Provoked to Love -- A Sermon for Pentecost 26B (Hebrews 10)
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
Why do we gather together in this space each Sunday morning? Is it because we all agree when it comes to theology, politics, or even music styles? Although church growth theory tells us that churches grow better when everyone looks the same, thinks the same, believes the same, and acts the same, is that really the church of Jesus Christ? Or is that a social club with a religious veneer?
In my experience, both as a participant and as an observer, I’ve discovered that the church can be one of the most unique places in society. Where else do people gather across generations, as well as gender, political, socioeconomic, and educational lines on a weekly basis? It’s never been easy. Just read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians; or 1 John and the letter of James. While we still have a ways to go before we fully embody Jesus’ vision for the church, sameness can’t be the reason we come together or stay together.
So, what is the glue that keeps us together? The word we hear this morning from Hebrews 10 suggests that the glue that holds us together is our common confession that Jesus Christ is our high priest, who has perfected us for all time, through a single offering of himself.
Like many New Testament letters, the Letter to the Hebrews is directed to a community struggling to navigate a culture that isn’t supportive or receptive to the Gospel, which often led to discouragement. Some in the congregation began to wonder why should they continue gathering as church. Is it worth the time and energy, when the world doesn’t seem to be paying attention? That is a feeling that might sound familiar to some of us. The author of this letter, whose identity remains a mystery, told this community to hold fast to their confession of hope without wavering. Why, because Jesus is our great high priest, who sympathizes with our weaknesses, has been tested as we have, and yet is without sin. His life, death, and resurrection give us reason to be bold and confident in our faith.
The reading from Hebrews 10 reveals to us God’s promise that through the blood of Jesus Christ, our high priest, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16).
The Book of Hebrews can seem a bit strange to us. That is due in large part to the author’s use of typology drawn from the Old Testament to define the person and work of Jesus. It draws on Temple and Priestly imagery, along with a bit of Platonic philosophy, to convey its message. The letter may seem strange to us, but the original audience, which was probably composed of Christian Jews living in a Gentile world, would have understood the message. We can hear a message from this word as well.
We can divide the reading for today into two parts. The first part is written in the indicative mood. It describes what Jesus has already done for us as our high priest. He offered himself as the final sacrifice and sat down at the right hand of God. Now he waits, as Psalm 110 declares, for his enemies to be made a footstool for his feet. By his offering, those who are sanctified are perfected. This is the foundation for life in the household of God.
When we drop down to verse 19, we hear the word “therefore.” This word, “therefore,” might be an adverb that joins together ideas, but it’s a very important adverb. It signals that something important is about to happen. So be alert. Be ready to hear the word that is coming.
Here is the word: because of what Jesus has done on our behalf, making grace and mercy available to us through his blood, despite our human failings, sins, and rebellions, we can enter God’s sanctuary with confidence. Yes, let’s enter the holy of holies as children of God, by of the blood of Jesus.
Since the season of Advent is only two weeks away, this reading invites us to consider what it means to live between the two Advents. That is, we live after the first coming of Jesus to reveal the fullness of God’s grace and mercy to humanity, which led to the cross and resurrection, but we live before the second Advent, when the enemies of God will finally be defeated, not by the force of arms, but by the force of love.
As for us, right now, we live in this middle zone, between the two Advents. Living in this zone can be difficult and discouraging. We wonder why our churches don’t grow, despite all our attempts to draw in the people. At the same time, we wonder why our culture seems so dysfunctional. We wonder if things would be different if people would come to church, and not just any church, our church! The author of this letter understands our predicament. She knows what we’re thinking and feeling. By the way, did you notice I used the pronoun she? That’s because some scholars have suggested that the author of this letter is Paul’s co-worker Priscilla! Whoever the author might be, the letter offers us a word of hope rooted in the work of Jesus, who opened for us a way into God’s sanctuary.
There is, for those who embrace it, a “new and living way that he has opened for us through the curtain.” Because we find our hope in Jesus, we’ve been sanctified. We’ve been made holy. Of course, this is a moment by moment holiness that comes as we place our hope in Christ each moment of our lives.
Our hope begins in baptism. The letter tells us that “our hearts [are] sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Whatever form and whenever our baptisms took place, that act of faith has drawn us into the community of the sanctified, the communion of saints. Our status as saints is true, whether we look the part or not!
This leads us back to that word “therefore.” Because we are washed clean by Jesus, “Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise” (Heb. 10: 23 NLT). In the words of that old gospel song: “Standing on the promises of Christ my king, through eternal ages, let his praises ring; glory in the highest, I will shout and sing, standing on the promises of God.” [Chalice Hymnal 552].
As we gather together as God’s people, standing on the promises of God, which do not fail, let us “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” That word provoke is an interesting one. I recently discovered that the Greek word translated here as provoke also can be translated as incite or irritate. Yes, when we’re standing on the promises of God revealed in Christ Jesus, we’re to irritate each other to love.
How does that feel to you? Do you ever feel irritated when you come to church? Does that irritation lead to love and good deeds? Are their people in the church who annoy you? Well, welcome to the club. You’re not alone. Nevertheless, the word of God for us here is: let’s love one another and share in good deeds.
All of this is rooted in what Christ has already done for us. He paved the way for us to enter the sanctuary of God. It’s not because of our sameness or our good feelings about each other or the great things we do. It’s because we are sanctified in Christ. It’s a status that has been given to us. Then, as we mature in Christ, we can live into that status. So, let’s provoke each other to love and good deeds, so that we might fulfill our baptismal calling.
Not only should we provoke each other to love and good deeds, let’s not neglect meeting together. It doesn’t matter whether we’re on the same page in our politics or even our leanings toward certain sports teams. It doesn’t matter whether we agree in all things theologically, though theology is important. It doesn’t even matter if we don’t always get along. That’s the way it is with families! We are, after all, human beings, so we’ll annoy and irritate each other on occasion. Nevertheless, let us love one another.
In this spirit of love, let’s gather together and encourage each other as children of God, since the Day of Judgment is approaching. Yes, “standing on the promises I cannot fall, list’ning every moment to the Spirit’s call, resting in my Savior as my all in all, standing on the promises of God.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
November 18, 2018