Pioneer of our salvation, perfect through suffering
The following sermon was preached by Cheryl Stewart Pero, director of the Multicultural Center at LSTC, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, October 8, 2012.
You might have heard the modern adage: If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. Evidently, this is what the author of what has come to be known as the Letter (Epistle) to the Hebrews was addressing in his cultural context in the ancient world: how to stand up for Jesus. This body of material may have originated as a series of homilies that were recorded by the early Christian community (between 60 and 90 CE) and canonized in the late fourth century.
The author is developing a constructive Christology in the face of the early persecution of second generation Christians, including Jews and Jewish Christians. He is making an attempt to persuade his hearers to follow in the way of Jesus because it is far superior to the way of traditional Jewish traditions. This unknown author (definitely not Paul; Origin said about who wrote the letter: God alone knows!) depends on his audiences' familiarity with Hebrew Scripture references to build his case, i. e, use of Psalm 8.
His basic message is that Jesus is humanity's guide to salvation. He makes his case first by appealing to the ancient world's understanding of the cosmological hierarchy: God, the angels, humanity, demonic spirits, etc.. He then explains how Jesus' life irrevocably altered the hierarchical structure of the world. Finally he applies Jesus' incarnation model to the human situation in order to assist early Christians to affirm their faith in Jesus and their relationship with God. The author reminds his audience that they have been "set apart as sacred to God" by God's action in Jesus. So Jesus' humiliation and exaltation constitute the method by which all of humanity is related and attains salvation.
Imitation being the highest form of flattery, we, as well as these early Christians, are called to imitate Jesus, then. Although we are ambivalent about those who imitate us today, the ancients encouraged imitation in dress and behavior, in speaking and in writing, in attitudes and in values. It was indeed the highest honor to be imitated! (Paul!) So the author invites the first century audience to use Jesus as their model of how to relate to God and to one another. The threat of apostasy was real because of the opposition to these early Christians. And what comprises our imitation of Christ? We are reminded of the Gnosis hymn in Philippians 2 where Paul describes Jesus' humiliation and exaltation.
God made "the pioneer of our salvation perfect through suffering" (NRSV). Not only despised by many, rejected by his own culture and physically abused by humans, Jesus was killed in the most humiliating fashion: crucifixion. And even here we catch a glimpse of Jesus' exaltation in-so-far as he was lifted up on the cross. A contemporary gospel characterizes this on the following way (I may not be accurate in my quote):
They nailed him on and brought him high,
He hung his head , for me he died -- that's love!
God loves humanity so much that God sent Jesus to experience the human condition! And through Jesus' suffering, all humanity was saved and sanctified, that is, set apart as sacred to God. God's plan was to give humanity something and someone to stand for!
Can you imagine a world in which you might reconsider and possibly even reject your personal, cultural and historical faith? Perhaps in times like today and the first century, times when some "Christian" charlatans compromise the integrity of the entire church, when others want to remove your faith from functioning in daily life, when some want to circumscribe ad narrowly define what it means to be a Christian, when the devil (and demonic spirits) roam around seeking Christians to devour, when questions of theodicy emerge, when the state works hard to make you believe that it is God, when humans vie for power and control over the people, perhaps in times like these we need to very consciously stand for Jesus.
Because God, in God's wisdom, created us all and gave us an indelible identity tied into Jesus' life death and resurrection.