The Son In Heaven
Christianity is a many splendoured thing. I have sought out the Lord all of my adult life but now I know only how little I know about the unsearchable riches of Christ. My particular journey has been one seeking inward fellowship with God. For some Christianity is a code of behaviour. For others Christianity is a series of answers to the great questions of life. For the writer of the Book of Hebrews, Christianity is the means of access to God through Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews was well educated in Greek learning and in Judaism. He wrote for Greeks and Romans, for Jews and for Jews converted to Christianity. Hebrews may have been written around 70 AD. Greek philosophy sought to express the highest understanding of reality. This, says Hebrews is actually found in Jesus Christ. Jews did not seek to become too close to God. Only the High Priest once a year entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The Old Covenant gave the Jews access to God’s forgiving love and care. But they did have to keep their side of the Covenant which was the Law. Jews were not perfect and broke the laws of Judaism and this required the sacrificial system of the temple to make repeated atonements. The writer of Hebrews understood that in Jesus Christ a New Covenant was offered not just to Jews but to all humanity. In Jesus Christ The Jewish Law was replaced by dynamic saving Grace and in Jesus Christ there was made possible one to one access to God in personal relationship. So the Book of Hebrews is the spiritual and theological working out of these great matters. It is a majestic book with some of the noblest and highest thinking in the New Testament.
In chapter one the writer seeks to clarify and define the status of Jesus against that of the Old Testament prophets and against belief in the role of angels. For Jews to this day, Jesus remains a prophet and for Muslims Jesus is the second last prophet before Mohammad. We know that the prophets were men of God, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Zechariah and the like. John the Baptist was the last of this line according to Jesus. They were individuals especially set apart to speak for God to the people and rulers of God’s Covenanted People. They were critics and they were leaders though they did not exercise political power. They offered evidence in their own lives that God was still present with his people. Prophets were enlivened and inspired by the Holy Spirit and were respected by some and feared and loathed by others. Some suffered for their criticisms of rulers and some were murdered to shut them up. The earlier prophets like Elijah were men of extraordinary deeds while the latter prophets were men of letters and of literature. Those who encountered Jesus thought that he was one of the former category in the line of the prophets of God. His disciples hoped that he would become a political leader and liberate the oppressed people of the Jews.
So, the writer of Hebrews explains that the days of the prophets are over. 'In these days he has spoken to us by his Son whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe'. This is a very large claim to make about a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. We can understand that Jesus became the heir of all things more easily than we can understand that it was through Jesus that creation came into being. In the Book of Revelation for example, we read 'You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation'. Jesus deserves to be the heir because he gave up his life for the salvation of human beings on earth. But in John’s Gospel we read, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made'. This is Christianity’s incarnational theology which we celebrate especially at Christmas. Jesus was not born as a person for the first time at Bethlehem. He was the human incarnation of the Son of God who had already existed from the beginning of time and was active in the creation of the world. This is how creation and redemption are one and the same thing in Christianity. Jesus is not an emergency operative, a first responder or the likes of a fireman or paramedic. Calvary and Resurrection are not God’s afterthoughts or late efforts put into place to offset what has gone wrong in the human community. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. He is not simply a prophet in the line of the prophets of Israel. He is the beloved Son at one with the Father.
In all the political discourse thrown at us by the media there is no inclusion of the Christian perspective, the Christian vision, the Christian explanation, Christian answers. Just in the past week we have learned that the salaries of some highly placed executives are now 150 times that of the average salary of their employees. We have learned that fortunes are being made by prisoners smuggling in and selling spice, a new lethal drug concoction. They are using drones but bribed prison officers are the easiest means. We have learned that rates of mental illness among children at school and among university students are increasing dramatically. We have learned that rates of alcoholic poisoning among teenage girls have multiplied in recent years. This is what happens when Christianity is excluded from national life. The loving power of the resurrected Jesus can be an overarching protection against all forms of greed, wickedness and self-harm. Jesus provides a large and wide aspiration for human life and answers to our deepest human needs. There is a Saviour.
We also learned in the last week the results of a very large research project in America about the lifelong beneficial effects of belonging to and attending Church. A team of researchers made this discovery after analysing data charting the lives of 74,534 female nurses in the US over a 16 years period. The team found that regular churchgoers were 33 per cent less likely to die over that period than those who did not attend. Regular attendance was also linked with fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer. Even attending occasionally appeared to improve survival rates. The team believed that being part of a congregation discouraged bad habits, such as smoking, and increased optimism. The study was undertaken by the nurses between 1996 and 2012, with results suggesting churchgoers were 27 per cent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease and had a 21 per cent lower risk of dying from cancer. Other such surveys in the past have also found that going to Church has long terms health benefits. Do you think that our political leaders will suggest to the nation that it is time to go back to Church? Do you think that any of them will make the connection between the anxieties of young people and the lack of practising faith in Jesus Christ? Do you think that they will make any connection at all between the Christian explanation of our existence and the possibilities of living long and well? And even if they don’t – do you not think that our Christian leaders should be making this challenge to this generation. They are afraid of making the distinct Christian claim, they are afraid of preaching the Gospel of personal salvation.
We also learned this week that our Church’s General Assembly meeting presently in Edinburgh will receive proposals to allow 'access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation by administering baptisms remotely through the internet. Norman Smith, vice-convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council, described the plans as forward-thinking. 'Most people live out their Christian faith not in church buildings', he said. 'We are responding to where we find ourselves in society in a positive and engaging way. It shows that the Church is not behind the times. As fewer people join up in the traditional sense and as they make choices which include ever greater interaction with the Church through online access and social media, questions arise about online membership and even about access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation', the Kirk report said. The Kirk is looking for new ways to reach people as membership numbers continue to drop and technology plays an increasingly important role.
This seems a madcap idea. But I suppose what is envisaged is an online tutorial leading to an online profession of faith. Maybe then a package of sanctified water will be posted out and the initiate will pour the water on to the baby, child or himself or herself Or maybe like contactless payments they will have contactless baptism without any need for water at all. What is missing is the spiritual dynamic of the Lord in baptism in the context of Christian worship, the human interaction, the welcoming of the congregation representing Christ’s Church and the whole experience of the presence of the Living Lord and the blessing that is present to everyone. This seems to me to be something that accentuates human loneliness rather than heals it. Online relationships are often sterile and false, although there are communities of interest which function well enough, like train spotters for example. But these are hobbies and interests, they are not life and death and eternal life issues. Christ’s Church exists to bring people into fellowship. Online Christian fellowship already exists and the Church of Scotland recognises that. But Christianity’s uniting of God and humans through Jesus Christ is a soul and body dynamic. Human contact is essential.
Chapter 1 of Hebrews concludes with a discussion on the status of angels in relation to Jesus Christ. For all the atheism and technology of our time, there are lots of people who believe in angels and many who say that they have had angelic encounters, myself included. We know from the Book of Acts that some Jews did not believe in angels – they were the Saducees, the political and intellectual elites of the day. But Jews in the tradition of Pharisaism (as Jesus and Paul were) did believe in angels. There were thought to be many many angels and the principle ones were given names, Raphael, Gabriel and Michael to name three. They were messengers from God employed at significant moments with people who were to be significant players in God’s redeeming work in the world. Verse 14 asks rhetorically 'Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?' So the message is clear. Jesus is not an angel. He sits at God’s right hand in heaven, returned to his place after the incarnation and the completion of his saving and redeeming work for humankind. We can receive his everlasting life and power as we live out our Christian days and years and as he re-entered heaven, we who love and serve him may follow him there.