all means all
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on August 4, 2019
Can we start by acknowledging that our reading from Hebrews today is a confusing and difficult one? It is challenging because the writer expects readers to know the Bible very well and really, how many of us have dug into the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus lately? Unfortunately, most of us lack the necessary background knowledge to make sense of how the blood of goats, bulls, and calves served in the worship of ancient Israel. It just isn’t something we spend a lot of time considering and yet that is exactly what the writer wants us to do. So I suppose we ought to try…
Our reading presents us with a comparison between Israel’s sacrificial system and Christ’s willing death. The reading reminds us Israel’s high priest served in a man-made structure — a mere tent. The high priest offered sacrifices, which, although unblemished, were just animals. The high priest was forced to offer these sacrifices repeatedly. Contrast that with, Christ, our high priest, who entered God’s heavenly dwelling — a divine canopy if you will — and offered his eternal spiritual self, in a way that needs no repeating.
Israel’s high priest sought to provide ritual purity for the people. Christ, our high priest, offered himself for sin — completely cleansing God’s people and obtaining for us an eternal redemption that expresses itself in a renewed life of service to God.
Through all the talk of blood and sacrifice the writer appears to simply be making the point that the high priests cannot create our holiness. We cannot create our own holiness. Our holiness only comes through Jesus.
Saying it that simply, it is hard to believe that we could ever forget the high priestly work Jesus did and move back toward a limited cultic system garnered by humanity. Yet that seems to be exactly what we do. We slide right back.
For those of a mainline denomination, like us, it can happen through our liturgy, communion and tradition. We live as those these pieces of our faith life can sanctify us, make us holy or worthy in God’s eyes. Those in what we call a free-church background talk as though church attendance, Bible reading and godly-living, are ways for gaining, maintaining or progressing their standing with the living God. Yet the truth is that although these actions may provide some good for own lives, they cannot “perfect the conscience,” nor obtain our “eternal redemption,” nor empower us to “serve the living God.” As Hebrews reminds us, these things only come through Jesus.
In his hymn, Faith in Christ Our Sacrifice, Isaac Watts wrote: “But Christ, the heavenly Lamb, takes all our sins away, A sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they…”[i] meaning: the blood of beasts. In other words, Watts reiterates what we learn in Hebrews, God doesn’t want our blood sacrifices anymore. For through Jesus sin no longer has a claim over us; we no longer stand guilty before the living God. It is as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[ii]
We who were once slaves, separated from the love and kindness of the living God, are now free. And when Christ sets us free, we are free indeed. Does this mean we will lead perfect lives as Jesus did? Of course not. Our lives will never be lived in perfect harmony with God’s will, but Christ certainly makes it possible for us to live with compassion.
Yet sadly that isn’t where we always go. This week I read a story about a nonprofit organization wanting to buy a vacant building and use it for a pre-release prison center for men. The men they wanted to serve only had a few months to a couple of years before being released. In several community meetings the director of the center explained that the inmates were not hardened criminals and would be continuously supervised. They would have jobs and others responsibilities in the center. The director said the purpose of this program was to merge these men back into society and make them responsible, law abiding citizens.
The faith leaders in town thought it was a great idea. They saw this as an opportunity to help these men and began working to provide ministerial aid to the program. But, the people in the community had a different response. They did not want “those” kind of people living in “their” neighborhood. They did not want prisoners in their community, even though these men were at the end of paying their debt to society. In essence this community wanted to perpetually keep these men’s pasts ever before them by not making space for them. They wanted them to remain bound to their past. They were not willing to risk having these men in their community.
Former inmates often have great difficulty finding jobs. Many of them cannot vote and their records will follow them for the rest of their lives. Approximately 650,000 men and women are released annually from prison. I can’t help but think that the same mindset displayed by those in that community plays a part in the fact that two-thirds of released prisoners end up back in prison.[iii] Even when inmates pay their debt to society, they are not allowed to be free. When released, they are physically free but socially and economically they are still imprisoned.
As leaders in the church and followers of Christ, we have an obligation to advocate for these prisoners and those like them — to help them become fully liberated from their past. For this is exactly what Christ did for us when he allowed his body to be broken and his blood to be spilled. He freed us from our own sin — from that which separated us from God — a separation that would forever hang over our heads no matter how much we tried to make amends.
By dying, Christ opened the way for a new relationship between God and humanity. We are no longer bound, but are free to live as creatures transformed by Jesus’ grace and love. Our past is no longer held against us but instead we are free to live for God in the present, regardless of who we are or what we have done.
Because Jesus died, we have the inheritance of redemption and so much more. And each time we stand in remembrance of Jesus actions on our behalf, we are given opportunity to respond with gratitude… with humility… with love… with grace… Each moment we encounter is an opportunity to share the great love and gift we have been given through Jesus death and resurrection.
And we stand in remembrance each time we come and partake in the Lord’s Supper… a meal in which we eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood… the meal is a reminder of the gift God has given us. May we be inspired to leave this place ready to live in solidarity with Jesus through the compassion we show the stranger and the least of these… through acts of justice for those without an advocate… and through love for all… For in these actions the world will come to know the truth — that through his love, Jesus has obtained eternal redemption for all of creation. For just as free means free. All means all. Amen.
[i] found at https://hymnary.org/text/not_all_the_blood_of_beasts on August 1, 2019
[ii] Romans 8:1 (nrsv)
[iii] found at https://www.justice.gov/archive/fbci/progmenu_reentry.html on August 1, 2019.