The Gospel of You
Hebrews: 11: 29- 12: 2
In his post-war classic Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon penned the famous line, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” All too often in our world, we find ourselves caught up in the wrong questions, missing the forest for the trees, or perhaps sometimes, missing the trees for the forest. Especially when it comes to issues of faith, or Scripture, we have lots of potential questions to be asking both ourselves and others, and it’s hard to know what a good question looks like. Our text from Hebrews today invites us into some beautiful answers, if only we would learn to ask the right questions.
Hebrews is a fascinating book, and it was written specifically to address questions emerging among new Christians in the midst of persecution and oppression. The book is traditionally cited as a letter of Paul, but this tradition actually only emerges from a time when the canonization of Biblical books rested on the acceptance of the author’s identity. Roughly 200 to 300 years after the first Gospel accounts, the relatively cohesive Christian community was in the process of defining a formal canon, picking through countless letters and books claiming to have been written by important Christian leaders. A book written by someone without a clear link back to the disciples was not allowed into the formal Bible as we now have it, as it could have contained heretical ideas. This helped separate the wheat from the chaff, if you will. Potentially included among the chaff was the book of Hebrews, which lacks an author. Now, Paul is known to have written several letters, 7 to 13 of which are in the Bible, and these writings mark his particular style. Hebrews, however, is wildly unlike anything else we see in his biblical books.
Imagine the difference between Ernest Hemingway, with his short, frank, choppy style, and the often long-winded Herman Melville. Some have called Hemingway’s writing, “iceberg style” because it lacks any hint of warmth or much description. This style, of course, is no better or worse than others, but is clearly different from a writer like Melville, who includes incredibly long-winded and winding sentences about the mundane details of boats and fishing in his classic “Moby Dick.” The two are clearly very different in how they approach the English language, from the words they most often use to the ways in which they structure sentences. Similarly, the author of Hebrews and Paul are wildly different, even if much of that is lost in our modern English translations. So, if not Paul, who did write Hebrews? Frankly, no one knows. The early church leaders didn’t believe it was Paul, but weren’t sold on Luke, or Apollos, or anyone else. My favorite current theory is that Priscilla, mentioned in 2 Timothy, is the author, given that the early church seems to have very conveniently ‘forgotten’ the identity of the author, despite the book’s relative fame. The earliest known copies of this Epistle even have the author’s name blotted out, which would not make sense for any other prominent church leader. This would make sense for Priscilla, however, as theology written by women in a world that often felt women should be silent wasn’t the safest to line up behind. Especially as the audience of Hebrews was Jewish-Christians in Rome, right before Rome destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. This is a book written to those who are experiencing oppression, and who are anticipating deeper hardships in the near future. So given this history of Hebrews, what are the right questions we should be asking our reading today?
By chapter 11, the author, again, probably Priscilla, has made the claim several times that Jesus of Nazareth is a new form of high priest. Like Aaron, who was able to make sacrifices on behalf of all the Jewish people, Jesus clears a way for us to commune with God. Hebrews not only makes a claim that Jesus is a kind of high priest or mediator, but that Jesus, and what he offers, is far above anything that the world could offer. Jesus is a better sacrifice, a better priest and a better name, and the hope of salvation to come is better than what is facing the readers then and there.
With the constant repetition of “By faith, so and so did xyz,” some of our first questions should be, “what is faith?” or “faith in what?” Chapter 11 begins with a simple definition: Faith is the hope of things unseen. From this, the author moves through major stories of God’s faithful people. From Abel to Abraham, Moses to Rahab, we are retold stories from the past and explained that each protagonist was driven primarily by their faith. Now, the definition given here is frankly, insufficient for each of these stories. “Through the hope of things unseen, the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.” “Through the hope of things unseen, the walls of Jericho fell.” This is far too simple an explanation, and it doesn’t link the stories together in any cohesive fashion – for a book written as logically tight as Hebrews is, that ought to point out to us that we’re missing something. Rather, it is the unsaid definition of faith that links these stories, these people, and us, and the given definition at the beginning of the chapter is really more of a commentary than an explanation.
The definition of faith to the author of Hebrews is that the sacrifice of Christ has real and meaningful application for both individuals and communities as they live into the new, emerging Christian movement. This application is a source of comfort, and strength, in times of hardship. In the previous chapter, Priscilla writes, “But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. When you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.”
Here, we find the culmination of the book’s argument. We are told we can stand fast in the face of persecution because we have confidence in what the future holds. Each example given in our text today, then, serves to reinforce this point. Moses, despite the promise of a kingly life in the pharaoh’s palace, rejects his position, in favor of a greater reward in following God. Similarly, the Israelites give up the familiar work in Egypt in favor of searching for freedom – and then grumble to Moses later that, at least their oppressors in Egypt fed them. This pattern holds true for each person listed in what some have called the “Christian Hall of Fame,” of “Hall of Faith.” Each example is of a person or group who gave up control of their own life, and therefore gave up control of their own safety, in exchange for something greater that may be waiting for them.
Now, importantly, they were not all successful. Nor were they all particularly holy. The question of “by what are we saved” is a historic debate within the Church, and this passage offers it’s own answer. Are these great men and women of the Bible saved by their actions? No, just as Paul’s writings in Romans, Galatians, and Philippians teach, they are saved by faith. In fact, their faith prevails in spite of their actions. Rahab was a prostitute. Sampson unsuccessfully tried to marry outside of his tribe, Jephthah sacrifices his own daughter by mistake, Gideon makes a false idol and leads the whole country astray. Even the great king David is listed, linked with those who committed grave sins, which draws the reader back to his rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband more than it conjures up memories of David defeating Goliath. And yet, it is their faith, not their actions, which gives them the hope of something better with God.
The new question we should be asking, then, is what exactly is that ‘something better?’ We see that it is through faith in Jesus that this is accessible to us, but what is it that we’re even looking for? Honestly, the Bible doesn’t do a great job describing Heaven, which is a logical next step. There are verses which remind us that Heaven is a place where we see God, where tears and death are no more, that it’s kindof like a big house where everyone has a room, but beyond that there is almost nothing in the way of a description. And while there is some logic in thinking towards a hopeful Heaven as a way to cope with present struggles, perhaps the author of Hebrews has more concrete ideas on her mind.
Consider this – if the only hope that Christians have rests in our removal from the world, a hope in a distant Heaven which contains none of the problems now facing us, and remembering that the author of Hebrews defines faith in terms of the sacrifice of Christ, why would she include any examples from people who were faithful before Christ? If faith is solely about one’s relationship with Jesus and the subsequent promise of Heaven, there is no true faith before the crucifixion and resurrection. And yet, we see that nearly every example comes from before Christ. So here’s another great question to ask this text – why?
Bishop Charles Ellicott, in his commentary on Hebrews, found the answer in the first two verses of chapter 12, which are the last two verses of our passage today. He writes, “the design of God was that they and we may be perfected together; first in the joint reception of mature knowledge and privilege through the High-priestly work of the Lord Jesus; and then that we with them may, when the end shall come, “have our perfect consummation and bliss both in body and soul, in the eternal and everlasting glory of God.” Essentially, we are called to outlast our struggles, and keep hoping for something better, precisely because those that came before us did so as well. The great cloud of witnesses is filled with people just like us – adulterers, thieves, those that idolize the wrong things, those that don’t care enough about human life, sinners, saints, leaders, and mistake-makers alike. Hebrews makes such a show about a lengthy list of broken people who are still faithful not just because we as individuals get to be included. Rather, this argues that in light of this understanding, in light of our inclusion, one of the most important aspects of Christ lies in the new social ordering of the Church. Because of Christ, we can see the full arc of life and death, which those who have already gone before us have also already born witness to. Faith is not just the hope of things unseen, but the faith in a Christ who exposes those unseen things to us through connecting us to the stories of those who have come first.
Theologian John Howard Yoder phrased it this way, “The work of Christ is not only that he saves the souls of individuals and henceforth they can love each other better; the work of Christ is the making of peace, the breaking down of the wall, the creation of a new community made up of two kinds of people, those who lived under the law, and those who had not.” In Hebrews, it is the connections between all of us that knit together what it means to have faith. You are every bit as important in that network as anyone listed in this “Hall of Faith,” and our religion only works because of the unifying power of Christ in us. This is faith – that you are included, but are a part of something far bigger, more lasting, and better, than what we can as individuals possibly dream up, whether we are oppressed early Christians or privileged citizens of a modern American city.
The final question – if faith is in Christ, who connects us to these great stories of broken-yet-faithful sinners, where do you see yourself in this great cloud of witnesses? We all are individual pieces of this great narrative of the church, and your story is necessary for the rest of us, just like David, Rahab, or Moses. What stories of your own faith would get included in such a list, if Priscilla was instead writing about you? And finally, if you are a part of this Gospel message, which teaches an inclusive love through faith, how can you take that out into your community, that we might be perfected together?