First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 14

William Loader

Pentecost 14: 21 August  Hebrews 12:18-29

The preacher who is circulating his sermon to people whose needs he knows contrasts two alternatives. He paints them starkly. On the one hand is an image of a terrifying experience which overwhelmed people. He does not mean that God was not present. He can hardly deny that. But he pictures it as a literal, tangible event which left people scared. To the author, it did them no good. It was not good news. He is, of course, referring to the account in Exodus of the revelation on Mount Sinai. At various points in his account the author comes very close to saying the old was irrelevant and meaningless and certainly not good for people. Yet in a difficult balancing act he retrieves the situation constantly by emphasising that God quite deliberately dealt with Israel on this very physical level, intending them to recognise that it was really just a physical (and very inadequate) reflection of the true heavenly reality and should have awakened in them a longing for it.

The contrasting image is rich in symbolism. It is also Jewish in origin. He tells the hearers that they have approached Zion, the city of God. He definitely does not mean the literal Zion, Jerusalem. Rather he means the heavenly city of which he has already spoken in chapter 11. As in the Book of Revelation it is the dwelling place of myriads of angels and of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. The latter are most likely Christians. There are also the righteous who have been made perfect, that is, brought to the completion of their journey. 11:39-40 speaks of the Old Testament heroes of faith who still had to wait until Christ came before they could finally reach the promised land, the heavenly city. He speaks of their spirits, probably reflecting the notion that their souls are in God's hands. The idea of resurrection bodies plays no role in his address. Jesus is there, too, and God, the judge of all, and so is the blood. The blood will be a symbol of Jesus' great achievement as high priest making atonement. Like the high priests of old he will have taken the blood into the Holiest Place of the temple and sprinkled it on the ark of the covenant. Here that will have been meant in a symbolic way. It symbolises the availability of forgiveness.

The clear intention in the contrast is to portray the approach to the heavenly Zion not as fearsome, but as positive and welcoming. The images promise forgiveness (blood) and belonging (the angels, firstborn and the righteous). The author is wanting to offer encouragement, to build up confidence. He does so by painting the new covenant very positively and painting the old covenant very negatively. It was certainly not inviting. The author wants to discourage every inclination to be persuaded by Jews of the time that their way was right. At worst this is negative propaganda which caricatures Old Testament and Jewish faith.

Positive encouragement is not enough. As he does often throughout Hebrews, the author also resorts to warnings, which usually follow the logic: if disregarding the old covenant brought punishment and if the new covenant is much greater than the old covenant, then disregarding the new covenant will bring greater punishment (11:25; see also 2:3-4), but his thought races on to another kind of argument, already hinted at back in 12:18. The old covenant belongs to the physical, tangible world. The new, belongs to the spiritual world. One day both the heavens and the earth will be shaken and all that will remain is what is spiritual and permanent, not the created world. The old physical earth and heavens will disappear. Only the spiritual, including the spiritual people will remain. This is his version of the hope of new heaven and a new earth, but he is thinking only in spiritual terms, not about renewal. 12:29 then returns to the threatening voice, reminding the hearer that God is a consuming fire: fear also motivates the new covenant.

There are tensions in this text. The tensions reflect conflicting values, some of which still shine brightly. While a parody of Israel's sacred story of Sinai, the image of terror reflects some insight that this is no way to approach God or people. Terrifying people and threatening them is not God's way, although for the author it is an approach which he both rejects and in his own way employs. From the way he and others sometimes employ it in the New Testament (such as Matthew and Revelation) Christianity developed its own terror campaigns at times, from the vicious inquisitions to the fear-based moralism which skewed the lives of many under church tutelage where this was the primary method of control. But the author also knows that this is not the way of hope and change.

Where God is and lives - Zion - looks quite different. It is filled with symbols of belonging and forgiveness. Ultimately this is what matters most and lasts. His way of expressing this is to make a sharp divide between the physical/material and the spiritual. That, too, has its dangers and will lead some to see God's way as having nothing to do with the flesh and blood realities of material existence, but only to do with being something other what we were made to be and somewhere other than where we currently are. The real danger is both a devaluing of our whole personality and a devaluing of others and their needs. It also devalues God's creation. At worst such theology becomes an instrument of oppression. As long as the oppressed can be persuaded that all that matters is their future spiritual hope in a land beyond this one, then authorities can be happy that they won't complain too much about deprivation here. And with regard to the creation - who cares about ecology!

Yet the author has not retreated to a position which says: hope is to escape the material world and have our souls live forever in bliss. You don't even need God for that. Instead our author always has God personally involved and never quite loses the notion that God was always actively involved in both the material and the spiritual and that ultimately God takes initiatives out of love for people. There is something about belonging and forgiveness which makes God approachable. If we collapse the vertical structures of the preacher, which have the material on one plane of his Platonic thought and the heavenly and spiritual on another, we might translate his contrast into a challenge to face two conflicting theologies which have always played themselves out in human communities of faith (both Jewish and Christian). Ultimately our image of God reflects what we value most and, simultaneously, our image of God reinforces what we value most. Both the author's Sinai paradigm and his Zion paradigm are still part of our theological landscape.

Gospel: Pentecost 14: 21 August Luke 13:10-17
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