Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
November 15, 2015
John A.K. Boyd, MD
This morning I’d like to preach on the reading from the New Testament epistle, Hebrews. In particular, I’d like to look at Hebrews, chapter 10, verses 23-28:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 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.1
And such feelings are not new for me. The first time I can remember having a crisis of hope was in the late fall of 1967, standing on the football field of Prescott High School with my gold-painted helmet under my left arm and my left knee heavily braced. The band was playing the national anthem (rather badly as I remember), I was singing along, my right hand was over my heart, and our national flag was rising at the north end of the stadium. While all this was happening, it suddenly occurred to me that I might be one of the last American teenagers ever to engage in such a ritual, because it was beginning to look as though American society (which I knew included football as a central feature) was unraveling. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated four years earlier. Barry Goldwater had been crushed in the presidential election of 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson (I really wanted Barry to win because my dad liked his ideas, his family owned a clothing store in Prescott, and he had kicked off his campaign from our county courthouse steps). The Watts race riots had occurred in 1965 near the Pepperdine College campus where my mother had happily gone to school in the 1940s.
We were still fighting the Vietnam War, and six young men from my high school had already been killed. People my age and slightly older were beginning to protest in earnest, and I would be eligible for the draft next year. Things were clearly “going to Hell in a hand basket,” and except for having a somewhat dubious ticket to Heaven as an escape plan should the very worst come to pass, my religious faith seemed largely irrelevant to my immediate concerns. We were getting ready to play the Flagstaff Eagles (our arch-rivals), who two years ago, the night before our homecoming, had changed the whitewashed stone “P” on the mountainside near Prescott to an “F.” We had not beaten Flagstaff in football for many years – including last year because I fumbled an on-side kick during the final four minutes of the game when we were ahead by only three points.
So what might a text like Hebrews written to a Christian community over two thousand years ago have to say that would be helpful in response to the metaphysical angst of a teenager in 1967 and ennui of a sixty-five year old in 2015? Could this writing hold some insight that would help folks like me, my children and my young friends find some hope with regard to being Christians in the coming years? Let’s see.
Hebrews is an unusual entry in the Christian canon. While I was growing up, most of us believed that it was one of St. Paul’s epistles. Virtually no modern Christian scholars now think that is the case because, stylistically, the Greek in Hebrews is much better than that of the confirmed Pauline writings, and the theological arguments in Hebrews seem to be more influenced by the Greek philosophy of the time than were the writings of St. Paul. Raymond Brown, the respected Catholic scholar, says, “We have to be satisfied that the most sophisticated rhetorician and elegant theologian in the NT is an unknown.”2 Current scholars guess that Hebrews was written around 70-80 C.E. Based on its content and arguments, it seems to have been written to a Mediterranean Christian community that was culturally gentile and Greek (or Hellenistic) with extensive knowledge of and respect for Judaism.
The recipients of this treatise seem to have been a discouraged community – Christians who had been significantly persecuted, were losing hope, were giving up on following Jesus, and were not showing up for their usual gatherings. They were probably threatened by the surrounding culture because Hebrews notes they had endured the “plundering” of their possessions. But it is likely they were feeling threatened by something else – by supernatural beings and forces. Like almost everyone in the First Century Mediterranean world, they believed in some type of god, gods or demons. And most of the old pagan gods out there were pretty scary. They were powerful, frequently fickle, and often malevolent. They were beings that needed to be appeased and placated. They might help your crops grow, but they might cause them to die. They might bless you with health, but they might curse you with disease or demon possession. They might help you defeat and punish your enemies, but they might also help your enemies to defeat and punish you. Even the god, Yahweh, worshipped by the Jews as the “one true God,” seemed, despite his law, to be fearful and unpredictable. The new gods that Greek philosophers like Plato had described sounded more rational, but they were characterized chiefly by perfection and detachment from the everyday sorrows and concerns of humans.
Hebrews’ message of hope to this culturally threatened, metaphysically troubled group of Christians, an extended and elaborate allegory comparing Jesus as Messiah with the priests of ancient Israel, centers, not on arguments for an afterlife, but on the uniqueness of Jesus. Hebrews asserts that, with respect to God, Jesus is the “real deal.” In the very beginning of the book the author writes, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various 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 he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (Heb. 1:1-3a) According to Hebrews, if you want to see what God looks like, look at Jesus; if you want to hear God, listen to Jesus; if you want to see what God can do, see what Jesus does. Elton Trueblood, a Quaker scholar and Christian apologist in the 1960s, is reported to have said, “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.”3 This was an astonishing claim in the First Century – and it is an astonishing claim in the Twenty-First Century. If it is true, it is in my view perhaps the only reason for contemporary Christians to be hopeful, to wait in positive expectation of what’s to come. How so?
First, if God came to us in Jesus, we can be love our neighbors (other imperfect humans). Because if Jesus was God, we can know that God loves imperfect humans and will empower us through the Spirit to love imperfect humans.
Second, if God came to us in Jesus, we can transcend suffering. Because if Jesus was God, we can know that God also suffers and will empower us through the Spirit to transcend suffering and become more like Jesus.
Third, if God came to us in Jesus, we can overcome death. Because if Jesus was God, we can know that God has died and overcome death, and will empower us to live again. The conquest of death has been a major source of Christian hope over the centuries, but both the Jewish and Christian scriptures describe hope in terms other than simply getting a ticket to Heaven. As the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has argued, the faith of both Jews and Christians involves “hope within history.”4
While these are all legitimate, historically grounded reasons for Christian hope, in today’s world I find a fourth reason to be perhaps even more compelling: if God came to us in Jesus, we are no longer trapped in the endless cycle of hating, torturing and killing our enemies while they hate, torture and kill us in return. Because if Jesus was God, we can know that God forgives his enemies (even while being tortured) – and that God will empower us through the Spirit to forgive our enemies.
One of the reasons I sometimes lose hope as a Christian today, one of the reasons I am tempted to become cynical about our future, is the difficulty I see all humans having with regard to forgiveness. As individuals, communities and nations, we seem to be constantly fueled and energized by getting even. We seem addicted to revenge (which we often label “doing justice”) – unable to be motivated to address any injustice without it. And when we act on revenge, the results are almost always destructive – and sometimes frankly demonic. Even though we say we believe in forgiveness, we seem, as a matter of will power, unable make it happen. The Twelve-step Spirituality scholar, Ernest Kurtz, notes that we do not forgive those who have hurt us by simply choosing to do so. When injured we cannot make ourselves forgive a perpetrator – we can only become willing to forgive him. And how to we become willing? Kurtz and Alcoholics Anonymous have one consistent recommendation: “Pray for the s.o.b.”5 What happens in the process of praying for our enemy (even if it’s only asking God to give him what he deserves), according to Kurtz (and my own experience), is that over time, two things happen almost simultaneously: 1) we remember that we have, ourselves, been forgiven by someone whom we have harmed; and 2) we realize that we have (often unconsciously) forgiven our perpetrator – and that both were the work of a “higher power.”
So, when I hear stories of forgiveness, I become spiritually hopeful because I see the hands of God at work on the arms of Jesus and his followers, and I begin to imagine a future wherein my faith community and I might actually and effectually participate with God in the healing of the world. Listening to news clips from the court hearing for Dylan Roof, the young man who killed nine people at a Bible study in the Mother Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church this summer, I heard the daughter of one of his victims say:
“You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”6
remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will.
But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us.
Remember the fruits we brought to this suffering,
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility,
the courage, the generosity,
the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.
And when they come to judgment,
let all the fruits that we have borne
be their forgiveness.
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,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Heb. 10:16-18)
And by the way, though it has absolutely nothing to do with the point of this sermon, you should know that in the late fall of 1967, the Prescott Badgers did defeat the Flagstaff Eagles for the first time in 20 years.
1 All scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (National Council of Churches, 1989)
2 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York, Doubleday, 1997) 695.
3 Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith (Harper Collins e-books, 2010) 114.
4 Walter Brueggemann, Hope Within History (Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1987).
5 Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection (Bantam, 2009) 217.
6 Mark Berman, “’I Forgive You.’ Relatives of Charleston Church Victims Address Dylan Roof,” Washington Post 19 June 2015. Web. 13 November 2015.
7 Alan Jones, Passion for Pilgrimage (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1989) 134.