First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 13

William Loader

Pentecost 13: 18 August  Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2

We have skipped Isaac, Jacob and Joseph (11:17-22) and commence our re-entry to the parade of faith's heroes on Hebrews 11 at the tail end of the section on Moses (11:23-29). The escape from Egypt across the sea, which miraculously opened up to provide a crossing on dry land (11:29), is the first of a series of further events from the Old Testament and some from Jewish legend which form the rest of Hebrews 11. The crossing of the sea and the fall of Jericho's walls reflect belief that what was predicted would come true and that one should act on it.

The author will not have questioned the historicity of such stories. He also had no hesitation in acclaiming Rahab, the prostitute. The focus is her collusion with the invaders, not issues of morality. The enemy are the unbelievers. We are hearing a list of heroes from within assumptions we might want to question very seriously. This is no less true of many of the heroes who follow in 11:32, a number of whom were involved in invasion and occupation and sometimes associated with what we would call ethnic cleansing. The values which sanction this activity still sustain the conflicts which bedevil the world today and evoke the horrific responses we face often in terrorist acts. So there is a certain naiveté in the parade of faith's heroes.

On the other hand, we can see that the author is mainly concerned to celebrate ongoing values: staying with what you believe is God's will, even when it means suffering; holding fast to what you believe to be true. That is just as relevant today, when there is enormous pressure to compromise with interests which have contrary values like: my well being is what matters most and can be sought for at the cost of others. It is also a matter of what people perceive to be God's will. That needs testing constantly, because we have a habit of making what we want into our God's will and not vice versa. We may recognise awesome courage and faith for the sake of causes and gods which are destructive for people and for our world. What greater faith than to give one's life for others - but as a suicide bomber?

So to talk about faith and courageous commitment needs tempering with the large theological questions. Most of the time determined faith is bad news, because most of the time it is faith in causes which are at most questionable, including within Christianity. Such faith can make people blind to alternatives and inflexible in the complex realities of life. On the other hand, where determined faith is directed towards the God of compassion who will not compromise love or discount some people as of lesser worth, then that faith is absolutely crucial for a better world.

The chapter ends with an image of people who did not belong in this world. This fits the author's view that what matters lies beyond it and not in it. While people in desperate circumstances of suffering may have every right to claim this as true to their experience, our author widens to scope and believes fundamentally that the meaning of this life lies beyond it and not within it. This needs bringing into dialogue with other values in scripture which do find creation to be good and do keep finding God in it. It is striking that 11:39-40 concludes that none of the heroes achieved the goal of what matters. They had to wait for us. Then they could reach their journey's end, "be perfected" (11:40). "Being perfected" here means to reach the end  (telos) or goal of the journey.

Behind the author's claim is the assumption that Christ was the first to enter the land of perfection and so open the way for others to follow. It is a rather strange view, given that he has listed heroes of faith, and runs contrary to many other traditions in the New Testament and early Judaism according to which people like Moses and Abraham were already now in heaven with God. But they are still heroes for the author, perhaps even more so that they persevered and have had to wait so long. Yet we should not imagine the author is developing a theory or theology about the past. His chief concern is to point to the present. He wants the hearers to appreciate that when they now face pressures they are not alone. Many others have been there before them. Their example is cited to inspire ongoing faithfulness.

Chapter breaks were an invention of centuries after the New Testament books were written. The first congregations listening to this writing being read before them would simply hear 12:1 without any sense of a break. It is, of course, an application of what precedes. The cloud of witnesses refers to the heroes of faith. Does the author imagine them as now living spirits watching on from above or does he mean something like: the crowd of biblical figures which I have set before you. It is probably the latter, although the former has also enhanced the inspiration which these words have generated.

Clearly their heart is the focus on Jesus. From chapters 2-7 the author's major point was that the one who has gone before us and opened the way is the one who, himself, faced its perils, albeit successfully. So he knows what it is like to suffer, including the need to struggle against the temptation to abandon the path of faith when things get tough. He therefore knows what it is like for us, when we face similar prospects, and prays for us (7:25). 12:1-2 are therefore returning us to the emphases of 2:17-18; 4:14-16; and 8:1. One of the important aspects of Christ's sitting at God's right hand, in the view of the author, is that he is near God and can speak up for us.

12:2 describes Jesus as the "originator" (archegos) and "completer" (teleiotes). The first word also means leader, but the notion is one of someone who not only leads, but also has created the opportunity for us to follow. Sometimes the word is translated "author". It is similar to the word "cause" in 5:9 ("the cause or basis for eternal salvation"). So he started the journey and pioneered it. 6:20 speaks of him as the "forerunner". The second word can be translated "finisher", meaning that he started the course and he finished the course. But it can also mean that he not only finished the course himself, but helps others to complete the journey (by praying for them). That is probably part of its meaning here. Jesus set it up the way and Jesus can bring us to its goal, as well as having completed the journey himself and partly because he has done so. Despite the joy which lay before him or perhaps, holding it in mind, he was prepared to endure all kinds of suffering (12:2).

The journey is an inspiring motif. It can be quite unhelpful, especially where life is seen as a journey away from present reality, as a kind of escape to a heavenly world. Then our present existence only has meaning as something we must put up with on the way. Hebrews can be reduced to that, but need not be. The journey can also be a motif in which we understand ourselves to be in a continuing process of growth and development, at each stage of which we are in the company of God.

Looking to Jesus is also an inspiring motif. Again, it can be narrowly focused on escape to another world, as though Jesus' chief concern is getting us through this world as an encumbrance so that we can join him in another place and another time. Hebrews can also be reduced to that, but need not be. We can cut the metaphor adrift from such a grid to the point where our looking to Jesus becomes an aspect of our ongoing spiritual journey and that we find him not seated on a throne in an ethereal realm, but out in the real world in which we live, in many places glorious and horrendous, "saying, 'Christian, follow me'". This then shifts the emphasis from time and place to person, and from promise and reward to a relationship of love in which we and others can find fulfilment by finding our humanity and dignity as God made us to be. That is inseparable from wanting that for all others. Christ is always setting us on that way and helping us get there, because he has been along that road, and still travels it.

The weights and encumbrances which we need to lay aside (12:1) may be anything from personal sins to the clinging vines of self indulgence at the expense of others and the political systems which sustain them. Running the race, a very common image in the ancient world, is about having an integrated focus, a single goal. This is not at the expense of acknowledging that most of life is complex and our knowledge limited, but about having a centredness which we identify with God and Jesus and which is ringed about with love.

Gospel: Pentecost 13: 18 August Luke 12:49-56
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