Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Sustaining Jesus (Hebrews Series 1)

Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.10, 3.1-4   
Psalm 148:1-13  

Earlier this week, the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone
            resigned from the Labour Party amidst ongoing accusations of antisemitism.[1]

Meanwhile the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, continues to face accusations
            that he has failed to adequately address an anti-Jewish bias within his party.[2]

Well, whatever the rights and wrongs of the accusations
            levelled at Messrs Livingstone and Corbyn,
                        and I’m certainly not going to get drawn into that from the pulpit,
            the question of how non-Jews should relate to Jews
                        is, it seems, a highly relevant topic.

It is well know that Western Christianity,
            the political and religious tradition from which many of us come,
has proved itself capable of perpetuating, condoning, or justifying
            the most horrific abuses against the people known as the Jews.

From the anti-Jewish policies of the pre-Christian Roman Empire,
            to the post-Constantinian targeting of the Jews
            on the basis that they were the people who crucified Jesus,
to the Crusades and the attempt to take the Holy Land for Christ,
            to the first ghetto in Venice established in in the early sixteenth century,
to the presentation of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice,
            to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust,
the catalogue of antisemitism is long, insidious, and disturbing,
            and we are its heirs.

So it is with great care that we begin our series
            looking at the New Testament text sometimes called the Letter to the Hebrews,
and as we negotiate this text,
            written by a Jew to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles,
we will need to be alert to our language, and to our presuppositions, as we go through.

As with all forms of racism, antisemitism can sneak up on us unawares;
            and as with all forms of racism,
                        it’s not always easy for us to have sufficient perspective on our own views
                        to fully avoid problematic language and ideas.
As Christians, we need to be alert to the fact
            that we can easily caricature Judaism as a religion of legalism,
            against which we present Christianity as a religion of grace;
and we need to hear very clearly the voice of Jewish scholars
            who remind us that the law in Judaism
            is encountered by those who live it as a means of grace
                        and not as a source of oppression.

And as a church which has been active in supporting the rights of Palestinians
            who have had their land taken and their homes destroyed
            by the Israeli expansion into the occupied territories,
we need to be very clear that our criticism of the actions of the Israeli state
            does not become a fear or negativity
            about those who are Jewish by heritage and religion.

So, for example, we are registered as a Kairos congregation,
            and are committed to a process of boycott, divestment, and sanctions
            as a protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestine;
but as the sign outside our building reminds us,
            we also stand in solidarity with both our Jewish and our Muslim neighbours.[3]

Getting this right can be difficult,
            especially when come to passages in the Bible such as our reading this morning
            from the beginning of Hebrews.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,
            2 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. 
3 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.

As opening phrases for biblical books go,
            it’s certainly at the punchy end of things.
Not for Hebrews some standardised formulaic Pauline greeting,
            with a salutation and a short prayer of thanksgiving.

Hebrews just jumps straight in with the meaty and controversial theology,
            and here we get a strong clue that this isn’t a normal New Testament letter.
Did you know that Hebrews actually lacks
            almost all of the conventions of an ancient Greek epistle?
The conclusion from this is that what we have here in Hebrews isn’t a letter at all,
            it’s probably best described as a sermon.
Which means that technically, I’m preaching a sermon on a sermon.
            Which is rather pleasing, now I stop to think about it.
I mean, it’s a sermon about Jesus, but it’s also scripture,
            which means that it is also God’s word.
So my words, are words about words,
            which are themselves the Word, and are also about the Word.


The sermon of Hebrews is a rather shadowy document in New Testament terms.
            We don’t know who wrote it, or when, or from where, or who they wrote it to.
We can have a guess at these,
            and the best guess is that it was written sometime in the late 60s,
                        some thirty to forty years after Jesus,
            to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles living in the city of Rome.
In terms of authorship, Martin Luther suggested
            that it might have been written by Apollos,
but there’s nothing to substantiate this
            apart from the fact that the description of Apollos from the book of Acts
            seems to be a description of the kind of person who comes through
            from the words of the text.

Acts 18:24-25  Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos,
            a native of Alexandria.
He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. 
            25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord;
and he spoke with burning enthusiasm
            and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.

I find the desire to imagine the author of Hebrews as a woman very attractive,
            and suggestions from scholars have included Mary Magdalene
            and indeed almost every other woman named in scripture,
regrettably it was almost certainly written by a man.

It’s important for us to remember that the Bible is an almost exclusively male text,
            and we can’t impose our contemporary desire for equality and egalitarianism onto it.

Whoever wrote it, one of the central concerns addressed by the sermon
            is the experience of those receiving it,
                        that Jesus is in some way absent from them.

Hebrews describes two ways in which Jesus perceived to be absent:
            firstly he is absent in time, and secondly he is absent in space.

Temporally speaking, Jesus is in the past,
            the stories about him are all set during his lifetime,
            and that was then, but this is now.
And spatially speaking, Jesus is not on the earth,
            he has ascended to the heavens and is seated with his father on high.

So, in two very definite ways, Jesus is absent
            from those in the early congregation of Christians in Rome
            to whom the sermon is addressed.

He is in the past, and he is in heaven,
            which means he is very definitely not ‘here and now’.

And so the preacher of Hebrews
            addresses this problem of the absence of Jesus
by taking his congregation on a journey through a variety of different ways
            in which he believes Jesus can become known to them;
and these different ways of encountering Jesus
            are going to inform our own engagement
            with the book of Hebrews over the coming weeks,
as we too discover that just because Jesus is past and ascended,
            does not mean that he is not present and real to us today also.

And the preacher begins
            by establishing a trajectory of continuity
between the revelation of God in olden times,
            and the revelation of God in Jesus.

And here we have to turn our antisemitism antennae on
            as we explore what he means by this.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors
            in many and various ways by the prophets,
 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son

The important thing to say here
            is that this is no mandate to ignore or denigrate
            the revelation of God through the religion and traditions of the Jewish people.

The Jewish prophets and the books which bear their names,
            and indeed that whole collection of texts which we call the Old Testament
                        and which the Jews call the Hebrew Bible,
            is a revelation of God’s activity in drawing people to himself in love,
                        and we need to keep hearing it in that context.

This doesn’t mean, of course,
            that we have to read the Old Testament uncritically,
any more than we have permission to read the New Testament uncritically.

We have to ask questions of all our scriptures,
            to test the nature of the revelation of God that we find there;
but we cannot write off the revelation of God
            in those parts we might not like.

Marcion was famous for wanting to cut the Old Testament view of God
            from the Christian scriptures,
along with various parts of the New Testament

But if there is something in the Old Testament that we struggle with,
            well, the insight from Hebrews is that
we just have to struggle with it, we certainly shouldn’t ignore it.
As those of us who came to the Whitley Lecture
            held here at Bloomsbury a couple of weeks ago discovered,
there is great insight and godly reflection to be found
            from spending time with some of the deeply distressing tales
            of violence in the Old Testament.

In fact, one of my frustrations with the lectionary of set readings for Sundays
            which many churches follow each week
is that they skip over the bits of the Bible,
            and particularly the bits of the Old Testament,
            that are problematic or unpalatable.

I’m toying with the idea of a preaching series on the anti-lectionary,
            where we deliberately spend time with those parts of the Bible
            that we normally ignore because we find them difficult.

But at the very minimum,
            we need to hear loud and clear from the preacher of Hebrews
that there is a continuity between the words that God spoke
            through the Jewish prophets,
and the words that he speaks through his son Jesus Christ.

But in fact, he goes further than this,
            because he describes the people to whom God spoke in olden times
                        as the ancestors of those in the congregation listening to his sermon.
There is no decisive break here between Judaism and Christianity,
            it is a continuity of revelation, and a continuity of community.

The people of God are, as they have always been,
            those who hear, embrace and persevere in the word of God,
            regardless of their religious affiliation.

And if this is true of Jews and Gentiles,
            I would want to suggest that it is also true of those
                        who seek the truth of the word of God in other religious traditions
                                    including those that have come into being
                                    since the book of Hebrews was written.
None of us have a monopoly on truth,
            whether Jew or Gentile, Christian or Muslim,
            Baptist or Roman Catholic, or whatever.

What we have in common
            is that God reaches out to us in love to draw us to himself,
            and that none of us understands fully what this means.

For those of us who search for God within the Christian tradition, however,
            what it means for us is an unswerving focus
            on the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.

‘In these last days, he has spoken to us by a son’.

And I can’t help but wonder,
            if Christians spent more time focusing on Jesus as the word of God,
            and less time on telling others where they’re wrong in their belief and practice,
we might all find ourselves a bit closer to the one we’re seeking.

So, who is this Jesus?
            And what does it mean to say that he reveals God to us?

Well, here we get to the preacher of Hebrews’ presentation
            of Jesus as the sustainer of all things.

If you’re a regular here at Bloomsbury,
            you may hear an echo of the blessing I often use at the end of a service,
where I use the phrase ‘creator, redeemer, sustainer’
            to speak of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

In that formula it’s the Spirit who sustains us.
            But in Hebrews, it is Jesus who sustains not just Christians,
                        but all things and all people.

Jesus is described as the one through whom God created the worlds,
            and as the one who sustains all things by his powerful word.
This is a vision of the universal cosmic Christ,
            present in all places, and all times;
the complete opposite of the congregation’s experience
            of Christ as past and distant.

This is Jesus active at the beginning of the universe,
            present in every atom and molecule,
                        at one with creation in all its diversity,
            drawing all things towards their eternal conclusion
                        in the all-embracing love of God.

I have a friend who runs a website called Christian Animism,[4]
            which offers a fusion of ideas which I think helpfully reflect
                        this concept we meet in Hebrews
                        of Jesus being in and through all things.

Animism is the idea that all things are alive,
            that all things have some spark of eternity within them that gives them life.
And Animist religions are often thought of as the belief systems of indigenous religions
            as opposed to the more structured beliefs of organized religion.

But my friend Noel Moules suggests that the fundamental insight of animism,
            that spirituality permeates all of creation,
            can offer something profound to those who seek God in Jesus.

It may sound counterintuitive to those of us
            who have been schooled within the rationalist categorisations
            of, ‘Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?’
But the ancient Hebrews saw no such distinction.
            They were quite happy to speak of God-given life existing in all things,
                        and as we saw in our first reading the Psalms
                        they would call the sun, moon, stars,
                                    fire, hail, snow, frost,
                        winds, mountains and hills to praise God.[5]

Within the Jewish tradition, there was no such thing as an ‘inanimate object’
            because all things existed to give glory
            to the one who had called them into being.

Noel Moules captures this well, he says:

…the creative word and spirit-breath of God
            (both the source and most intense expression of life imaginable),
not only brings all things into being,
            but sustains them moment-by-moment as well. (Cf. Ps 33.6)
The earliest Christian voices saw Christ at the heart of this reality:
            ‘ … in him all things hold together’ (Col. 1.17)
            ‘ … he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Heb. 1.3)

The insight from Hebrews is that the word of God,
            spoken through the prophets of old,
is most fully heard in the divine word that is Jesus,
            and that this word-made-flesh is a word of divine love
                        spoken so loudly that it echoes throughout all creation
                        from the very beginning to the very end,
            infusing all things with the love and life of God.

But this insight is only the beginning,
            it is the starting point for everything that follows.

In the coming weeks we shall be journeying
            through the various different ways in which the book of Hebrews
                        invites us to encounter Jesus,
but for this morning we’re going to stay with the universal vision of Jesus
            as the one who creates and sustains all things by his powerful word.

Because if all things reflect the life of Christ,
            then everything is sacred.
If all things have their source in God and are called into being by Christ,
            then there is no such thing as the profane, because everything is holy.

From the food we eat to the ground that produces it,
            ‘the whole earth is filled with God’s glory’, as the prophet Isaiah puts it.

And if everything is alive, and everything is sacred,
            then everything is connected.

Those in the congregation of the preacher to the Hebrews
            were worried that Jesus was absent from them,
                        either stuck in the past or up in the heavens.

But the insight of the sustaining Jesus is that all things are connected,
            whether past or present, on earth or in heaven.

So the preacher of Hebrews can describe Jesus
            as seated at the right hand of the father,
but see no contradiction between this and his vision of Jesus
            in and through all things, in all places and at all times.

And if everything is alive, and if everything is sacred,
            and if everything is connected,
then everything and everyone is of value to God.

No one race is God’s sole chosen nation,
            no one path to God can claim absolute priority over all others.

There is no place for exclusionary religion
            within a world sustained by Jesus

This is the great challenge that Hebrews brought
            to its original congregation in Rome,
and it’s the great challenge it still brings to us when we encounter it today.

Do we really believe that Jesus sustains all things by his powerful word?
            Not in a scientific way,
                        I’m not suggesting some God of the gaps theology
                        where Jesus is equated to Hawking Radiation, or Dark Matter or some such.

Rather, do we believe that because of the word of love spoken in Jesus,
            all things, in all times and all places, are deeply and eternally loved by God?

Do we believe that God’s love is at work in Christ
            drawing all things and all people to himself?

Do we believe that all things are brought to life by Christ,
            who makes everything sacred,
            and who connects all things at their deepest and most primal level?

Because if we do, we can be released from all our anxieties
            about whether we are successful or not
            in saving people from some wrathful vengeful deity.

Rather, we are freed to join our lives
            with the life of the one who sustains all things,
            and brings us and all creation to its loving eternal conclusion.

[5] Ps 148.3,7-10

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