s142e00 Somerton Park 29/10/2000 Sunday 30

"Consequently he is able ... to save those who approach God ..." Hebrews 7:25

As we meander our way through the letter to the Hebrews during these last Sundays of Year B, many of the words are about how great Jesus is - how much better Jesus is than the old covenant, what a better high priest he is, how perfect and sinless Jesus was ... And if we take all this at face value we can come to the conclusion that Jesus is opposed to the Old Covenant, and to all who express their faith differently to Christianity. It becomes a very small step to make to say that Jesus is opposed to all who express their faith differently from me ...

This is however to make a nonsense of who Jesus was and what he did.

The ministry of the priest is to forgive sins, that people might approach the throne of grace with confidence. And the Cross has precisely the same purpose, that ordinary people might come and worship, all those who the religious authorities of Jesus' day would have excluded.

As that other lovely passage from Hebrews we read a couple of weeks ago says: "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses" (Hebrews 4:15). Yet I have to ask the question: How sympathetic does the world perceive the Church to be? It is my suspicion that the last thing that the world thinks the Church is, is sympathetic of their weaknesses. We are seen to be busy trying to convert the world, trying to make a name for ourselves, trying to fix this or that problem, or fighting amongst ourselves!

A week or two ago I had cause to look up the Collect for St Ignatius - the Episcopal Church's "Lesser Feasts and Fasts" actually has collects composed for individual "lesser" saints, whereas our book has a general one to cover all of them. So the ECUSA book begins: "Almighty God, we praise your name for your bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present to you the true bread of sacrifice." Of course I realised that these are sentiments of Ignatius himself, and I thought how removed they are from 20th century life. I pondered how often I or we are seen to express such sentiments. And yet this is the passion Ignatius had for Christ, which is, of course, for other people.

Now some may say that I've been a bit naughty, that I've truncated the quotation, and I confess it's quite true. The full text is "Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God THROUGH HIM ..." Doesn't this mean that we do have to be Christians? But one has to ask what the words "through him" mean - and particularly in the light of the fact that Jesus was crucified by the religious authorities for associating with less religious people.

It is therefore the ground of the Christian faith, that Jesus accepts all people, and accepts all offerings that ordinary people bring, provided that they are not at the expense of others.

And this will never change - "he is able for all time to save ..." all those who are prepared for a kingdom which includes people other than just themselves.

The whole of the book to the Hebrews (it probably was a disciple of Paul rather than Paul himself who wrote it) speaks to reassure ordinary people of the certainty that if they wish to approach the throne of grace with other people, then nothing and no one will stop them. These sentiments are remarkably similar to those more familiar and beloved ones which we can be certain St Paul himself said: "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39) - not even the pretensions of the church. Yet how often do we in the Church think that St Paul's words only refer to us as Christians, but not to anyone else - forgetting all those others for whom Christ died?

Again in our gospel story for today we hear Jesus say to blind Bartimaeus: "Your faith has made you well" not "my power has made you well". And the faith is that he, previously an outcast, is now included, despite the crowds who had little faith. Their faith was faith in a little 'god' that they thought had to be protected from the likes of ordinary people, and consequently had taken it upon themselves to order him to be quiet. Their little faith was in a 'god" who couldn't "save those who approach" the divine.

Again my Greek lexicon suggests that teteleiwmenon (my spell checker doesn't like that one - my computer voice didn't do a bad job pronouncing it though :-) which our translation renders "perfect" can equally be translated "complete", referring to the number of people included in and by Christ, rather than some moral perfection.

And this is reinforced by the words: "He has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. (Hebrews 7:26-27).

"Once, only once and once for all" are the opening words of the hymn by W Bright (1824-1901). I had assumed that these were the battle cry of the protestant reformation, repudiating any suggestion that the Holy Communion was in any way a repetition of the sacrifice of the Cross. Curiously I find that the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes Bright as a "keen High Churchman". The hymn which also is a favourite communion hymn of Bright's with which we are perhaps more familiar is "And now, O Father, mindful of the love". And it is curious, as I look at the lovely words he wrote, by far the majority of them are about the sacrifice of the Cross. It is only in the final verse that the words which specifically refer to the sacrament occur: "... and by this food, so awful and so sweet, deliver us from every touch of ill ..." Perhaps it's my imagination but the Cross and the Holy Communion seem divorced from each other.

It is only because Jesus was crucified for associating with all, rather than just the religious, that we can say that he died for us. Hence the Eucharist, is also for all. It cannot be just for some, for that would to repudiate the Cross itself, which is both an oxymoron and a nonsense. So as we look at Holy Communion as a feast only for the initiated, it automatically means that it isn't a repetition of the Cross - indeed any such closed communion goes a long way to repudiating the Cross. But if the communion is open to all, it expresses again precisely what the Cross was all about, and makes plain and present and real the benefits of that unique sacrifice. (And I am not criticising anyone other than the Anglican Church here, we have enough fences to keep people away from the sacrament, before I deign to criticise anyone else.)

So the better covenant of which Jesus on the Cross and made present in the Eucharist is the guarantee, is quite opposite to the one where rules and regulations have to be obeyed. It is one where people are included, because they want to be included with others. Is it not significant and curious that the churches have debated long and hard about inter communion, and it begs the question, have we lost sight of what it is all about in the first place?

Do we, in putting barriers around the Eucharist, try to do as the religious authorities of Jesus' day did, and try to stop Jesus visiting and blessing those who weren't religious, those who didn't live up to their expectations?

My mind was turned to have a look at a very difficult verse in St Paul's epistle to the Colossians. C. F. D. Moule, in his scholarly commentary on Colossians and Philemon (Cambridge New Testament Commentary 1968 pp 74-80) devoted a whole 6 pages to this one verse: "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (Colossians 1:24). Of course there is something lacking in Christ's afflictions, not because everyone isn't yet a member of the Church, but because within the Church, then as now, WE who know all about the passion and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour do not fully apprehend and acknowledge the wideness of God's mercy, and act on that knowledge, in our relationships within our communion, across denominational boundaries and faith boundaries, indeed in our relationships with all of humanity, all of whom Jesus is indeed able to save as they approach God.

 

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