This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it reflects on is Hebrews 5:5-14.
It’s always an interesting feeling, when we hear others being rebuked in Scripture, isn’t it? A bit like overhearing someone else’s argument. And it leaves us with decisions to make about where we think we fit on the issue under discussion.
Take, for example, today’s line from Hebrews: “We have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding.” Dull in understanding. Ooh, ouch. Who likes being called stupid?
But it’s one thing to know that the original recipients of this letter had to take that on board; the question for us is whether we take it on board. Do we hear it and accuse ourselves, “Yes, I am dull in understanding, I need someone to teach me?” Or do we hear it and feel superior; “Well, I’m not dull in understanding; I’m doing quite well, thank you very much”?
Those are the two extremes, anyway. I suspect that most of us are somewhere in the middle. And despite the negative rhetoric here, I suspect the people who first received this letter were somewhere in the middle, too. And I say that because the whole point of this part of the letter is about striving for a sort of spiritual perfection, or completion.
Well, none of us is perfect or complete this side of eternity, so it follows that we are all somewhere short of that. But even though we know we can’t reach perfection in this lifetime, the letter is exhorting us to do our utmost to try. It’s about commitment to the process of becoming.
Well, that’s what Lent’s all about too, isn’t it? So it’s a good time to stop and think about that a bit.
Part of what the author of Hebrews is doing here is painting a word-picture, a vision of realities above and beyond our everyday life, showing the listeners how Christ’s ongoing, active, presence as great high priest in heaven itself has meaning for them and their lives in the here and now. That is ultimately what all that stuff about Jesus as being like Melchizedek is about; it’s saying that Christ is even now ministering on our behalf before the throne of heaven, and we reap the benefit of that ministry. What Christ is doing in heaven shapes who we are.
Other New Testament writers tend to focus on Christ in heaven as king; they describe him to us seated on the throne of heaven, and emphasise his sovereign rule over all that exists. But in Hebrews the focus is on Christ as priest, as the one offering sacrifice on our behalf. And on that sacrifice as effective in making a real difference in our lives now. That we are being transformed by what Christ is doing.
This transformation, however, is not abstract, or personal and private. It is transformation which only takes place and takes effect as we actually live; as we make choices and take action. We see this reflected in the reading, where the author says that maturity belongs to “those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”
While an encounter with the presence and reality of God – and in this case, the reality of Christ as our high priest – is fundamental to our faith, that experience is only nurtured and bears fruit when it is lived out in concrete behaviour. In practising distinguishing “good from evil” and working out which good things deserve the investment of our time, energy and talents.
Here maturity is presented to us as an ethical characteristic; the mature person is the supremely ethical person. We might possibly want to take issue with that, to round it out with other attributes as well, to say that maturity is complex and multi-dimensional; but at the very least this text insists that we can’t leave being ethical out of our account of maturity.
Which does raise all sorts of questions. Who decides what ethical maturity looks like, anyway? In lockdown Daniel and I enjoyed watching the TV series, “The Good Place,” (which, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend), in which the main characters wrestle very explicitly with what it means to be ethical, and different takes on ethics, from Socrates right through to modern philosophers (I promise the TV show is much funnier than that description made it sound). But even if your life isn’t a sitcom, ethical maturity isn’t as easy as just deciding to do the right thing, or even to do good.
While I’m not going to suggest that Hebrews gives us all the answers to such a big topic, which has provided so much difficulty to believers for millennia, I do think there are some strands of thought which we can pick out and highlight as worth including in our ethical considerations.
And one of those – although it’s not explicit in our reading today – is the letter’s emphasis on community. Hebrews sees Jesus as the great high priest for a community of believers, and sees the resulting transformation of those believers as profoundly affecting the character of their community. The author quotes the prophet Jeremiah: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” And further on in the letter, he also tells the people: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” It’s a communal vision, of a shared, rather than an individual, experience of and response to God.
For the author of Hebrews, then, ethical maturity is going to be grounded in, and lived out in, a situation of a group of people committed to one another as a community. The good news for us is that the parish structure of our church provides us with that community; the challenge is that it then asks of us our commitment to it, and to one another.
So, if you’re feeling that perhaps you’d like to work on your own Christian maturity this Lent (and beyond), or looking to brighten up a dulled spiritual life, the prescription of this letter might be taken as: consider your commitment to your community of faith, and how, within that community, you can contribute to what is good.
And I suspect there’s something in that for all of us, no matter how mature we are!