Even if you’ve come in part-way through …
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:24-28 ESV)
Have you ever walked into the TV room and tried to pick up a show part-way through? My guess is we have varying levels of success! Some people just won’t do it. If they’re not in from the beginning then they choose to spend their time doing something else and then watch the recorded version or the repeat – if they’re interested. I mention this with a little wry smile because today’s second reading – more so than others it seems to me – can easily make us feel that we’re listening somewhere in the middle – after the start for sure. The lectionary compilers often choose a run of readings – check out the front pages of the hymnal and you’ll see the lectionary listings and the sequence of readings – no sequence for the Old Testament readings, we’ve been reading Mark as our Gospel since June with a brief pause in August – and at the moment in these last Sundays of the church year, it is from Hebrews. The second reading for October and November is from Hebrews – not continuously but dipping in and choosing sections from many – but not all – chapters. And it can make us feel like we’ve come in part way.
We have here part of a message that has been running for 9 chapters and our reading probably began in chapter 7. The writer to the Hebrews wants the readers – those particularly who know the Old Testament well – to see Jesus the Promised One and to follow him for he has fulfilled the Old Testament. So the writer – we don’t know who it is – says that Jesus is higher than the angels and more important than Moses. Jesus has become our great high priest and of course that links us, makes us think of the whole worship world of the Old Testament – tabernacles, Temple, priests and levites, sacrifices, commandments, obedience, even suffering. He then goes on to say that Jesus is our eternal high priest who has established a new covenant and he contrasts things on earth as temporary – human buildings are not eternal – they all have a use-by date – and things in heaven as eternal. There are earthly sacrifices which need repetition but the new covenant and the perfect sacrifice is once for all.
And that’s the message of today’s reading. Have a read for yourself … now that in one sense you’ve been told in summary – a very brief summary! – what’s gone before. It is printed in the bulletin …
Even back in the first century of the Church, if you were not there from the beginning, weren’t one of the twelve, or maybe the 70 (or 72) who were also sent out by Jesus, or one of the 120 in Jerusalem waiting for the Holy Spirit to arrive as Jesus promised or one of the 500 who saw Jesus alive after his death or maybe one of the 3000 – those who came to faith, baptised at Pentecost – I dare say that there has always been a sense of coming in part way – of not being at the beginning in the Church. Even in the first century, apart from visiting Saul and the revelation John received on the island of Patmos, Jesus wasn’t visible after his ascension. People heard about him. Sure back then they could talk to people who did see him, could flesh out details only an eye-witness could do. Of course, I’m not saying that Jesus was absent –he was present then – just as he is present now – through His word and water and bread and wine – but he wasn’t visible for his followers or for the world. The last the world saw of him, he was dead – being taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb. He’s left the world stage. All dead people do.
Legacy, memory, followers may continue but he’s left the building, so to speak. In fact that is the message the writer to the Hebrew is pointing out – he had to as it were because this world isn’t eternal – it has a beginning and will have an end – but God and his world doesn’t end. Jesus – as great high priest – has had to go and deal with our sins, our foolishness, our rebellion – where it counts – in heaven itself – for surely if there’s one place where sin will be destroyed, it will be heaven – and so for us who are sinners to be with God, then redemption, purification, sanctification must occur. This is not just talk – something has to happen because sin is something that desecrates, rebellion defiles, and the outcome is death and destruction away from God – and so something must happen for our justification – and that something is Jesus’ sacrifice – once for all on the cross – and his ascension into heaven. Three things happen because of Jesus’ ascension.
Firstly, Jesus intercedes for us. The writer to Hebrews said two chapters earlier: The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:23-25 ESV) Paul told the Romans: Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:34 ESV) Jesus’ actions on Earth are not academic or cultic – God cleaning up his room called Earth because things got wrecked and he likes order and tidiness. No! Jesus’ actions on Earth are personal – they have you and me and all people – he knows us all by name – in mind! Our sin cuts us off from God and life and true love – and what Jesus does is bring us new life – his life – so he is concerned for us each day – not like a cosmic cop wanting to bust us for sin – but as a loving family cares for its errant members.
Secondly, Jesus and the Father did send the Holy Spirit whose work is to bring Jesus to us – the same Jesus who died on the cross – not a ghost, wind, smoke, radio wave type Jesus – a disembodied Jesus – just his message while he sits up on heaven – but mysteriously, sacramentally, physically Jesus is with his people on Earth through Word and Sacraments. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies people and brings them around Jesus – such as now in worship – and we say that Jesus is present – where two or three are gathered in his name – and all those groups, big and small, are called the church. Now this is what we see – and we can become too focused on the organisation and structure and politics of church – and even the church’s place in the world – think about a lot of the last 2000 years. However it remains important for us to realise that we are not our own – we are the Lord’s body and he is our Head – and faith is not a mind game that has no linkages or relevance with our lives, our relationships here on Earth. Faith is active in love – in service – in struggle – in suffering – in forgiveness – and not insisting on our rights whether as an individual or an institution – but how we do this is all empowered by the Gospel, not the Law – and therefore is responsive to need while consistent in what we teach.
Thirdly, with Jesus’ apparent departure – though he is here with us, we trust his Word and Sacraments while our eyes don’t see him – there will be time when our eyes ‘work again’ so to speak. The world will see him when he returns – time’s up – there is a judgement to happen – evil will not have the last word – those who have cried for justice in this life – will see God’s justice done – no one will be able to grumble that God wasn’t just towards us. Jesus’ return doesn’t prove that people are not reincarnated or the like but certainly only makes sense if we only live once. We face the judgement for our lives – for what we’ve done and not done – not for stuff we don’t remember in past lives. For the followers of Jesus, the judgement holds no fears or terror, for they already know the verdict spoken over them – it is the same spoken at baptism, at private confession, at the absolution in worship, the promise of forgiveness given in Holy Communion – and God doesn’t change his word – that is what the cross guarantees.
We all come in part- way through – we’re born into families with existing relationships and stories – and we’re born again into God’s family where we find ourselves in a community called the church, whose Head is Jesus Christ, our great high priest who has sacrificed himself once for all so that we might live. Sacrifice? Priest? What’s going on? Here let me tell you about sin – yours and mine – and about God and what he has done to set us free – and about living with God who loves us so much each day. It’s ok to come in part-way through!
- Hebrews 9:24 - 28