22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Image - water on offer, Buddhist temple
Offering a cup of cold water to whoever shows up
By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Free Drinking Water – Buddhist Temple, Thailand) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the centuries, people have come to realize that the book of Hebrews is one of the more mysterious books in the Bible. We don’t know who wrote it. Many have thought it was Paul, but today we’re taught in seminary to echo the church Father Origin in saying “God alone knows who wrote it.” We don’t know who it was written for, or to – it doesn’t seem to have been a church, like the church in Corinth or the church in Philippi, or even a clearly-identified specific group of people; the title “to the Hebrews” may actually have been a later addition to the text; so again, we don’t know, although we know some things about them. We can assume they understand the Jewish scriptures, since the author quotes those at length; it seems they are already Christians. We don’t really know why this text was written, although from the text itself, the author clearly intends to encourage the audience to understand their new Christian way of life as even better than the religious practices they’ve presumably given up, to encourage them to be faithful to this new way of life, not to compromise or back away from it, even when things get hard. Our text today comes at the end of this long piece of writing, and in essence presents a list of instructions, some specific things the community needs to do to live out their faith in God in their new Christian world. So, let’s listen for the Word of God to us in Hebrews 13:1-8 and continuing with 15 &16:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. … Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

It seems that the audience for the book of Hebrews might have been feeling that their religious lives did not measure up. Because, as little as we know about the author or the audience of the book of Hebrews, we can tell this: the author goes to great lengths to build the readers’ confidence that their faith in Jesus Christ is fully justified, and is something to hang on to; goes to great lengths analyzing all the elements of the rich worship outlined in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, with its tabernacle and sacrifices and priestly ministrations, and insisting that Jesus Christ actually fulfills and perfects each one of those elements. All of this argument leads up to the instructions the author gives here, which he caps with the reminder that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” For the author of Hebrews, it is “through Jesus Christ” that this community can offer worship that is really pleasing to the eternal God.

The author of Hebrews calls this a sacrifice … but not the kind of sacrifice a 1st century audience probably thought of as necessary, not the animal sacrifice that would take place in a temple, that the world around them would regard as customary, that their own upbringing would have taught them was baseline religious propriety. Instead, we read “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” The offering, the gifts, they need to be giving to God are these deeds of kindness and compassion to which the spirit of Jesus Christ already impels them. These are practical gifts that have the effect of binding the community together, and of extending its reach to people who are not yet part of it, of keeping peace, cultivating contentment and reliance on God’s provision. This whole way of life is a form of worship. And it’s worship that pleases God, because it is in complete accordance with the spirit of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is eternally pleasing to God.

If the problem for that early audience for this scripture is that they are torn between their Christian faith, with its emphasis on community practice, and their ancient Jewish religious tradition, with its meaningful ritual, then Jesus Christ solves that problem, says the author. Jesus’ offering of himself makes every other offering redundant – no longer necessary. All anyone needs to do is to follow Jesus Christ, whose entire life models complete faithfulness to God’s call and God’s will. That life fully reveals the spirit of God, transforms the very idea of worship, and is offered to us as a gift.

This message was great news for Christians in the 1st century, even though taking it seriously could lead to opposition and persecution by the society around them. And the message that Jesus Christ has done all that is necessary is still good news for people in the 21st century.

Because the question of whether we are faithful enough, of whether we are doing enough, or doing the right things, hasn’t gone away after all these centuries, even though it has changed. Today, we probably no longer worry about whether we should, maybe, still be going to a temple to make sacrifices. No one does that any more; we would be hard pressed to find a temple to go to even if we wanted to. We are more likely to worry about whether we are really letting mutual love continue, whether we are doing enough to actually show hospitality to strangers, whether we are getting a passing grade on the to-do list of good deeds presented in Hebrews 13.

When it comes to this question, we sometimes hear the words “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” used as an argument for going back to the way of life of the 1st century – or, at least, to the 12th century, or the 16th. Some Christians argue that, because God is eternal and unchanging, what qualifies as good and faithful behavior must be equally eternal and unchanging. In that view, there’s no room for making adjustments for differences in culture, for time and place.

But take showing hospitality to strangers, for instance: even in the Bible, the standards of hospitality vary from century to century. Abraham shows hospitality to strangers by slaughtering a calf, getting his wife to mix up a giant batch of bread, and inviting the … angels and God, as it turns out, to rest outside his tent. Jesus, on the other hand, exercises hospitality in a range of ways – by inviting himself over to Zaccheus’ house, for instance, and by feeding over 5,000 people with a tiny basket of food; washes the disciples’ feet. In the early days of the church, a bishop made it his practice to go out to the gates of the city every evening, to find travelers who needed lodging and invite them back to his monastery for dinner and a place to sleep. It would be almost impossible to do any of these specific acts of gracious kindness today; our towns don’t have gates, and most travelers prefer to stay at the Holiday Inn Express or the Super 8 – although some might appreciate a voucher for a night’s stay from the pastor’s discretionary fund. It’s almost certain that guests to our 21st century homes would feel uncomfortable if we offered to wash their feet. And nowhere in scripture is that staple of today’s church hospitality, the church pitch-in meal, mentioned … at least, not directly.

What is the same is the animating spirit, that recognizes everyone we meet as someone made in the image of God, that wants for that person to feel safe, welcomed, cared for, and made at home; that extends grace, and peace, in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s that spirit of hospitality that is the same; but in practical terms, what that spirit looks like in concrete terms differs, has to differ, from place to another, from one century or even decade to another.

Unfortunately, for most of us, this generous allowance – that circumstances vary, and what we are called upon to do varies along with them – doesn’t make us feel as good as we’d like it to. To our question of whether we are faithful enough, whether we follow Jesus Christ as closely as we could, whether we do all that we can to show love and care for the neighbors we know well, hospitality to the strangers we encounter, compassionate concern for those who are suffering, whether we share all we can with those who have less than we do, the recurrent answer most of us give ourselves, when we are being honest, is … no. Most of us have … at least some room for growth.

There’s a story about a pastor who visits another church one weekend, and is impressed by the friendliness of the members toward each other. When she returns to her own congregation, she announces her intention to introduce the practice of greeting each other at an appropriate point in worship, in an effort to warm up the congregational climate. She wants to make the practice of “passing the peace” a regular part of the service, beginning the following Sunday, and she spends a good part of her sermon giving the congregation some scriptural and theological encouragement. This inspires one worshiper to turn around and offer a handshake of greeting to another member of the congregation – who snaps right back at him, “Just hold it pal, this friendliness stuff doesn’t start till next Sunday.”

Now passing the peace may not be the challenge for us that it was for the churchgoer in the story, but something else probably is. The way of life Jesus Christ models for us, the way of life that has been offered to us as a gift, and that is itself a gift to the people we meet, is one we struggle daily to live. For us, the good news is still that Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and forever, really has already done everything that is necessary. We ourselves already are the beneficiaries of Christ’s remarkable love, hospitality, solidarity, and sharing of the riches of grace. We have already been invited to fill up a plate at God’s overflowing table, so to speak, despite the fact that we haven’t done and don’t do enough.

And paradoxically, the result of this amazing gracious hospitality is precisely that we do feel within us that praise of God, we do yearn to stretch a little every day, under the influence of the spirit of Jesus Christ, to continue mutual love a little longer and more fully; we do find ourselves making the effort to welcome someone or something new and unfamiliar; we do find ourselves moved by the plight of someone else’s captivity or suffering; we do find ourselves questioning what we should be willing to do for the sake of money. Let’s recognize these promptings for what they are: a sign of communion in that life of Jesus Christ that is the same yesterday and today and forever, which is God’s incredible gift to us, and that works in us to transform our lives, so that we, too, become gifts to our world.

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