Saturday, August 28, 2010

Let Us Offer a Sacrifice of Praise to God

RCL Proper 22C
29 August 2010

Saint Barnabas Anglican Church
New Westminster BC

Focus text:  Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16

+ My sisters and brothers, may only God’s truth be spoken and only God’s truth be heard.

            At some point between the year 60 and the year 95, an unknown Jewish Christian put pen to paper and composed what some scholars think was a sermon and others think was an essay.  This document was intended for a Christian community in Rome that seems to have been primarily Jewish in its identity although we cannot rule out the possibility that some of its members were Gentiles.

            Some scholars and other Christians have seen Hebrews as an attack upon Judaism, but this is a misreading of the text.  The writer believes that ‘(the) Bible tells one story, not two, and it is the story of God’s saving initiative toward humankind.’ (NIB, 13)  For him the story of Jesus of Nazareth is the latest and most authoritative expression of this one story, begun in creation, revealed in the Torah, proclaimed by the prophets and continued by the Spirit in the present age.

            His audience is a Christian community in crisis.  It is clear from Hebrews that this is a second-generation community in which some members have grown lax in attending the community’s gatherings and the commitment of some members is waning.  The return of the resurrected Jesus, thought by many to have come during the lifetime of the first apostolic community, has not occurred, raising questions and doubts in the minds of some.  They are also experiencing persecution on two fronts.
  • As Jews who believe in Jesus of Nazareth, they are rejected by their Jewish brothers and sisters as heretics.
  • As Christians who believe in Jesus as Kyrios, ‘Lord’, they are thought by the Roman imperial authorities to be subversives who are undermining the foundations of the Empire.

 From the way the author frames his argument it appears that some of the Jewish Christians are tempted to abandon the Christian way and return to Judaism with its recognized ritual life and its protection under Roman law.  To counteract this temptation the author portrays the New Covenant made by God with humanity in Jesus of Nazareth as superior to the Covenant made by God with the people of Israel in the desert of the Exodus.  To demonstrate this superiority the author argues that
  • God’s voice is a living voice and is still speaking;
  • Jesus, our high priest, shares our humanity even as he sits in honour at God’s side;
  • The Spirit is constantly revealing and interpreting the Word of God to humanity and
  • The ekklesia, the fellowship of sisters and brothers, has been called to exercise a privileged role in God’s purposes.

             In today’s reading from the final chapter of Hebrews the author encourages his community to live out that privileged role
  • By loving the stranger rather than fearing the stranger;
  • By recognizing that money and sex are not private matters but two of the ways power and selfishness are lived out in society;
  • By acknowledging that the church is a pilgrim minority that is outside the social and political structures of their time.

 He closes his exhortation with words that describe the fundamental purpose of Christian worship:  “Through [Christ], 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.” (Hebrews 13.15-16)

            Let us move forward some two thousand years.  As we gather here this morning, we cannot escape the fact that we are a community in crisis.  The last fifty years has witnessed a significant change in the place of the Anglican Church of Canada in the life of our country.  Where we were once the proverbial ‘insiders’, movers and shakers in Canadian society, we are now reduced in numbers as some turn away from organized religion, others turn to religious traditions that soothe doubts by the medicine of false certainty and still others see religion as a real threat to the well-being of society.  I would suggest to you that we are undergoing a subtle form of persecution, sometimes organized, sometimes casual.

            In times such as these it is tempting to retreat into the false security of familiar ritual or beliefs.  Some people abandon the religious community completely and substitute participation in various volunteer organizations and the doing of ‘good works’ for the rough and tumble life of Christian community.  But some Christians face this crisis with open eyes and ask the question, ‘Who are we called to be and what are we called to do in this time?’

            This is the purpose that lies behind the three questions I left with you last week.  Let me remind you of them.
  1.  Is there some vocation that you sense God is calling you to undertake that seems to lead you on an unexpected journey?
  2. Do you need to look at the world differently in order to undertake this vocation?
  3. Are you going to have to play a little loose with the rules in order to undertake this vocation?

 I believe that God is calling us to leave behind an understanding of the church as powerful and prestigious.  I believe that God is calling us to realize that we are surrounded by strangers who need to be shown hospitality.  I believe that God is calling us to reconsider many of the rules and structures that we are accustomed to identify as markers of what it means to be ‘church’.

            We are not so different from the community to whom Hebrews is addressed.  As we live into a future we did not imagine, we do well to heed the words we heard this morning as if they were an agenda for being an Anglican Christian in the twenty-first century.
  • Let us show mutual love for one another, a love that seeks to build one another up so that we can become fully mature, fully alive as God intends us to be.
  • Let us show hospitality to the strangers, a hospitality that opens us up to the possibility of doing things differently and to see the world in new ways.
  • Let us remember those who are in any need or trouble, a remembering that takes shape not only in the words of our prayers but in the actions and choices of our lives.
  • Let us honour relationships rooted in genuine love and commitment, a honour that praises fidelity and mutual respect.
  • Let us be good stewards of the goods entrusted to our care, a stewardship that works towards genuine equity for all people.
  • Let us raise up leaders who will both encourage and challenge us to be witnesses to the life of Jesus, a life for all times and for all peoples.

 This is why we offer here our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  This is why we eat this bread and drink this cup.

            May the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make [us] complete in everything good so that [we] may do [God’s] will, working among us that which is pleasing in [God’s] sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever.  Amen. (Hebrews 13.20-21 alt.)

Sources quoted
Fred Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XII.

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