05 October 2009
Psalm 8 & Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2:5-12
World Communion Sunday/ 4th October 2009
As I read over the lectionary text from Hebrews for this morning, I found myself drawn toward certain phrases and images. First, know that this is a very difficult text to preach on because there’s so much going on behind the scenes, so much which needs to be known before one can attempt to interpret it. Scholars think the opening verses are derived from an early Christian hymn known by heart to the first readers. It’s a hymn that makes substantial theological claims, staking out a strong Christology – that is, who Jesus is – not unlike our opening hymn this morning, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” You can almost hear the earliest believers singing something like, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name!/ Let angels prostrate fall;/ Bring forth the royal diadem,/ And crown him Lord of all!” Lord of all – that’s the image that seems to surface for me reading through these days.
There’s an ancient ritual called lectio divina. It’s a way to read scripture devotionally – not as a scholar, but as someone who goes to scripture in order to hear the Word of God, to listen for what God might be saying. It goes something like this: read out a passage aloud or silently and then be attentive to the words or phrases in the text that seem to speak to your heart, or invite your attention, that strike you, that jump out at you. You can do this alone or in groups. It’s a remarkable way to pay attention to what the Spirit might be trying to say to you through the text. It’s a way to listen for God.
On a Communion morning, in a full service, Hebrews is a text that lends itself to lectio divina, a kind of free-association. Indeed, I found my eyes, my heart drawn to a portion of these verses,
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
Or this verse, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
Or this verse, “when he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
Over and over again, we have this image of Christ who lives with God and reigns over our lives. He’s the same Christ who existed with God at the creation of the world, the same Christ through whom the worlds were created.
This is an extraordinary image of a cosmic Christ whose very presence sustains all things by his powerful hand. Not sustained all things… Not will sustain all things… But, sustains all things by his powerful word – the creative, dynamic, life-bringing Word of God that is spoken through Jesus, the very articulation of which sustains the universe and the very substance of our second-by-second existence in God’s world. This is the Christ who reigns on high over the world, this world in which we live and move and have our being. Highfalutin theology, to be sure.
But is it true? We have a grand, global vision of a universe that is sustained by the benevolence of God, full of the glory of God, as John Calvin (1509-1564) tirelessly tried to show us. How did Calvin do it? In a world such as his, rife with violence, disease (like the plague), and destruction, how could Calvin see God’s glory? How do we? Look at the world around us and what do we see? There’s greed on Wall Street and in the marketplace, violence in the streets (such as Derrion Albert who was beaten to death by a gang of kids this past week in Chicago), deception in the halls of government. It hardly seems like the Son of God is running the show. Think of the tsunamis that devastated Samoa and American Samoa this week. On this World Communion Sunday when our eyes turn from our local congregation to our bonds with the global church, to sisters and brothers around the world who share our love for Christ, many of whom suffer at a level we cannot even begin to imagine. So often peace and justice do not kiss (see Psalm 85:10), but extends fists of defiance. From global warming to the torn fabric of society to the broken places of the human heart, all creation seems to be under the sway of tragic evil.
The author of Hebrews was not oblivious to this apparent contradiction. A mature faith lives with contradiction. He wasn’t blind to the political and social circumstances of his day. He could affirm that nothing is outside God’s control, and yet, at the same time, realistically confess that everything is not the way it will be. “But we do see Jesus,” the text says. “But we do see Jesus (Hebrews 2:9).”
And what have we learned, we who have seen Jesus? As royal subjects of the one who reigns in love, we have a special place in God’s world or kingdom (as Jesus would have said) or realm of God. We are children of God, crowned with glory and honor. And so my eye was drawn to this verse, “It is fitting that God, for whom and through him all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctified and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters… (Hebrews 2: 10-11)”
Where do we know that God is present in the sufferings and sorrows of the world? When we see Jesus – the Pioneer of our faith one who defeated death and sat down in Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).
We don’t say this lightly or as pious platitude. Jesus’ experience of human sin and suffering, because it is God who knows our suffering, paved the way for God to be present to us, God’s children, even and maybe especially when we suffer. Why doesn’t God just remove all the suffering? I don’t know. We don’t know. There’s no answer to that question. But what we do have is the knowledge that God, through Christ, is present to us in our suffering. The resurrection and exaltation of Christ on high means that suffering will never have the last word in God’s kingdom, death will not have the last word. For the sake of God’s children, God is working through the suffering of the world, through our pain and our sorrow, in order to redeem and save.
And so my eyes were drawn to this text: “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you (Hebrews 2:12).” We join arms with our brothers and sisters here and around the world, united in our sufferings, sharing our sorrow, but also sharing our praise and united in our affirmations.
Later on in Hebrews, the author tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).” Yes, the needs of the world are immense and it might appear to our eyes God is not providentially caring for us. But “we do see Jesus” and see in him the promise, God’s promise, that God will never leave us or forsake us – or this beloved world that Christ died to save.
We come to the Lord’s Table on this World Communion Sunday with the hope that we do see Jesus – will again or for the first time – to meet him here in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, to meet him here in one another, and then we will be sent out to see him at work in the world.
We do see Jesus and through him can see the world anew; not as others see it, but as Christ sees it; not the world as it is, but the world, by God’s grace, as it shall be – as it shall be.
Thanks be to God.
Hymn text: Edward Peronet (1726-1792) first published in the Gospel Magazine in England, 1779.