+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let me begin with a disclaimer; I know that’s always a hopeful sign for one of my sermons. There are two terms which can get many modern theologians, biblical scholars, and clergy to “dig in” as it were, and brook no further conversation with their interlocutor. They are sorts of shibboleths, and if one disagrees with the prevailing sentiment (as I do) one must be very careful to know whether bringing it up or pushing back is even worth it.
These two terms are substitutionary atonement and supersessionism. Each of these refers to a view which probably the vast majority of “people in the pews” would find entirely non-controversial. The former simply means a view which holds that a vital way of understanding what happened on the cross is to understand Christ’s suffering as being our just reward for sin, not his as the sinless one, and he experiences that on our behalf. The latter simply means that the New Covenant instituted by Christ fulfills and in a sense supersedesthe Old Covenant, rather than standing alongside it as, you might say, “two equally valid options.”
Now, I believe both of these things because I think the scriptures make them rather unambiguously true, but this means that many of my colleagues would view me as a theological troglodyte if I pushed it too hard. This doesn’t really bother me, but it’s always wise to consider what one is able to hear and what will immediately cause one to stop listening, no matter how clear and nuanced I think I’m being. Unfortunately there are many straw-men which have been set up in these conversations; claims that one who believes in substitutionary atonement is somehow supporting child abuse or that one who holds the traditional understanding of covenant theology must therefore be an antisemite are the two most popular, and as you might be able to guess, that shuts the conversation down pretty quickly.
This is all to say two things. First, stick with me if you fall into the skeptical category here. Second, and more importantly, pay careful attention to the Epistle readings over the next month and a half. Today we start a quick jaunt through the highlights of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where these themes will come up again and again. I take some perverse pleasure in the fact that my theological “frenemies” will not only have to hear from this masterwork of covenant theology over the next several weeks, but that for today they will have had to decide whether to tackle this or divorce, which along with abortion and gay marriage probably constitutes what we could call the “third rail” of preaching. (In my defense, I’m not intentionally avoiding that one, but I did preach on it three years ago when these reading came up last, and I’m sure you remember my sermons from back then.)
So, in the first four verses of Hebrews, its prologue, we get the precis for all that follows in the letter: God spoke in various ways through the prophets of the Old Testament, calling the children of Israel back into faithfulness to that covenant, but now He has sent the fulfillment of all that came before. He had the stamp of human nature but the radiance of the divine light (which the Church Fathers quite rightly understood as referring to Christ’s dual nature- his full humanity and divinity), and having made purification for our sins, he has been raised and glorified and now rules over all creation.
You all know that my favorite book of the bible is John’s Gospel, but I have to give an honorable mention to the Epistle to the Hebrews here. John’s prologue beautifully presents the mystery of the Incarnation in its eighteen verses; but here Hebrews presents not only the Incarnation but covenant theology, the Atonement, the Resurrection and Ascension, and Christ’s eternal Kingship succinctly and arguable just as beautifully in four verses.
Unfortunately, since the lectionary assumes the faithful are unlikely to sit for too much on a Sunday morning, our reading skips eighteen verses of a helpful explanation distinguishing the angelic from the human and the divine, though those who prayed Morning Prayer on St. Michael’s day on Wednesday read most of this. We do, then, pick up at the implication of this Christian cosmology. It was fitting that God himself should stop using angelic intermediaries and become a part of his own Creation, that those made in his own image should one day participate in his own glory despite having gone astray so many ages ago.
Again, I think we are ill-served by the lesson appointed not going to the end of the chapter, for here, I think, is the whole point:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
Christ’s life and death, you see, are not some mere morality play. It is not primarily, but only implicitly, a story about how we ought to be selfless and suffer gladly for the sake of others. That is the most important moral application of Christ’s life and death, but it is not the primary meaning.
The primary meaning is one of cosmic importance. It is not a fable, but a true story, of God’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. It is a true story about how Jesus of Nazareth was not just a great man or a prophet or a teacher, but very God himself who came to save us.
The angels do not need this; they had already seen God face-to-face, had already chosen with full knowledge and free will whether to serve the Lord of Life or the Lord of Death. And while God cares for the angels–just as he cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field–how much more does he care for the descendants of Abraham, for the human race, whom alone in all the universe he has created in his own image? Infinitely more. Infinitely more.
This is why, forgive the substitutionary atonement, he died to pay the debt of Adam’s sin and ours. This is why, forgive the supersessionism, God willed that all humankind, of every race and clan, should gain salvation not by their own righteousness, not by some complicated calculus applied to our moral ledger, but by his own faithfulness to the promise he once made to Abraham, by the righteousness reckoned our forerunner in the faith, for nothing more than saying “yes, Lord, I go where you send me.”
Because I am easily distracted I don’t know yet whether this is the first in a six-week-long series on Hebrews or if I’m going to bounce back and fourth between the Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel as I normally do. I think I’ve done one sermon-series here, several years ago, when we read from the Epistle to the Romans all summer long, and Hebrews is certainly ripe for the same treatment. In any event, keep this in mind as we read from Hebrews over the next several weeks. We have one great high priest who can sympathize with us and save us, for he is the true and living God, who still makes intercession for us, who still reigns from his throne of glory in heaven, who still saves the sinner who flees to him with contrition and sincerity. Thanks be to God, that Christ Jesus, God himself, is for us for ever.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.