First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 24

William Loader

Pentecost 24: 11 November  Hebrews 9:24-28

This passage forms part of the author's explanation and argument about Christ having done all that was necessary for all time so that people may know they are forgiven and can look confidently toward completing the journey to salvation. The starting point for his thinking is the idea that Jesus' death was God's way of dealing with human sin. This, in turn, rests on old tradition which developed very early in Christianity and which came to explain the horror of Jesus' crucifixion by not only claiming that it must have been in God's plan, but also that God meant it as a way of dealing with human sin.

People had often reflected on the power which seemed to flow from an innocent life, especially one that was snuffed out prematurely. It is as though there is a surplus of goodness which bursts the bounds of that person's life and flows on beyond their lifetime. People not only grieved over the death of genuinely good people; they also sensed a benefit, a blessing which came from such a death. Martyrs lost everything, but somehow they gained something and gave something to others who would come after them. Some people compared their deaths to sacrifices which were also believed to release life for others.

A range of explanations emerged to try to put in words the impact of Jesus' death. Faith asserted that he was alive, raised by God, but it was more than that. People began to hail his death, paradoxically, not as a defeat but as a victory, not as the snuffing out of life, but as something releasing life for others. Nothing could really explain this impact adequately, but in an age when people were well acquainted with cultic behaviour, many found it useful to interpret Jesus' death in such terms. He died for our sins. He died for us. This was never meant in a crude or mechanistic way, as though God schemed up the violence in order to meet the detailed rules about payback for sins or pay-off against his vengeance. This didn't stop people from using the metaphors of pay-off - buying slaves free (redemption) or payback: Jesus' taking on himself what others deserved to suffer.

With sacrifices it was more complicated because they were never as simple as killing an animal instead of being killed or punished. They had more to do with releasing something or expressing something or creating a meal for reconciliation. Many different animals were sacrificed. Most sacrifices had nothing to do with sin. They could be related to cleansing rites or celebrations of liberation (passover) or expressions of gratitude. This did not stop people from applying a number of the various sacrifice models to Jesus. He is like the passover lamb - that helped people think about liberation. He was a sweet smelling sacrifice, a way of expressing gratitude and praise to God.

As we have seen last week, Hebrews develops the most complicated model of all by using a cut-down version of the ritual of the Day of Atonement. It had advantages. The ritual entailed movement into the innermost sanctum of the temple. The author could bring that into line with the journey of people's lives where at death they can enter the world of heaven as a temple and also make their way to the intimate presence of God. That was a daring assumption. It was a way of saying: God wants us that close, that holy - a very complicated way of talking about God's love! Hebrews mainly thinks of the future when it contemplates salvation - this life was obviously harsh and unpleasant for the writer and hearers.

It was a neat move to see Jesus as a pioneer. Jesus got there first and deserved to. But in getting there he made it possible for others to follow. In terms of Atonement Day, Jesus did all that was necessary on his way there. The author thinks of Jesus' death as the time when Jesus sacrificed the body he had taken on in being made like us. So, like the high priest, he had something to sacrifice. And like the high priest, he then (after his death), entered the temple, the heavenly one, and went right into the intimate presence of God. There are no problems of needing to do this annually or having to deal with his own sins (9:25). He could do it all just once. What he did was complete. All he needed to do was go in there and advocate for us. That is what 9:24 means. Now the job is done. Forgiveness of sins is taken care of. The next thing on the agenda is to welcome home those who are following him (9:28). That will happen when we die (9:27).

This is an inventive model of Jesus. Jesus is the high priest who has made himself a leader who, as forerunner, has finished the journey into the intimate presence of God, and in the process ensured access for all of us. Jesus guarantees once and for all that there is room for us all in the Holiest Place of God's presence. If we push this into a very literal model, we find ourselves asking many questions about details which probably would not have bothered the author. He is used to operating with a model of theology which seemed to have concentrated everything on Jesus' death, much as Paul does.

Hearing Hebrews in the context of the whole story we may want to see the cross not as the sole saving event, but as the climax and symbol of what Jesus' whole life was about. We need not then bind ourselves to models which worry about sacrifices and blood, but see all these models as seeking to explore and explain the huge impact which Jesus' poured out life and death had for others. It also means we don't have to worry about defining the shape and architecture of heaven and who opens which doors or curtains. We can simply affirm that such models are conveying the message that God seeks intimacy with us, shared and sharing love and action, and that life is a journey in which we are never abandoned.

Whether we think of Jesus cheering us on from the heavenly spectator pavilion and putting in a good word for us when we are in trouble or not, that image, Jesus the intercessor, is saying something about encouragement. John's gospel offers the image of the Spirit as encourager - God in there with us, seeking to enable us to live fully and caringly after the model and in the Spirit of Jesus. Such engagement is much more than following an idea or an ideal. It is an accompanied, shared journey, in which God, paradoxically is both far beyond us (but our destination!) and right there with us and within us. When we start connecting to God, all our images become inadequate. Hebrews is no different.

Gospel: Pentecost 24: 11 November Mark 12:38-44

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