We’re just going to work our way through this passage verse by verse this morning.
13:1 Let mutual love continue.
What a great place to start a message about walking the Way of Jesus. Let mutual love continue. That’s the heart of is, isn’t it. Mutual love. Mutual love is a beautiful way of paraphrasing Jesus’ third commandment – love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34). It’s not a one-way love, it’s about mutuality. And it’s a message aimed directly at you – the church, the body of Christ in a particular place.
And I love that it says “continue!” – implying that mutual love is already in practice, which, if anyone has looked around this place for any length of time you would see being lived out in abundance. Faith United is rocking this verse! Let your mutual love continue – continue to love one another as Jesus loved – keep up the awesome work and witness!
So we’re doing great at verse 1. How are we doing at the rest of the passage? Pretty good, I’d say. Let’s have a look. It’s a series of exhortations to individuals and the church about how to walk this Way of Jesus. On their surface they’re pretty obvious. It’s kind of motherhood and apple pie stuff. And yet, if we go a little deeper we start to see how counter-cultural and challenging walking this Way can be. The first exhortation is to Hospitality:
13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Hospitality was a core virtue in ancient Mediterranean culture. It was expected. We generally have no problem showing hospitality to folks who come here. We’re pretty nice! The deeper bit is the word “strangers”. It’s easy to show hospitality to our friends and our church “brethren” – it’s a little more taxing on us to reach out to strangers.
I mean, what does that even mean? How do you show hospitality to someone you don’t know? I think it’s pointing to how we interact with whomever we encounter. Are you meeting people with a closed hand or an open hand? Are strangers presumed to be friends or enemies? We instruct our kids not to talk to strangers because we want to protect them from potential harm. Does some of that rub off on us too? How do we reconcile common sense safety and care with this call to radical hospitality?
Maybe it just means to look for the good in the “other”. You know, it’s that whole “the Spirit in me recognizes the Spirit in you” thing. Hospitality involves risking, caring, giving, selflessness, generosity, and love of other. It’s the kind of thing that demonstrates your faith a whole lot more openly than how you treat your friends. By showing hospitality to strangers some have entertained angels without knowing it. That’s the first challenge today: radical hospitality.
The second exhortation is to compassion:
13:3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.
Be mindful of prisoners. Obviously you can read that literally, but I would tend to read it as being mindful of those who society (and we) tend to forget. Who are the forgotten in our midst? Who are the ones who have been set aside, or passed over, or perhaps been oppressed by systems of power or injustice, or maybe they’ve just done it to themselves through bad choices. All these types of people are, in a way, prisoners. This verse calls us to identify with them – to put ourselves in their shoes and care for them, show compassion for them – maybe through a visit or call, or through a card, or through prayer!
We began today with a challenge to love one another as Jesus loved (connection). Now we get the challenge to love our neighbour as ourselves (compassion). We’re working our way backward through the 3 Cs. Watch for the commandment for communion coming soon!
Our third reminder for people who want to walk the Way of Jesus is about Honour and Respect in marriage:
13:4 Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.
There’s not much more to say about this one – just a nudge to remember that those who are married entered into a sacred covenant. Don’t dwell on the word judge here – just know that when you invite God into the centre of your marriage (which is standard language for weddings and vows if you’re married by a minister) if you step away from those vows you’re judging yourself and stepping away from the Sacred.
The next one is much tougher. It’s about Money!
13:5-6 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have;
Notice here that it isn’t money per se that we’re being warned about but the love of money! No one can logically say we don’t need money, or don’t need to be concerned with money, either as individuals or as a church. Of course we do! Money is what we trade in for the ability to live and function in our world.
Needing money is not the problem – the love of money is. The love of money is wanting more than you need. This is why our denomination is officially against lotteries. People don’t buy lottery tickets to pay for their groceries. They buy lottery tickets to try to win “the good life”. Verse 6 tells us exactly why that’s crazy. It says to be content with what you have. Why? Because God wants you to suffer and not live in a 3500 square foot house with a Beamer in the driveway?
No, it says to be content because you already have the good life! Why? Because Jesus said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” [Heb 13:6]
The good life isn’t waiting for your bank account to bulge – it’s waiting for you to awaken to the Sacred that already surrounds you, enfolds you, and permeates your every breath and heartbeat. A hand (and heart) clenched around a lottery ticket cannot be open to receive God’s abundant blessing. Now that is a very challenging, very counter-cultural teaching for those who seek to walk Jesus’ Way.
This next one is particularly tough on people like me:
13:7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
It says you’re not just supposed to remember my teaching but to watch the outcome of my way of life and imitate my faith! That’s a lot of pressure that I’m not entirely comfortable with. I don’t pretend to be a paragon of virtue and shining example of faithful living. Sure, I’m doing the best I can (most days) but I’m as human as the next person.
Or maybe this is a way to say that if a leader’s Walk is not producing the kind of life that serves as at least something of an example then why would you listen to them? Those who dare to stand in pulpits and preach the Word are setting themselves in glass houses to an extent. It’s inevitable. No one wants to be told “do as I say not as I do”. This is why when religious leaders stumble and fall it’s so painful and shocking. We’re supposed to be in deep communion with God. We’re supposed to have it at least somewhat figured out.
Now, here’s a little twist of the tale for you. In this place I’m obviously the main preacher, but I’m not the only one. Several others, including folks here today, stand in this space and speak of God. Are we watching their lives?
And what about you? When you walk out of those doors and into your circles of influence whether you like it or not people are looking at you the same way you’re looking at me. The world is looking for the fruit of your Walk. Is your life different because of your faith? Can your “neighbours” or friends or family see it? Is it something that is so life-giving they would want to imitate it? Those are big questions worthy of some thought.
Hospitality, compassion, honour, contentment, and example – all those things may be hit and miss in our lives, they’re probably subject to the vagaries of life and the inconsistencies that humans so frequently display, but Hebrews 13 insists that there’s one thing that you can count on…
13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
All those things may be motherhood and apple pie things but obviously they’re not automatic or the author of Hebrews and preachers like me wouldn’t need to keep bringing them up. But while we may blow around in the various winds of temptation and self-indulgence it’s critical to know that we have a strong root to hold fast to. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
And that’s good to know because I guarantee that every single one of us is going to screw up our hospitality, compassion, honour, contentment, and example from time to time.
So what do we do then? When we fall short, which we inevitably do, what do we do then? In ancient times they adopted the practice of sacrificing animals or crops. The idea was that these were the most precious things people had so offering them to God was a sign of how sorry we were for having fallen short of God’s best for us.
Happily, our understanding of our relationship with God has evolved and we no longer sacrifice stuff to try to appease an angry God. I don’t think God was ever “angry” to begin with – more disappointed. But the concept of sacrifice is not altogether bad. In fact, it’s pretty vital to a vibrant faith – again, not to appease God but to remain in and deepen our communion with God. And now we’re into the third C.
The lectionary skips some pretty important verses about Jesus and his crucifixion (themes that we’ll dive into next week) and then it offers us this beautiful line:
13:15 Through Jesus, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess God’s name.
What’s the difference between a sacrifice of praise and an animal sacrifice? It’s the difference between an external or arms length response to God and an internal and personal response! That has actually always been the point of sacrificing, but over time we misunderstood and externalized our responses and therefore depersonalized them.
In the book of Genesis the story goes that Cain and Abel both made sacrifices – one of animals and one of crops – but one of the sacrifices was unacceptable to God. That wasn’t because of the tangible thing on the altar – it was about the heart. Cain’s heart was not in it so his sacrifice was not worthy – and he demonstrated this by going off and killing his brother! Yes, it’s just a story – but it’s true!
If you want to walk Jesus’ Way you need to be a person of sacrifice – not sacrificing animals, or giving up possessions or freedoms – you must be a person who, as verse 15 says continually offers a sacrifice of praise to God.
A sacrifice of praise. A sacrifice that comes from within you. A giving of yourself at the soul level. An awareness and understanding of the Sacred all around us, and a response that acknowledges our awe, our respect, our wonderment, and our gratitude for the gift of relationship and communion with God.
And when do we make this sacrifice of praise? When we screw up? When we fall short? Sure, I guess those are good times, but the verse challenges us to do it continually! It’s not, “Doh! I screwed up, I better do something to make God happy” – it’s supposed to be, “Wow, what a gift every breath is! What a blessing every moment is! This is so awesome! I’m so grateful!” Continually! Lips do that way better than two doves and a sheep ever could – and besides, if you did those “continually” you’d run out of animals pretty quick!
A continual sacrifice of praise is another way to say ‘communion with God’. And to tie it all together verse 16 circles back and names compassion and connection one last time.
13:16 Do not neglect to do good (compassion) and to share what you have (connection), for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Our compassion for others and our connection to one another all flows out of our communion with God – and when you are continually in communion with God they don’t seem like all that sacrificial and demanding anymore. It’s just an expression of love.
Walk this Way. Walk the Way of Jesus. It’s not easy, but you are not alone! Walk the Way of communion, compassion, and connection. Let mutual love continue.