Elementary my dear Christian
The writer of Hebrews is steeped in Jewish tradition and theology. In chapter 5 he seeks to explain how Jesus mediates between we humans and God. So the illustration of the high priesthood is used. High priesthood has not had a good reputation over the social development of the human community. It is associated with power over others, with misuse of such power and in particular in cultures such as the Aztec of South America with its large scale cruelty and mass killings of human sacrificial offerings. The pre-Christian Druid culture of Celtic Europe including Scotland had its priests and high priests. It was small scale stuff compared with the Incas and others but also had its local power over individual life and death. There is a street in my home town of Kilwinning called Druid Drive and there were claims that the site on which the Christian Kilwinning Abbey was built in the 11th century had been a Druid place of sacrifice in centuries past. Part of the walls of the original Kilwining Abbey are still standing. One historian noted of Druids, "These men predict the future by observing the flight and calls of birds and by the sacrifice of holy animals: all orders of society are in their power... and in very important matters they prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest; by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future." That reminds me that many years ago when we used to have mid-week Bible Study I was explaining that the Romans had augurs who killed chickens and examined their livers to see into the future. Willie Gilfillan commented ‘Ma wife disnae need tae dae that – she already kens whit’s goin’ tae happen’. We know too that in the New Testament, the High Priests who appear, Annas and Caiaphas, are the baddies. They are rich, political and self-interested sitting at the top of the social scene with influence and power even under the Roman occupation.
However the writer of Hebrews takes the more spiritual function of the high priesthood to explain that Jesus now fulfils that intercessory role for all humanity for all time. There was an understanding that it required special dedication to deal with God on behalf of the people, special devotion, sanctity and goodness. In the division of labour which ordered societies required, it was accepted that some should be set aside for priesthood and high priesthood. Verse 2 speaks of the better aspects of this in Judaism. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray since he himself is subject to weakness. The high priest offers sacrifices for his own sins as well as for the sins of the people. Ignorance is not an excuse in law for any wrong-doing or criminal behaviour. ‘I did not know that there as a 50 mph speed limit on this road’ will not get you off a fine and points on your licence. In Judaism ignorance and straying was within the Covenant of forgiveness. Jesus taught that we are like sheep inclined to stray, even to get lost. He is the Good Shepherd who seeks us out and guides us back from estrangement and distance from God. In contrast Hebrews 10:26 says 'If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God'. This does not mean the cycle of sinning and confessing, of doing and getting things wrong and asking forgiveness through Christ. That is the pattern of every Christian life. This refers to apostasy – leaving forever the Christian Faith, for example and turning against it. I think that Richard Holloway may be in this category. But the clearest example at present is with Islam.
Damian Lewis wrote recently in The Spectator magazine about Father Jacques Hamel, ‘To kill a priest who is saying Mass is...an act of unique desecration. You do not need to be a believer to grasp this point. Enemies of the church have understood it since the beginning: an early pope, St Sixtus, was beheaded during Mass in 258 AD by agents of the Emperor Valerian. Islamists, who reach back to the Dark Ages for so many of their actions, have rediscovered this crime. Their intense (and very successful) campaign to cleanse the Middle East of Christians reached its symbolic peak on 31 October 2010, when Father Thaer Abdal was shot dead at the altar of the Syrian Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. Fifty-seven other innocent people, many of them worshippers, died with him. The gunmen who broke into the church during Sunday Mass were heard to scream: ‘All of you are infidels… we will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell.’ They were members of an Iraqi faction of al-Qaeda that had declared war on churches, ‘dirty dens of idolatry’, and in particular ‘the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican’.
This is terrible stuff and it is happening before our eyes. What I wish the media would do is to make a fair evaluation of the claims and conduct of Jesus Christ and of Mohammad. Instead they lump everyone and everything together as ‘religion’. But they offer specific evaluations of every other aspect of their commentaries on whatever. What is the better way? The way of Jesus, of peace, renunciation and forgiveness or the way of Mohammad, war, power and rejection?
The writer of Hebrews points out that the high priesthood of Jesus was one characterised by humility, service, obedience and by a special one-to-one relationship with God as Father. Neither was this always pretty and pleasing for Jesus. Verse 7 says ‘he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death. And he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son he learned obedience form what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’. That is the writer’s account of Gethsemane, Calvary and Resurrection – the heart and soul of Christianity.
This is serious stuff, strong stuff, deep stuff and the writer is aware that already those reading his words may be struggling. But he is then critical of those who have been many years in the Christian Faith but have not taken its basic truths to heart. Ask yourself these questions. How long have I been attending Church? How well do I know Jesus Christ? Can I say what my Faith is? Can I help others on the way? How would you sum up your Christianity? What is its ABC? Could you refer to John 3 : 16? 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life'. How about Romans 10:13 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'. Maybe you’d say 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. Can you give an account of the hope that is within you? If you were put up against a wall and asked to explain your Christian faith, could you do so? Would you find it easier to point to deeds than words? The writer to the Hebrews says that even in the first generation of Christians, some had never matured in understanding. They managed the first few letters of the Christian alphabet and then got stuck. He says by this time you ought to be teachers. He does not mean professional teachers or ministry teachers, he means in the way we teach each other things in everyday life. A Dad may teach his children to play football. His children may teach him how to use the computer better. A Mum may teach her children how to bake or sew. Her children may teach her some things learned at school that she never knew. There are clubs and societies where you can learn all sorts of things, art and painting, for example. Children learn sports and hobbies on Saturday mornings. Hebrews is challenging Christians to be able to explain their faith in a coherent way. We may not have the answers to every question but we do have answers to some of the biggest questions about life.
'You still need milk – you cannot take solid food' complains the writer of Hebrews. Imagine if as a small child you had never started to eat solid food. Would you have grown, survived and lived? But then what if you have never digested deeper knowledge and understanding about your Christian faith? Suppose that after many years of coming to Church you actually know very little more than you did when you attended Sunday School? We might expect that of many in the Church of Scotland but here it is on the pages of the New Testament. The Apostles’ Creed which we say at baptisms encapsulates our Faith in a few sentences. The Bible is our source book to a better understanding of our Faith – a better knowledge of our Saviour Jesus Christ – a deeper understanding of our living God, Maker and Creator.
Christianity is not a text book nor an academic course. It is a way of life. But its heart and soul is personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This is a living dynamic - an inspiration and spiritual power within us. Jamie Stewart who wrote 'The Glasgow Gospel' died recently aged 96. He had been a widower for 33 years. He had daughters and grandchildren. He was always happy and positive and full of hope. He attributed his character and personality to the power of prayer and to the Grace of the Lord working in his life. Here is an example of his work.
You have heard it many times in this very church, but it bears much repetition. If you have pan drops to shed, prepare to shed them now. Allow me to remind you, brothers and sisters, of the details.The younger son asks his father to give him the share of the money that would fall to him once his father had passed on to glory.The father graciously agreed and the boy went off to the far country. The lad soon got into bad company. Let us hear what Holy Scripture says about him: 'It wasnae lang before he wasted his hale fortune oan the bevvy, an the parties, and livin’ it up. As you ken, I mean know, the young man reaches rock bottom. We turn to the magnificent words of Sacred Scripture once more: Finally he gets wise an says tae hissel. ‘ Ach, ah’m aff ma heid so ah am – at hame even ma faither’s servants are weel looked efter, an here’s me stervin. Ah’ll jist need tae bottle ma pride an go hame. Indeed he wull. I mean will. You all know what happens next. His father sees his son on the horizon and runs out to meet him and throws his arms around him. As Holy Writ puts it: The boy wis greetin. ‘Ah’m sorry faither – honest, so ah am! Ah’m jist a loser an no fit tae be cawed yer son.’ Well, the fatted calf was killed and the dancing started.
But not everyone was pleased. As the Bible says: The big brither wis beelin – an widny go inty the hoose. So the faither comes oot tae reason wi him. He answers his faither, ‘Och, haud oan an lissen tae me. Ah’ve slaved for ye aw thae years an ye didny even wance gie a party for me. An noo that wee nyaff comes back! Been oan the randan, so he has! Spent aw yer money oan booze an hooers! An ye kill yer best coo for him?!’ My friends, no wonder the elder brother was beelin’. Let’s admit it, you would be beelin’ too! In these unfair circumstances we would all, all of us, be beelin’! But sometimes Jehovah is beeling with us.
The scriptures tell us the father says: Ah thought ma son wis deid – an he’s come back tae life. He wis lost, an noo he’s come hame.’
Do you not wish you knew the Lord better? Do not have regrets that you did not take the Lord more into your heart? Become a stronger better Christian. The world need Christians more than ever. The Lord needs your love and service more than ever.