overwhelmed that they neglect their calling to swim against the tide. It is easier to go along with what is happening (on earth) and look forward to (heavenly) peace beyond death.
The writer to the Hebrews is against such compromise. Pilgrims are a community of hope who look to God’s future so as to be emboldened to live in God’s present in ways that are worthy of God’s good-and-gracious calling.
It isn’t simply a matter of trying hard to be good. We don’t act in order to make ourselves ‘worthy.’ Like those who have gone before, whose example is an encouragement, we are beneficiaries of grace (v7). As flawed people who are often weak, timid and despondent, we are invited to ‘offer a sacrifice of praise to God through Jesus, the high priest who shed his blood on the Cross outside the holy city’ (vv 15&12).
As we have seen earlier, their fragile faith is ‘perfected’ by the ‘pioneer’ who has gone before (12:2). Drawing on priestly imagery familiar to his readers, and to the faithful who saw the fulfilment of God’s promise from afar, Hebrews describes Jesus as the Mediator who has atoned for the sins of the world
(12:24). Jesus mediates God’s grace to us! That is to say, he mediates our broken humanity to God! In him we see the 'first born Son of God' who ‘sanctifies the people by his blood’ (v12).
This language is difficult and off-putting. The Jewish sacrificial system is strange to us. The idea of killing animals on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest, who represents God to people and people to God, is bizarre. So is the idea that shedding the blood of a perfect man can atone for the sins of humanity.
The point is that the sinless Christ takes on himself the consequences of sin. He dies as if he were a sinful person because of his love for sinful people. We glimpse, albeit imperfectly, something of what Hebrews means by ‘Jesus shedding his own blood to sanctify the people’ (v12) in similar situations:
In a TV crime thriller a father confessed to a murder committed by his son. He was willing to risk the death penalty to save his guilty son.
In Dachau concentration camp an innocent prisoner was hanged after stepping forward to take the blame for what another prisoner had done.
Yet, Christ's sacrificial love is unparalleled. His innocent blood was shed for all people. He dies outside the holy city so that all flawed and broken people may be reconciled to God. As Pope Leo the Great (c400-461) said, ‘The cross of Christ is the altar not of the temple but of the world.’
Christ’s shedding of blood on the Cross is life-giving, unlike blood that is shed in vengeance (as we saw with Abel and in Syria and elsewhere today). Thus, the crucifixion is not, as some would have us believe, a bizarre religious act of a bloodthirsty god worshipped by primitive believers. It is the event in history that brings hope to the world. ...
This has ethical implications. ‘Since Jesus was crucified outside the city, Christians are always called upon to be on the outside of society to live with less and to bear abuse.’ (Patriarch Photius 810-91)
We can live in this way only because, in Jesus Christ, we have a heavenly High Priest who is of our flesh and blood (2:14) and sympathises with us in our weakness (4:14-16). He is a brother who has gone before us, travels with us and goes ahead . This Son of God fulfils ancient hopes and anticipates the glorious future that awaits humanity. He is the Mediator who was crucified because of his love for humanity and raised from the dead as Lord to be the sign that evil is ultimately powerless to thwart God’s eternal will.
What he has done and who he is does not change throughout history! He is ‘the same yesterday and today and forever.’ (v8) In an age when many people are attracted by ‘strange teachings’ which smear the image of God, this may seem to be very uninspiring. But -
What could be more exhilarating and challenging than to be a community of hope?
What could be more liberating than knowing that JC our crucified brother has forgiven our sins?
What could be more adventurous than being invited to go on a pilgrimage to the ‘heavenly city.’
What could be more satisfying than to know that, by grace, we share the road with those who have gone before and those who will come after us?
Hebrews challenged and encouraged early pilgrims. He also makes it clear to us that, on the way to the (heavenly) future, we are summoned to be a counter-cultural community (on earth). In a time of flux, when a great tradition of faith is being trashed, individual rights are being asserted, spin is "trumping" integrity in public life, and charlatans prey on religious insecurity, the pilgrim people is charged with the happy, and somewhat daunting, task of witnessing to the hope that has come into the world in the crucified Jesus.
Let us, then, give thanks for the privilege and responsibility that we share with one another and with all who have been called, and will be called, into the 'great cloud of witnesses. ' May mutual love abound mong us (v1), hospitality be shown to strangers (v2), the persecuted be remembered (v3), marriage be sanctified (v4), greed and envy be banished, anxiety be overcome (v5). And may fascination with ‘all kinds of strange teachings' be resisted as we take pleasure in knowing the truth mediated by Christ (v8).
Rev. Dr Max Champion is the convenor of the ACC's Theology and Ecumenical Relationships