Psalm 98; Hebrews 12:1-3, 12-15
The book of Hebrews is an ancient letter with a distinctly modern purpose: making the case for Jesus – something you and I should be concerned about in a time when Jesus can get lost in the mix of polarized politics and competing religious claims.
The Letter to the Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians in the middle years of the first century of our era, people who have recently converted and are being persecuted. The author of the letter wants to shore up their newfound faith by building a case for Christianity with an appeal to their own tradition. The first 14 lines of the letter quote the Hebrew Scriptures seven times. The anonymous author wants to establish credibility among Jewish Christians before launching into the argument.
The letter opens like this:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son,https://biblia.com/bible/nrsv/hebrews/1/1-3 whom God appointed heir of all things, through whom God also created the worlds. 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.” (Hebrews 1:1-3a)
The name Jesus does not appear until well into the letter, and then only sparingly. Instead, the names of the great heroes of Judaism dominate: Moses, Aaron, Levi, Melchizedek, Abraham – they’re all there. The author makes frequent mention of the first covenant between God and God’s people and the Law of old. As you read the letter – which is more like a sermon – you can feel the momentum building toward the grand final point of the argument.
Toward the end of the letter the author asks a rhetorical question: What is faith? The response offered has always been helpful to me, especially in times of doubt: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. Another translation puts it this way: Faith gives substance to our hopes and makes us certain of realities we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1; NRSV & NEB)
I often quote this line when speaking to someone who has no faith or who rejects the validity of religion altogether. Did you know that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen? Everyone has hopes. Everyone trusts in realities they cannot see. Mysteries abound in life, even in an age saturated with information. It’s why being in nature feeds our spirits: the experience of the beauty of creation offers a window into larger truths. Faith abides in those places where our hearts long to go but our vision cannot penetrate.
Having defined faith, the author of Hebrews then goes through a rollcall from Jewish tradition starting with Cain and Abel and working through a veritable pantheon of characters in the Hebrew Scriptures. Noah is there, Samson, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, David, Samuel, Moses, the prophets. All of them. By faith, the author says, all of them were able to do great deeds. By faith, the author says, all of them were able to follow where God led. By faith.
This is the great cloud of witnesses cited in today’s text. The author’s case for Jesus now comes to its full conclusion. “Therefore,” the letter says with a dramatic flourish,
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2a)
Christian faith, it turns out, is all about Jesus. I hope that’s not a surprise to us. Jesus is the pioneer of our faith because he was the first: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Jesus is the pioneer of our faith because he showed us the way: I am the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is the pioneer of our faith because he established a new covenant based on love: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
And Jesus is the perfecter of our faith. The Greek here means “one who completes” or the “finisher.” Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the founder and the finisher. Our faith begins and ends in Jesus. As Christians we cannot be faithful people apart from him. Our life is spent looking to Jesus.
At a recent high school graduation party, a Westminster member was wearing a t-shirt that said, Jesus. Coffee. Bacon. The t-shirt got it right: for us, it’s all about Jesus, although the vegetarians and tea drinkers among us might tweak the other priorities.
In a church like Westminster sometimes we seem reluctant to say that, to stand on our faith in Jesus. We don’t regularly pray to Jesus. We don’t often cite him in our decisions – I’m doing this or supporting that because I follow Jesus. Perhaps the fact that Jesus is regularly weaponized and wielded in America’s culture wars has scared us off of him. Has he been so hijacked by extremists or so captured by Christian nationalists that we’ve given up on Jesus? I hope not.
It is up to us, as individual believers, and as a community of Christians to find our way to the Jesus of the gospels and do everything we can to live like him, to live for him, to live with him. We need not apologize for following Jesus. We need not be ashamed of claiming Jesus as our guide through life. We need not surrender Jesus to those who would make him into someone we do not recognize.
The author of Hebrews makes the case for Jesus to first century Jewish Christians. The line of argument in the letter, citing those Hebrew heroes, based on first century sensibilities, would not be compelling to people in our time. Can we make a convincing 21st century case for Jesus? Can we cut through all the extraneous noise about Christianity in our time and the multiple layers of theology and ecclesiology that can complicate our faith, and get to the heart of the matter, which is following Jesus?
That is the essential work of the Church in every age.
Last year the Episcopal Church commissioned a survey on Jesus in America. Its findings are both hopeful and discouraging. The good news is that 89% of American Christians believe in the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. I hope so – and why isn’t that number a little higher? Surprisingly 43% of people of other religions and 38% of non-religious people also believe in the historical existence of Jesus. And when it comes to believing that Jesus was an important spiritual figure, the numbers are even more positive: 95% of Christians believe that about Jesus – ought to be 100%, but 95% is pretty good – and 55% of people of other religions and 50% of non-religious people also agree that Jesus was an important spiritual figure.
Jesus is well-respected in America.
The survey shows that Christians in this land feel good about themselves when it comes to their religion. They describe themselves as being giving, compassionate, loving, respectful, friendly. The discouraging news is that non-Christians have a very different view of us. Fully half of the non-Christian respondents associate Christians with hypocrisy, and close behind that trait come being judgmental, self-righteous, and arrogant.
Christians in America are not doing Jesus any favors, apparently.
Listen to what Presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry says about the survey results:
“We are encouraged that the research shows Americans still find Jesus compelling, but we also see that the behavior of many of his followers is a problem, and it’s not just certain Christians: it’s all Christians. This is a wake-up call for us, and based on what we have learned, we are refocusing our efforts on being a church that looks and acts like Jesus and models its behavior on his teachings. In this process we hope to ignite a revival of love that encourages all Americans to do a better job of loving their neighbors.”
The findings of the study confirm what the writer of Hebrews knew long ago: Christian faith invites us to look to Jesus to discover what it means to live a life of meaning and purpose based on loving God and loving others. Everything else is a distraction. The Episcopalians are onto something in their call to return to a life of simply looking to Jesus – not so that others view us more favorably – in fact, they might not – but to be true to one we meet in the gospels.
The Jesus we follow is the one we see in scripture, healing those with diseases who have pushed them out of community; telling stories that turn the unfair values of the world upside down; honoring those looked down upon by society – women, children, people with disabilities; refusing to be cowed by principalities and powers in the pursuit of justice.
Jesus almost got me in trouble when I was a 14-year-old in confirmation class. I wasn’t sure I believed in him. I wasn’t sure I could accept what church creeds said about him. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live my life based on his. I had not yet discovered the text that says faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.
I remember sitting in the office of the youth pastor a few days before confirmation Sunday. Pressure was on. He put the question to me directly: “Do you believe in Jesus?” It was a pivotal moment for me. I said yes, finally, and not only because my dad was the senior pastor of the church, but because I wanted to believe in Jesus, I wanted to go where I thought he was leading in the world and in my life. I have spent the rest of my life working out what it means to follow him.
My own great cloud of witnesses got me over the hump, church leaders, Sunday School teachers, faithful people I met while serving others on mission trips, my parents, camp counselors, ordinary people who showed me love and accepted me, Black pastors in the Civil Rights Movement, Jesuit priests resisting the war, my Baptist grandmother. A great clous of witnesses. All of us have one. Who is in your great cloud? They are calling you, calling me, calling us to more faithful living.
The future of the Church in our time, as in every time, depends on people willing to put Jesus at the center. Never mind that some will not like that. Never mind that some will disagree with you. Never mind that some will take issue when you conclude that Jesus wants you to work for racial equity or that Jesus wants you to work to limit gun violence or to strengthen democracy or to advocate for those with different abilities, or to defend the earth, or to support the rights of women and immigrants and those whose lives do not conform to someone else’s norm. Jesus may be calling us to do all of that, and more.
The Letter to the Hebrews urges us to “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We cannot be faithful apart from Jesus. We have received his love and now it’s on us to share it. We see him pursue justice; we go and do likewise. We see him reject the standards of the world by which some people are unfairly judged; we go and do likewise. We see him center his life on those whom the world excludes and reviles; we go and do likewise in rejecting a world like that.
“Therefore,” the author of Hebrews says,
“Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet…Pursue peace with everyone… See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, that no root of bitterness springs up and… by it the many become defiled.” (Hebrews 12:12,14-15)
That is the work of those who follow Jesus. It is our work.
Thanks be to God.