21 And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house,22 let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.
23 Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. 24 Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
– Hebrews 10:21-25 (NLT)
There are many times in my life when we don’t have to worry much about holding on. When finances are good, you are healthy, things are calm, all seems steady and your traction is good; you don’t worry much about holding on. When I was in late grade school and early high school, a ten speed bike was my method of transportation. I would often ride the hilly streets of DuQuoin, Illinois with no hands. There was not much traffic and the roads in town were generally good; there was little need to hang on. Then I remember one fateful day when I was riding with no hands on my way home and the front wheel wobbled. I am not sure why but it wobbled but in a split second; before I could get my hands down, the bicycle hit the curb. I flew over the handle bars and landed in the grass beside the road while the bike did a complete 360 before bouncing down the street. I remember laying on the grass trying to assess what had just happened. I was banged up to be sure and it took a chunk out of my bicycle seat but nothing was broken on me or the bike. I don’t remember riding with no hands much after that; that kind of thing stays in your mind.
Theologically, most of my life has been a ride with no hands. The American church generally agreed on how to read the Bible and what was right and wrong. Because of those shared perceptions, a church like ours could get laser focused on our mission of connecting people with Jesus Christ, not worry about much else and make great advances for the Kingdom year after year after year. We are still making great advances but in the last handful of years, there has been a lot of wobbling in the American church in general and the United Methodist church in particular of the sort that tempts Christians to take attention off our central mission and focus it on lesser things. What is our collective mission? It is clearly described in the Great Commission of Christ recorded in Matthew 28: 18-20:
Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” What is our Christ Church mission? We exist to connect people with Jesus Christ. It seems to me the larger church has been radiating on almost everything other than the Great Commission and it has thrown many Christians, churches and even entire denominations over the handlebars. Perhaps it is time to get back to Jesus, back to the Bible, back to loving each other and back to learning how to live together in grace and peace. You may say, “Pastor, how do you expect to pull that off in our divided and contentious culture?” I don’t have to. The author of Hebrews already did.
The author of Hebrews was gravely concerned that his Jewish Christian audience was losing the set apartness that was labeled holiness in the first century world. They were thinking too much like the larger culture, acting too much like the larger culture and speaking to one another too much like he larger culture. The problem wasn’t the worldliness of the Greco-Roman culture; it was that the church had allowed the culture around them to keep them from speaking truth on one hand and showing love on the others. They were committing the greatest of all ecclesial sins; those inside the church had become ordinary, they acted just like those who didn’t know God. In the past handful of years, many in the American church have had to put our hands back on the theological handle bars and truly look at what we believe, why we believe it and upon what authority those beliefs are based. That is not a bad thing. Regardless of what you believe, you really should know why you believe it and you should be clear of what is resourcing those beliefs.
Leading the church back into belief was the work for the author of Hebrews and that is our work today. I want to suggest that we could learn a great deal from what an unidentified author wrote to a bunch of unidentified Christians in 68 AD. And what we learn could save us individually and collectively from getting thrown over the handlebars in a divide, demonize and destroy culture. Welcome back to the “Greater” series on the book of Hebrews.
Our central theme is that Jesus is greater. So hear this: Jesus is greater than anything going on in your life right now.
Greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world! -I John 4:4
21-22 And since we have a great High Priest, let us go right into the presence of God The High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple stood between the people and God. In the time of Jesus, the position was politicalized to become a buffer between the Romans and the Jews but that did not change its theological function. The high priest stood in the place of union between God to the people and the people to God. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest went into the most sacred space in the Temple, the Holy of Holies (the most set apart of all set apart places), to offered a sacrifice to reconcile the sins of the people before God for the whole community over the entire past year. Jesus, the ultimate high priest, stands at that point of union.
Let me offer another metaphor. Jesus is the bridge between a fallen humanity and a holy God. We were created to be in union with God. Sin (missing the mark) broke that union and separated us from God. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection bridges the unbridgeable chasm and not only is he the bridge; he is here to guide us on both sides of the bridge.
Why is Jesus the perfect Bridge?
- Understands our weaknesses My weakness is not that I care more about religion than people or the letter of the law more than the spirit of the law. That was the sin of the Pharisees. My weakness is that standing for truth can be difficult when you truly love people. Like flipping a bike on the streets of DuQuoin, sin hurts our feelings. I get that. It is so much easier to say, “I reject the concept of sin because I really like sinning” or “if I love someone and they like doing something, then I couldn’t be sinful” than it is to confess our sin and ask God to give us the power to overcome it. The human weakness is that we want to rationalize our sin rather than place it under the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. God can’t forgive the sins for which we don’t repent.
- The Christian message is speaking truth in love. Much harm is done in the name of both truth and love and I figure most folks are either truth folks or love folks. To you truth folks; being right doesn’t give you license to treat people unkindly. To you love folks; showing love doesn’t mean that anything goes. Jesus met a woman at a well who was immersed and marinated in sin. He knew her sordid story and forgave her but he concluded with a command to “go and sin no more.”
- Faced our temptations Satan threw everything he had at Jesus; you and just get the regular stuff. Those reading the New Testament with me in 2019 have encountered both Matthew and Mark’s temptation accounts in the Judean Wilderness. I believe the temptation for us today is to get off-mission; to major in minors and become activists for everything but Jesus. I think Jesus words in Matthew 6:33 speak loudly, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” When we put first things first; everything else finds its proper place.
- Did not sin If you give Matthew’s account of Holy Week a serious read, you feel the isolation of Jesus. Carrying the burdens of the world was such a difficult task that not even God could look upon him in the end. Jesus felt the stress and strain of temptation but never “missed the mark” of God’s call or of his purpose. Jesus’ mission was to reverse the cataclysmic effects of the fall. Sin got us lost from God and only Jesus could offer us a path back. Because Jesus succeeded where every single one of us have failed, we have the opportunity to made his success our own. We can be made right with God because of what Jesus has done, not by what we have done.
With true hearts fully trusting in God When you find yourself flying over the handle bars, I want to prescribe the Word of God. Read the book, find a verse and hang on to it for dear life! Last Sunday morning I was feeling the weight of the world and a dear friend texted me this simple verse, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.” -Philippians 4:6-7
For Christ has cleansed us by his blood I see the whole of the Old Testament beyond Genesis two as God doing what God had to do to restore humanity to himself. Clearly it was messy work. Before God could build the permanent bridge through Christ’s blood, he constructed a temporary bridge in the Jerusalem Temple through the blood of animal sacrifice. Sin was washed away by the blood of the lamb. Temple worship was a hint, a rumor, a taste and an echo of what was to be fully delivered in Christ Jesus. As the hymnwriter put it, “A foretaste of glory divine.” But Christ has done it! So what do we do now?
THREE CHRISTIAN IMPERATIVES
1) V. 23 Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we have for God can be trusted to keep his promise When I was a kid, we played a game called “King of the Hill.” The idea was that you stood at the top of something higher than the ground and people took turns trying to knock you off. For me, as a Bible believing, orthodox Christian who loves people way too much for the taste of many; I sometimes have them coming at me from both sides. All I can do is not waver, get my butt down and my knees bent and hold on tightly. “Protection, power and peace.”
To what do I hold tightly? 1) My love for God 2) My love for people 3) My belief in the authority of Scripture 4) My believe that doing things God’s way is what is best for people 5) Speaking that truth in love.
2) V. 24 Think of ways to encourage each other that result in outbursts of love and good deeds People are loved into faith; not argued into it, shamed into it or protested into it. The Greek word translated encourage is “para-klE-sis.” It is a compound word meaning “para: a call” (paramedic) and “kaleO: by the side.” Encouragement is defined then as, “a calling to one’s aid.” In times of division and inevitable hurt, we need to hang in there with each other…
3) V. 25 Let us prioritize meeting together to encourage and warn one another It seems clear that some in the author’s audience had ceased to gather with other believers for worship; they stopped going to church! Perhaps they couldn’t stand to worship God or take communion with people who would “post THAT kind of stuff on Facebook!” Corporate worship does two important things; it encourages us and it warns us. To use my language, it gives God a chance to love on us and shove on us but most of all it gets us all pointing to Jesus instead of pointing at one another.
It is 2019. Orthodox Christians no longer have the luxury of riding our theological bicycles with no hands. The culture won’t allow it. It may be the best thing that ever happened to us. So let’s get a grip on the handle bar and pedal on!
Rev. Shane L. Bishop is a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church.