First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Good Friday

William Loader

Good Friday:  18 April Hebrews 10:16-25 (alternative: Good Friday 18 April  Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9)

This passage come at the conclusion of the author's argument that what Jesus has achieved can be understood as replacing the old covenent. The old covenant provision of an Atonement Day ritual has now been made obsolete. In fact, the author argues, that ritual simply foreshadowed the real thing which was to come. The real thing is that Christ came and died for our sins. In a complicated application of the details of the old ritual the author argues that Jesus is like both the high priest and the sacrifice.

As the high priest had an animal killed and then entered the holiest room of the temple to sprinkle the blood on the lid of ark of the covenent box (a considerable simplification of the ritual of Leviticus 16), so Jesus is a high priest. He also offered himself in his death - and so is also like the sacrifice. Expanding the imagery further, the author argues: Jesus then took his own blood and sprinkled it before God in the holiest place of the heavenly temple, before God. The imagery is complex and entails a stretch of the imagination: Jesus' takling his own blood to heaven. It is also not a very good match. The old ritual saw the sprinkling as the main rite and the killing as merely preparatory. In the Christian tradition people had out all the emphasis on the death of Jesus. But the match was good enough for the argument. The idea of carrying the blood into heaven is a kind of appendix and has to mean something like: displaying before God what had been achieved on the cross.

If the old ritual strikes us as belonging to a very unfamiliar culture, so too does the notion of Jesus' death as a kind of atoning death sacrifice and the sprinkling of his blood. These contortions of argument are designed in part to show the old as obsolete. It was a way of dealing with any claims that perhaps Christians had got it wrong and that they should all convert (or convert back) to Judaism. It was a delicate move because the author wants to dismiss the old as irrelevant and at the same time respect that it was also God-given. This tension runs through Hebrews. Jeremiah's promise of a new covenant (already cited in full in 8:8-12) is interpreted as evidence from within the Old Testament itself that its system will one day be defunct.

Turning from the preoccupation with dismissing the competing ideology of continuing Judaism, the author also wants to say positive things to his hearers. This is what we find in 10:29-25. The imagery of the temple and atonement day is still hovering around. Through it the author declares: we can now be confident about our access to God. The aim is reassurance. Nothing blocks our way because God has chosen to remove anything that would. The argumentation of these chapters has been an elaborate way of saying: God does not hold our failure and sin against us! Jesus' whole life is seen as a statement of this truth. His death takes it to the unflinching end: it is serious, total and complete. As Jesus stuck by this truth to the end, so God assures us for all time: there is love and forgiveness. For the author, like many but not all Christians of his day, it was helpful to explain this by depicting Jesus' death as having the effect of a sacrifice for sin.

The next chapter will make much of faith as sticking with it, keeping on track, trusting that this really is the way, and having the confidence that this way leads to God. That theme is already beginning in 10:20-25. For the author the basis of the confidence is the death of Jesus (understood as conveying the forgiveness Jeremiah predicted) and his presence now before God. The latter relates back to the notion that Jesus, too, has been on the journey and can speak up for us before God like a high priest. That is a fairly simple way of saying: God still cares for us now as we face the challenges of the journey.

Notice that the author picks up distinctively Christian imagery in 10:22-23. We hear echoes of baptism and of making a confession of our faith. Then in 10:24-25 the encouragement takes community dimensions: we need to encourage each other on the way and that includes meeting together regularly for such support. It is the only passage in the New Testament which directly encourages regular 'church attendance'. One can see why. Given that these people are about to face severe hardship, it makes sense to stick together. It also makes sense to revisit the foundations of one's confidence or sense of identity. That is why the author developed his elaborate images about Jesus the sacrifice end all sacrifices.

Like much of Hebrews this passage is alien, yet in other ways very real and relevant. Our task is to use the same level of creativity which the author used to retell the story of Jesus in images that make sense to our hearers. Our choices will be different from his. The constant is the fundamental affirmation of God's goodness and love, represented and lived in Christ. It is also the encouragement to engage the journey - for us, not, perhaps focused on a heavenly city or an escape from the present (who knows we could face situations where that is relevant as it is for these hearers!), but to be on the journey nevertheless wherever it way lead and to know it is the way of the one who lived out God's goodness and love - right to the end. Perhaps our challenge is less with confronting what is life threatening to us and more with what is life threatening to others. Increasingly Christians will need to come together as a minority (and with others) to resist forces which in much more sophisticated ways than the Romans persist in abusing others for the sake of maintaining their own power - and, like the Romans, often under the banner of 'peace'.

Gospel: Good Friday: 18 April John 18:1 – 19:42
Epistle Alternative: Good Friday 18 April  Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

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