Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lamp stand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.
When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
Message “That Blood Thing”
Will you pray with me? Loving God, be with us as we seek to know you better; give us wisdom and grace to see more clearly your ways, the work you have for us, and the beauty of your ways. Amen.
Today we are winding up our look at Hebrews. It’s been challenging in many ways—the constant references to the practices of the Jerusalem Temple, which doesn’t even exist anymore and hasn’t for almost 2000 years; the insistence on the analogy between Jesus and the High Priest; and of course, the concept of substitutionary atonement, which we discussed last week—the idea that instead of the sacrifice of animals for human sins, Jesus became the perfect sacrifice demanded by God, and that Jesus therefore substituted himself for the animals and was sacrificed to clear our sins away. I take issue with this, mostly because I don’t believe God wants blood sacrifice, whether real or symbolic.
In today’s reading, the writer (who was not Paul, regardless of tradition) goes into more depth about that blood sacrifice. His argument is that the sins of humans require more than the blood of animals; that the animal sacrifices were a sort of temporary measure, to be used until a better way presented itself. And, the writer of Hebrews is saying, Jesus was that perfect sacrifice. Just like the animals used in the temple sacrifices had to be perfect and without a blemish—no lame sheep or crook-horned cattle, no chickens with mange—the sacrifice offered to eliminate human sin for all time had to be perfect too. Therefore, Jesus, the child of God, without sin and following perfectly God’s will and God’s commands, is the perfect sacrifice. His death on the cross was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices—everyone who believes in God and Jesus as God’s child has had those sins cleared away.
But is that the sort of God we follow? Does a God who says that love of God and our neighbours as we love ourselves is the centre of faith really insist that the Divine Child be killed before God will forgive sin? What kind of parent insists on their child’s death as a requirement of the parent forgiving what other individuals have done to them? I’ve mentioned before David Blumenthal’s book, “Facing the Abusing God,” and I highly recommend it. He wrestles with the duelling concepts of a God of love and justice, who advocates for the widow, the orphan, the homeless and the poor, and yet also demands death for Jesus, stands idle when children are abused, and was silent during the Holocaust.
Here is where the rubber meets the road, where the stuff gets real, where the shoe pinches, or whatever cliché saying you like. This is where we must each carve out our understanding of God and God’s action in Jesus and with us. We don’t live by what our teachers or parents of friends or pastors believe. In the end, what we have is what we believe—that’s what we live by. If a person believes that God demands blood and pain and sacrifice—then they themselves will expect not only to shed their blood, to experience pain and sacrifice, to become, in effect martyrs—but they will expect others to do the same.
This difference in understanding what God asks of God's people is one of the many reasons for the chasms between various faith traditions. Those who believe they are being asked to sacrifice are not held back by the considerations that make others hesitate. This is the faith that can create martyrs, who give up their lives in sacrifice—either figuratively or literally—in confidence that this is what is expected of them, and that God loves them the better for it. Others who do not believe that God requires that ultimate sacrifice nonetheless serve God with love and fervour, equally confident that they too are serving God, and by resisting that ultimate sacrifice, more fully and completely.
And by martyrs here, I don’t mean people who were made literal martyrs by the actions of others—victims of assassination, such as Bishop Oscar Romero or Dr. Martin Luther King—that sacrifice of their lives was made for them, not by them. I mean those who feel called to sacrifice their lives, health, families, well-being in more symbolic ways—justice work, for example.
Please know that I am not saying that one is right and the other wrong—for those who choose to give their lives to social justice, working to end discrimination, hunger, poverty—that is the right choice. For those who choose to work towards justice, but also work in the home, in the family, to promote love of God and each other in the workplace or the neighbourhood—that the right choice for them. There are many ways to serve God, and many gifts for doing so. None of us possess all the gifts, and we each have our own gift, our own means for serving God.
This is what each of us must wrestle with—how do we see God, how do we understand the force of Love in the universe? What kind of God do we serve? Do we recognise that God in each other? In the world?
One of the meatiest, most satisfying and most difficult courses I had in seminary was Systematic Theology. Theology is our human study of God—who God is and what God means to us, how we believe God works in the world and through each of us, and so on. The systematic part of Systematic Theology is putting the various answers together so that they are mutually supportive and coherent. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to say God prefers pepperoni pizza on the one hand and to say that God won’t tolerate bread on the other hand. Bread is a part of pizza; unless you come up with a very specialised understanding of pizza crust—a pizza made with potato pancakes, or fried mashed cauliflower—which wouldn’t be bread as we understand it anyway--the two statements are incompatible.
My course at Wesley was a year long. There were other theology courses available after you took the systematic courses, studying various theologians like Dietrich Bonheoffer, Thomas Merton, John Wesley, Jurgen Moltmann, and Kark Barth, so the average student had a lot of options to choose from in studying theology. However…that first, basic systematics class required something that would be the foundation of everything you did afterwards.
We had to write our own creed. Many of us know the Nicene Creed, or the Apostolic Creed. Take a look in your hymnals, pages 918 and 920—and 919, for those of you fluent in French. These are the creeds, or statements of belief, that many Christian churches use. There is also a New Creed of the United Church in Canada. This is what a creed looks like. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word “credo,” which means “I believe.”
So we had to sit down and write our own creed—what we believed about God and Jesus Christ and Spirit and how God acts in the world, and so on. For the first semester, we wrote that creed. We could use one of the historic creeds as an example, but we had to use our own words. Then, for the second semester, we had to rewrite it. Our professor suggested we take it back out every year or so and rewrite it as needed.
There were two points to that exercise, as difficult as it was and as much as we complained about it. First, we had to think analytically about what we really believed—were we just saying the words or did we believe them? If not, what did we believe? Does it make sense with the rest of what we believe? Will it work in the real world? How does it do when it comes up against my reality? That of my colleagues? We discussed them in class, and were freely challenged by each other and the professor. In the writing and rewriting, we were forced to decide what we really believed—does it just sound good? Is it an echo of Barth or de Chardin? It’s OK if we are basing our theology on someone else—hard to avoid it—but we need to know the foundations on which we are building. Is this still what I believe? This event or the other has happened—a death, a birth, a crisis in our local congregation, a job loss—has that affected how I believe and if so, how? Secondly, through the class discussions and our work with congregations as interns, we were brought face to face with the impact of our belief on the congregations we were preparing to serve. One of the hottest debates I had in seminary was with a fellow student who said she would have told a grieving parent that her child was in a better place, and that God had kept the child innocent and pure. I challenged her "easy out" theology that refused to struggle with the grief of a dead child on a world with a loving benevolent God--she had let God off the hook. I drew on both my belief, as honed in writing my creed, and my experience with my neice's death at age 12, a crib death in the congregation I was serving, and my own experience as a parent with the fears of losing a child--that explanation did not ease my sister's grief, give her understanding or peace--nor did it help the bereft parents in my congregation.
If you are so moved—and I recommend the attempt—make the experiment. Look at those creeds in the hymnal—they and others are available online—and see if they match what you believe. If they don’t match, why not? How would you change it? What would your creed say?
The ancient philosopher Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined faith, while still worth believing, is not as deep and rewarding and strong as the faith that has been studied and tested and made our own.
If nothing else, the letter to the Hebrews can teach us this—find your faith, your belief; work for it, to understand and know what you believe. Don’t take someone else’s word for it; that is their faith. It may work for you, or it may not—you don’t know unless you work to understand what you believe. It’s tough work, I won’t pretend it isn't. But when you have done the work—or as you continue to do the work, I should say--you will have a faith you know you believe and that you can defend and that you can base your life on. It will guide and strengthen you in your work for God.
In all God’s names, amen.