Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Last week we began exploring a new, extended section of the book of Hebrews.
We transitioned from a reflection on who Jesus is to a broader consideration
of not only what Jesus has done but also what Jesus continues to do for us.
We were introduced to the idea of understanding Jesus (SLIDE #2)
as our great high priest – as our ultimate intercessor and representative.
All signs pointed to the writer of Hebrews gearing up for a detailed explanation
of this framework for appreciating the work of Christ on our behalf.
In particular, we might expect some further elaboration on his
passing, cryptic reference to Christ being a high priest not (SLIDE #3)
in the line of the Levitical priesthood but “after the order of Melchizedek.”
But as we’re about to discover, (SLIDE #4) the exploration of this idea will have to wait as instead, our author pauses and makes an unexpected digression.
The writer suddenly turns to look directly into the eyes of his listeners
and speak to them. What results is one of the most intensely personal,
hotly debated and highly controversial passages in this letter. (SLIDE #5 – #12)
I hear this passage and I immediately react with a phrase my grandmother
used all the time, “Well, somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed!”
What are we to make of the sudden shift in the tone of this letter
as the speaker dumps a shower of cold water on the heads of his listeners.
From where does all this frustration come?
Why the sudden, stern, & unsettling warning about falling away from the faith?
How are we to understand and to receive all that is being expressed here?
We need to remember this address is being given to Christians
who are struggling, who have learned much about believing in Jesus
but are teetering on the brink of never taking their first step
in actually following Christ with their lives.
This letter, this sermon, is NOT being addressed to those who are new to the faith.
These are believers who’ve been baptized,
who’ve received the standard curriculum of instruction.
As the writer lays out in verses 1 – 3 in chapter 6, (SLIDE #13)
this community has already got the basics,
the essential truths, “the elementary teachings about Christ”:
“repentance from dead works”
They’ve been taught, one doesn’t rituals to square oneself with God
– that Christianity isn’t about practicing a religion for God;
it is about living out of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
“faith in God”
They’ve learned not to put their trust in idols
– not to rely on anyone or anything before, above, or at the same level as Christ, that there is only one Savior, only one Lord who has the words of eternal life, and his name is Jesus.
“instruction about cleansing rites and laying on of hands”
They’ve discovered while there is one baptism in Christ,
our daily lives need to be shaped by a regular posture of
confession and repentance, of worship and service.
And purifying, cleansing, reorienting habits like these cannot be shaped
in isolation but are formed by the Holy Spirit as come together in community,
as we work together as the Body of Christ.
“resurrection from the dead and “eternal judgment”:
This community of believers has been coached not to live in fear of death
but to live in expectation of the life to come, the life beyond this one,
the full, abundant, and eternal life that can be found only in Jesus.
They’ve been instructed any life lived apart from Christ is a life marked not by abiding in the grace of God but choosing to sit under the judgment of God.
When it comes to the stuff every Christian should know,
this community has been schooled. (SLIDE #14)
And now, the writer of this letter, has more to share with them about Jesus.
Our speaker has somewhere he wants to take them in following Christ.
But the trouble, the stated problem, is this community of believers
isn’t willing to take their relationship with Jesus to the next level
– to “move forward to maturity in Christ.”
What the writer of Hebrews is calling out here sounds a lot like (SLIDE #15)
a phenomenon we refer to today as “the failure to launch.”
Sometimes also called Peter Pan syndrome, the failure to launch is
the experience of grown up children not making the transition
into the next stage of their development: adulthood.
Similarly, this is our speaker’s diagnosis of his audience. (SLIDE #16)
Life’s hardships, the difficulties they’ve faced,
the problems they might encounter, have resulted in this community
“no longer trying to understand” how to go further with Christ.
Even though they have everything they require to move forward,
even though they NEED to move forward,
collectively, these believers are resisting taking the next step in following Jesus.
One of the classic evidences of life of any kind is growth. (SLIDE #17)
At the end of chapter 4, our speaker appealed for this community to boldly go
– to live out of the grace of God they/we have been given in Jesus. (SLIDE #18)
But now, the writer’s concern is they can’t go because they aren’t willing to grow
And this, standing still, our speaker insists, just won’t work. (SLIDE #19)
Like a field that receives rain but only produces thorn and thistles
instead of a fruitful crop, when something ceases to grow,
it is a sign of death and not life.
Have you ever found yourself present when someone else was getting what
I’ll politely refer to as “a talking to” – you know, a bit of a scolding or a rebuke?
If you grew up with a sibling, you probably ended up in this situation more than once.
If you were like me, maybe you often found yourself unconsciously
making sounds of affirmation or nodding your head along
as your sister or brother was dressed down a little.
And then suddenly, your Mom or your Dad or both turned around to you
and said something like, “Don’t think this doesn’t apply to you too.
You’d do well to listen and learn from this as well.”
This is one of those biblical passages that ends up (SLIDE #20)
being like a mirror for us to look into and reflect upon ourselves,
rather than just to stand apart from a distance.
In reading Hebrews together, as we become a part of this conversation,
as the writer’s words now are addressed to us, the question becomes,
does this rebuke, this caution apply to you and me? To us?
Have we failed to launch as followers of Jesus? (SLIDE #21)
Our speaker’s assessment of this community in verses 11 – 14, chapter 5,
is that they are slow to learn and not keeping up.
They continue to need to be taught rather than being teachers of others.
They have the capacity to grow but are continuing to stunt
their potential growth by wanting everything watered down.
They are content to remain childish in terms of their faith,
preferring to be babied – just repeatedly fed on milk
– “needing someone to teach them the elementary truths of God’s word”
that they’ve already received, “all over again,”
rather than to attempt to chew on, to meditate, and to grow
from more solid food – a deeper understanding and
a more conscious practice of their relationship with Christ. (SLIDE #22)
Are we content to remain fat and happy babies that just want to be fed
but don’t necessarily want to digest more solid instruction
that will demand more of our attention and our time?
Do we want to hear the old, old story – to hear the version of the Gospel
we are comfortable with, the one that fits into our lifestyle,
into our way of thinking? (SLIDE #23)
Sometimes we need to go back to the beginning, to where we started.
When we take a big hit, when we experience a great trauma in our lives,
when we find ourselves lost, it can be necessary, it can be helpful,
healing, centering, grounding, to get back to the basics, to reorient ourselves
to the essentials in terms of what’s real and true – who we are, who God is,
and how God in Christ forgives us and saves us from our broken selves.
But that is not what is happening in this community.
These aren’t people who are coming BACK home
in order to get back on their feet.
These are believers who’ve never LEFT home
– who keep shuffling their feet in place – retreading where they’ve been
and what they know, rather than taking a step forward and following Jesus.
There is a big difference between going back to basics
in order to get realigned with who we are in Christ, (SLIDE #24)
with how Jesus has and continues to shape our lives
versus remaining in neutral or worse, going in reverse
as a means of refusing to move – to go beyond what we know
and where we are comfortable,
an excuse to avoid taking off and walking by faith.
As our speaker cautions us, (SLIDE #25)
there are only two directions in the Christian life – following Jesus:
moving forward and going deeper or coming adrift and falling away.
We are either growing in our faith
– striving against the currents of life that would cause us to give up or to give in or we are content to float on the surface ignorant of those currents
that can so easily, so slightly yet gradually pull us off course
until we find ourselves utterly lost.
So, what is being said here?
Is it possible to become a Christian and then to fall away completely
– to lose Jesus, to forsake one’s life and salvation?
Consistently, the witness of scripture is an emphatic “No!”
God’s grace is always greater than anything we do or don’t do.
Let’s remember this letter’s title, “To the Hebrews…”
This letter/sermon recalls the biblical story of God’s liberation of the Hebrews
— God’s chosen people — from captivity.
On the one hand, their deliverance from suffering testifies to
God’s faithfulness to promises made: God never undoes the election of Israel.
The Church doesn’t replace Israel, as if God had negated Israel’s chosenness because of Christ. Rather, Christ’s followers are “grafted into” Israel.
On the other hand, the unfaithfulness of the exodus generation in the wilderness lost them entrance into their promised future.
Yes, God initiates salvation by acts of unconditional, unmerited love
with the promise to maintain Israel’s salvation from beginning to end.
Salvation is God’s alone to offer and to secure.
Nonetheless, God doesn’t force salvation down our throats;
it is a gift freely given that transforms our lives only when we freely receive it.
We need to listen very carefully to what our speaker describes here. (SLIDE #26)
For those who have received truth and insight from the Holy Spirit,
who have tasted divine love and grace in their lives, who have heard the Lord speaking through His word into their hearts, who have encountered God’s peace in their being that the world cannot provide, to turn one’s back, to walk away (SLIDE #27) is to “crucify again the Son of God.” Why?
Because one is not walking away from what they
do NOT understand or have NOT experienced. Quite the opposite.
One is turning his or her back on what one DOES understand,
from what one HAS experienced.
William Wilberforce, as he presented his Abolitionist Bill for the first time in England,
in a moving speech where he recited the horrific facts of slavery for 3 hours, ended with the words: “having heard all of this you may choose
to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.”
There is a difference between the child who does not know how to read,
to write, and to speak intelligibly and the child who refuses to do so.
A good teacher never gives up on a student. If a student fails to learn from
a good teacher, it is because the student has given up on him or herself.
God doesn’t ever give up on us. (SLIDE #28)
This warning is not about a God who is unwilling to forgive and to restore someone who is repentant, who admits what he or she doesn’t yet know.
But God can’t, God won’t force us to learn the lessons He’s trying to teach us.
This warning is about forsaking or ignoring what we already know
– what we’ve already been given.
Our forgiveness, our salvation, our life is not about what we do.
All of these are about what Jesus has done, what Christ is doing for us.
Everything – all that we have and all that are is thanks to the grace of God.
That being said, Jesus clearly teaches us in the gospels
and the writers of the New Testament – Paul, Peter, John,
the writer of Hebrews, and so forth ALL insist what we do with
the grace we’ve given, looking for and relying upon
the continuance of God’s grace in our lives, MATTERS.
When we forsake the grace we know, the grace we have been given,
we stop learning, we stop growing. And once we stop growing, we die.
Without the grace of God, we are dead even now – dead in our sins.
Jesus meets us where we are – as we are.
Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us to where we need to go,
where we truly want to be, but we have to move our feet and follow Him.
The Christian life isn’t about letting God do it all.
If it was, why then would Jesus call us to follow Him?
The maturity the writer urges his listeners to embrace is so much more than
a general appeal to grow up, it is the specific call to follow Christ.
This call to follow Jesus NOT just some a mechanical imitation of Christ,
asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” and then going and doing likewise.
This appeal to maturity in Christ is NOT just an appeal to be like Jesus
as if all Jesus offers us is an example of a moral life
that we can somehow copy on our own.
No, Jesus is the pioneer of our faith to be followed
and not merely an example to be imitated. (SLIDE #29)
In other words, we can’t follow Jesus without Christ
leading and guiding us every step of the way.
Maturity in Christ is increasing and deepening our reliance
upon the grace of God in how we live our lives, in how we follow Jesus.
Following Jesus requires energy, focus, effort, and hard work.
If it wasn’t, why would Paul call us
“to work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12 – 13)?
But the good news, the Gospel, as Paul adds in this same sentence,
is “because God is at work in you.”
Too many of us bear a false humility, telling ourselves, telling others,
we just can’t go deeper & wider in our knowledge & understanding
of God’s word, of Christ. We’re just not good at prayer, at bible study,
at evangelism, at mentoring, at serving others, etc.”
And yet each one of us have dedicated our time and energy and mastered other areas of study, other demanding professions, other challenging relationships.
We all make some effort to remain very informed and opinionated about
what is going on the world but when it comes to Jesus, we throw up our hands and claim it’s too hard to figure Jesus out and to follow Him.
If we can do all of the above on our own and yet deny we can’t do
at least the same when it comes to our relationship with Christ
and his call upon our lives – an effort, once again,
we don’t have to make on our own but rather need only to
rely upon the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit
to move forward and gain traction, then it isn’t that we CAN’T follow Jesus,
it is that we WON’T be bothered to try
– to exercise the grace we have been given in order to grow. (SLIDE #30)
Being stretched is how we grow.
Beloved, if we don’t want to be challenged, to have to think harder,
to have our hearts opened wider, to learn new habits and practices,
then let’s be honest, we’re really aren’t all that interested in following Jesus.
Because following Jesus is more than just believing in Jesus.
Following Jesus is more than just trying to milk forgiveness and salvation
from Christ when we get in a jam or when we die.
Following Jesus means living our life for Jesus,
being regularly stretched by the Word & the Spirit beyond our perceptions, beyond our complacencies, beyond our comfort zones, so that we would
reach out and serve others, we would teach and make disciples.
The necessity of our growth in Christ isn’t just about US. (SLIDE #31)
Our growth in Christ is for the sake of all creation
– so that the world would know and believe and embrace the hope, the love,
and the salvation we have in Jesus.
Beloved, we are not called to be Christians (SLIDE #32)
In following Jesus, we are called to be disciples — disciples of Christ.
And disciples of Jesus make disciples of Jesus.
Grace given is grace that is meant to be shared.
To grow in Christ is to reach others for Christ
– to teach, to mentor, to invest in the life of another person.
Being a teacher does not mean you have to be in front of a classroom.
Deuteronomy 6:6-9, the SHEMA, reminds us where, when, and how
the Lord told His people to be sure they were teaching others,
especially their children. Do we remember?
“…when you sit at home, when you walk along the road,
when you lie down and when you get up, use symbols as reminders,
write them down and post them.”
Peter in his first recorded letter (3:15) expresses it to us this way:
“always to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone
who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
Becoming teachers, disciple makers means being able to share the Gospel
with others, to tell the story of what God in Christ had done for us.
Even more than this, it means generously and compassionately sharing what God has given us in Christ by speaking up and reaching out, by lending a hand and having the backs of those who are victims of abuse and injustice.
As our speaker clearly indicates, echoing similar sentiments throughout the Bible, we show our love for God – that we are following Jesus, when our vision is bigger than Jesus and me, when we aren’t just asking “Am I flourishing?”
but we are committed to ensuring our neighbor is flourishing. (SLIDE #33)
When we are following Jesus, growing deeper and wider in Christ,
we are going out beyond our backyards – on the other side of the street,
across the aisle, breaking down the walls between us, daring to bridge any divide that separates another human being from experiencing the love of Christ.
And if this all still sounds too much, too hard, too impossible to us,
we do well to notice how this section of our passage ends. (SLIDE #34)
What started with a frustrated rebuke and continued into a stern warning concludes with a strong vote of confidence.
The preacher who began by telling us, “This is too hard for you to handle!”
now assures us, “You’ve got this!”
It turns out this whole passage wasn’t about tearing down
as much as it was building back up.
To a community that is being tempted to fall into a spiritual slumber,
this is a rally cry, a wake-up call to press deeper into a life of spiritual renewal.
Likewise, we should hear these words not as a list of
uncompromising threats or impossible demands
but as an appeal intended to capture our full attention and focus,
to shake us out of our complacency within Christianity in order
to catapult us further ahead in our relationship in Christ.
All the strength, the wisdom, the discernment, and the patience
we need to walk by faith, to follow Jesus come (SLIDE #35)
from the same grace of God that set us on this journey.
When we struggle to find the energy, to stay focused,
when we are tempted to give up, to do something else,
when we stumble and fall, when we hit the grind, and it all becomes too hard, when we know, deep in our bones, we cannot, we must not give up,
but we don’t know how to keep putting one foot in front of the other,
instead of worrying about Jesus letting go of you,
rather than stress about the Holy Spirit taking Himself away from you,
prayerfully focus and discern on where YOU are beginning to let go of Jesus,
how and why YOU are starting to distance yourself or become deaf
to the leading, the influence of the Holy Spirit.
And then, without hesitation, without excuse, without fear,
run into the arms of Jesus as fast you can.
Turn down, turn off all the other voices and noise in your life,
and abide in the grace of God received by the Word and the Spirit.
Allow yourself to be stretched by this grace. Grow – be changed in that stretch.
Recognize how the Lord is shaping you through
whatever is you are going through.
In this simple but crucial, the repeated, daily act of submission,
of relying upon the grace of God, you will learn, you will grow in
the faith you have been given, in the hope that does not disappoint,
and the love from which you cannot be separated.
Our professions of faith in Christ become our perseverance of faith through Christ as we follow Jesus one step at a time.
Grace is what sets us on the path.
Relying on that grace is what keeps us going along the way.
Abiding in the grace of God is what ensures we do not fail to launch
but rather go forward to wherever and to whomever Jesus leads us
and eventually, eternally make it home. Amen.