Sermon delivered at Raysville Friends meeting
Reading: Hebrews 4:14-5:10
When we come right down to it — this passage gives us a view of salvation, gives a hint of who Jesus is, and gives me a lot to think about when I think about what it means to be a minister of the gospel. The passage is terse, there is very much to flesh out, and it is almost impossible not to read our own theologies into the passage — which is true of all brief readings with many theologically full words. It is impossible to see words like salvation without bringing in our own ideas of what this means.
If we go back to the first chapter of Hebrews, we see that Jesus is God and Human. We further see that Hebrews differentiates how God used to speak to humanity, and how God now speaks to humanity: Before, God spoke through prophets, now that Jesus came, Jesus is God’s voice to us. Hebrews starts by telling us what it means that Jesus is both divine and human: Through Jesus, God can talk to us. Today’s reading tells us that through Jesus we can also talk to God, Jesus can pray for us, seek forgiveness for our sinfulness, and that Jesus offers us salvation — and this salvation comes from the humanity and the Deity of Jesus
As I said before, Salvation is a somewhat theologically loaded word. When we see this word without a great deal of context, we have to guess things such as from what are we being saved? Very often, we will guess something rather simple, something that we expect. For example, the disciples knew that Jesus came to offer salvation — but they assumed that he would save Israel from the Romans, and that this salvation would come through some sort of armed insurrection. At least some of the disciples maintained this idea of salvation until Jesus was taken up into Heaven.
When I was younger, I always assumed that the salvation mentioned in scripture was salvation from hell, or more specifically, salvation from the punishment of sin. I’ve read several essays suggesting that without hell, there would be nothing that we needed saved from — which seems rather strange to me as scripture talks about Jesus saving us from sin. Even without hell, we still need salvation from sin.
When I read the gospels, I see that Jesus heals many people, and when he speaks to them, he often says: “Your faith has saved you.” The most obvious reading of this implies that Jesus saved them from physical disabilities, chronic illness, and in some cases death.
This passage connects salvation with the very nature of Jesus. For many centuries, Christians have tried to figure out what exactly that means. One of the oldest views is that we are saved just because Jesus was both God and human. Second Century theologian Irenius said that Jesus made human life holy by being human. He lived out life as a human, and died as a human, sanctifying the whole of human life. The basic idea is that Jesus participated in humanity and that makes humanity special. We are invited to participate in the miraculous — if we live with Christ, if we die with Christ, we will be raised with him.
When I took theology at Friends University, my professor Christian Kettler spoke about Salvation in terms of “The vicarious humanity of Christ”. He spoke of a Christ who lived life better than any of us could. He told us of how there are times that we cannot pray, so Jesus prays for us. There are times when we lose our faith, but Jesus is faithful for us. Kettler is a Presbyterian, and his book really expands the idea of substitutionary atonement to go beyond the cross to cover Christ’s whole life. I think that this is a good way to understand this passage.
In the past, this passage tells us, the priest would approach God for the people: The priest would vicariously pray for the people. The priest, however, was just another one of the people who had no real right nor ability to approach God. The priest needed to atone for his own sinfulness first. In the end, we rarely read of a priest bringing God’s word or assurance back to the people — as Hebrews 1 states: “In the past, God spoke through prophets”. The people had to both approach God, and hear from God vicariously through others, and vicariously through people who approached God clumsily, and never quite reached God.
Christ has brought us a long way. Jesus replaces the priest when we need somebody to pray for us, vicariously. In the words of George Fox, Christ has come to teach us Himself. Scripture teaches us that even after the Ascension, God has not abandoned us, but given us a Holy Spirit. We believe that we live in a state where we have access to God without the need of a priest to approach God for us vicariously. Jesus is our priest — Jesus is our pastor.
This is a rather challenging truth for me. I recognize that when I say that Jesus is, ultimately our shepherd, I name myself as one of the sheep. It is too easy to fall back on a model of ministry that is made obsolete by the work of Jesus: That is, it is very easy to fall into a model of ministry where a designated person learns the Holy things, prays vicariously for the people, and believes vicariously for the people. It is very tempting to fall into a model that grabs an Old Testament priest, and ignore that our faith is built on the incarnation.
When I say with George Fox: Christ is our teacher, what role is there for me? I know that whatever I am going to be, I am not Jesus. Whatever my ministry will be, it is not my job to do what Christ has already done — so, what does it mean, if I am to take on the role of pastor, to be both sheep and a shepherd under the Good Shepherd?
The problem that we face here is explained fairly well by an observation that Carlos Moran once made when he told a parable:
When a farmer plows his field, he sets up a reference point, and keeps his eye on that reference point. Once there was a lazy farmer who looked in the distance, and saw something that was white that he could use. He set his plow to his ox, and he kept his eye on the white thing, and he plowed a row. When he got to the end of the field, he saw clearly what he set his eye upon, a sheep. When he looked back, he saw that the row was quite crooked, because the whole time he was following a sheep.
Carlos was speaking of some dysfunction he observed in churches, and the sheep that he was talking about happened to be pastors. He noticed that people were getting so involved in pastors arguments that they were more interested in taking sides than keeping their eyes focused on a real reference point. This is the danger of being a pastor — that people will look to the pastor when they should be looking to Christ.
The truth is, I can’t be Jesus for anybody — and I don’t want to be. That means while I can and I should pray for people — I cannot pray for people vicariously when they cannot find the words that they want to say. I can, and I should do my best to interpret scripture, and share what I have learned and studied — but, unlike Jesus, I am not able to speak with the authority that comes from being the Word of God. In fact, even with all my study, I am no more than one interpreter in a community that seeks to discern God’s will. I grew up an Evangelical, and I have learned to have a personal faith, and to interpret scripture for myself. A more difficult lesson is that everybody around me has their own faith, and their own interpretations. I offer my voice, I listen to the voices of other interpreters.
Ok — I’m not Jesus, I can’t save you. I can’t stand before the Father in your behalf, I cannot offer you salvific grace. I cannot believe for you — if you have a crisis of faith, my faith will be of little comfort. And, if it comes down to it, I cannot be convicted of your sinfulness: If I were, it would do neither me nor you any good. Ministry is hard for me to wrap my head around sometimes, because the whole ancient role of priest seems removed. My ministry has to be something else — what can I do? Sometimes I think there is nothing left to do. Part of me thinks there is no need for pastors.
But, when I think about it — there is much that I can do. Making space for community takes deliberate work, and I can put work into community. If you give clear direction, I can represent the community. I can be your communities voice, and I can work to make sure that you stay connected to what is good in our wider community. There are some areas, such as hospitals, where only an official representative can go sometimes. I know that these are places we cannot afford to abandon. I know also that in order to share our faith with one another, we need somebody to hold a safe place where we can be deliberate about this. I can do my best to hold this place where we share our faith and make a space for a worshiping community. At this point all I can do is pray that we are gathered and ready to meet our true Shepherd.