Summary: According to the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ has made the ultimate, perfect sacrifice, which invites all of his would-be followers to respond.
Sermon for 24 Pentecost Yr B, 19/11/2006
Based on Heb 10:11-14, 19-25
By Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Responding to Christ’s Sacrifice”
The Letter to the Hebrews, as I’ve said before, is rather difficult to understand. In order to see a clearer picture of our passage today, it’s helpful to review some of the important background information of Hebrews.
Biblical scholars are not certain who wrote this letter, the author’s identity remains a mystery, although he or she was probably Jewish, since he or she appears to have been well versed in Israelite history. The original audience of this letter was also most likely a Jewish-Christian one, since there are so many references to the Hebrew Bible. Although it is called “The Letter to the Hebrews,” it seems to be more like a series of sermons. The main theme of this letter is the supremacy of Christ and his sacrifice over against everyone and everything. One of the issues the author may have been struggling with was the temptation of the audience to either return back to Judaism and/or to stop attending worship services on a regular basis.
In today’s second lesson, the author focuses on, first of all the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, comparing and contrasting it with the sacrifices of the Jewish priests in the temple. The writer tells us that the sacrifices of the priests in the temple are repeated over and over again, but to no avail, as they do not forgive sins. On the other hand, Christ’s sacrificial suffering and death, and shedding of blood on the cross only happened once, and was effective for all time and for all people for the forgiveness of sins. The writer continues, utilizing the picture of the temple, to emphasise that thanks to Christ’s offering and sacrifice through his flesh, his incarnation, this has resulted in the opening of the curtain as it were, of the Holy of Holies, giving access to God. In the Jewish sacrificial system, the high priest was only permitted to open the curtain and enter the Holy of Holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement to make the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Now, thanks to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, says the author, it is as if the curtain were permanently open and all of us can enter the Holy of Holies and thus we have access to God and receive the forgiveness of sins at all times.
From this, the author turns to a threefold exhortation, emphasising what is to be our response to Christ’s sacrifice. The writer states: “Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Here the author seems to be linking our faith with the act of confession, repentance, and the Lord’s Supper as well as the sacrament of baptism. These two sacraments of the Church allow Christians to receive forgiveness of sins and have the assurance of faith. In the early Church, there were hostile forces that threatened people to give up their faith. The author of our second lesson exhorts the original audience to remain strong in their faith to see them through such hostile or opposing influences. The same is true for us today. In an increasingly secular world, there is hostility towards the Christian faith. In many nations, Christians are pressured to give up their faith or they are persecuted and even killed. Yet, it is their faith that gives them the most comfort and strength in life.
The second exhortation of our passage is: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” As Christians, we are a people of hope by virtue of the resurrection of Christ.
Eminence, a novel by Australian author Morris West, tells the story of Luca Rossini, a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Luca who now serves in the Vatican, lives in the shadow of a terrible experience he suffered as a young priest in Argentina. It was the 1970’s, a time when the military junta that ruled Argentina, acted with terrible brutality. Luca was brutalized in front of the villagers. Lucky to escape with his life he was spirited out of Argentina. Yet the scars across his back are an outward symbol of the scars he bears within. By the time we find him in West’s novel Luca is 50 years old, a confidant of a rigidly conservative Pope. In one scene the Pope reflects that he, the Pope, will have much to answer for when he comes to judgement before God. Luca responds, “We pray every day that our trespasses will be forgiven, Holiness. We have to believe that our end will be a homecoming, not a session with torturers!”