Let Mutual Love Continue
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So we’ve come to the end of our look at Hebrews. Of course it’s never really the end. It’s more of a beginning really. So where do we begin? With love. Faith, hope and love remain but the greatest of these is love. That’s where we are this morning. Let us take a look at the text that was read and see what God may have to say to our hearts.
Some people believe that chapter 13 of Hebrews is so different than what comes before it that it was added on by another author. I don’t think that we need to see this great chapter on love like that. I look at chapter 13 as the culmination of all that’s gone on before it. God has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he created the worlds. This Son has fittingly been made perfect through suffering and he is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters so that he can stand before God with all us behind him along with all of those who have gone before us and say “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” We’re brothers and sisters in a heavenly calling. There is a rest that’s been promised that we can enter into now. Let us therefore go on toward perfection, toward completion, growing mature and being formed in the image of Christ, who is our great High Priest who pleads our case and ushers us into the presence of God without barrier and without fear – who is the mediator of a covenant by which God promised to forgive us and to change our hearts. Keep the faith that is ours, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. Always keep our eyes on that celestial city toward which we are travelling and hold onto that rope as Christ holds onto us.
And finally love.
I’ve said before that NT letters always have a “so what” moment. We saw one earlier in chapter 10 - and this sermon is no straight linear progression, it’s always pointing forward to what’s coming and going back to what’s been said. In chapter 13 we have the final “so what.” So… love.
Let mutual love continue. If all this faith and hope isn’t resulting in love, then we are noisy gongs or clanging cymbals. We need to be getting this right here before we’re ever going to be getting it right going out from here. Church tradition has John living out his days in the city of Ephesus. He was so frail that he had to be carried into church each week. Each week they would bring him up to the front to give a sermon. He would get to the front and say “Little children, love one another.” Next week same thing. Week after week. The congregation must have wondered “Same sermon week after week?” It was because they needed to hear it week after week. It’s because we need to hear it constantly week after week. Love one another, for love is from God. If we’re not getting it right here we’re not going to be getting it right going out from here. Our love for one another should be such that people notice! This was Jesus’ new commandment. Love another just as I have loved you. In this way people will know that you are my disciples – my followers, my students, those who are listening to me. Let this love continue, let it remain, let it abide, rest in my love so that you are enabled to love each other.
Let’s not get insular about it though. This love needs to be directed outward too. One big question any church should ask is “Would the community miss us if we ceased to exist?” Would they? If you can answer “Yes” then you know God is doing something here. This love needs to be directed outward. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” Sit down at a table with food on it! By doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. I remember about 4 Christmases ago at Out of the Cold one night when actual Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday. I met a dinner guest from Ireland named Noel. On Christmas Eve. I didn’t see him again until the following year - the Saturday before Christmas and here’s this man named Noel showing up at Christmas! I don’t know that Noel is an angel but I was getting a distinct “It’s A Wonderful Life” feeling. There’s a mystery in us encountering heavenly beings and even encountering Christ in the faces of those to whom we extend hospitality. This being Hebrews there is of course an OT connection. Tom Long puts it this way in his book on Hebrews – “This allusion to entertaining angels unawares hearkens back to several Old Testament stories, especially the story of Abraham, Sarah, and the three strangers at Mamre (Gen. 18:1-15), but it also connects to Mount Zion. We are no longer merely having family night suppers at Shiloh Methodist, First Congregational, or Sacred Heart Cathedral; we are gathered for worship in the heavenly city where there are ‘innumerable angels’ ready for the feast (12:22). They may look homeless and hungry when the church invites them into the warmth, but for those who have ‘the conviction of things not seen’ (11:1), they bring the presence of God with them.”
Welcoming the stranger involves not only welcoming the children who will be attending the Lawrence Heights camps this summer, but welcoming those who will be helping. It might involve inviting a neighbour for dinner or someone out for coffee. Our city is full of people who tragically feel isolated in the middle of 2.6 million people. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Those are Christ’s words. I was sick and you took care of me. What might these things look like for us?
I was in prison and you visited me. Remember those that are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
It’s thought that the preacher here is primarily talking about those who have been imprisoned for their faith – those being tortured for their faith. This congregation was known for that. In chapter 10 we read “For you had compassion for those who were in prison…” Pastor Abby’s going to be talking about compassion over the next two weeks. At heart it means to suffer with. To come alongside suffering. Not to run away from suffering. There is a call here to remember Christian brothers and sisters in prison and those being tortured, but I never think that this call is to limit ourselves. Remember those that are in prison. Remember your prison ministry. Or your homeless ministry. The ministry to those that are on the margins. I’ve spoken before about a program at Angola Prison in Louisiana, educating prisoners, many of whom will die there. The lowest of the low. This is how society sees them. Who would want to help them? You should, says the preacher. You should remember those whom society wants to forget, just as in Christ God remembered his promise to us, just as through the Holy Spirit, God remembers his promises to us. We should be willing to come alongside suffering, not to take it on because our Great High Priest has already taken it on himself, but to share it, because in so doing we fulfill the law of Christ.
Love must be properly directed. We can say “God is love” but we don’t say “Love is God.” We’re not yet perfect and our love can be misdirected. Talk turns to sex and money. Those things always get our attention. Let marriage be held in honor by all. It’s thought that there were those in this community teaching that the way to purity in Christ was through sexual abstinence. The preacher has already named Christ as our means to purity. Let the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. God has created us to have sex in loving covenantal relationships. Avoid fornication – the word is pornous. Porn. Resist the objectification of people who are made in the image of God for your own selfish ends. Resist adultery. Loving the wrong person.
Loving the wrong thing. Money. The love of money being an abrogation of trust in God who has promised “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Holding onto that promise with confidence and not thinking we have to hedge our bets where God is concerned. Again Tom Long – “What is inventive about this is first, the suggestion that the love of money is not so much the product of greed as it is the fear of abandonment, and two, the intriguing theological claim that when Jesus Christ grasps one hand in love it frees us to open up the clenched one and let the money go.”
These are some of the ways that the love of God looks like when it’s directed outward. Our faith is about a loving relationship with God who created us to be in a loving relationship with him. This relationship was enabled by Christ and continues to be enabled by the Holy Spirit that was sent to us. When we say that it’s all about a relationship and not religion, this is what we mean. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that we are called to do religiously – regularly and with the same kind of discipline we’d bring to learning a sport or a musical instrument – in order to foster this relationship.
At its heart our faith is about the work of Christ. Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. They have come and gone for many of us. Remember their example – consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Remember what their faith looked like. It’s why bad leaders can be so damaging. Remember what those leaders who spoke the word of God to you had in common. Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday and today and forever. Our foundation. Our ground.
Remember these things and don’t get carried away by strange teaching, not by regulations about food. There were those in this community who were pushing for food regulations. What kind of regulations do we want to hold onto? These have not benefitted those who observe them. Our faith is not meant to be one in which we get together once a week (or maybe not even that often) and go through empty rituals and check a box and go home and live as if Christ has done nothing and Christ’s sacrifice has been meaningless.
We started this whole series with Christ – “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…” We’ll end it in the same place – with Christ. This wouldn’t be the book of Hebrews without a reference to a rather arcane OT ritual, so we’ll do that too! “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.” This was a regulation in Leviticus – the bodies of the sacrificial animals were seen as defiled and had to be brought outside the Israelite camp. Jesus changed all of that. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate. Christ was crucified outside Jerusalem’s walls. Why? In order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Our Great High Priest. This is the Christ that we follow friends.
“Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he suffered.” It might be hard sometimes. Let us go to him outside the camp always keeping an eye on that city which is to come. That city for which we are called to work today – right here, right now. Our faith is not meant to be something we keep to ourselves or for ourselves. It is to be worked out in acts of love. “Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, from the fruit of lips that confess his name.” Let this fruit be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
Friends as we prepare to welcome the first day of summer. As many of us prepare to be away from one another for a while. May this be true for our faith community here at Blythwood. This summer and beyond, may we be a people that offer a sacrifice of praise to God. May this result in fruit, may this result in good. May this result in love. May these things be true for us all.