The 11th Sunday after Pentecost
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon, IL
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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There’s an online satirical magazine called The Onion, which is fake news that pokes fun at just about everything. They posted an item the other day that spoofs the fact that so many people no longer have any idea what church is, or what Christian worship is like. It was about a wedding at which guests had no idea what was going on. They speculated that the huge building must have been a repurposed barn, and talked about how family members were made to “go up front and read a bunch of weird God stuff,” and that everybody had to sing from “these big books full of religious songs.” And at the end of the piece it said,
Numerous attendees stated that while they respected the bride and groom’s choices, they nonetheless wished the couple had opted for a more traditional ceremony and just had a Star Wars wedding the way normal people do. (8/16/2019)
There’s a lesson there about how we welcome newcomers to church. We assume that they have some idea what goes on in here, but we really shouldn’t. What we should do is ask whether they’re familiar with how we worship, and if not, recommend that they just sit back and take it all in.
Last week I talked about how there are some strange and seemingly contradictory things in Scripture that are hard to figure out, even for people who go to church every week and spend a lot of time reading their Bible, never mind people for whom Christianity is unfamiliar. That’s where the discipline of regular Bible reading pays off. And the daily lectionary in the very last section of the Prayer Book is one of the best ways to go about it. Well, there’s another seemingly strange line in today’s readings that can be difficult for people to understand. Actually, there’s quite a lot of those in today’s readings, but this one stands out. In the first paragraph of the reading from Hebrews, it talks first about what God’s Old Testament people encountered as they approached Mount Sinai, where Moses led them to worship God for the very first time. Then in contrast it talks about what God’s New Testament people approach when we gather to worship: “But you [the Church] have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God… and to Jesus… and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” That very last bit about the two kinds of blood is what may be the strangest thing in that passage, and not immediately understandable.
The letter to the Hebrews is one of my favorite books of the Bible, because it’s the one that shows very clearly how the OT has not, as some people think, been replaced by the NT. “Do not think,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). Hebrews shows how everything in the OT has been gathered up and fulfilled in Jesus, and how the Church is the reconstituted and renewed people of God, and how God has expanded his mission in the world beyond his OT people, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
What’s confusing is the distinction between the OT emphasis on law and the NT emphasis on grace. It’s easy to think the two are incompatible, polar opposites even, but they’re not. That’s the lesson Jesus taught in his encounter with the crippled woman in today’s gospel, and the leader of the synagogue who took Jesus to task for healing on the Sabbath. And the contrast between the blood of Abel and the “sprinkled blood” of Jesus underscores the need of grace to temper the law. So let’s unpack that just a little bit.
Abel was the first murder victim. He and Cain were the sons of Adam and Eve. When they both offered their sacrifices to God, Abel slaughtered a lamb. It was a prophetic image of the sacrifice of Jesus. Cain offered up a nice assortment of fruits and vegetables. God accepted Abel’s lamb, but rejected Cain’s produce, so Cain became intensely jealous and killed his brother. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’” (Gen 4:10). We’ll come back to that.
What we’ve been reading from Hebrews over the past couple of weeks is a note of encouragement to Christians in the late first century who were experiencing increasing persecution. “Keep the faith” is the message of Hebrews in the midst of all that, and don’t give up hope. The promise that your faith is founded on is going to happen eventually. After all, it’s God who made the promise, and sealed it in the blood of Jesus.
But there’s a lot about the Good News of Jesus that’s not as clear-cut as the OT law. And people like things that are clear-cut, black and white. The law was pretty explicit in what it demanded, such as specific sacrifices for particular occasions, and punishments that were equal to the offenses committed. If any harm has been done, Moses said, “then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex 21:23-25). The emphasis of the Gospel, on the other hand, is on loving one another unconditionally, on forgiving before your offender has even asked to be forgiven, and not demanding punishment—all things that Jesus did for all of us on the cross.
The scene of the blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom that today’s lesson speaks of is Mount Sinai, where God led his people to have their first encounter with him, all of which underscores the sternness, even the harshness of the law whose lessons they had to learn in preparation for the coming of God’s Son who would show them how the law is to be tempered by mercy and grace. The Israelites came to this terrifying encounter with God, Hebrews says, but when the Church, God’s NT people, come before him to worship, what we encounter is something far more awesome in its beauty because it’s filled with the light of Christ and with the mercy and grace of God.
Mount Zion was the site of the temple in Jerusalem, the earthly throne of God in the earthly city of God. But in today’s reading Mount Zion is a metaphor for God’s heavenly throne in the heavenly Jerusalem, surrounded by countless “angels in festal gathering, and… the assembly of the firstborn,” which is the whole Church gathered out of every place and time, including us. This is not a future event, but something that is happening continually from before time and for ever. It only seems like we drop in and out of it whenever we come to church, but it’s ongoing, and we’re in the midst of it all the time. It’s just that most of us aren’t aware of that fact. When we are, then we’ll understand that our whole life is meant to be one continuous act of worship, a perpetual offering to God.
So here we are with all the saints and angels, and “the spirits of the righteous made perfect,” whose number we hope to join eventually, gathered at the throne of the living God and of Jesus our mediator and redeemer whose sprinkled blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” In the ancient temple on the Day of Atonement, the high priest offered the annual sacrifice for the sins of all God’s people. Then he took some of the blood from that sacrifice and sprinkled it on the Mercy Seat, the earthly throne of God, and the rest he sprinkled on the people. But as it says earlier in Hebrews, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4). So in reality it was an annual rehearsal to get ready for the real thing, the sacrifice of Jesus who, when he ascended into heaven sprinkled his own blood on the heavenly throne. And whenever his Church gathers at the altar, he gives it to his people to drink. For according to the old law, the life of the sacrificial victim is in the blood. Jesus therefore fills his people with his own life from his own blood.
When God said that Abel’s blood was crying out to him from the ground, the cry was for more blood, for vengeance, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” The sin of Cain and Abel’s parents, grasping for equality with God, led to Cain grasping for something he couldn’t have by taking the life of his brother, and to all the other grasping by all the other offspring of Adam and Eve ever since. It drew a pall of darkness over the world which only began to be lifted by Jesus who, St John says, is the light which the darkness cannot overcome (Jn 1:5).
The Fathers of the ancient Church teach that the bent-over woman in today’s gospel is an image of that darkness. Being forced always to look at the earth, St Augustine says that her condition speaks a “physical word” about the spiritual condition of all humanity apart from Christ, which is bent double under the weight of sin. A friend of mine writes that “the beauty and dignity of her created humanity have been defaced for eighteen years” (DL Jeffrey, Luke, Brazos: 2012, 177-8). It probably wasn’t because of her own sin, but because of the general condition that we’ve all inherited from our first ancestors. And here she is in the synagogue, the house of prayer, on the Sabbath, the day of rest and restoration. So Jesus does just that—he returns her to health and restores the image of God that she was created to be, and enables her to look up to heaven and praise God. Her restoration to health now speaks a very different “physical word,” it’s a word about what Jesus has come to do for the whole world.
That’s the promise of the new covenant that Jesus mediates, and that he accomplishes by the shedding of his own blood. For whereas the word that Abel’s death and his blood speak calls for more death and more bloodshed, Jesus’ death destroys death, and his blood speaks the word of life, which is by far “a better word than the blood of Abel.”
The leader of the synagogue is upset, because healing is a form of work, and no work is to be done on the Sabbath. And because it has happened on his watch, he’s going to have to answer for it. A law has been broken, that’s all he sees. What he and others in those days had lost sight of is the fact that the Sabbath is a day of restoration, which is what the healing of an infirmity is. So what better time and place for such a thing to happen than in the house of God on the day of restoration? “The Sabbath was made for man,” Jesus said, “and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). So many of God’s people had lost sight of that fact, and of the mercy that God intended as a guide in applying the law. Jesus came to reintroduce mercy.
The law without mercy is cruel and heartless, but it’s clear, and it makes sense. So for some the important thing is to enforce the law no matter what. At the heart of the Gospel, however, is the commitment to love, because of which the edges are blurred. There is leniency, there is mercy, there is boundless love, because the goal of the Gospel is to reconcile all people to God, to end suffering of every kind, and to bring us all into the joy of God’s eternal kingdom. That’s the better word that the blood of Jesus speaks, the word that gives life to the world. In the Name of…