Homily for Sunday, September 1, 2019
Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16
If the church at Corinth was the Church’s first dysfunctional congregation—already in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul calls them out: “I appeal to you… there should be no divisions among you”; (the Church at Corinth was rife with division)—the community that received the Letter to the Hebrews (from which we heard this morning) was perhaps the Church’s first healthy congregation. In the letter to the Hebrews, for example, there is no mention of factions (as in 1 Corinthians: “‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’” (1:12)). In Hebrews there is no mention of scandal (as in 1 Corinthians: “It is actually reported that… a man is living with his father’s wife,” (5:1)). In Hebrews, church members are not litigating against each other (as in 1 Corinthians: “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?” (6:1)). In Hebrews there is no mention of disorderly worship (as in 1 Corinthians: “If… the… church comes together and all speak in tongues [with none to interpret], and outsiders… enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (14:23)). In Hebrews there is no mention of the abuse of the Sacrament (as in 1 Corinthians: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat… one goes hungry and another becomes drunk,” (11:20). This is only a partial list; the church at Corinth was a mess!
In contrast, consider what the Letter to the Hebrews asks of its community:
- “Pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1)
- “Exhort one another every day” in this teaching. (3:13)
- “Hold fast to our confession.” (4:14)
- “Let us go on towards perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings…” (6:1)
- “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (12:1)
And in today’s lesson:
Let mutual love continue…Remember those who are in prison… [Remember] those who are being tortured… Be content with what you have… Remember your leaders… Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have.
Reading the Letter to the Hebrews, one gets the sense that, “They’ve got this.” The Hebrews know who they are and what they’re about. All they need do is to “hold fast” to what they’ve been taught; not to “drift” but to “go on,” to “persevere,” to be “diligent,” to keep on doing what they’re already doing. It’s as though the author, were he their cross country coach, is saying to the Hebrews: “You’ve trained for this race; you are prepared. Now go and run it!”
I know it’s a little unfair to compare churches—the church at Corinth was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, while the community who received the Letter to the Hebrews seems to have been entirely Jewish; and the church at Corinth was only recently established, while the community addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews appears to have been well-established. But still…. The community in the Letter to the Hebrews was not split by factions, was not marred by scandal, did not have disorderly worship, did not have members suing each other, did not have people becoming drunk at Eucharist…. Their pastor needed only encourage them to keep on doing what they were already doing: “Pay greater attention to what you have heard.” Do “not lay again the foundation,” but “go on toward perfection” (6:1)—“hold fast,” “go on,” “persevere,” “remember,” “continue.” In other words, “Keep on doing those things you have already been taught and are already doing!”
I wonder if the community addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews was healthy because they—in contrast to the Church at Corinth—were clear about who they were.
Those addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews were clear about who they were. For example, they knew that:
- “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors… by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” (1:1)
- We are “partners of Christ” (3:14)
- We are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” (2:11)
- “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14)
- “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (4:19)
- We have “confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (10:19)
- We have “endured a hard struggle with sufferings” (10:32)
- “We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, [we are] among those who have faith and so are saved” (10:39)
- …and so on and so forth. “We are,” “We have,” “We are.”
Unlike the Corinthians—who are confused as to whether they belong to Paul or Apollos or Cephas, and as to how to conduct their worship and indeed their lives—the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews are clear about who they are; like Jesus (in John’s Gospel (8:14)), they “know where [they] have come from and where [they] are going.” And I suspect that it is this clarity of identity that keeps the community of Hebrews from factions, from scandal, from suing each other, and leaves them free to “run the race that is set before them.”
The Hebrews’ clarity of their identity begs the question of us and our identity: “Who are we?” If we would know health—as individuals and as a community—it might help to be clear about our identity. Our identity as Christians is most clearly set forth in our Baptismal rite, which can be found on page 299 of The Book of Common Prayer… and also in the Sacrament to which Baptism admits us, the Eucharist. By symbol and word, Baptism and Eucharist tell us who we are and why we’re here on this earth—what we’re about. Maybe in the coming week, take some time to look at our Baptismal rite in the Prayer Book (page 299). And maybe in just a moment, pay close attention to what is about to happen at the altar. Which is actually what God desires to happen in each of our hearts; and which—if we are honest with ourselves—is what our souls crave and is, deep-down, how we want to live our lives.