Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16″This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” 17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
For those of you who use this blog to prepare for worship, the sermon this week will be based on another text. Hopefully there will be thematic similarities. I missed a text change late in the game.
The letter to the Hebrews is attributed to Paul (though there is considerable debate on this point) and is addressed to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. These congregations were being persecuted, their faith was flagging and they were neglecting to meet together. As is so often the case, the letter could have been written to us. We are confronted by change, dwindling membership and dwindling resources. Persecution is not the order of today but apathy certainly is. The percentage of people who do not claim any religious affiliation is steadily rising. The church has always had to find ways that speak to and feed people. Today is no different.
Paul’s approach to the children of Jerusalem was to call them to remember what it was that brought them together in the first place. He reminds them of their core values. He reminds them of Jesus and how he saves. He teaches the Good News. He then offers some practical pastoral suggestions. We can use the same reminders. What feeds people has not changed.
Being acceptable before God was serious business in Jesus’ day. When the psalmist (ps 24) asks: “Who shall stand in his holy place?” The answer is: “ Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. 5 They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. 6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” There were conditions for acceptance before God and part of a priest’s job was to help people be acceptable. They were the arbitrators of purity. They decided who was worthy to enter the sanctuary. But if if purity of heart is required to encounter God, none of us would dare enter a church. On that basis, church becomes a place of judgment with an unending list of conditions we cannot meet. None of us can stand. Hence, the “priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”
Jesus saves because he proclaimed that we are wholly acceptable to God. There is no part of us—including our sinfulness which separate us from God. We call this grace, Good News. Jesus’ death, and especially the manner of his death disqualified him by every standard of religious purity. Yet he trusted God’s presence no matter what was done to him. He demonstrated that acceptance by God is a function of God’s generosity rather than our compliance. It is a remarkably simple and gracious concept but it is incredibly difficult for us to trust. Our wholeness always includes our brokenness. Our wholeness always includes our sinfulness. Sinfulness is not the many ways that we determine righteousness, our sinfulness is our refusal to accept God’s acceptance
It may seem silly to imagine God treasuring a broken pots but it is sillier to think we can ever be without fracture lines—and sometimes only fragments. We are who we are. We may be embarrassed or ashamed but God does not judge as we do. Once the human paradigms of acceptance were broken, Jesus could sit at the right hand of God and await the ultimate healing of creation. The same rules for good conduct that were used to measure human righteousness are honored from the heart because “ I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” We are being guided and loved.
The Jewish Christians of the first century needed to be reminded of Jesus’ dramatic, transforming love. And so do we. That is what can sustain us in the very worst of times. It is here that Paul shifts from preaching the Good News to reminding us that Jesus lives in our communal life.
There is remarkable freedom in believing the promise of God’s love. We are safe with God. Any other form of human safety will lead to defensiveness, divisiveness and indignation. “I have couples and individuals all the time who are indignant because of how someone sees them or because they are not trusted. People say “How could you say that about me? How could you distrust me? That isn’t what I meant.” But there is nothing about our faith that protects us from being misunderstood, poorly thought of or out right rejected. There is nothing about me—or you—that cannot be criticized. And that is tolerable only if we are safe with God. We need to be reminding each other to be more mindful and inclusive instead of defending ourselves and ‘proving’ our good intention. As the hymn says: “They will know we are Christians by our love”—not by our arguments nor our insistence upon being right.
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching”.
One brief comment on the word ‘provoke’. The Greek has both the connotation of evoke and to agitate. There are times when the truth will agitate. Whether that be civil right demonstrations or straight talk you don’t want to hear. But we need to be reminded of our center and the many ways we lose focus. A few years ago I was in conflict with a man that I did not tolerate well. I made the comment that in the corporate world, we would give him a retirement party and wish him well as he went out the door. It would certainly ‘solve’ my problem. Todd asked a single question. How would a Christian handle the same conflict? That of course could require conversation and reconciliation. I liked my way better. The truth was agitating. I did have a conversation. I am not so sure about reconciliation. But I engaged when my own heart would have avoided.
It is a new standard. It leads to life. It leads to eternal life. It is God’s way. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more out about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our Staff Page or FIRL.