Allegiance: The Book of Hebrews for Today
Example from Endurance
As we continue in our series on the Book of Hebrews we have crossed the halfway mark. For the first three weeks, we discussed how the Hebrew writer was attempting to motivate the readers to grow while standing firm in their faith. We don’t know much about the author. It is clear that he was a male (as women did not write in the ancient Jewish world), was very familiar with the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, and had familiarity with some of the early Christian leaders such as Timothy.
We know a little more about the readers. They would have been a good mix of Jews and non-Jews and were also familiar with the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. We know that they were public with their faith and had experienced rejection and some forms of persecution, although the writer reminded them that they had not shed their blood, as Jesus had. We also have an idea that some/many were struggling to be faithful and stay connected with the Christian community.
The writer wanted to challenge the readers to remain faithful to their savior Jesus. In the first two chapters, he shared that Jesus was over all creation and angels, and that his message was binding on their lives. He mentioned in 1:1-4 and 2:1-4 that while the prophets were authoritative, so were the apostles and early followers of Jesus. In chapters 3-9 he offered two models for their faith. One was the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness who hardened their hearts. The writer warned the Christ followers to not be stubborn and hard hearted toward God’s message. He also offered a model for their sacrifice by comparing Jesus to a high priest who sacrificed animal blood for the people—yet Jesus offered his own life. Therefore since they had a priest that offered his life for them, they could be a people who followed God with their heart.
As Agape approaches our ministry in the community we find ourselves faced with similar struggles as the readers of this letter. First, we live in a culture that tends to be resistant to the ideals of Christianity and discipleship with Jesus. While we might list the “evils” we tend to see in our community, the truth is that we face a time when the cost of following Jesus is to uncomfortable for the majority of Americans to pay. As John Drane, in his book After McDonaldization wrote:
The fear and uncertainty that [9/11] created has had a significant impact on people’s attitudes to religion of all sorts, Christianity included. At the same time, many churches are now facing up to the reality of the decline that has been affecting all major denominations for 20 years and more, and are realizing that to continue as we are may be comfortable, but could also be institutionally suicidal. Our options are simple. We either do nothing, and the decline continues, or we ask fundamental questions about how faithful discipleship might be incarnationally embedded in the culture, and take whatever steps may be necessary to re-imagine church life. This second option can look threatening, but the worst possible scenario that could come of it would be that we fail in the enterprise of radically re-imagining church, which if it happened would leave us in exactly the same position as if we do nothing.
Drane has hit a major issue that we face not only in Portland, but in the United States. Since the turn of the century Christian authors have moved from lamenting the struggles of American Christians attending and becoming active in congregations, to radically calling us to model discipleship, leadership, and courage in the face of consumerism, materialism, and nationalism. All three of these “isms” threaten the Christian faith because they call for allegiance while Jesus calls for complete devotion, diversity, and discipline.
The Hebrew writer is calling the reader to awaken to the voice of God when he wrote: “today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts…” (3:7, 12). He encourages the reader to focus on Jesus as the author and one who matures our faith (3:1). He reminds the reader that Jesus was faithful as God’s son, obedient, endured suffering, and received a promise through his endurance (3-4). For the writer of Hebrews Jesus is not only a model of faith, he is one who models a life lived in submission and faith in God. This is faith. Faith is not a statement, an acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity, a confession, or even a feeling. Faith is loyalty, obedience, conviction, courage, and allegiance to the one God. No “isms” should ever expect our loyalty—because to be a Christ follower means to follow Christ.
We have been a congregation in Portland for more than 10 years. Tomorrow we begin our 8th Agape Blitz. Over the years people have come to Portland to join us in building homeless houses, repairing and painting homes where abused women and children receive hope and services and their advocates wrestle daily with finding a way to provide hope on little or no budget. People have helped us paint, clean, repair, and plant flowers in our public schools for free; because we live in a city where our children attend classes in dingy rooms and play on playgrounds with used needles and condoms. It’s a city where businesses charge top dollar for simple things like paint and school products, yet struggle to make sure our neighborhood schools look the best they can or gather employees to donate time to serve in these educational institutions. It is a city where teachers give all of their time to kids and school, some are in this building while we worship, and they are thankful that since we are here they can put in a few more hours on a Sunday to prepare for the next day’s classes. We know—we work side by side with them during the week.
People have come to Portland to work in the hunger gardens so that immigrant families, low income families, and those in the apartment complexes can cut their food costs down by growing their own food. People have come to beautify a shelter for underaged mothers so that their children can play safely, plant gardens, and feel like the shelter is home. People have come to Portland for the past 8 years to help us show our community that being a Christ follower is more than a status on Facebook. It is more than crossing our legs, holding a beer, discussing Bible topics, and calling it “Pub Theology.” It’s more than blogs, posts, and pundits. Being a Christ follower sometimes called us to fight the natural “gag reflex” to wash feet under the Burnside Bridge during Night Strike, to work in areas of Portland that people would like to leave forgotten, or to simply get our hands dirty—“nasty” dirty. It involves serving women who are forgotten due to abuse, prostitution, sexual assault, or poverty. Over the past 8 years we have had groups join us for this wonderful event.
They have returned home to take this experience with them. The Fire Marshall was so moved back in 2009 that his church adopted Wilson High School for their season of service. Other youth groups returned to bless their community schools. Night Life in Tulsa continues now as a non-profit modeled after Night Strike. We were also told that Fayetteville, AR took Night Life to their city. Baptisms happened when people returned home. Youth groups encouraged their churches to reach out to the homeless and they continue that ministry. We have not only been blessed by those joining us for Agape Blitz, we have been able to bless others.
I don’t write/say this to make us arrogant, proud, or conceited. I suggest that this is what happens when Christ followers follow Christ. True commitment, courage, allegiance, and faith are contagious. We have it because we caught it from others. Those who worked with us on our core team to plant Agape were on fire because someone lit a fire in us. We fanned the flames and they caught on to others. Some are doing ministries in other cities, internships in congregations, or are professionals with a faith in Jesus. Allegiance is contagious and grows when among Christ followers who follow Christ.
It’s not about posting. It’s about serving.
Today the Hebrew writer reminds the readers, and us, to fan the flames of allegiance.
In Hebrews 10:1-8 he makes a simple case:
- The law, Torah, while good, could never mature someone’s faith. Sacrifices for sin only remind people of their sin and that they need God. People need more. Just as a person’s confession helps them feel better, it doesn’t remove the guilt. The offended party has to offer forgiveness, love, and acceptance. Sacrifices remind us that we sin.
- God, in the past, really wasn’t wanting “just sacrifice.” God wanted obedience. In Jer. 7:23 the prophet told the people that God wanted obedience not sacrifice. In Hos 6:6 that prophet said God wanted faithfulness and love, not sacrifices. Psalm 40:6-8 David said that God really wanted obedience, not willingness. Even Jesus told the corrupt religious leaders that mercy was more important than sacrifice (Matt 9:13; 12:7). Sacrifices don’t do it for us—obedience does. Yet sacrifices help us move past our sinfulness. Killing an animal and spreading its blood all over us was supposed to wake us up and get us to stop disobeying God, hurting others, and ruining ourselves.
- Some people continued to sin “deliberately” (Heb 10:26). This thought must have not only shocked the reader but the writer of the letter. Those who do this continually must have a corrupt sense of life. How can they be saved? What hope is there for someone who willfully rejects the sacrifice, blood, and death of another only to continue to disobey God. In Hebrews 6 the writer even suggests that they cannot be turned back—a hard heart is calloused and unsympathetic to the pain and suffering of sacrifice from others.
- Yet for the rest of us, Jesus’ sacrifice was a one time offering. It isn’t meant to remind us of our sins continually. It is done to mature us in the faith. It is for Christ followers who wish to follow Christ. We can follow because we are free from sin and we choose to live without sin. This does not mean we are perfect but it is what maturity is meant to be. The Greek word for maturity and perfection are the same. No one is perfect, but we are all to be mature. To be mature spiritually means that we follow Christ, are loyal to Jesus, and show our allegiance to him.
Because of the work of Christ the writer tells us we can live with joy, peace, freedom, and healing. He offered three points for our spiritual life:
- Let us come close to God with a pure heart
- Let us firmly hold to our hope and faith
- Let us stir up our community
- First, don’t neglect your community. He uses the word for synagogue. This is the congregational gathering place. In other words, “don’t make it a habit to skip church.”
- Second, instead encourage each other
In a time when people share that going to church isn’t important, being in community isn’t convenient, or that congregational worship is boring, etc., the writer to this letter claims that Christians are to be in community. If we want to come close to God and hold on to our faith, then we need to be in community. First community helps us stay faithful. In 30 years of ministry the first step to falling away from the faith is church attendance. I know it seems petty, and that many people tell us they really haven’t fallen away, but this text means what it says. In fact, I rarely find people who will argue with the text—it is simply convenient to ignore it. Second, community is also for others. We go to church to encourage others.
I think about our ministry at Agape. People assume we are a “homeless” or “abuse victims” church. I tell people we have those from the streets and those who want to have compassion with those on the streets. We have had women and men in prostitution and those who sit by them and want to learn to love and not judge. We have people with addictions and those with bitterness. The cool thing about all of this is that we all need each other. We need to be encouraged and we need to encourage.
The Hebrew writer is pretty blunt in this section. Christ followers are to come close to God, hold to their faith, and this is done in community. We face a culture that is resistant to community in many ways. In the words of my colleague Dr. Leonard Sweet, “We have iPhones, iPods, iPads, iTunes; we can’t even spell (Wii/We) without using two I’s.” Even more John Drane wrote:
In a circumstance where people have no commitment even to go and socialize with others at a pub, it is not surprising that religious institutions have suffered more than most, not least because it is easier to ditch them than it would be to abandon political, financial, or other institutions that look as if they are more essential to civic life than matters of faith.
I find it also interesting that coaches, sports teams, fitness clubs, or other membership organizations are claiming that this generation is difficult to maintain a consistent commitment to something institutionalized or organized. It is not just religious communities that struggle.
However, the Hebrew writer reminds the Christ followers of their faith:
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
This community had a history of courage under fire. Men and women not only practiced their faith, they banded together with each other as well as those who were oppressed by the “isms” of their society. In the end, he suggested that they “not throw away their confidence,” they should “persevere,” refuse to “shrink back,” and live by faith (Heb 10:35-39).
They did this because they saw themselves part of something bigger. They believed that in death there was reward. They believed that Jesus suffered with them and that his reward would be theirs. They believed that faith and allegiance were actions, not philosophies. They believed that following Christ was motion, not cyber streaming.
There it is—an ancient document that applies to you and me.
Kent Ellingson was our first worship leader. A Cascade College student who began with us in the home has grown and matured as a young man. Lori and I knew him years before Agape and we have been blessed by his family and his life. He sent us this email as he cannot make the anniversary meeting:
“I remember my life feeling really wrecked and getting a call from you to invite me to this small group that was meeting in your living room, talking about a God-Project in Portland. I must have been 19 or 20 at the time. Because of some terrible experiences at a Christian school that institutionalized and celebrated every backward-ass particulate of western christian culture, and because I had made some immature decisions that injured a romantic relationship I was in, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to continue being a Christian. All of my old ways of understanding God had either been broken or outgrown and didn’t seem relevant to my life anymore.
I suppose I joined you in your living room because I thought I had things to work out and I wasn’t able to hold it together on my own. I was full of all of these criticisms that I’d accumulated from years of being churched and didn’t know what to do with them. What I learned in your crowded living room is that I was truly tired of dressing up to fit into church culture; especially when its leader, Jesus, had so many stories of subverting religious authority and robbing them of the certainty they claimed some sort of patent on. Agape gave me a people to work this kind of stuff out with. I remember talking about Jesus disarming Peter and healing the ear of a soldier before being executed for political insurrection, then later going to a chapel service at my school where an American flag was prominently displayed on the pulpit.
I needed to work that kind of stuff out with other people, instead of just holding the tension and critique in my head. Those relationships meant that I needed to give from my actual life if I was going to grow or change or find any kind of peace. I learned that my tension with church was not because it asked me to dress a certain way or speak a certain way or regurgitate the same moral stance or quippy mantra as someone else. The problem was that was all that was asked of me. Jesus asks for our actual whole lives, which is incredibly costly and terrifying. Its probably also the only way the mountains can keep their tops, the soldiers can turn their M-16s into farming equipment, the rich can stop wasting, and the poor can stop starving.
I ended up landing in Philadelphia and am part of a church here called Circle of Hope. I’m celebrating my 4th wedding anniversary this week with my wife, Nicole. Each of us are social workers, specializing in working with HIV+ homeless adults with persistent mental health and substance abuse disorders. Thanks for pulling me in when you did. It ended up being pretty formative to my life.”
Next week we will celebrate 10 years as a community. There will be singing, praise, shared blessings, reunions and maybe some forgiveness and reigniting friendships. There will be visitors who will not return, fallen ones who may repent, former members who will encourage us with their stories, and new faces who will celebrate with us. It will be a great weekend.
Then July 30, when Blitz is over and we are recovered from the great week of work and worship, we will ask, “What will the next 10 years be like?” May it be that we continue to live by faith and not shrink back. May we be able to teach our community what Allegience to Jesus looks like whether in a crowded living room, noisy coffee shop, on the Portland streets, or in our places of work and friendships.
Go in Peace
John Drane, After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry, and Christian Discipleship in an Age of Uncertainty (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 7.