This morning we heard the first in a series of readings from Hebrews, which will continue over the next few Sundays.
Hebrews is an unusual book within the New Testament. For one thing, although it is counted among the general or catholic epistles, it doesn't feel or sound like a letter -- it ends like one, but it doesn't begin like one: it begins like a treatise. The writer may have "recycled" material used originally for another purpose, converting a sermon or lecture, perhaps, into a letter by the addition of the final section, chapter 13.
For another, it is for all practical purposes anonymous, unlike any other New Testament book. Most of the epistles begin with a salutation which includes the name of the author; other books bear ancient titles containing the name of the author, which witness at the very least to a unanimous tradition in the church. Hebrews has neither. In the early church, some thought it had been written by Paul, others by Apollos, an associate of Paul's. The great third century biblical scholar from Alexandria, Origen, opined that only God knew who wrote it! Modern scholars, unable or unwilling to assent to that honest appraisal, have tried to associate it with some known friend or co-worker of Paul (because Timothy is mentioned at the end): candidates include Apollos again, Barnabas (who as a Levite is a good guess), or my personal favourite, the team of Aquila and his wife and fellow-missionary Prisca. But to be frank we know no more about it now than Origen did 1700 years ago.
However, even if we don't know his name, we can make some confident observations about the author of Hebrews. He was clearly a Jewish Christian rather than a gentile convert and writing to other Jewish Christians (hence the title), probably ones living in Rome itself, since he sends back greetings from those who came originally from Italy. The details of the ritual law were very familiar and important to him and his audience: for them all the daily and yearly round of sacrifice was significant. His major theme was the importance, in fact the necessity of, perseverance in devotion to and imitation of God and Christ, not only in the face of persecution from outside but especially in the face of indifference or complacency from within, which he seems to have thought a greater threat. But the questions "how do the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus fit in to Moses' system of worship and sacrifice?" and "what does the new covenant mean about the status of the old covenant?" were also central and living ones, not matters of academic interest as they would be to gentile converts. However, despite his interest in Jesus' life and death, he was probably not among those disciples who had know Jesus personally, for he says in a section which we skipped over in today's lesson that salvation was first declared through Jesus himself and then attested to us by those who heard him.
One of the interesting things about Hebrews is the very fact that it is part of the New Testament at all. Even though no one was sure who wrote it and the gentile converts who became more and more prominent in the church in the early days were less concerned than Jewish Christians with some of its central themes, the church preserved it and canonised it.
Of course, the need for perseverance in the face of both danger and complacency is a theme which we always need to hear. However, He brews' lasting importance lies not so much in its moral exhortation as in its strong emphasis on Jesus himself and his solidarity with the rest of humanity.
The history of Christian thought shows that it has been very difficult for theologians and commentators (and preachers), not to mention believers, to emphasise Jesus's human nature without losing sight of his divine nature, and vice versa. It has not been (and still isn't) easy to hold these two truths about Jesus, his full humanity and full divinity, in equal tension, just as it has never been easy to hold on to the central paradox of the Trinity, that there are three persons in one divine nature, in one God. The author of Hebrews succeeds in this balancing act -- without losing sight of Jesus' solidarity with God the Father through his divine sonship, the writer of Hebrews also stresses his humanity.
What he does throughout this whole book, he does in microcosm in today's reading. It falls into two sections (which are actually separated in the Bible by seventeen verses, largely illustrative quotations from the Psalms). The first speaks of Jesus largely in his relationship to God, as son, and the second largely in terms of his relationship with us, as brother.
In speaking of Jesus in his relationship with the Father, the author makes two key points. First, Jesus shares in the Father's creative work in two ways. In the beginning, the Father created the worlds through the Son. That expression, the worlds, is an interesting one: it may simply be a way of referring to the totality of creation, another way of saying that everything that is came into being through the Son. Or it may mean 'the ages' and refer to all time coming into existence through the Son. More than this, the Son is continually involved in the creative work of God, because through his, that is, the Son's word, God sustains all things. This is a very strong claim indeed, but it pales before the next point:
Jesus reflects God's glory. 'Glory' here is doxa, the same Greek word used in the prologue to John's Gospel, 'and we beheld his (Jesus') glory, the glory as of a father's only son' and a word often used to refer to the Shechinah, God's indwelling presence among God's people for instance in the ark of the covenant or the holy of holies. So what does it mean to say that Jesus reflects God's glory? If you want to see what God is like, the author of Hebrews is telling us, you need only look at Jesus to see a perfect likeness (or as Jesus himself says to the apostle Philip, 'Whoever sees me has seen the Father.)' In a theological work with a wonderful title, The Human Face of God, the late bishop of Woolwich, J A T Robinson, called Jesus 'God with a human face,' which captures the same truth.
Turning to Jesus in his relationship to other human beings, to us, the author calls him the pioneer of our salvation, made perfect through suffering, through whom God leads many children to glory. There are a lot of intriguing ideas and images here
But the thought the author of Hebrews chose to develop in today's reading is none of those, but rather the implication that God uses Jesus' actions to bring many children, that is, God's many children, to glory. The text continues, 'For the one who sanctifies,' that is, Jesus himself, as the whole middle section of the epistle is devoted to demonstrating, 'and those who are sanctified,' that is, mankind, 'all have one Father.' The metaphor of family relationship which the author first used to introduce Jesus' special relationship with God is now used to bring us, that is, you and me and all believers, into a series of special relationships: to God as a parent and to Jesus and one another as siblings. As our reading concludes: 'For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.'
There is something that both sections of today's reading stress, and that is that Jesus accomplished something final and universal. The writer of Hebrews refers to Jesus as finishing, ie, completing, the work of purification for sin in 1.3 and says in 2.9 that he died 'for everyone.' This to say that there is something unique which Jesus accomplished by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (which we can refer to collectively as his saving work) which potentially af fects every human being and which need not be done or attempted again by anyone else. As the old hymn puts it, 'Once, only once, and once for all, His precious life he gave.'
Now this is something about our faith which we must be very cautious in asserting, because there is both a mystery, God's plan of salvation, and a paradox, the need to balance the legitimate claims of uniqueness against the danger of triumphalism, here. The Bible bears witness to God's desire and ability to save all people and teaches that the saving work of Christ has made salvation possible. It does not however give any easy answers to the questions of how that is true or how men and women share in that saving work. Jesus may have said 'I am the way and no-one comes to the Father except through me' but there remain a multitude of paths by which people join that way. We recognise that in our worship by, for instance, praying both for those who have died in the faith of Christ and those whose faith is known to God alone.
There has been an unfortunate tendency to move from saying that Jesus' saving work was done once for all to saying that the only way you can share in it is our way, that is, that one can only be saved through church membership or worse still one can only be saved through one particular church. That is the short and slippery road to arrogance and triumphalism in dealing with other religions and other cultures and I am not suggesting that we should set foot on it! To do so is to claim the ability, it seems to me, to limit God and to assert that human understanding is sufficient to comprehend the whole of God's plan for God's creation. But on the other hand I am equally unwilling to suggest we abandon our awareness of the uniqueness of Christ's saving work.
After asserting these truths about Jesus in both his divine and human natures and about his work, the author spends much of the rest of Hebrews demonstrating from Scripture, especially the Psalms, what the implications are for his audience, in their lives and relationships with God and one another. Our needs are somehat different from theirs: we are not facing state persecution, for example. Hebrews sets before us as it did before its first readers and hearers, both an example, in Jesus' life on earth and the lives of other faithful men and women of the past, and a promise of salvation if we can follow those examples even when that is hard to do. May we, like them, be blessed by God in doing so. Amen.