Get a Life!
A sermon on Hebrews 10:11-25 prepared by Nathan Nettleton, 19th November 2000
Jesus calls us to accept forgiveness and get on with a life and faith that do not revolve constantly about trying to make up for mistakes.
It would be easy to characterise the Jewish religion, especially in the form it existed in Jesus day, as being obsessed with sin and atonement for sin. You break the law; youre in trouble; you go to the temple; you make the required sacrifice to appease God; then youre okay again. It would be easy to characterise it that way, but it would also be wrong. Judaism was and continues to be a much more whole-of-life faith system than that. Judaism has lots of good down-to-earth theology and a spirituality of everyday life that gives its people a strong sense of identity in God and in the community. Even the old Jewish sacrificial system is not all about making up for sin. Only a few of the many sacrifices have anything to do with sin. There are thanksgiving offerings and fellowship offerings and peace offerings and all sorts of things that had nothing to do with sin or guilt or getting out of trouble.
I suspect though, that one of he reasons why the Jewish sacrificial system has sometimes been stereotyped as being mostly about dealing with sin is that there have always been some people who approached it that way. There have always been some people who approached it as a kind of life-insurance scheme; whose only concern was to do the minimum you have to do to have any black marks against their name removed. It is almost the bribery approach to religion - how much do I have to hand over to get God to let me off scot-free for all the stuff Ive done and fully intend to keep doing?
One of the reasons I feel confident in saying that there would always have been people who approached Judaism that way is that every religion seems to have always had people who approach it that way. Christianity has been no more immune to this than any other faith, and perhaps less so than many. Christian faith is often seen, not only by outsiders but often by its own adherents, as being primarily about dealing with the problem of sin. There are no shortage of people who will summarise the good news of Jesus Christ by telling you that people are cut off from God by sin, that Jesus Christs life, death and resurrection have no other significance than being a big sacrifice to atone for our sin, and that all that God asks of you is that you declare your belief in all that and so get forgiven for your sin. And if that is an accurate summary of what God is most concerned with, then perhaps it is Christianity that is narrowly obsessed with sin and atonement for sin. But is it?
Well, if youve been following our readings from the letter to the Hebrews each Sunday for the last seven weeks, you might be thinking that is all its about. Ive been finding them intriguing but eventually a bit repetitive. Week after week they have been taking us through a detailed series of comparisons and contrasts between the old Jewish priests with their work of offering sacrifices to atone for sins, and Jesus with his priestly work offering the one perfect sacrifice for sin. Over and over they have shown that, in comparison to the old priests, Jesus is better qualified for the job, that his access to God is more direct, that his sacrifice is more acceptable, and that the effects of his atoning work are more permanent and all-inclusive. It has all been very focussed on how effectively he can deal with sin and release us from punishment and even from lingering guilt and indebtedness.
This weeks extract started out much the same. I hope you didnt tune out though, thinking here we go a gain, more of the same because half way through this weeks extract it took a sudden change of tack and what it said put the whole of what came before it in a very different light. You see, in a way what it says is, So, thats that then. You can forget about sin and atonement because its all been taken care of. Get out there and get a life! That would be overstating it a bit, perhaps, but its certainly along those lines.
The whole build up, chapter after chapter, has been designed to remove any lingering doubts that there might still be sins that havent been dealt with that are going to be suddenly recalled and used to sentence us to eternity weeping and wailing in the outer darkness. As priest, Jesus has done such a perfect job of dealing with the problem of sin that there is no possible way that anything youve done could have slipped through the net. If youve entrusted the job to Jesus, then you can be absolutely one hundred percent sure that it is done, completed, perfected. So put it all behind you and get a life!
And not just any life - the life. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to go for it and make every endeavour to live out our faith to the full. He exhorts us to try to come up with more and more creative ways of stirring one another up to love more and live it out more. And if you are really keen to come up with pocket summary of the good news of Jesus Christ, the emphasis falls here, on the life of love in action. Christianity is primarily on about what Jesus has set us free for, not what Jesus has set us free from. Sin was just an obstacle that had to be got out of the way so that we could approach God with confidence and live the life of love and joy and peace that we were created for. The life we are set free to live is the main game, the real good news. The writer is telling us that we dont need to go on and on about sin and atonement any more, we dont need to keep making offerings to try to make it up to God. Its done, finished we can forget all that and get on with the life of love.
Now that being the case, it would be a perfectly fair question to ask why we include in our worship service every week a fairly detailed prayer of confession and the accompanying request for Gods mercy and forgiveness. If Hebrews is telling us that we dont need to keep doing that over and over again, why are we doing it? Indeed it is a fair criticism of many of the churchs liturgies down through the ages, and especially many of the new ones that emerged from the reformation, that they are so penitential with an undue focus on confession and begging for forgiveness. They make it feel like Lent all year! The word Eucharist is supposed to mean thanksgiving so our worship should feel more like an explosion of joyous gratitude than a grovelling plea for mercy. So why do we include confession every week?
Well, I hope it is not your experience here that the whole service feels penitential. The reason we include the confession is not because we still need to be put right with God or because we are worried that we still might not have said sorry enough to persuade God to forgive us. We do it for quite different reasons.
One of the reasons we do it is because it is part of what we are expressing our gratitude for. We might know that we can walk confidently into the presence of God now, but we always remember that that is pure gift. We didnt deserve it, we couldnt earn it, but we were created for it and God has generously given it back to us and so we remind ourselves where weve come from and explode with gratitude over the declaration that we are a forgiven people. If you like, in what we do here, the confession is made so that we can hear the absolution, so that we can be told, Brother/Sister, your sins are forgiven, and burst into joyous shouts of Jubilate! The gratitude needs a context or it doesnt make sense.
That perhaps suggest another related reason. We do it because we are retelling our story and because, although sin and atonement are not things that continue to preoccupy us, they are always part of the story of where we have come from and how we can the be the Lords free people that we are now. That story continues to be part of what makes us who we are and part of what shapes the ways we now live out the life of love. That story shapes the way we approach God and the way we share the good news of freedom to love in Jesus Christ. We retell and reenact the story too, because on any given Sunday there may be someone here who has not lived the story and for whom this is the first opportunity to get caught up in the story and experience the freedom of being forgiven in and through Jesus Christ and set free to get a life.
One more reason for now: we continue to confess because sin, even though forgiven, has not entirely lost its influence in our lives, and part of embracing the new life of love and freedom is continuing to be aware of what it is we are choosing to turn away from. In much the same way that we say that reconciliation between indigenous and settler peoples in Australia cannot be advanced without a genuine acknowledgement of the sins of the past and a sincere apology, so too if we are to grow into the fullness of our reconciliation with God, we need to remain honest and conscious of what we are being reconciled from. The life we are being set free for is built upon the honest acknowledgement of what we are set free from, and especially when what we are set free from still rears up from time to time and distorts our actions again. Our forgiveness is not under threat - the freedom from is still there, but the freedom for needs to be embraced again and again.
The journey from the land of slavery to sin and death to the banqueting room of heaven is a long one. None of us could ever traverse it alone - the chains of the old are too heavy and the promise of the new is too far off. Even with a guaranteed entry pass, wed never make it to the door. The only one capable of making the journey is Jesus Christ. The only reason we make it at all is because Christ has taken us on board, baptised us into his body, so that when he makes the journey, we are carried along with him. Its almost a Trojan horse entrance in and through his body! So we can gather here and in confession remind ourselves of of where we have come from, and celebrate the freedom we have found in Christ, and as we approach this table, as part of the body of Christ, we are actually sitting down at the right hand of God at the banqueting table of heaven. All this is true and guaranteed, says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, so stop worrying about it and get on with living it. Get a life!