Sermon XI Pentecost 25 August 2019
Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread; who lives and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Before we started posting our dinners on instagram, before my parents ruined facebook, and even before twitter became observable proof for the doctrine of original sin, we had myspace. Youth in the room might have heard of it in legend, but for those of us who came of age right around the turn of the millennium, myspace was the best way for us to waste time on the internet. It was fairly easy to use and it was fun to post silly pictures to our profiles and talk to people who shared interests. As we did so, some people figured out how to take their myspace profile to the next level. Power users were learning how to read and write the language of the internet and figured out how to rewrite the code on their profiles to add all sorts of crazy options. Most of my friends in the rock and roll scene made theirs super edgy. I kept mine simple because 1) I’m a purist and 2) I didn’t feel like learning html. But the folks who enjoyed myspace the most were definitely the ones who figured out the inner workings of the technology and used it for all sorts of internet fun of the early to mid-oughts.
I bring up internet ancient history because I think that approach to using myspace, in the sense of knowing what cool stuff is just under the surface- that might help inform us how we can best enjoy the ancient literature of the Scriptures; especially a letter like the Hebrews. Think about it: perhaps you’ve been in the pew these past few weeks enjoying the lessons from Hebrews, tracking along nicely with the wonderful exhortations about “faith [as] the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” or perhaps the “great cloud of witnesses, ” we heard about last week. But if we investigate a little deeper, looking carefully at what makes Hebrews hang together as a work, as a piece of rhetoric, we find a truly magnificent piece of ancient Christian writing.
Here’s what I mean: as a letter, I think we can see the main themes summarized as: the things that God revealed to Israel are perfected in Christ, and thus the Church as perfected Israel should remain faithful.
If we were to sit in the library and read the entire letter together, (which I highly recommend we do by the way), we would see the ways that the author illustrates Christ’s high status. Christ is described as higher than the angels, many times called the Sons of God in the Old Testament, placing Christ above spiritual beings that would have commanded awe and respect among the Hebrews. Christ is described as God’s Son, which placed him higher than the lawgiver Moses, who is reverently remembered in this text as a servant of God’s household rather than full inheritor. Christ is described as having similarities with a person we briefly met in Genesis called Melchizedek, who was described as both a priest and king who offered bread and wine.
Even as we hear about familiar and important people from the history of Israel, the writer weaves in familiar themes from the Old Testament. One, the idea of covenant, or the special relationship that God maintained with Israel. Another, Israel’s religious observances and practices: who performed them, and where they were supposed to happen. In both cases, the writer of this letter seeks to encourage his likely Jewish Christian audience that Christ has perfected both in his person and his work. This stage is probably where many of us get kind of glassy eyed as we consider this work. Most folks who have been to Sunday school can remember angels, Moses, and might even recall that dude, Melchizedek. But most Sunday School teachers don’t spend a lot of time describing the commands, personnel, materials, vocabulary, architecture, and rituals associated with ancient Hebrew religion. I can’t say I blame them; the ritual sacrifice of various animals and precepts regarding the burning of all the peoples’ assorted offerings is not something that translates easily (or cleanly) to a sweet little craft to send home. Even still, Hebrews consolidates all of the sacrificial images of priest, holy mountain, and temple into Jesus Christ. And right here, we draw closer to our lesson this morning by realizing that the Letter to the Hebrews is about worship; showing an ancient community of Christians that they could be confident of their worship of Jesus, and therefore of their own ritual practice of the Holy Eucharist as effective in address to Almighty God and efficient as sacrifice and thanksgiving. If that feels over your head this morning, you’re not alone. It’s heady, mysterious stuff meant for a lifetime of reflection.
But what’s really kind of neat is that the Letter to the Hebrews makes a way for us to do that reflection by helping the faithful to consider Christ as the key to understanding all this. In fact, the lesson we read this morning basically comes out and says that in Christ,
“you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
To be crass, Our Lord Jesus, is a one stop shop as far as salvation is concerned. Even that strange little comment about the blood of Abel speaks to this: because by Christ’s most precious blood shed on the cross is salvation available to humanity, rather than the wraith of God called down on account of Abel’s murder. In Christ, we find the fulfillment, the perfection, of everything that God has ever done to bring us back to him. From the message of angels, to the bringing of the law of righteousness, to the ministry of the ancient priesthood, and more, we can be confident that the Creator of the Universe, the God of Israel, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is available to us in Jesus Christ.
So what do we do with all of that? Well, I think we will see a greater treatment of that next week; so on that note I leave you with a bit of a cliffhanger. That said, the writer of Hebrews leaves us with the following exhortation: “that since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” We are meant to be together to worship, and our work today is the summit of our vocation together. When I read that God is an all-consuming fire, I read of His unshakable, eternal, promise of redemption as His fire is ready to receive whatever we can offer this morning and return back to us with the brilliance of his presence in Jesus Christ, blessing, cleansing, and empowering us for a week’s worth of life and ministry. Because that’s true, let us recall the words presented earlier in this same letter: that we would “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ] drawing near.”
To Christ, who is above the angels, Son of the Most High, and our Great High Priest be all glory; from age to age. Amen.
The Very Rev. David Bumsted
Emmanuel Episcopal Church