by James Nieman
Let mutual love continue.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Let marriage be held in honor by all,
and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled;
for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.
Keep your lives free from the love of money,
and be content with what you have;
for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God,
that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have,
for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Rules. What an oddly fitting way to begin this fresh new year. We just heard the better portion of last chapter of Hebrews, and it’s simply stuffed with rules. Thirteen imperative verbs in all, most set into clever couplets that, when heard one after the next, evoke the grindingly percussive rhythm of a tiresome marching band:
- Let love endure / Don’t neglect strangers — You might meet an angel
- Remember the prisoners / Don’t forget victims — You share the same body
- Honor each marriage / Don’t pollute intimacy — You are judged by God
- Become truly content / Don’t love money — You need not be afraid
On and on, the pattern repeats: Do this / Don’t do that — followed by a punchy saying or threat or proof text. And there seems scant relation between all these rules, except that they name the usual stuff about which Christians apparently obsess: duty, hardship, sex, money, and of course, obedience. So patterned and predictable is the list that it’s easy to add rules attuned to our situation today, whether student, faculty, or administration:
- Register by Friday / Don’t neglect payment — You are a visionary leader
- Improve your syllabus / Don’t forget advisees — You face a tenure review
- Monitor all expenses / Don’t avoid deadlines — You have another meeting now
- Promote a culture of ongoing institutional self-assessment / Don’t let the composite financial index fall unacceptably low — You could harm the seminary’s accreditation>
Okay, that last one was just for me. What I really want you to see, though, is that we differ little from those to whom Hebrews was addressed, our lives as rule-laden as theirs. Imperatives saturate all we do with their nagging “do this, don’t do that,” no matter how kindly they sound. And when we’re afraid or uncertain, even gentle guidance becomes a desperate drone, as if by clinging to rules we can regain our calm or our footing. Perhaps for a time that does happen—but never for long, and never in way that is truly sustaining. Rules lead to compliance but never to lasting life. As for the ones we heard today, few are particularly Christian, either. Sure, they appear within our holy scripture, but you’ll also find them sprinkled in other first century codes, beliefs, and philosophies. Be good, don’t be bad. Not a very distinctive theology.
So if you want to argue that Christianity is a religion of drones bent on keeping order and telling others what to do, today’s reading offers pretty good evidence. “Now, wait a minute,” careful listeners among you might say, “I’m sure I heard some nice Jesus stuff in this reading!” And that’s absolutely right. Verse 8, near the end of this selection, is one of the best known in all of Hebrews: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. It’s a nice slogan, but to be cheeky, how does that help? Sure, I love to hear that Jesus is constant and true, but does that make life any clearer, the way any brighter if you have no idea who Jesus is or what he’s done? All by itself, verse 8 is either needless if you already believe or nonsense if you don’t—which includes the one-third of all young adults who affirm no faith of any kind, let alone the hundreds of our South Side neighbors gunned down annually before they have any real chance to live. If Christianity offers nothing but a layer cake of impossible rules covered with a frosting of implausible slogans, well, that’s not exactly a compelling witness.
In a move of literary and liturgical critique, I’d like you to pick up the worship folder and notice a point of punctuation. Find where the Hebrews reading is cited and notice what appears between verses 1-8 and verses 15-16. Yes, it’s a comma, one that indicates that six full verses have been omitted. Now, I love the Sunday lectionary more than anyone really should. I know its history, its theology, its quirks and delights. But in this case, I also sense its shortcomings. By leaping from verse 8 (about the constancy of Christ) to verse 15, the aim was likely to spare you several oddball, eye-glazing, and even grim sentences. Yet these are the most important part of this reading, without which the rest makes little sense. In the interest of time I won’t read all the missing verses, which wander from topics like sound instruction to food laws to priestly offerings. Rather than ponder their delightful intricacy, though, let me point you to their core, the three main verses that orient the earlier recital of generic rules and grandiose slogans. And these core verses are all about … sacrifice:
11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.
12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.
13 Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.
Complex as these omitted verses sound to modern folks like us, they hold a simple comparison. Our faithful lives are compared to Jesus, who is in turn compared to an animal.
Just as animals, whose blood was shed for Israel’s sin, were burned outside the camp—so Jesus, whose life was given for our sake, was crucified outside the city—and so we, who partake in this great gift, are likewise to meet Jesus outside the camp. It’s a startling claim that reorients our days and puts us all in our place. Like I said, it’s surely good to know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. But that becomes mere slogan when these later verses are left out. What matters is not just that Jesus is constant and true, but where and for whom. Like an ancient sacrifice, he is constant and true outside the camp, outside the city—beyond our zones of invented holiness, implicit respect, or imagined security—out where the carcasses are disposed and the criminals are dispatched. His realm is there: with them, for them, on behalf of the unlovely who are so hastily ignored, forgotten, and rejected. If that’s where Jesus is found, and if we are one with him in his dying and rising, then that’s our abode as well.
What a sweet gift and good news this is, dear friends, to have a place with Jesus for the sake of others. No longer do we face a monotonous march from one rule to the next, boosting our spirits with pious slogans while praying like mad we don’t stumble and fall. Instead, we are given a place with Jesus outside—out there, beyond our comfort perhaps, but in a space where duty gives way to delight. And out there, sharing Jesus’s wounds and all those he befriends, is the freedom and strength to embody every imperative in these holy verses: to welcome the stranger and to embrace the imprisoned, to support holy vows and to resist corrosive craving, to let mutual love abound in the company of a Jesus who is constant and true, now and always. Out there Jesus abides, and our lasting life with him, where our anxious order is exchanged for his horizon of hope. For out there is neither rule nor slogan, but ever, only promise.
Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16