This letter is from Jenny Burk. Fr. Bill's+ continuing series on the Eucharist will return next week.
Dear Creator Family -
In our alternating Bible Study this fall, the Sunday morning class is studying Hebrews, as fine a book as any for building our faith and bringing us closer to God during troubled and unpredictable times. Part letter, part sermon, the exhortation to “keep the faith” was likely written by someone versed in Hebrew scriptures and deeply invested in keeping a first-century community from falling away from the new Gospel of Jesus. Though scholars cannot pinpoint the authorship of this book, they are pretty sure from textual clues that it was written before the destruction of the Temple occurring in 70 AD to a community that was suffering a crisis of the faith, likely on account of rampant persecution of Christians at that time.
Throughout the Book, much of the spotlight stays on Jesus and his work on the Cross. Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, the great high priest whose oblation (pouring out) has reunited God to God’s people. In so doing Christ has made obsolete the legal system of atonement that had been in place for thousands of years: instead of ritual sacrifices meted out for tallied sins according to very specific laws (try reading through Leviticus if you like!), Jesus—God’s only begotten son and incarnation, against a spectacular imbalance (perfect sinlessness for a fallen world), gave his life willingly (and not only willingly but in love) for the sins of all for all time.
This is an unimaginable equation. More offensive to the human psyche is the perfect completion of that which was promised: God’s work is finished in Christ. The atonement is not ongoing. It is finished, said Christ from the Cross. He is risen, proclaim we on Easter morning. I used to tell the Sunday school kids the reason we worship beneath an empty cross (rather than a crucifix of the martyred savior) is because we are people of the empty tomb. He is risen. It is a done deed. Nothing more can be added to the salvation promised by God and effected in his son, Jesus Christ. My favorite lines in all of scripture: (The “two men” to Mary and other women at the vacant tomb; Luke 24:5): Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen, just as he said.... The verb tense used in these beloved and theologically significant lines of scripture? Present perfect.
That’s an important base point for the theology of Hebrews to the individual believer. It means, for you and me, that you are forgiven through Christ, literally, essentially, and eternally. When we die with Christ in baptism, we are united with Christ and made one (at-one-ment) with God. When we live by faithful weeks, days, months, and moments, we activate that salvation to take effect in our hearts and thereby usher in the Kingdom one little life at a time. As Christian believers and liv-ers, we are in the world but not of the world. We are not “here,” so to speak, because we have been remade.
So, Hebrews is a good one to study if you want to know who Christ is. We used to air a VeggieTales video in the church nursery called “God is Bigger than the Boogieman.” In Hebrews, Jesus is superior to the angels, superior to Moses (a biggie in the Jewish faith and tradition), more permanent and effective than any of the former prophets for spelling out God’s Revelation. Jesus, the Word made flesh, both deliver the message of salvation and ushers it in. The book of Hebrews thus deals intimately in the mystery of the Incarnation (how God can, actually, “be” enfleshed) and has been used through the centuries to hammer out that theology (and hammer on those who wouldn’t agree). The take-home once again lies in this book’s stress on the completed act of salvation: having accomplished that which no other leader/teacher/priest or prophet could do, Jesus then “sat down,” demonstrating that the work of salvation was complete. Moreover, where he sat was at the right hand of God, restoring to the godhead Christ’s place of honor and authority.
Finally, the book is a good one if you want to know who you are—in the eyes of Christ and the heart of God. You are his beloved, the one on whose behalf this unimaginable satisfaction was made. You are the “ones who are made holy” by Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice. In this way, you/we have been set apart, “saved,” if you will, not for later but for right here and now—to live into our salvation by accepting its great impossibility and mystery, and by trusting in the Lord who has done this work for us and in us. You have all the faith you’re ever going to get. You’re not going to earn or acquire more of your own effort or initiative. We’re certainly not going to merit more (Thank you, Pelagius). We may, throughout life’s stations, feel weaker or stronger in the faith, closer or further away from God, but it is not God who has failed, for we are filled with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own. Forever. That’s our one-way ticket right there. And it is fully and already given in Christ. Freed from the old covenant and baptized into the new, we like Christ are dead to sin and alive to the ever-present hope and glory of God. Take it, says the writer in the book of Hebrews. For goodness’ sake, take it and live it!
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†