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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Midweek Lent 2013, Mount Olive + Words for the Pilgrimage (a walk with Hebrews)

Week 5:  “Follow Him”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen; Wednesday, 20 March 2013; texts: Hebrews 13:1-3, 7-16, 20-21; John 15:8-17

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Much notice has been made of Pope Francis’ early signs that he might be a different kind of pope than his immediate predecessor, especially his non-verbal actions that seem to signify a different way.  Internal sources say that he did not ascend the papal throne after being elected as he received the greetings of his brother cardinals, but remained standing on the main floor, addressing them as “brothers,” not “your lordships”.  He’s reached out in graciousness to the press, to people of other faiths, and has continued his previous practices of not covering himself with all the trappings formerly considered due his office.  The word used a great deal in describing his early actions is “humility.”

The writer to the Hebrews would be surprised, I think, that we are surprised by this.  This author would be a little nonplussed to discover that when the pastor charged with leading the largest communion of Christians on earth, the priest called the vicar of Christ, acts in a way that reminds people of Jesus Christ, people are astonished by it, remarking on it.  For Hebrews, it should be expected, and not just of the Bishop of Rome.  For Hebrews, this is the shape of the life of all Christians, that we imitate our Lord Jesus Christ in our actions and in our love, and we imitate those who have gone before us who modeled that same way of Christly life.

We have been exploring the ways in which Hebrews invites us to consider our lives as pilgrimage from our earthly city to the city that is to come, language which now we hear in today’s reading.  But as this author concludes this sermon of Hebrews, we are reminded that not only is this not an individual journey each of us makes on our own, but we are actually obligated to serve each other on that journey, just as our Lord has served and continues to serve us.

Hebrews begins the final chapter with exhortations to pay attention to each other, exhortations to mutual love, hospitality, doing good and sharing all we have.

Up until this point it could be possible, though not wise, to have read much of Hebrews’ argument from an individual perspective.  This whole sermon that is Hebrews invites the hearers to follow Jesus through the wilderness of life.  To see him as our access to God, our entrance into the holiest of places.  And even to see those who have gone before us as surrounding us in encouragement.  And without care, one could take that strictly in an individualistic sense.

But now in the final persuasive argument of this sermon, the author makes it explicitly clear, if it wasn’t before, that we are called together to be like Christ ourselves, for each other and for the world.

The last verses of chapter 12 really are better attached to chapter 13, by setting up the exhortations of 13 with this exhortation: therefore since we are receiving an unshakeable kingdom, let us give thanks and offer our acceptable worship to God.  And our response, our worship to God, Hebrews says, is serving others, after the model of Jesus.

Here this serving is called love, both inside the community and outside, though the translation we know commonly doesn’t show the parallel very well.  We are invited to “mutual love” and “hospitality to strangers” in our translation.  There’s more here if we dig.  “Mutual love” is philadelphia, the love of the brothers (and sisters, we would add.)  But this word is more about a bond of connection, a deep tie, than emotional feeling. [1]   We are in Christ together, and we are to let that bond of Christly love between us continue.

“Hospitality to strangers” is interestingly philoxenia, love of strangers.  So there’s a parallel construction here: we love our sisters and brothers in the community, are bound to them.  And we love strangers, are bound to them.  In fact, we might best translate this “care for each other and care for strangers.” [2]

Both directions are central to our life on the pilgrimage.  We cannot be individuals in Christian community, worshipping for ourselves, believing for ourselves.  We belong to each other in ways we did not devise, through the waters of baptism and the joining of our lives to Christ: we are made one.  So Hebrews says: live that way.

But we cannot simply look to each other, close the circle, Hebrews says.  We are also bound to the stranger, whomever it is we encounter.  By so caring for the other, welcoming them into our midst, we serve God with a worthy worship.  And we might even be entertaining messengers from God, angels, Hebrews says.

The care we give is further expanded to cover all who are in prison and tortured, all in need we might say.  Reminding us of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25, Hebrews lifts our vision from ourselves to others in our community and outside, for no one is outside our call to care and love in Jesus’ name.

It is in fact, because of whom we follow, our pioneer, the center of this whole writing, that we are called to such love and care.  We are called to go where he goes.  And that’s not always to nice places.

Hebrews uses a powerfully arresting image to bring this home.  In the Israelite camp in the wilderness, the layout was one of circles of holiness, centered on the Tabernacle.  Unclean things were taken outside its boundaries. [3]  So the leavings of the sacrificial animals whose blood was brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for atonement were burned outside the camp.

Hebrews has already said we have no need for such sacrifices, for our High Priest offered himself.  But here Jesus isn’t the High Priest, he’s the refuse: Jesus went outside the camp, outside the city gate, to sanctify us by his blood, Hebrews says.  He went to the garbage heap, where unclean things are burned, to be burned himself in order to make all things clean.

And so we are told to get out there, too.  To go where he goes.  So Hebrews has told us on the one hand that Jesus has entered the Holy of Holies for us and opened it to us forever.  But now we see that he leaves the center, the place of God’s presence, and brings God’s presence outside the city to the worst of the worst.

We know from our own work and homes that tough, disgusting jobs sometimes need to be done.  It always makes it harder for us to avoid them if our superiors or colleagues or family members are unwilling to avoid them.  That’s where we are in the whole of our lives, this author says: we have a boss, a Lord, a Master, who goes to the darkest, dirtiest, worst places to bring the love and grace of God.

Outside the city, to the place no one wants to go.  Since he’s there, how can we stay where we are?  “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured,” our preacher says.

It’s a powerful argument that compels us out of our complacency to act, to move, to reach out to others.  It’s like when someone starts cleaning up a house and you’re sitting on the couch with the paper.  It takes a relatively high level of stubborn rudeness to remain there while hard work is being done around you.

Hebrews reminds us that our call to care for each other and the stranger will likely lead us to places of discomfort and pain.  But our Lord has already gone there, and is there still.  You see, the Pioneer of our journey isn’t only making the path easy for us.  Sometimes he takes us off the path into the bogs and swamps, into the infested places, because there’s someone there who needs our help and care.

In the end, Hebrews simply reminds us of Jesus’ original call to us, that we love one another and the world as he has loved us.

Do good, share what you have, Hebrews says, care for each other, care for the stranger, don’t care for money or your comfort here.  Love one another even if it means losing, being hurt, because that’s what our Leader has done and is doing.  And if we’re following him, it’s not just for our comfort, it’s for the sake of all on this pilgrimage.

Because we are all on our way to a city that is to come, we’re in this together.  And with our Lord guiding us, “making us complete in everything good so we may do his will,” with such help and strength we can help all on this pilgrimage of life, that nobody gets left behind, nobody falls to the wayside, but all make it safely to the city that is to come.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Craig R. Koester, Hebrews (The Anchor Yale Bible), copyright © 2001 by Yale University, as assignee from Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.; p. 557.
[2] Ibid, p. 557.
[3] Ibid, p. 570.

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