Bible Reading Ephesians 2:4-10
But God was merciful! We were dead because of our sins, but God loved us so much that he made us alive with Christ, and God’s wonderful kindness is what saves you. God raised us from death to life with Christ Jesus, and he has given us a place beside Christ in heaven. God did this so that in the future world he could show how truly good and kind he is to us because of what Christ Jesus has done. You were saved by faith in God, who treats us much better than we deserve. This is God’s gift to you, and not anything you have done on your own. It isn’t something you have earned, so there is nothing you can brag about. God planned for us to do good things and to live as he has always wanted us to live. That’s why he sent Christ to make us what we are. (CEV)
Message Getting to God Hebrews 10:11-25
Last week, we talked about finding our place among God’s people, and that process is ongoing with contact information and a survey that will be coming out soon. Today, we are finding our place before God. That place, we just heard in the reading, is being raised alive with Christ and given a place beside Christ in heaven. This past tense phrase, and in this particular context, describes a spiritual transformation that raises us from the ultimate misery of sin --- by which we are constrained by the standards of this world --- and raised into a heavenly citizenship and a new quality of true life that Christ creates in us even now in this life. The text also answers the question how we get to that place -- but to answer it, we will move to our Hebrews text, and have a little 3 question quiz while we are at it.
True or False: “We can earn God's favor by doing more good than bad.”
An overly simplistic view of this thinking was presented in an old sitcom, in which the main character wins a sizable fortune in the lottery but loses the ticket when he gets hit by a car. In the hospital he decides to make a list and make amends to all the people he hurt in his life. His crisis time decision is not made as a result of reflection and remorse resulting in attempts at restitution and restoration, nor was it motivated by inner transformation or love, but rather to tip the scales of his life away from bad to good so that he could avoid the punishments the Universe doled out and hang on to the rewards that come from being good. Even if the Universe worked that way, which it doesn’t, we cannot, by our own power, undo bad by being good.
The author of Hebrews (See 10:11-19) says that priests go through good ritual sacrifices for sins every day -- but they are powerless to do anything to take away its guilt. But Christ the priest offered one supreme sacrifice for all time -- so effective it need never be repeated. Christ was also the sacrifice -- and it was no mere ritual. It has the power to make us holy and complete for all time -- establishing a covenant between us and God in which God promises to forgive and forget our sins and write his will on our hearts and minds. And then he concludes,
And now we are brothers and sisters in God’s family because of the blood of Jesus, and he
welcomes us to come right into the most holy sanctuary in the heavenly realm—boldly and
with no hesitation.” (Hebrews 10:19 (TPT))
We find our place by the final and perfect sacrificial offering of Jesus. We cannot earn the grace we have already received in our forgiveness. He did everything that needed to be done for everyone who participates in his transforming, purifying process. We don't have to do other things, more things, we don’t have to tip some cosmic scale that is carefully measuring every decision in our life in order to find our place before -- to get to -- to reach God’s presence. Nothing blocks our way to God --
Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by believing what you heard?
After you started with the Spirit, are you now finishing up with your own human
effort? (Galatians 3:3b (CEB))
-- he loves us so much that in Christ he has already removed anything that could get in the way. He refuses to hold failure and sin against us. Given the extent that God has gone to open relationships with us, we are free to approach Him with confidence -- not the confidence of our good deeds, but by reliance in God’s forgiving grace that flows out of his compassionate love that treasures all of his children. It is never about us, and our nature, always about Him and His nature…
Having said that, we must ask the second question in our little quiz
True or False: "Once we are in, we are done." You could almost argue on the basis of what was just said, that once we are forgiven by belief and not by good works, we can go ahead and live however we want. It was, and is, a common misconception. There are few things worse in a relationship than when one person leverages the commitment of a relationship and takes manipulative advantage of the other person because they feel the other can do nothing about it. The relationship becomes one sided rather than mutual, and it becomes unhealthy at best and abusively destructive at worst.
As forgiven people, as people who realize we are loved and cared for so deeply and powerfully by a God who has promised his unconditional, unfailing love to his people -- it would be easy to think we can take advantage of God’s gracious acceptance of us.
Waiting tables in my first pastoral assignment, one customer said (along the lines of the Bible texts so far today) that Jesus did it all, once and for all. Since God does everything, he doesn’t have to do anything -- there is no discipleship -- no need of following Christ’s pattern, the new life was not a different life until our next life.
Just as Paul had to correct some Galatian Christians for trying to save themselves by law, he also had to correct some Roman Christians who erred at the other end of the pendulum’s swing:
Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! [a mild translation of the
original words) We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
(Romans 6:1-2 (NIV))
And our writer in Hebrews says in verse 20 that Christ has “a new life-giving way for us to approach God” (Hebrews 10:20a (TPT)) -- with an open heart, impurity removed -- clean and presentable to God, freed from an accusing conscience, clinging to a hope that lives within us - knowing that God keeps his promises. (See Hebrews 10:20-23) Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all.”
If Someone is doing all this for us, within us -- how can we possibly go on living the same lives we’ve lived before we encountered Christ? It doesn’t usually happen instantaneously, old bad habits have to be unlearned, new good habits formed. Old priorities are replaced by new ones. It is no wonder we need to cling to God’s promises to keep us moving forward. We are in the process of becoming, growing, changing, transforming. God is not done with us after he saves us, he is just starting. Neither should we ever be done with ourselves. Trust that "the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion…" (Philippians 1:6). God graces us with his patience and partnership as we persevere in cooperating with his process within us.
During the Spanish American War (1898), supply ships carrying, among other things, army horses and mules, couldn’t secure a place to land along the coast of Cuba. They finally decided to push the animals into the water hoping they would swim for shore. Some did, but others were confused and swam toward open sea or in circles. Disaster seemed unavoidable. Then the clear call of an Army bugle rang out from shore. The tiring beasts heard the call and turned for land. The bugler played until his lips were blue, but he continued until every animal had made it safely to shore. The bugler sounding his horn. That's the call of grace. The animals dog-paddling like crazy for shore. That's responding with perseverance. Keep listening for and responding to the call of God as he leads you into this new way of living.
Finally, True or False “Christianity should be a private matter.” Our American culture is particularly susceptible to this idea because, as one person says, it promotes Rugged individualism, which suggests that if I’m well-adapted and healthy, I don't need anyone; and Self-sufficiency, which reinforces the first by telling me I am inadequate if I admit I need anything or anyone else -- yet the at the same time we struggle against fulfilling conflicting expectations and feelings of weakness and inadequacy - because we are not designed to live alone.
Our approach to and transformation with God is not an individual thing, but a corporate thing with each other under God.
Paul wrote that
God has put the body together … so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts
might have mutual concern for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part
gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each
other. (1 Corinthians 12:24a,25-27)
We need community. We need to support each other. We may live "for" reward, but we live "by" encouragement, which is what we need when things go well, and especially when things don't go well. In spite of what our self-help culture says, it is much more difficult to encourage ourselves than to be encouraged by others. It is a part of our spiritual journey to connect so we can encourage one another.
Therefore, our Hebrew author concludes our text by asking us to
“Discover creative ways to encourage others and to motivate them toward acts of compassion,
doing beautiful works as expressions of love. This is not the time to pull away and neglect
meeting together, as some have formed the habit of doing, because we need each other! In fact,
we should come together even more frequently, eager to encourage and urge each other
onward as we anticipate that day dawning. (Hebrews 10:25 (TPT))
There is also sometimes a pluralization of “individualized self-sufficiency”, so it becomes “we” (whoever the “we” may include) don’t need anyone else; and whoever is not included in the “we” may well become deterrents, obstacles, even enemies to “our” place in the kingdom and the world. Someone told me a long time ago, “we have to have an enemy against which to unite. It is the common enemy that inspires us to draw together.” Humanity tends to be more highly motivated to be against something than for something. Did you notice -- it seemed like to me anyway -- that many of the political ads that came to your mailbox talked more about what was wrong with the opponent that what was right with their own candidate? We spend more time voting against people and policies than for people and policies.
Negative language is so much more powerful than positive in our culture. How many encouragements does it take to make up for one cutting criticism? This appeal to the negative is nothing new. Senator and Historian during the Roman Empire, Tacitus said, “Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.” Maybe that explains why too much humor tends to be mockingly critical; and we think we have to set up us-them scenarios so that we can have an enemy to unite to fight against. But it shouldn’t have to be this way.
Christ didn’t think so either. (See Matthew 7:12 and Matthew 5:43-48) He said the common thought was to hate “the thems”, (our enemies) and to love “the “us-es”” (our neighbors), but Christ said -- in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you… Imagine what it must mean to be a “them” instead of an “us”, to be set up as the outsider, the opposition -- unvalued, ignored, or even mistreated just because we think or look or act differently than another. There will never be any true peace within or without until there are no more “thems”. This is why Christ applied the golden rule to say his followers were to love their enemies and pray for those who mistreat. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Jesus came to free us from the chains of division and to discover our treasured value -- together -- as God’s created people.
Closing Prayer and Blessing
Let’s pray… Lord, we need you. We depend upon your grace in order to come into and enjoy your presence. Move us through the transforming process of becoming what you want us to be, and the peace we need with others. Amen.
Closing Hymn # 428 (vv 2,3,4) For the Healing of the Nations