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Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 59:9-20; Psalm 13; Hebrews 5:11-6-12; Mark 10:46-52
On my trip to the west side last week, I drove by myself, and as I’m sure you know, that comes with some dangers. Long road trips are a bit hazardous at times, particularly when we put on the cruise control. It’s so easy! But it also has a risk. Your body is already inert, inactive, and now you have shut down some of your mind, giving yourself less things to focus on and do. You begin to grow lethargic, and sleep is all too close. Fortunately, I listen to high tempo heavy metal, so the solution was at hand. Well this illustrates well the concern of the author of Hebrews for those reading, who had fallen into a different kind of lethargy. Spiritual apathy is the issue here. And it is one of the greatest dangers to faith. We become accustomed, comfortable, either unwilling to take the next step of faith that God requires, or being ignorant that we should. And so we stick on cruise control, and the ditch awaits us if we grow too weary.
Hebrews has been laying out the argument that Jesus Christ is greater than the angels and Moses, and is indeed the great High Priest who offers sacrifice for God’s people, the sacrifice being himself, the one like us in all things except sin. The author continues to lay this out in chapter 5. We begin with the statement, “About this we have much to say…” the “this” in that statement is 5:1-10, which lays out that Christ is a high priest not according to the priesthood of Israel, of the line of Aaron, but that he is priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Someday we will do a Sunday school series on Hebrews where we can break that down further, but for now, the main point is this: He is not chosen to be a priest by men, choosing from a pool of candidates; no, he is chosen by God. In taking on human flesh for this task, he was able to understand our weakness because he himself suffered with our weakness. And, that he secured our salvation through his suffering.
From there…we see that the people being addressed are not ready to hear more, yet. There is much more that needs to be said, but they have not been faithful to grow in the faith, but have become lethargic. As a result, they have stayed spiritual children, not maturing, needing to learn the basics again before they can move more deeply into the knowledge and life of God.
They have stayed children in the faith, because they have been cruising. But when we enter into the life of faith, we enter into a lifelong road, one that will not finish when we die even. The path to God is unending, a constant, eternal growth into union with God, who is by nature inexhaustible to us, finite creatures. It is the dynamic journey into the knowledge of God, one that starts with basics, but like the foundation of a house, they must be built upon or they with weather, crack, and be kind of useless as a home!
The person delivering this homily of Hebrews says, “you still need milk,” yet, we will press on! Much like when we started giving our kids solid food, they may not be able to chew it yet for lack of teeth, but they learned to gnaw and handle it, and eventually could eat it. Leave behind the basics!
What are those basics? Things we should all know, presented here in matching pairs: repentance and belief; baptism and laying on of hands; resurrection and judgement. The skeleton is there, but to know God means to go deeper into God’s life.
This is not, I want to be clear, simply doctrinal knowledge, or an emotional experience, or an ethical guide. We have a tendency to reduce the faith to one of these expressions, or at least emphasize one over the others. But the faith is embracing of our whole person, a radical conversion and transformation of us as a complete integrated person, as Jesus Christ is an integrated, complete person. That is why it says our faculties are “trained by practice to discern both good and evil.” Training for anything is a full-person process. If you were to join the army, you would be trained in rules and procedures, physical stamina and strength, perception like finding a path or picking a hostile enemy out of a crowd, and mental fortitude so that you will not break and run or lose control during a fight. The faith requires of us belief in the truth of the gospel, that Jesus Christ is our risen Lord, minds and emotions steeled for the challenges and potential sufferings of life, and likewise lives of obedience, being trained by practice to live in a holy way.
Kids, being a Christian is just like doing the thing you love most in the world. When I was a teenager, I took up fencing. Sword fighting is complicated, fast, and demanding. I had to do stretches and exercises, or I would get cramps, which could mean falling down in a duel. I had to train my eyes and reflexes to be fast enough to block and counter attack other peoples swords. I had to be able to keep going for a couple hours without running out of breath! I also had to use my mind, looking for weaknesses in my opponent, studying methods, strategies, and rules. Our faith is like that, and the way we grow into being like Jesus is by reading the scriptures, praying, following the examples of people who went before us and showed us what love is like, and most of all, by trusting Jesus no matter what happens in life.
All, we do not grow because we do not care. Jesus has secured our salvation, and we are loved. We will have times of struggle, times where faith is hard, and that is okay, that is normal! But when we do not grow, it is most often because we are lethargic, we are drinking warm milk with the car on cruise control driving through the midwest. In one of the most important ancient Christian texts known as the “Shepherd of Hermas,” it wisely says, “If you serve good desire, and be subject to it, you will gain the mastery over evil desire, and make it subject to you even as you wish.” But we must actively pursue and serve Jesus, or become stagnant.
We now come to the warning of this passage: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.”
What do we make of this? Much can be said, and much disagreement exists over this section. First, let me be clear: we cannot lose our salvation, as this may suggest. Rather, the context here, which is speaking of people’s choices, their willingness or unwillingness, in my mind establishes that apostasy, leaving the faith once truly experienced, can occur, but only by conscious choice. It is a willing rejection of what one once believed, experienced, and practiced.
The second difficult question is that this seems to say that once Christ is rejected by one who once believed, there is no going back. But let me suggest another interpretation: This passage has been so concerned with the beginnings of faith, the basic principles, the foundation. While perhaps a person could become so hardened that returning to faith is impossible, what we see here is that if they do, it is not as a new convert that they return; Christ was crucified for them once, and won’t be again. They were baptized once, and won’t be again. The foundation was already there, and when the foundation is there and my crew leaves for a month and comes back to the job, we don’t lay it again; we build upon it. In other words, one who once knew God but then rejects him will certainly find it hard to return to the fold, but if they do, it is as a prodigal, not as a convert.
The way forward is hard. Apostasy happens because we are a pilgrim people, on a long, difficult road to become conformed to the image of Christ. God, the inexhaustible One, we pursue through lives that we submit to him and press on, further in and further up, so we might see him face-to-face. But as Christ suffered in order to reach his end, his purpose, our salvation, so we will suffer, struggle, and get hurt as we pursue the life of faith. Anything cheap is not worth having, however, and the goal is worthy. Jesus understands your suffering because he too was weak and suffered, and he has secured your salvation by his offering of himself, and continually intercedes for you as the Great High Pries! If you would be tempted by your lethargy into rejecting him, seek growth into him! Turn off the cruise control. Refresh your minds, move your bodies, embrace what it means to follow Christ, and re-liven your faith. And like Christ, you will receive the “assurance of hope,” by your endurance in faith.
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