Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 28, 2016
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Commentary
No one knows exactly who the audience of Hebrews was. We tend to think of the earliest Christians as something of a rag-tag group made up mostly of people of modest means at best and perhaps populated primarily by poorer folks. Yet there are just enough warnings in the New Testament about not getting carried away by greed or the love of money that one has to assume there must have been some reason for all that. Early Christians may not have been among the wealthiest people in the ancient world but there must have been enough money around as to be a potential stumbling block of temptation.
This is now the fourth week in a row that the Year C Lectionary has had us looking at the last three chapters of Hebrews. As this letter (or collection of sermons?) comes in for a landing, we start to get something of a grab bag of final words of advice and admonition. But running through these verses in Hebrews 13 is an easy-to-discern common thread: be generous. Host strangers (they could be angels after all). Don’t get attached to money or things but give them away to those who have less. God will take care of you so don’t clutch your things too tightly as though it were all up to you. Imitate Jesus and imitate those who are good at proclaiming Christ and living as he did. Jesus does not change with the fashions of the times so keep your eyes on his example and do likewise.
Then, in verses the Common Lectionary skips over, we are told not to be distracted by ceremonies or rituals that try to do what Jesus already did perfectly for us; namely, make us holy by the shedding of his blood. There is a curious and somewhat complicated Old Testament analogy invoked here that mixes together imagery of the old camp of ancient Israel with the Tabernacle and then finally also the Holy City. It feels like the writer’s analogies here are straining just a bit to hold together but the idea remains clear enough: we have to keep going to Jesus and looking to Jesus to see what he did for us because that sets the tone for our own living as we also sacrifice ourselves, our wealth, our time for the sake of others.
The writer Dallas Willard noted in his fine book The Divine Conspiracy that we often forget what the goal of discipleship is: we really are supposed to live like Jesus. To become Jesus. To be generous and sacrificial like Jesus. This is not a metaphor. This is not some overblown aspiration. This really is to be the bright center of our lives. And it may involve suffering. It may involve real sacrifice of various kinds. It likely requires us to do things that we are not overly comfortable doing all things being equal but that are necessary if we are ever going to break out of our little safe bubbles so as to include and enfold others, starting with the needy, those in prison, those who are strangers (and who are sometimes flat out strange) to us.
But, of course, there is always a danger lurking here, too, and it can be seen somewhat in this list of what some Bibles call “Concluding Exhortations” in Hebrews 13, too. The danger is turning these attempts to live like Jesus into something that does an end-run on Jesus’ sacrifice by tempting us to think that it is OUR obedience that gets us rewarded with a free trip to heaven by and by. And it does not help us preachers that in most churches there are any number of people who are already pretty legalistic about their moral lives and how that morality figures into the calculus of salvation. In fact, there are people who don’t think a sermon is really a sermon until or unless the preacher gives them a long To Do list for the week ahead. And as William Willimon once said, people will thank the preacher for this. “Thank you, pastor! Thank you for telling me what to DO to make sure God will love me again this week.”
But as a colleague of mine says, that undercuts grace eventually. We should not want to be preaching “shouldy sermons” all the time. When we turn our eyes to Jesus and go to Jesus “outside the city” as Hebrews 13 commends, one of the first things we need to notice is that Jesus did what we never could: His perfect sacrifice alone is what saves us. It’s all grace. It’s not about us. In fact, even imitating Jesus and seeking really to be like him would be impossible without God’s abiding gift of grace through the Holy Spirit. We cannot do this. We can only receive what only God can give and we go from there, seeing the whole of our lives—and yes, also the very shape of our morality—as being all gift, all gravy, all grace all the time.
In preaching this requires something of a deft balancing act. On the one hand we must never—even subtly—undercut grace. On the other hand neither can we deny that grateful living for that grace does require intentionality on our part and so we do need to point people to leading generous lives as Hebrews 13 talks about. But always we frame this up inside grace. The indicative always precedes the imperative; grace always comes before “Go and do likewise.”
And it all goes back to baptism. In the New Testament—especially in Paul’s writings but here in Hebrews too—commands to lead a certain way of life never come across as “Try harder so you might yet become what you currently are not.” Instead and in baptism the idea is always “Be who you are! You are baptized, saved, renewed, changed. Now just go with God’s flow and act like it!”
Like the writer to the Hebrews, we preachers do indeed need to do our share of exhorting. But we stand in our pulpits or behind our music stands on our ecclesiastical stages for one and one reason only: because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. We could not do that. We cannot contribute to that even now. But we can respond with joy and fervor as by the Spirit we let Jesus take over our very lives.
Preaching, but really also the whole of the Christian life, can be compared to a tightrope walk. When you are on a tightrope, you can fall one of two directions and in theological terms this means falling to the right and so propping up a grace-killing legalism or falling to the left and promoting a gratitude-killing antinomianism. Keeping our balance means preaching and pondering grace all the time while never forgetting for a moment that this gift of grace is so huge, so enormous that—to quote the old hymn—it “demands my heart, my soul, my all.”
Or to invoke a different image, this one from C.S. Lewis: we constantly mix up roots and fruit. The roots of our Christian living is grace alone. The fruits of our living are the good works and deeds of righteousness that grow on the branches of our lives. The problem is that grace is subterranean and you cannot see it whereas the fruits are pretty easy to spy and so it’s easy to become so focused on them that we forget nothing would grow were it not for the grace below us. The grace that saves us and that enables our lives of discipleship may be harder to see than the deeds we perform but to forget our very roots is quite simply foolish
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