Delivered at Ames UCC on August 16, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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WHO, WHEN, WHY?
Who, when, and why? Those are my first questions for the book of Hebrews.
Mostly, there are no answers. Nobody knows for sure who wrote the letter. It could have been Paul or a follower of Paul, Apollos or Priscilla. It was probably written anywhere between 60 and 100, since knowledge of Jewish temple practices was required and the temple was destroyed in 70. But the audience was likely mixed, not exclusively Jewish, but Jewish Christians and gentile Christians together.
So that’s who and when. But why? Why did the author write this letter or sermon? Let’s start by looking at what she wrote about.
Our author begins, as we heard in last week’s portion, by aligning Jesus with God. In those first four verses, she positions Jesus in the historic stream of God’s earthly engagement, but names him as a new and most unique iteration of the divine. So God has always been at work among humanity, but changes over time. And this time, with Jesus, she says, we have greater access to holiness than ever before.
In today’s section she turns her attention to how that access works. In her understanding, Jesus was human. Jesus wasn’t a holy tool for the betterment of angels, but flesh and blood for the sake of flesh and blood.
The author references Jesus’ suffering death. She says the execution was an intentional sacrifice by this divine yet utterly human man. It was sacrifice in an absolute, recognizable sense that most of the rest of us humans would avoid at all costs.
And Jesus did it, she says, to atone for the sins of all people and free all from fear of death.
So in summary, the author of the Hebrews wrote that Jesus was human and divine and died, on purpose, to make up for the sins of humanity and release them from fear. And she does this without telling the story of Bethlehem or even the Last Supper. It’s pure theology.
Why is our author writing and writing in this way? She was writing in a competitive religious marketplace with the goal of inspiring commitment to God in Jesus Christ. But she had to resolve the problem of Good Friday, and its apparent contradictions, to do so.
Maybe the miracle stories or his birth were so well known they went without saying. But Good Friday, the execution? How in the world could anyone claim divinity was anywhere near the brutality of that day?
This is the same problem we have today. We are in a competitive religious marketplace with a goal of inspiring commitment to God in Jesus Christ. We, too, must reconcile the God of the miracle stories with Good Friday as well as the theologies of blood sacrifice and sin that we have inherited from our forebears.
I’ve found, though, that I can’t skip the miracle stories. I can’t assume anything about what others might know. Lately I’ve had to do a lot more explaining not only about execution but the exodus, flood, and the prophets, too. Fewer and fewer people who come to church know the basics or even the timeline of the progression to the cross and beyond.
I know that this change might feel depressing for some of us. It is a reminder of the loss of the good ol’ days of decades past when churches were booming and Christian literacy was a cultural norm.
But I’m starting to get excited by it. I’m getting excited by how religious pluralism and the decline of church attendance are forcing us to really know who we are and what we stand for. We get to look for creative and engaging ways to make sense for others what may sound senseless: that a holy man, a man of holiness, walked, talked, ate, fed, rested, and resisted then was killed and somehow remains among us yet.
Which is where I tend to begin: what Christ yet among us looks like and the stories that guide us to that sight.
CHRIST YET AMONG US
For example, through Christ yet among us, church is a safe haven. Not a perfect haven, not a place free from disagreement and slights, but a place that insists our voice is welcome and valid and heard. At church our life stories matters and need not be hidden or muted to make other people more comfortable. The Syrophoenician woman taught Jesus that.
Church is a place made safe because even though it welcomes all people, it does not tolerate all behaviors: In God’s house there is no abuse of children, no triangulation or manipulation, but a high valuation of respect and accountability for ourselves and each other.
Jesus taught us that when he described how to handle conflict, and when he called out the disciples for their petty in-fighting and posturing.
Through Christ yet among us, church is a place of care and comfort. It is a gift unmeasurable to receive meals when you or your family is in too much disarray to do them easily for yourselves. As an intergenerational space, active retirees help elders with rides to and from doctor appointments, and elders serve as grandparents for families who don’t have their own nearby.
Your pastor will be present with you during court appearances and fellow worshippers will pray for you by name.
These are balms as irreplaceable and necessary as the oil Mary soothed on Jesus’ head and feet.
Through Christ yet among us we find our bravery and agency to act.
Nothing is as paralyzing as our contemporary culture. It strives to deaden us through constant stimulation and entertainment, by promoting busy-ness as a sign for success, only to leave us feeling like isolated failures.
Globalization promotes gigantism, a sense that systems of oppression are too large and inaccessible to do anything about, when really all it takes is riding into town from the wrong side of the tracks on a donkey to start a revolution.
Through Christ yet among us, we know love. Not romantic love, not parental love, not fraternal love, not the love of friendship. The love of God through Christ is both big and booming, shaking us to the core, and so gentle and tender that it mends souls.
It is through Christ yet among us that we know the overflowing cup of love, the love of still waters, and the love of a banquet table of liberation and reconciliation.
That’s how I would begin my letter to the Hebrews, my letter to seekers of God: what Christ yet among us looks like in daily life and the stories that guide us to that sight.
But that still leaves the problem of Good Friday. It is a bigger problem than ever, the primary reason I find that people have either left church or never come in the first place.
So here is what I’d like to ask of you: Between now and Wednesday, tell me how you would begin your letter to the Hebrews. Tell me, too, how you have made sense, for yourself, of the execution of Jesus.
Then next Sunday, as we continue with Hebrews, we will tackle Good Friday and the question of why Jesus died.
We don’t just share the same pressure to evangelize as the author of the letter to the Hebrews. We also have the same capacity and will and passion.
Because, like her, we know what is at stake: the unmitigated blessing of a life spent knowing Christ is yet among us.