Sermon: Deleting the Hyphens

10.04.2015   Preaching Text: “[And] free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:15)

Starting today and for the next several weeks the lectionary guides us through the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews. The objective of the book is to explain how Christianity, rather than rejecting Old Testament faith, is its consummation, that which it anticipates and to which it aspires.

In today’s beginning passages, the focus is on the way Christ reestablishes the believer’s direct relationship to God in Christ, thus saving us from an untoward fate.

Along these lines, Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to Hebrews, says that religion can actually get in the way of our relationship with God. He even goes so far as to say that “too much religion is a bad thing.”

What does he mean? Well, though God is everywhere and ought to serve as the focus of everything we say and do, our attempts to worship and obey can get muddied with a lot of well-intentioned “religious” activity that actually distracts us from God!

Not content with responding to God straightforwardly, we grow impatient and try to “improve” things by overcomplicating or cluttering up what should be simple and direct.

“We become,” as Peterson puts it, “fussily religious, or anxiously religious. We get in the way.” Hebrews, therefore, is written for “too religious” Christians, those Peterson calls “Jesus-and” Christians.

What are “Jesus-and” Christians? In Hebrews, it’s “Jesus-and-angels” or “Jesus-and-Moses” or “Jesus-and-priesthood.”

As for prophets, to cite just a few examples, in Amos we see a cry for justice. In Isaiah, the holiness of God. In Hosea it is the forgiving love of God. Each is a part of God, but it is Jesus alone who reveals God’s fullness. Each represents part of God’s mind, but not its whole. The prophets are friends of God. Jesus is God’s son.

The same goes for angels. They were thought to be emissaries, or messengers, of God. But for the author of Hebrews, it is Jesus who cuts through the clutter as the only true intermediary.

This kind of “Jesus-and” religiosity, however, doesn’t apply only to those living in biblical times. Today, rather than relying on prophets or angels, we are apt to be, as Peterson says, “Jesus-and-politics” Christians or “Jesus-and-education” Christians or even “Jesus-and-Buddha” Christians.

Hebrews’ task, therefore, is to “delete the hyphens, the “add-ons,” so that our focus once again becomes “clear and sharp: God’s action…in Jesus.”

In this “we are free once more for the act of faith, the one human action in which we don’t get in the way but on the Way.”

A few weeks back I received an e-mail from Jim Antal, the President and Minister of the Massachusetts Conference, airing certain imperatives about climate change.

His opening sentence absolutely floored me: “I write to you and your congregation,” he wrote, “to join the ever-expanding movement to address climate change as the greatest moral issue humanity has ever faced” [italics mine].

If this isn’t a perfect example of Peterson’s caution against “Jesus-and-politics,” I don’t know what is. Adding insult to injury, just last week, in another e-mail, this time from the Conference’s Justice and Witness News, Rev. Antal offered this additional tidbit: “Creation is calling anyone who claims to be a religious leader to speak out from their pulpit…” [again, italics mine].

Such statements are clear examples of how the mainline church often strays from what is most essential to the gospel. Of course, I realize Rev. Antal thinks that without addressing this issue our survival as a species or as planet is at risk. Thus, for him, all other concerns are, by definition, secondary. Without life, or so the logic goes, no other concern is even possible.

Nonetheless, I’m still not sure this gets things right. As I see it, the gospel is about changing hearts and minds. It’s about reconciliation of humanity to its Creator. It’s about salvation of souls. It’s about redemption.

According to Hebrews, the gospel’s primary concern focuses on how human beings have tragically lost the life we were created to know. The glory God intended for us has disappeared.

Born to be kings, we have become slaves, slaves to the world’s idols and false gods. Christ’s death, for the author of Hebrews, offers restoration of human life to its rightful place, to know the fullness of our God-given humanity.

Having a sparkling clean environment would do nothing, intrinsically, to remedy this basic human malady. A pristine earth alone cannot alter humanity’s bent toward evil and destruction. Only a regenerated heart can do that.

For too long we have acted as if the gospel is about perfecting politics and institutional structures rather than changing hearts and minds through God’s reconciling love in Christ. We act as if such a thing is no longer important, or that it’s an already accomplished fact! Saving souls is, after all, so 19th century. Having moved on, we’re now all about managing and engineering everything else, all the world’s macrocosmic externalities, rather than building up the body of Jesus Christ.

It’s been said that humanity’s greatest sin is pride. And pride, at root, is the finite creature’s desire to be immortal. On the other end of the spectrum, an awareness of death “trades in humility,” as Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, and “punctures the futile project of trying to be God.”

I hate to say it, but eternal salvation, even in 21st century America, still remains the church’s truest purpose, its life blood, its reason for being.

This earthly life is not all there is. And there is a far worse fate than earthly death, and that is spiritual death, i.e., alienation from the love and succor of our Creator’s outstretched arms.

So while climate change may be an important issue, as Rev. Antal suggests (though informed opinions do vary), it is, from a gospel-centered point of view, penultimate, and clearly not the “greatest moral issue humanity has ever faced.”

The greatest moral issue today is the same as it ever was: humanity’s ongoing alienation from the Creator of all that is. Amen.