Summary: God is a consuming fire - just yet merciful. We fall away from him at our peril.
Almost every single passage in Hebrews that we have looked at over the past few months has given us, at its heart, a very simple message. There’s often been a complicated rationale behind it, complex yet profound explanations of the old and new covenants, we’ve really got into the solid theological food that we should be getting into if we want to grow as Christians – but, ultimately, there’s always been the same message. And that message is this: Whatever you had before, whatever you believed before, whatever you trusted in before – now you’ve got something better in Jesus Christ, so stick with him. Don’t cop out, don’t fall by the wayside – stick with Jesus.
And in many ways this passage has the same message. It alerts us to a number of ways in which we should order our lives and order our thoughts to ensure that we don’t miss the grace of the Lord. It is full of the language of exhortation – strong words of calling, emphasizing the seriousness of these instructions. “Make every effort” doesn’t really capture the urgency – a number of translations say “pursue”. Be singularly focused on. These aren’t “give it a try and see how you go” sort of words. They’re not the sort of words you hear from some Christians – “oh, we’re all sinful you just need to try as best you can.” It’s like Yoda when he’s speaking to Luke Skywalker in the swamps of Dagoba in Episode 5 as he’s trying to lift that mighty big plane out of the swamp – “Do not try – do!” That’s the sort of imperative we’ve got here.
But what is it we’re to do? Well, let’s look at the passage in a bit of detail.
“Make every effort to live at peace with all men.” When we look at the church, at those who identify as Christians, particularly those in leadership, throughout the world do we think to ourselves “these are people who pursue peace with all men”? As the Christian right in America bays for the blood of terrorists and shouts down those who want greater gun control, or as church after church apparently implodes on issues of human sexuality are we pursuing peace? – or are we allowing a bitter root to grow up and cause trouble and defile many? Now, of course, there are many issues which we need to take a stand on – and human sexuality I think is one of them. And war is not unknown to the people of God – sometimes it is appropriate. And Jesus does say he came not to bring peace but division. But aren’t many of the arguments and quarrels in our lives – and indeed in the world – more about bitterness and pride than about principle? Make every effort to live in peace. Sometimes it’s not possible, and when Paul gives a similar teaching in Romans 12 this is what he says:
18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20On the contrary:
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
At the end of last year I had a run in with one of the staff at school. There’s no need for me to go into detail, but suffice to say I over-ruled her on the discipline of a student in our end of year presentation assembly. That was the second last week of the year and we didn’t exchange another word even at the staff Christmas party. I was full of self-righteous bitterness. Having thought about it for a while I tried to change the situation. When I saw her this year I consciously tried to say hello and ask her how she was. So far I haven’t really got a response and I admit that that bitterness that grows up to cause trouble is still lurking beneath the surface. I need to actively pursue peace.
When I first sat down to write that story earlier this week I found I had to re-write it several times because I went into all these details about the incident and it just ended up sounding like an attempt to justify myself, to prove that my actions were right and she’s the one in the wrong. But I’m not going to win her for Christ, I’m not going to be an effective witness for the gospel to her by proving to her that I was right or by piously waiting for her to apologise. I need to let the bitterness go. As far as it is up to me I need to pursue peace. I need to overcome evil with good. I’m sure we’ve all had little run ins like that. Lose the bitterness and pursue peace.