The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio recording.
Please pray with me. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
“Therefore, my friends, we have the confidence to enter the sanctuary by a new and living way. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Those verses from the passage that you heard earlier from the Letter of Hebrews are, essentially, the culmination of a sermon within a sermon. And if you went to the very heart of the message that the preacher was trying to lift up then—and I would say is an important message for us to embrace today—Tom Long says it would be: “In Jesus Christ you are forgiven; in Jesus Christ you are forgiven, once and for all time. “
To really understand that message, to embrace that message, we have to help put it in context. And so journey with me, if you will, three and a-half chapters earlier when this sermon-within-a-sermon started. The preacher lifts up for us what happened in terms of transitioning from the Old Covenant, the way of understanding what it meant to be in right relationship with God and with one another, and then the gift—the unimaginable gift of Jesus in Christ who showed us a way to a New Covenant, a new understanding, a new way of being, a way of being in right relationship with God and with one another. And how truly liberating and life-giving that gift was and remains today. People in the preacher’s day, when the Letter of Hebrews was pulled together, struggled with the extraordinary gift of that message and, I know from my own life and my ministry among you and others, that we continue to struggle with that message.
In the beginning of the reading from Hebrews today the preacher lifts up what was the practice in ancient Israel. The Levitical priests offered sacrifices every day—day in, day out. In that time there were more than six hundred laws that governed how one lived, how they were supposed to live. Can you imagine more than six hundred? I have trouble keeping the Ten Commandments; six hundred is sort of beyond my imagination. Even if I were sophisticated with Excel spreadsheets, I couldn’t keep that straight. It governed every detail of one’s life, including when and how one cut their fingernails. And what the preacher says is that the net result of all of those burnt offerings and sin offerings and peace offerings and offerings of well-being served to underscore that one was constantly in a state of sin, sacrifice, and guilt: that those sacrifices were not effective; that people were left feeling inwardly guilty, inwardly unworthy, inwardly unforgiven; that there was nothing that they could humanly do to appease God. And what the preacher lifts up is that Jesus Christ freed us from that cycle of sin and sacrifice and guilt, that Jesus lifted up for us a new way of being, a new way of being beloved in God’s sight and beloved in community. It wasn’t intended to be a lifetime supply of get-out-of-jail-free cards; that’s not what I’m saying. But Jesus showed that we were created in God’s image and called very good. Yes, we are human and we fall and we falter and we fail. But Jesus told us that God in Christ was prepared over and over and over again to pick us up, to dust us off, to show us the path of right living in relationship with God and with one another. It was built on love, not on sin, sacrifice, and guilt. A love beyond our own wild imagining; and yet, nevertheless, I know that we struggle in our own faltering and failing to really believe it, to really embrace it: that, in fact, in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.
In his book Preaching from Memory to Hope, Tom Long tells the story of a preacher friend of his named Sam. One day Sam and his wife were going to go out to dinner to celebrate their anniversary and when they left the church, they were headed to their car in the parking lot and they encountered a distressing scene. There was an elderly man laying down on the cement and what turned out to be his wife bending over him. And it was clear it was a medical emergency. Sam’s wife ran back into the church to get help, to call an ambulance to come. Sam ran to the side of the man and was trying to reassure him that help was on the way. And the man looked at him and said “Charlie, please forgive me.” And Sam continued to try to comfort the man and say, “Don’t worry, help’s on the way.” But the man persisted; he said, “Charlie, please forgive me.” At this point Sam said, “I’m Sam, but really, help’s on the way.” And then the man grabbed his chest and it was clear he was not going to make it to the hospital. And with all the life that was left in him, he grabbed Sam’s arm and said, “Charlie, I beg you, forgive me.” Sam said, “I do forgive you. I do forgive you.” Those were the last words that the man heard in this life. What Sam later learned was that this man had a son, one son, named Charlie. And in a rage, in an argument years and years earlier, he’d disowned him—hadn’t spoken to him since.
This man’s dying wish was for forgiveness for something he’d done years and years ago. Can you imagine all the life-depleting energy that went into those years of longing for forgiveness, longing for life renewed, restored? Sam wondered after he heard the story if he’d done the right thing. But as he thought about and prayed about it, he realized that the whole of his ministry and the whole of our Christian faith is precisely this: that in Jesus Christ reconciliation and restoration is already true, already whole, already given to us as a gift—if we will only receive it. That when we do falter and fail, we’re called to repent with a contrite heart and to ask for forgiveness. The hard step is receiving it. Samuel Chadwick wrote, “It’s a wonder what God can do with a broken heart if God gets all the pieces.” On this day, if you are still holding onto something that is life-depleting, give those pieces of a broken heart to God, remembering that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
“Therefore, my friends, we have the confidence to enter the sanctuary in a new and living way. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised, is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Amen.