Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

The letter to the Hebrews paints a series of contrasts between Jesus, our great high priest, and the sacrificial system of atonement that pre-figured his redeeming work.

November 8, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 9:24-28

The letter to the Hebrews paints a series of contrasts between Jesus, our great high priest, and the sacrificial system of atonement that pre-figured his redeeming work.

Today’s lesson sums up these contrasts with an image of Christ’s heavenly, final and effective intercession for us sinners, resulting in the tremendous good news of God’s complete and lasting forgiveness.

In order to get to this good news, we need to wrestle a bit with the author’s language of blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins (9:22, 25-26), of the earthly realm as a copy of heavenly realities (8:5; 9:23-24; 10:1), of the end of the age (9:26), and of the second coming of Christ (9:28). These ideas are not part of the currency of our everyday conversation. They assume an understanding of ancient Israel’s atonement ritual during the Exodus, even prior to the building of the Temple under David.

At that time, the place of worship was a tent with an inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:1-5; Exodus 25-30), where the high priest entered once a year to offer sacrifices for himself and for the sins of the people (Hebrews 9:6-10). Drawing on Exodus 25:40, the author of Hebrews says that this sanctuary, and the sacrificial system that went with it, was a copy of a heavenly reality (Hebrews 8:5); drawing on Greek Platonic philosophy, Hebrews adds that the copy was inferior to the reality towards which it points. That reality is Christ’s self-offering on our behalf (Hebrews 8:7), as the one who is both priest and sacrificial victim (Hebrews 9:23-24).

This vivid picture of the ultimate reality towards which the Jewish system of atonement points lies behind today’s text, which makes four points about Christ:

  • Christ has entered into heaven to intercede for all humanity through his own self-offering.
  • Christ’s action is “once-for-all,” unique, unrepeatable and fully effective.
  • Christ’s first appearance and self-offering signal “the end of the age.”
  • Christ will come a second time to save those who eagerly await him.

This may seem like a difficult text to preach, yet three elements of its imagery speak profoundly to our contemporary experience: Christ’s singular self-sacrifice, the contrast between imitation and reality, and the end of futile attempts to deal with guilt.

The idea of Christ’s bloody sacrifice is offensive to many modern sensibilities; we may feel that we have advanced culturally beyond such rituals. Yet a moment’s thought will illuminate the many ways in which we still sacrifice each other, using other people as scapegoats for our own wrong and guilt. This happens in families and communities, when one member or group becomes the outcast whose expulsion makes everyone else heave a sigh of relief.

For example, in Ian McEwan’s novel (later movie), Atonement, a young handy man bears the guilt for a rape committed by a member of the upper class.1  In Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, a helpless young African-American girl becomes the scapegoat of the family and the community.2  Our sacrificial systems are subtle, but nonetheless real and destructive. Christ’s final self-offering on the cross means we have place to put our guilt without sacrificing each other.

Secondly, in Hebrews 9:23-24 the earthly sanctuary is a copy of its heavenly model, the presence of God. In our virtual reality culture, with its proliferation of “reality” TV shows, we struggle with this distinction between imitation and reality. The difference between a copy and “the real deal” is that a copy has no lasting effects, whereas what is “real” does.

There are many examples of this difference; when children play-act grown up rituals such as marriage, they say imitation vows that mean nothing when the game is ended. But what would we think of an imitation “marriage” between adults, with imitation vows? What is real delivers on what it promises; imitations fall short.

We also encounter the contrast between imitation and reality in relationship to matters of faith. The popularity of books and movies such as The Da Vinci Code testify to a widespread fear of being “taken in” by religious beliefs, sold a bill of goods by the church. Hebrews tells us that it is crucial to distinguish rightly between imitation and reality, which means, ultimately, listening to the lonely night questions about what really matters. What really matters, says Hebrews, is what Christ does in the presence of God, reconciling us to the divine presence. Only God can really deliver on God’s promises. There is room here for both appropriate cynicism about human pretensions, and boundless faith in God.

Thirdly, Christ’s once-for-all redemption, contrasted with the repeated sacrifices of the old system of atonement, removes the church from the business of mediating between God and humanity. This means that the church is not a system of atonement. A human system of dealing with sin has to be repetitive because, as a mere imitation of divine reality, it cannot have any lasting effects. But since Christ has effected forgiveness once-for-all, such a system is now obsolete, superfluous and misleading.

Every time we — both clergy and laypeople — work off guilt by all that we do for the church, we make it a mechanism for atonement. Such a mechanism can create apparently successful churches. But the side effects can be lethal: a cold shoulder towards newcomers who haven’t “earned their way,” or even the scapegoating and expulsion of some members (including the clergy!). 

What a difference it makes to experience the church as a community of forgiven sinners, who don’t need to sacrifice each other, whose consciences are cleansed “from dead works to worship the living God” (9:14). When it comes to Christian community, this is the real deal.

1Ian McEwan, Atonement, New York: Anchor Books, 2007.
2Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, New York: Vintage, 2007.