“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24).
We’ve been reading from the Letter to the Hebrews for the last several weeks, and this Sunday our course of reading comes to a close with the image of Christ the high priest. Hebrews is an extended meditation on the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ, foreshadowed in the person of the priests of ancient Israel, but now fulfilled as Christ offers himself on the cross to take away the sins of the world. The priests of Israel had offered the sacrifice of animals to cleanse the People; but Jesus Christ the great high priest offers himself as a sacrifice, “a single sacrifice… for all time” (Heb. 10:12), as it says in our reading.
Hebrews gives us another way of telling the Gospel story of sin and redemption. Jesus the priest stands in the gap between humanity and God, bridging the chasm that separates us, through the sacrifice of himself. What takes place on the cross is not tragedy, but the intentional action of Christ on our behalf. It’s the sort of loving, sacrificial act on the part of one person for others who are in deep distress, that we immediately recognize as faithful and true. Some situations and times demand the giving of oneself in order to redeem the situation. The priestly, sacrificial ministry of Jesus Christ on the cross is just such an act, writ large on behalf of the human race.
Hebrews talks about the good news of redemption in terms of Christ’s priestly ministry, but the Letter has more to say about the Christian life: words addressed not just to Christians then but also to us today. Our collect for the day invites us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of the Scriptures, so that we may “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” that comes to us in Christ. Our reading offers us just such words, in classic homiletical three-fold fashion, charting a course for the community of faith at St. Philip’s Church.
First, “Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:21-22). We begin with the approach to God in faith. Hebrews offers elsewhere this definition of faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the way we navigate in our life as Christians. Try moving forward without trust in God, and you will soon find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Hebrews suggests here that our faith is founded on our identity as baptized people, “washed with pure water… sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Heb. 10:22). But it’s also faith that brought us to baptism in the first place: our faith, or the faith of our parents and godparents, joined to the faith of the church.
For St. Philip’s Church, faith in Christ is the starting point of community life. Certainly, as we celebrate confirmation today, this truth of parish life is underscored and prominent, as members of the church reaffirm their baptismal vows, and confess their faith in Christ. We are so grateful to you for your witness! “Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?”, the candidates will be asked today. Their re-commitment gives the whole congregation the opportunity to witness, and to commit itself again, in faith, in relationship with Christ. We don’t want to find ourselves, after all, without faith, in the middle of nowhere.
Then again, it says in Hebrews, with another hortatory subjunctive, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope” (Heb. 10:23). Here we are given hope, the horizon of Christian life. I’m not a pilot, but I think that if you lose sight of the horizon on your instrument panel you will come to grief. Hope is faith that is oriented to the future, that which still lies ahead. We have hope for the future because God is trustworthy. We will not come to grief. If faith begins the Christian journey, hope marks the end or destination.
As the season of Advent draws closer, we have in view the coming Day of the Lord, at the end of time; “the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:25) as our reading calls it. At St. Philip’s Church, we look toward this horizon, even as we look forward to what lies between now and then: the meantime of the Christian life. For this church, the proximate future will begin a new chapter of ministry, as we look forward to a new call, a new venture in shared ministry here at St. Philip’s.
Finally, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). Here, with this exhortation, the author of Hebrews brings us to love, the third and final theological virtue that we need in the community of the church. The word “provoke” that is used usually has a negative meaning, but here in Hebrews it has less to do with irritation and more about stimulation. The church is a “school of charity,” in which through our fellow Christians we learn what the love of neighbor is. We put that lesson into practice in the good deeds that follow on in the Letter.
The community of the church is crucial to our practice of faith, hope, and love, which is why our reading concludes with a reminder not to neglect to meet together. Like I said, provocation has less to do with irritation and more with stimulation. At St. Philip’s Church, we need each other, in order to remind ourselves of what love really is, and what love really requires. That brings us back to the cross, and to the self-giving of Christ our priest, who by his “single sacrifice… for all time” (Heb. 10:12) made our salvation possible.