Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 5 August 2012
9th SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY, 2012 EVENSONG
We do not know who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. What we can be virtually certain of is that it was not written by St. Paul: the style is quite different. There has been lots of speculation about who the author might be, but we should probably stick with the answer given by Origen, one of the Church’s first great biblical commentators in the 3rd century: “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows.” Like its own description of Melchizedek, Hebrews appears in the canon of scripture “without father or mother or genealogy.”
Nor do we know who it was written for. To discover anything about either the author or his readership, we have to look within the letter itself.
The first thing we discover is that it is not a letter at all. The main body of the “letter” is really an early Christian sermon, what the author calls a “word of exhortation” (13.22). Early Christian sermons were heavily influenced by synagogue preaching.. in structure and style of biblical interpretation, Hebrews is a sermon that is “rabbinical in design, Christian in content, and heroic in length.”
What can we learn about its preacher?
- He was well-versed in the Scriptures – in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was Bible known by both Jews Christians in the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world.
- He is also skilled in classical rhetoric and the Greek language (the Greek of Hebrews is the best in the New Testament).
- While the basic framework of his thought is Jewish, he is clearly acquainted with Greek philosophy.
- He sends his sermon to a congregation he knows, a community of which he belongs; separated for a time,he expects to return to them soon.
He is not preaching into a vacuum but addresses a real and urgent pastoral problem. His congregation is weary; tired of serving the world, of worship and learning the Christian faith, tired of being a peculiar people, talked about, discriminated against, tired of having the threat of real full-blooded persecution hanging over them, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus. Their hands droop and their knees are weak (12.12), attendance at church is down (10.25), they are losing heart. Many of them are on the point of giving up; finding a religion that delivers a quieter life.
His response to this spiritual weariness, is not what we might expect. There is no attempt to make life easier: to import some new management technique, or theory of group dynamics, no new church growth system, or user-friendly services. Instead, he preaches in complex theological terms about the nature and meaning of Jesus Christ.
He does not float around on the surface where people run after one fad or another. He plunges into the depths, where profound symbols work on the religious imagination to generate surprise, wonder, gratitude and obedience.
Chapter 11, from which our passage tonight was taken, begins with these words:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction things not seen.”
He then goes on to give a series of examples of faith in the lives of great Old Testament forebears who remained faithful and hopeful in times of adversity and uncertainty. . Each one is introduced with the words, “By faith.” This was a familiar classical technique to help people remember. We are familiar with it in worship; for example in the Divine Praises at benediction: “Blessed be God, Blessed be his holy name”, and so on.
We pick up this litany when he has already spoken of Abraham who: “by faith”,
- set out from his home in obedience to God’s call, not even knowing where the land he was promised was at first;
- with Sarah by faith trusted God’s promise of a future through a son born when that had seemed impossible.
Now, there is that disturbing story of the sacrifice of Isaac. God seems to demand that Abraham gives up that very future hope which God had promised and provided for. This story, known in Jewish tradition as “the Binding of Isaac,” was especially beloved in the Rabbinic tradition. Our writer too gives it his own interpretation. Christians came to see the Lord’s provision of the sacrificial lamb on Mount Moriah, later identified as the site of the Temple, as foreshadowing Jesus the Lamb of God, the Son given by God to bring about the reconciliation of the world. That is why you find this scene portrayed at the back of this church. The writer to the Hebrews develops this line of thinking to include a foreshadowing of the resurrection, in Abraham receiving his son back.
Then Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, who all knew about sojourning in strange lands as aliens, all invoke blessings or make plans for the future; for things they saw only in faith and hope, but which they regarded as trustworthy because of their experience of God.
That experience of God was also what motivated Moses to renounce comfort and privilege in Egypt to lead the people of Israel out from slavery into the wilderness and on to the promised land: a place he would not be permitted to enter.
Faith has a long memory. It reaches back to our forebears seeking example and encouragement. But this is not the memory of nostalgia and flight into some ideal but lost world as a refuge. Faith, with all those ancient figures, looks forward to the fulfilment of hope. Faith here is turned toward the future, trusting that God will keep promises made to those who believe. So faith and hope are one and life is a pilgrimage. Jacob leans on his pilgrim’s staff. God is the one who makes promises and keeps them; regardless of the time that passes and the circumstances which seem hopeless.
And so, as Moses celebrated the Passover, we too celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of that lamb which the Lord provides. In that celebration we are given something of that assurance, the pledge of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
And we recite after the manner of Hebrews, the stories of faith, above all of Jesus who is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith”; the stories of that succession of men and women of faith and hope who preceded him; the litany of those who followed him, empowered by the power of his risen life in the mystery of the communion of saints.
In the centuries since Hebrews was written, the Church has lived in that hopeful faith which he speaks of. It has recorded and treasured those in whose lives and deaths it has recognised that faith and hope in action. When it has grown weary and despondent, God has raised up men and women who “by faith” have restored hope.
So this week we will be commemorating:
John Mason Neale; many Christians would struggle to place him , but would immediately recognise his words because we sing his hymns. There are 39 of them in the New English Hymnal alone. He was also a founder member of the Cambridge Camden Society which built this church, so we have a particular debt to him as well as the more general one for the hymnody which enriches our worship. For all that his life was dogged by ill health which prevented him from exercising a parochial ministry, he also founded the Sisters of St. Margaret,, who still work in this diocese. He did not sit and bemoan the state of the Church of England or his own lot; he did something.
The following day, there is St. Dominic. In an age of widespread heresy, encouraged by the corruption of the Church, he established an Order of Preachers to combat heresy by preaching which informed by sound learning and authenticated by a disciplined and simple lifestyle. He did not say, “Why is no one doing anything?” He left the security of a Spanish cathedral canonry and probably a bishopric, to do something costly and risky.
From our own Church of England again, we have Mary Sumner, the founder of the Mothers Union which began as a means of assisting mothers in her husband’s parish, and has become a worldwide organisation. She saw a problem which was also an opportunity. Doubtless there were those who counselled her against trying to solve the world’s problems but that did not stop her trying.
On the same day, the Roman Catholic Church commemorates a saint whose official name is Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. This is the name which she took on entering the Carmelite Order. Her name had been Edith Stein. She was a brilliant philosopher in Germany who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Conversion did not save her from the Nazis. When she and her sister were taken from a convent in the Netherlands and put on a transport to Auschwitz, she said to her sister: “We are going to our people.” We should not forget her Jewish name. She was murdered because she was a Jew not because she was a Christian, but she went to her death with her people as a Christian.
Then back to the early centuries of the Church: to Rome in another time of persecution. St. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of the Roman Church. Deacons were much more important than priests in those days. They assisted the Bishop in the administration of the Church’s property and its ministry to the poor.
When the emperor’s agents demanded the Lawrence hand over the treasures of the Church; they meant its sacred vessels and property. Instead, he assembled the poor and said, “Here are the treasures of the Church.” Things would have been so much easier if he had handed over the sacristy keys.
Then on Saturday, we have Saint Clare, the first female disciple of St. Francis; emulating his life of poverty and humble trust that God would provide; resisting the well-meaning efforts of bishops to make sensible provision for this holy woman and those who came to join her.
And so the list goes on, surrounding us with an ever greater “cloud of witnesses,” who are not merely dead examples from the past but living companions who, as scripture and our liturgy teach us, encourage us by their example, strengthen us by their fellowship and aid us by their prayers so that may run with perseverance, but also with hope, the race that is set before us, and together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses