Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Most people who remember anything from Hebrews remember it as the book where the pithy saying about faith as the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen can be found, or for its idea of Jesus as the high priest who replaces sacrifices at the temple.

Mark 13:2
"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."Photo by Randy Laybourne on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

November 18, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

Most people who remember anything from Hebrews remember it as the book where the pithy saying about faith as the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen can be found, or for its idea of Jesus as the high priest who replaces sacrifices at the temple.

The second idea, while prevalent in Christian interpretation of the book, leads to a kind of supersessionist understanding of Judaism in the first century that deeply underrepresents the ways that Christ-followers were part of, and intertwined within, Jewish communities apart from the Jerusalem temple. Especially if we consider the fact that the preacher is steeped in Platonic ideas of perfect forms and imperfect copies as well as ancient scripture, those contemplating how to proclaim this lection should be aware of the ways that we construct Jewish temple practices as an antithesis for true religious atonement found in Jesus.

Rather, this mashup of Platonic cosmology and quotations from scripture (Psalm 110; Jerimiah 31) reveals the perfect sanctuary and the perfect priest in Christ. The Platonic forms are noted in the priests who stand day after day (verse 11). While it is fair to assume this priest is the high priest of the Jerusalem temple, these actions also look like the function of sacrifice and priestly service throughout the Roman Empire and its subsidiaries. Notice that this copying of actions (verse 11) and the one-time perfected action (verse 12) draw on platonic ideas of shadows/copies and forms.

Such is the case throughout Hebrews; even in last week’s reading you note that the sanctuary made with human hands is a mere copy of the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:24). Last week’s reading argued that Christ’s sacrifice happens at the end of the age since it is folly to assume Christ “suffers again and again since the foundation of the world” (Hebrews 9:26). This week’s reading reiterates the one-time sacrifice and gives another reason for a lack of repetition: Christ’s sacrifice was offered in the perfected (read: Platonic form) sanctuary not made from human hands rather than in its imperfect copies (whether the Jerusalem temple or any other Greek or Roman temple).

The function of sacrifice — elimination of sin from the community — was also perfected. With this perfection, the preacher argues, we, too are perfected (verse 14). In other words, the preacher of Hebrews is working hard to convince her audience that each Christ-follower is holy, worthy, and invited to advocate for and be in God’s presence.

The second half of this pericope is the “so what” to the reality that sin is no more and to the preacher’s proclamation that we have been made a holy people. While Lutherans — and I suspect some other mainline folks as well — get a little nervous when perfection, the eradication of sin, and holiness of believers comes into the conversation, remember that the argument presented is a proclamation, an unveiling, of the good news about Christ’s work in God’s world that is not made with human hands — the preacher is not noting an eradication of sin in our experience or as a condition for faith in Christ. Christ has opened the possibility of these things as the great high priest (verses 19-21).

As the preacher reveals this culmination of what it means for us to stand in the presence of God, she offers some turns of phrase that should make us sit up a little straighter and listen with a little more curiosity. She exhorts her hearers to approach God with genuine (alethines) hearts in the full assurance (plerophoria) of faith (verse 22), with a strong hold on the confession (homologia) of our hope (verse 23), and with the willingness to irritate (paroxismos) each other into love and good deeds (verse 24). The Pauline formulation of faith, hope, and love as the fruits of the Spirit is no accident here, but the way these values are worked out in Hebrews challenges many of our usual assumptions.

Notice there is no sense of approaching God with humility, rather full assurance of faith of God’s work in preparing us for advocacy in the divine presence. In other words, the faith Jesus’s work in our lives produces — the faith God gives us — does not require any strength from us. In fact, the confession (homologia) of which the preacher speaks is not the kind of confession we often think of in our lives of faith — the confession we often expect people to make about their faith in order to demonstrate certainty of belief. Rather, confession in verse 23 is the confession of hope (elpis). Our hope is what we confess. Our faith is what God has done.

Verses 24-25 draw out a still more surprising idea: our work of love is the work of provocation, irritation, and even exasperation (paroxismos). The preacher says we should provoke one another to love and good works. How does one provoke love? How does one irritate someone into good works? We so often talk about love as something without irritation or exasperation, a stance toward the other that involves toleration, patience, and comfort. But the preacher notes that we should understand one another in the paroxismos of love — the irritation of love.

Instead of asserting a community built on sameness and good feeling, the preacher seems to note that provocation and exasperation is part of being a community. She exhorts us to build a kind of community gathering that relentlessly, even irritatingly, suggests that actions of love and deeds are not what create faith, but are rather the responsibility of the community which needs to gather because of their faith in the great high priest — a faith God gives. Regardless of the sameness or unity within church communities, the assurance of faith and the confession of hope creates love that can withstand and even work across difference.