Written by Pastor Ed
A Sacrifice Above All Others – Hebrews
Oct. 5, 2014
World Communion Sunday
One of the tendencies of many people today is to claim that all religions are basically the same and so, if you want to be religious you can simply pick and choose whatever religion, beliefs, or practices seem most agreeable to you. Or, if you like, you can mix them all together. This is particularly true in a pluralistic country like Canada where we freely mix with persons from many parts of the world with many different religions represented even in our own neighbourhoods.
But that’s not a new issue, although for many years it was simply assumed that everyone in Canada or the US was Christian. In fact, in the ancient past it was probably more of an issue than it is today, as there were many claims of many different religions, including emperor worship. And can you imagine what it was like to be part of a new religion? How do you make the claim not only that this new religion is better than anything that came before, but that this God is not only one of many, but really the only God who demands exclusive loyalty?
And then, how do you distinguish yourself from the other religions who make the same claim for their God? While there were many Gentile converts to this new Christian religion, there were also many jews who were coming to believe in Jesus, and in fact the leader of this new movement, Jesus, had himself been a Jew and used the Hebrew scriptures. There were many similarities and continuities between Judaism and Christianity, and yet the Christians were claiming that this was something new, that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
And so the early Christian church was trying to distinguish itself from the Judaism of the past. And then came persecution, at times because the Christians were seen as a Jewish sect, and at times because they were seen as something new and dangerous, claiming that their loyalty was not to Caesar, but rather to God alone. I think it is hard for us to imagine what it must have bene like for those early Christians to sort it all out.
In the midst of all that turmoil, someone wrote or perhaps more likely gave an address that was written down, that we now call the book of Hebrews. It doesn’t really fit the category of a letter, as it lacks all the greetings, thanksgivings, and ending that mark letters of this era. While the last few verses make it sound like a letter, there is general agreement that they may well have bene added later to give it that impression. Many scholars suggest it fits the style of a sermon better, although I doubt any of you would enjoy hearing it preached as it is. We might think of it more as a treatise or essay.
We don’t know who wrote it. As Origen, an early church leader said, “Who really wrote the letter is known to God alone.” While traditionally it was ascribed to Paul that was questioned even in the early church as the canon was being put together. Some suggested Barnabas and a more recent scholar has even suggested Mary!
Nor is it clear exactly to whom it was written. “To the Hebrews” is fairly vague. One fairly strong argument is that it was written to the Christians at Rome, late in the 1st century. While the Eastern church accepted Hebrews as part of the canon early on, it wasn’t until the end of the 4th century when the Western church accepted it as part of the Biblical canon that we now have as part of our Bible. It was clearly written to a people who were suffering persecution and probably because of that, some in the group were considering abandoning the faith.
For many people the book of Hebrews is difficult to read since it contains a lot of references to things we don’t know much about. The many references to Old Testament and Jewish practices of sacrifice, the strange references to Melchizedek, and so forth make it seem rather irrelevant to our world today. Yet its message, I believe is relevant.
First and foremost, it is a message of encouragement to Christians of any era to hang in there. After all the arguments and allusions of the first 11 chapters, we come to the great “Therefore” of Chapter 12.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake ofthe joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (12: 1-2)
Throughout the essay are other encouragements to hang in there; don’t give up the faith; endure the suffering as a way of strengthening your faith. And why should you do that? Because Jesus is so much superior to the old Jewish way or any other way for that matter. The writer begins with that premise.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (1: 1-3a)
And then goes on to articulate all the ways that Jesus is superior to the old way. As a son, he is superior to the angels, none of whom God ever called a son. As a priest, he is superior to the Levitical priests of old because his priesthood is like that of Melchizedek, without beginning or end; and above all, his sacrifice of obedience on our behalf is far superior to any animal sacrifice that was made even by the high priests of old. Those sacrifices had to be made again and again, year after year, but Jesus gave of himself once and that is sufficient for all people and for all time.
Not only that, but all of the Old Testament heroes of the faith, like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and many others all persevered in the face of adversity because they believed that God had something better in store for them in the future. And we now know what they were looking forward to – the Messiah who is Jesus Christ. If they could do it, without ever seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises, how much more ought we to be able to persevere since we now know Jesus and have his example before us.
And after arguing all those ways that Jesus is superior, the writer comes to that “therefore” and goes on to encourage the people to remain firm in their faith, to endure whatever hardship might come their way, and to stick together, because it is only as we have others to support us that we can maintain our faith.
From time to time we may get discouraged or run into things that make us question our faith. That’s ok, it will happen. We all have wilderness times in our lives, and sometimes there even seems to be a wilderness in God’s mercy. Or there may be times when someone will come along and offer us something that they say is better. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of someone coming to your house for a visit, and then launching into a sales pitch for the latest thing that they have found so amazing.
At any of those times, you can pick up the book of Hebrews and find encouragement. No, you may not understand all the arguments, but you will get the message. No matter what others say, the way of Jesus is the best way. It is the way of obedience to God that led Jesus to even make the supreme sacrifice of his life for us, which is what we remember today as we partake together of these communion elements, remembering the shed blood and broken body, given for us.
I don’t think we need to fear other religions; in fact, I think we should be open to dialogue and learn about them. But as Donna Entz, working among the Muslims of N. Edmonton has clearly shown us, we don’t need to compromise our beliefs or be ashamed of speaking clearly about our faith when we talk to others. For if we believe what the writer of Hebrews tells us, then the one we follow is superior to all others and the way of obedience shown us in Jesus Christ is by far the best way to live our lives, whether in the 1st century or today.
So as we partake of communion today, may we remember Christ’s great sacrifice for us, and let us persevere in our faith no matter what comes. We have the witness not only of the New Testament, but of all the saints that have gone before us. May we also leave an example for all those who come behind us.