Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 1, 2019
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Commentary
Though the lectionary epistle cuts out the middle verses of this section, the ones we are assigned today tell the church what to do in order to stay together through hardship. If you believe that the text of Hebrews is a sermon, then just minutes earlier we heard the preacher remind the congregation about their experience under persecution and all of the ways that they lived and brought glory to God (Hebrews 10). Now, it seems, times were a little more stable, and the preacher wants them to be aware! It seems to be a universal experience: it’s when times are good that we humans are more likely to be selfish, to be overcome with worry, and to forget others who are struggling. Along this way, our faith may weaken… The preacher wants none of that for the congregation, nor does the Holy Spirit want it for us! So the preacher closes his sermon with echoes of what they have already heard—from him, from the prophets of old, from their own experience, and from Jesus.
The keys to a community that can flourish under any circumstances:
…loving fellow Christians as though they were your own flesh and blood;
…hospitality for people known and unknown;
…empathy that leads to care for the prisoner and others in distress;
…keeping respect for others’ relationships in the community;
…trusting in God because it keeps the heart protected from greed;
…learning from the cloud of witnesses;
…worshipping God with praises and deeds.
Let’s spend a few moments thinking about each of these characteristics.
The preacher uses “philadelphia” to describe the type of love that the congregation has practiced and should continue to practice. This sort of love is literally the kind of love among siblings (Philadelphia is “the city of brotherly love”). Followers of Christ have been made into a new family, a community of people who look after one another, share resources with one another, and love through thick and thin. This is love strong enough to get through hard times and love that enjoys the good times. It doesn’t replace the other loves, but is a key piece of the love mix for the community of faith: people so devoted to one another they won’t walk away.
Much of the spread of the faith occurred as people travelled throughout the Roman Empire, making hospitality crucial fodder. By sharing your home with people, missionary or no, you had the opportunity to create the space for the transmission of the gospel. And if we consider that these early churches met in homes, how much more does opening your home mean to the growth of the faith? The Holy Spirit uses people’s willingness to share their space to light the fire of faith around the world! By living in our modern-Western-individualist world with intentional connection to our neighbours, believers or not, we may entertain angels without knowing.
Recalling Hebrews 10, this community knows what it’s like to be persecuted; they know what it’s like to stand beside the accused; they know what it’s like to make sure that those who are in prison are provided for (family and friends were in charge of making sure that a prisoner had food and clothing). The preacher says turn that knowing into doing! As our modern world continues to become more and more independent, what sort of witness will purposeful connection provide? What sort of witness will we provide in a selfish world by alleviating the myriads of challenges facing people today? Check out the links in the Illustration Ideas section for modern examples of churches heeding the Old and New Testament teachings on caring for others and remembering people in hardship with action.
Though we are like family with one another, there are still lines that need to respected. If the preacher had continued in this section of the sermon, I wonder if he would have made a similar point about marriage that Paul does in his epistles. Namely, that the marriage relationship is a picture of commitment that Christ has for the church and such covenant faithfulness is an experience, in part, of our intimacy with the Godhead through Christ. As such, it is special, it is powerful, it is to be respected and guarded from interlopers who will try to pull one away from the other. And I wonder what would happen if people remembered that above all, their unions were the telling the story of God. It’s one of those things that easy to know… and forget.
Looking again at this church’s history as it is described in Hebrews 10, these people have proven that they can have a right relationship with their belongings. The reminder that contentment is not produced from love of money but from trusting that God is with you always, makes me wonder whether the stability they were presently enjoying (compared to those early years) was leading some of them to hold a little more tightly to their things… just in case. What if the hard times come again and we need to provide for ourselves? What if my spouse is thrown in prison? What if I lose my job because of my faith? What if…? Considering the varying kinds of insurances available to us modern people for all the “what ifs” in life, we can’t blame our faith ancestors for being tempted to be prepared! But the preachers recalls God’s very own promise, made by Yahweh and Jesus, in different words but of the same essence: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” The preacher calls upon the people to respond: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Comfort comes from a person (God), not things.
Hebrews 11 & 12 outline some of the many leaders of the past that the congregation can emulate. Yet here in the closing of his message, the preacher draws their attention to more recent people that God brought to them—people who actually spoke the words of life to them. These same leaders were people whose lives showed the goodness of Christ to the world in a time and place just like the congregation’s own. These are the people who showed what faith looked like in their here and now. The great cloud of witnesses is made up of people from the very distant past all the way through the present day as God’s people keep in step with the Spirit of God. Jesus is the same always and forever, so his ways can be learned from the faithful people of God in every era. Sometimes, we focus too far in the past as a way of avoiding Christ’s call in the present, ostracizing the modern-day prophets instead of heeding them.
Finally, the preacher describes worship without ever saying the word. Only the heavenly throne room has living creatures who are able to continuously worship God. Yet, through Christ, that is what our lives have become to God (see the rest of Hebrews for how this works!) But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for us to do. The preacher tells them that one of the ways that they participate in this continuous praise is by confessing Jesus’ name with their words in the public sphere—risky business. Another is by continuing to do all the good things that will keep their community strong in risky times. All of the pastoral directives we have discussed above truly are sacrifices of the old life in order for the new to come to life, and this pleases God.
On the sitcom “American Housewife,” teenage Oliver decides he wants to be rich when he grows up, just like the people in the neighbourhood where his middle class family rents a house (his dad has taken an associate professor job at the local college). Eventually he befriends one of the neighbours, Spencer Blitz, and decides to learn from and imitate Spencer’s life. (The problem being, of course, that Spencer was a bit of a crook and very lonely.) Their friendship blossoms and is featured over a number of episodes as Oliver learns some healthy—and not so healthy—tips about the lifestyle of the filthy rich. Along the way, Oliver has the very human experience of following his baser desires and love of money. Other times, Oliver does the right thing for the good of someone else. Spencer’s most influential moment in Oliver’s life, however, comes after he dies. In the days leading up to the reading of Spencer’s will, Oliver makes plans for how he will turn his inheritance into more money. But Spencer doesn’t leave Oliver any money. In his message to the family about the will, Spencer says that he cares too much for Oliver and his family and doesn’t want money to tear them apart. Spencer says that he wholeheartedly believes Oliver will be successful all on his own, especially if he learns about being a good person from his parents. Instead of money, Spencer leaves himself to Oliver—in the form of videotapes full of random advice, and his urn of ashes. Comfort comes from a person, not things.
Similarly, many of us who grew up with aspirations (mostly wishful!) to play professional sports had a role model that we tried to emulate. When we considered what these stars had accomplished, we wanted it! We’d read their bios in Sports Illustrated or on the internet and we started to do all of the practice workouts that they did, ate like they ate, liked the same hobbies as they liked… hoping it would produce the same effect in us. Though most of us didn’t reach those heights, the idea of imitation is sound, according to the preacher. We just need to set our sights a little lower: to the everyday life of the saints who have modelled for us the Christ-filled life and taught us gospel truth. So many of us have stories of Grandmas who prayed, fathers who sang in worship, sisters and brothers who gave of themselves because Christ first loved us.
Use your church’s history to model what the “preacher” in Hebrews is doing. What are the moments when your community has come together and truly lived the love of God in community? What times of faithfulness do you think God wants the people to remember so as to keep up the faithfulness? What are the ministries that create space for the congregation to identify with those being mistreated and to extend hospitality to strangers? Maybe even go so far as to have everyone stand and say verse 6 together!
Consider these recent church stories of remembering that leads to action:
For those in distress from medical bills:
For those in distress from student loans:
For those in distress from payday loan companies:
Rev. Doug Bratt is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2019.
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