Rules. Everything has rules. Society had rules. Your job has rules. Schools and universities have rules. Preaching has rules, both spoken and unspoken. Don’t call out parishioners by name. Don’t tell too many personal stories. Don’t speak ill of your denominational affiliation. Now, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I don’t care. I probably do each of these, at least once, every sermon. And there are a few reasons for that. First of all, institutional Christianity has become far too elitist, far too removed from the day-to-day existence of regular people in secular society. So, naturally, being the anarchist I am, every time I walk into this beautiful sanctuary, I ask myself: “What can I do today to bring all of this crumbling to the ground?”
But second of all, some rules are just out of date. Some rules just aren’t relevant anymore and they need to be broken if we’re ever going to move forward. But sometimes rules endure. Sometimes rules are put in place that aren’t exclusively contingent upon the time and context in which they were established. God is not contingent on any one time and context, and neither are the things he calls us to. This text is a testament to that fact.
Now, just like a couple weeks ago when I preached on the books of Kings, I’m not sure I’ve ever preached on Hebrews, but I’ve definitely never preached on Hebrews here. So, as always, let’s tee it up with some context. First, we’re not exactly sure when it was written. Some scholars tend to think it was written some time before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the year 70CE, but it could have been written as late as 95CE, around which time another ancient letter we know of, 1 Clement, surfaced which quoted large portions of Hebrews. Second, if you were to go into the most sophisticated theological database and search for the definitive author of Hebrews, you would find: NOTHING. Because we have no idea who wrote it. Traditionally it’s been attributed to Paul, but it didn’t take long for people to start questioning that. Within a hundred years or so of it being written, people were calling into question its supposed Pauline authorship, so we’re pretty sure this wasn’t written by Paul. Third, there are some clues that it may have been sent to a Christian community in Rome, but again, we’re not sure.
Alright, that’s the When, Who, and Where, but what about the What and Why? These questions are a bit more difficult to answer. And a good starting point for these may be to talk about the nature of this text. Usually we lump it in with the rest of the NT, which are mostly letters written from someone to a specific community. But those have pretty specific patterns that Hebrews doesn’t really follow. Typically they have an introductory salutation; Hebrews doesn’t. Usually there is some practical details and concerns addressed; Hebrews doesn’t really do that — it’s weird. It doesn’t read like a letter. But what it does read like is a sermon. There is clearly some sophisticated rhetorical stuff happening in this book; there’s some heavy theologizing happening in this book. And there is a textual clue at the very end of chapter 13. We’re only dealing with verses 1-8 of chapter 13, but in verse 22 the author says this: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.”
Now, this isn’t obvious, but this phrase, “word of exhortation,” pops up somewhere else in the book of Acts. In Acts 13, we find Paul and others in the synagogue on the sabbath day, and verse 15 of that chapter says “After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” So, we can infer from the context in Acts that this phrase, word of exhortation, typically denotes a teaching or sermon of some kind. And I actually think this phrasing is really important. The phrase in Hebrews and Acts use the same two words: λόγος and παρακλήσεως. In case you’ve ever wondered what the purpose of a sermon is — that’s it. It is a word to encourage—to provide comfort and solace and peace—AND it’s a word to exhort—to urge, to charge, to demand. This is what a sermon is at its most fundamental level and those two different identities constantly ebb and flow according to the state of the community and the world the community finds itself in and that’s exactly what happens in our passage this morning.
We find a balance in this passage between what the author is encouraging the congregation to do internally, and what the author is exhorting the congregation to do externally. And the first few things we see are these exhortations for how they’re to approach others: “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.”
Now, let’s take these one at a time: “Let mutual love continue.” I guarantee you all know this Greek word used here. Any ideas? It’s φιλαδελφία, from the Greek words “philia” for love and “adelphos” meaning brother. Ancient Greek has four different words for love, and this is the one that is always used to speak about love between people in the Christian community. And the next two things the author describes is what this “mutual love” looks like in action for this specific community: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, remember those who are in prison and who are being tortured, as though you’re in prison and being tortured. In other words, show hospitality and show empathy.
Maybe it’s just me, but this seems to be the thing that the world is really missing. I mean, how many of the world's problems would be resolved if these two things were followed through on? I talk a lot in here about how the bible is from a foreign time and foreign place and we have to do a lot of legwork to understand it and understand what it’s saying to us today, but this passage requires ZERO translation in order to be accommodated into the modern day. And what’s even more is that these things speak directly to what’s happening right now in America. The crises we’re facing, RIGHT NOW, are ones of hospitality and empathy. Some of the world’s most vulnerable are walking hundreds of miles over weeks and months to come here for a chance at dignity, and we’ve completely and systematically failed them. People are dying because we’ve failed them. Children are dying because we’ve failed them. A few weeks ago, a kid died in an ICE detention center, sick and alone, next to the toilet in his cell.
And this doesn’t only apply to our immigration problems, right? Talk about people who are in prison and people who are being tortured—what about our inherently racist criminal justice system? What about the people who suffer and die every year because they can’t afford medical care? And there are people who think it’s fine that these people are dying, who support this administration and support these agencies and, all the while, think they’re disciples of Jesus. You can’t serve God and money. You can’t serve God and racism. You can’t serve God and tyranny. So choose! Decide what to be and go be it but don’t parade around like a follower of Jesus if you’re not willing to follow Jesus’ rules. That’s what these verses are saying. This whole discipleship thing is a choice. So: you in or you out? And if you’re in, then this is where it starts. It doesn’t start in here, it starts out there. And only after we’ve done our work out there can we do our work in here, and that’s where the second half of our passage comes in.
“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.”
So this is an internal shift. We were just talking about how members of the community are to relate to those outside themselves, and now we’re talking about how they’re to relate to themselves and their own lived experiences. And these first couple things have to do with domination and oppression. This first verse, about marriage, is often peddled as a rebuke to homosexuality and extra-marital relationships en masse and whatever; it’s not. If you want to believe it’s about that, that’s fine, but you’re wrong. It’s not. The two biggest things the early church rallied against when talking about sexual immorality were pedophilia and and paganism. At this time and in these places it was common for 1) older men to have relationships with younger boys, and 2) it was common for pagan worship to include sexual acts with prostitutes and temple slaves. These things are practices which always include oppression and domination, two things which aren’t in line with the Christian faith. And the same goes for the next verse about money. Just last week, we talked about a text in the book of Acts that told us about the early church holding all things in common, about how no one in the early church had any need. And yet, as we see here, there are still people in these communities struggling with greed and materialism.
That’s why the author directs them to the example of their leaders. Leaders are supposed to be examples to the people they lead. They’re supposed to model mature discipleship and have the charisma to take people from point A to point B, especially when point B is a place they probably wouldn’t go otherwise. That means they must rise above the things their followers often get caught in, like the love of money or the pursuit of immoral sexual relationships, etc. And don’t get me wrong: those of us that are religious leaders aren’t perfect. But we are charged with trying to be because we know people are watching. We know that, for good or for ill, people have their eyes on us and look to our example. How many of you here know someone who at some point struggled with their faith, and when they approached a religious leader for guidance and understanding, had bible-flavored shame shoved down their throat and now they want absolutely nothing to do with this whole church thing?
Now, with that in mind, why do you think I’m so open and honest about my doubts? Why do you think I’m so critical of Christianity and the church? Why do you think I’m not afraid to talk about politics and call out evil wherever it’s found? Because people are watching. People are paying attention, and they’re not only paying attention to me. They’re paying attention to us. Whether we like it or not, people are watching us and considering the outcome of our way of being in the world. We're the church in Lewisburg who has unashamedly established itself as a champion of progressive Christianity, of a politically-relevant Christianity, of a Christianity that people, faithful or not, should actually care about. This is the time for us to take the lead because people are watching. Just the other day, I ran into a parent from Busy Beaver downtown, who said “I’m not a person of faith, but I so appreciate how the church isn’t afraid to take a stand and talk about what’s going on in the world.”
People are watching. We’re the leaders whose faith is called to be imitated. And not because our faith is so perfect, but just the opposite. Because our faith is imperfect and we’re not afraid to admit it. Because we have doubts and we’re not afraid to admit it. Because we’re just a bunch of messed-up sinners and we’re not afraid to admit it. But despite all those things, we get up everyday and continue to proclaim that, even though we’re not perfect, Jesus is. And Jesus doesn’t change. Our task is merely to orient ourselves, every day, toward Jesus and the same radical vision he had: to “love without limit.” People are watching. It’s time to be the leaders that our community needs us to be.
So, you in or you out? If you want to be a part of what we’re doing here, if you want to actually follow Jesus and not just the church, this is what it takes. We often peddle the wrong rules. “You have to be baptized; you have to be a member; you have to believe this or believe that.” Those are exclusionary, elitist church rules; they're not Jesus’. And following Jesus’ rules isn't always easy; it’s not always pretty; it’s not always perfect. And that’s where grace comes in. But nevertheless, Jesus’ rules are necessary. So, as individuals and as a church, are we in or we out? We answer that question everyday by how we live in this world. And I, for one, want to be in. And I hope you’ll all come alongside me for the journey. Let’s pray.