The same, yesterday, today and forever
Sermon preached at Enmore, 28th August 2016, 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Two weeks ago we looked at chapter 11 of Hebrews, which was devoted to the theme of faith. Faith was defined as the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The writer then gave us a long list of men and women whose lives were examples of faith in action. We also noticed that Hebrews reads more like an extended sermon than a letter because it lacks the personal greetings and naming of individuals that we find in the letters of Paul, for example. We also noted that we do not know who wrote Hebrews but I suggested that as Priscilla is one of the possible authors I would refer to the writer as she.
Today’s reading is from chapter 13 of Hebrews. Some commentators have suggested that if Hebrews is in the form of a sermon, chapter 13 is like the notices at the end of the service. For here the writer turns her attention to the more routine aspects of congregational life and gives some basic instructions for a healthy Christian community.
The first lesson is keep on loving your brothers and sisters. The literal translation of the Greek is ‘let brotherly love (philadelphia) continue’, which our NRSV translates rather woodenly as let mutual love continue. The early Christian community treated one another as family. Throughout her document the writer of Hebrews has referred to her readers as brothers and sisters. So here she reiterates what has been said before: keep loving one another. We need that exhortation because we know that our Christian brothers and sisters, like our blood siblings, are not always easy to love. There will always be some people we are more naturally drawn to and like in a community but Christians have an obligation to look for the best in those we find difficult and not to exclude them. Congregations that form into cliques and factions never thrive. We need to keep our conversations loving and not denigrate others.
Secondly the love we show to each other is not confined to members of the Christian community but extended to the stranger. The allusion in the text to entertaining angels unawares hearkens back to several Old Testament stories, especially the story of Abraham and Sarah entertaining the three strangers at Mamre. (The subject of the famous Trinity icon by Rublev). The early Christian community took hospitality very seriously. A third century document of church order called the Didascalia gave instructions to bishops about the kind of hospitality they should show if a stranger should arrive unexpectedly at the assembly. It reads: “If a destitute man or woman either a local person or a traveller arrives unexpectedly, especially one of older years, and there is no place, you bishop, make such a place with all your heart, even if you yourself should sit on the ground, that you may not show favouritism among human beings, but that your ministry may be pleasing before God.” A similar sentiment is found in today’s Gospel where Jesus’ followers are instructed to choose the lowliest seats at a wedding banquet, putting others first. Whenever Christians gather to share a meal we are inevitably reminded of Christ’s presence with us and hence any such meeting has a Eucharistic element.
Loving one another extends to those in prison. Hebrews is addressed to Christian communities who were facing active persecution which would have in some cases included imprisonment and even torture. Looking after those in prison in the first century would have included providing food and clothing for those incarcerated. Today we should remember the many Christians worldwide who face persecution for their faith. A good example is the young Pakistani woman, Asia Bibi who has been imprisoned since June 2009 and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Her appeal is to be heard in October. As well as praying for Asia and others like her we should support organisations like Amnesty International which campaign for the release of prisoners of conscience. In our own society we support and pray for prison chaplains and volunteer organisations like Kairos which conduct ministry in our prisons. ‘Lock them up and throw away the key’ is not a Christian response, regardless of the crime.
The writer then turns her attention to sex and money, suggesting that the Christian community can be destroyed by love as much as by hate- loving the wrong person, i.e. fornication and adultery and loving the wrong thing, namely money. The pagan world of the first century was just as sexually promiscuous as our own twenty first century, and today as well as then, Christians are called to a different standard. Marriage, ‘the forsaking all others’ commitment of a couple, for better or worse, is to be honoured and casual sex is to be rejected. Our sexuality is a great gift but like all good gifts, easily abused.
The Bible has much more to say about money than it has to say about sex. Jesus frequently warned his disciples to beware of wealth. We remember his words, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” His disciples still find that a difficult saying and over the centuries there have been many attempts to somehow re-interpret those words. But the teaching of the New Testament is unambiguous and Paul went so far as to declare that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’ (1 Tim.6.10) The Preacher’s advice is that learning to be content with what we have will keep us from love of money. She quotes two verses from the Old Testament to drive home her message: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Deut 31.6) and “the Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.” (Ps.118.6) What is different about this is the suggestion that the love of money is not so much the product of greed but rather the fear of abandonment, an attempt to fill a vacuum. The Preacher also implies that when we accept Christ as our helper we are freed from the hold that money can have on us. When we belong to Christ we find our security in him, not in our possessions.
The final exhortation urges the Christian community to remember their leaders. These leaders would have included those who first taught the faith, some of whom may have died but also their current pastors and teachers. We know that Paul always asked for the prayers of his congregations as he was conscious of the burden of leadership particularly with small, fragile, communities facing considerable opposition and misunderstanding. We are often quick to criticise our leaders, especially our bishops and archbishops but we should be diligent in praying for them, acknowledging the difficulty of their task.
Leaders come and go but our ultimate leader is Jesus who never changes. He is the same, yesterday, today and forever. But what does that mean? Jesus is the central theme of this book we call Hebrews. It begins with the eloquent statement, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and varied ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the worlds.” Yesterday, refers to Christ being in the beginning with God but also being the one prophesised in the Hebrew Scriptures; the promised ‘anointed one’, the Messiah. Today refers to Jesus as the one who came and lived among us, who died a cruel death, then rose victorious over sin and death and now calls men and women to faith and trust in him as Saviour and Lord. The challenge of Jesus is for today, for this moment, it cannot be postponed. And Jesus will be the same tomorrow and forever. The one we now know by faith is the one we shall know face to face in the fulfilled world, the New Jerusalem, when every tear will be wiped away and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. If we get our picture of Jesus right, all the issues addressed in this chapter; love for one another, care for the stranger, sex, and money, begin to fall into place. In the end the Christian faith is not about keeping a list of rules and regulations but a growing relationship with God revealed in his Son, Jesus.
This final chapter of Hebrews ends with a benediction and so provides a fitting way to conclude.
“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”