“Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. … Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” – Hebrews 4.1,14 TNIV
Hebrews is a series of exhortations to a group of second generation Saints (2.3-4) who have been baptized (6.4-5,10.22) and fully instructed in the Way (6.1-2). The believers have grown up in the faith such that they are now teachers (5.12), yet they have slowed down, and even burned out, in their faith. Although they are considered to be a mature faith community they have become laidback about their faith commitment (10.25). Although the writer doesn’t necessarily say that the believers have fallen away, he is concerned that they have fallen into disrepair and are in need of restoration and improvement (6.9-10).
The faith community is in crisis. They have experienced external pressures in public ridicule, abuse, persecution, hostility, confiscation, torture, imprisonment, and blood shed. Each level of external pressure was kicked up a notch in brutality. It started out as public teasing, manipulation, bullying, intolerance, and discrimination. We hear these words often in our public school discussions and political policies at all levels of government. Our government is aggressive in addressing these issues, but in recent years Christian orthodox values have come under scrutiny in public forums particularly around pluralistic religious beliefs and sexuality.
This letter is address to people like you and I who are trying to live out their Christian beliefs in their everyday walking around lives. The letter begins with a statement of faith, and highlights Christ as their faithful and merciful high priest who fulfills the promises of God from the beginning of time. Christ is faithful to keep his promises to his people, but his people are repeatedly found faithless. God continues to invite people to enter his rest – the salvation of their souls.
Every provision has been made for believers to enter into God’s plan of salvation. The Kingdom of God is at hand and the only stipulation is for the believer to accept the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Christ calls his people to a life of maturity. Basic Christian teaching is matched with a life of spiritual service. The author warns the believers that there is a possibility of falling away from their beliefs. Here in the letter of Hebrews we find a unique verb that appears only here in the whole of the New Testament (6.5-6). The verb here translated “fallen away” means acting faithless, breaking faith. It is an act of abandonment, a breach of faith, a violation of relationship, and utter rejection. It is the sin of not only walking away from the relationship with the community of believers but of abandoning God the Father, his Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
This act of faithlessness brings with it an abundance of curses. No longer is the believer covered by the blessings of God, but now places themselves in the position of bearing the curses of the fall (Deut. 11.26-28).
There were clear signs in the community that some were slipping away from their faithfulness. They were drifting, neglecting, and inattentive to their responsibilities of growing up into maturity. They were experiencing a dullness of understanding (2.1-3, 5.11-12).
The writer goes on to demand more of the maturing believers than what they expected of themselves. To follow in Christ’s footsteps would mean dying completely to their own self-preservation, and accepting the possibility of death in light of obedience to Christ.
The writer of Hebrews calls the believer to fidelity and mutuality in relationship to Christ Jesus by faith. But what is faith? It could be defined as trust or belief. Faith may be referred to as the quality of loyalty. Faith is always connected to hope in a future.
People from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Joseph to Moses and the prophets to the martyrs, faith is always an expression of hope for tomorrow that God would continue to be with his people even in the afterlife. And, this hope is not misplaced according to the author, as there is a great cloud of witnesses just beyond our senses who testify to God’s great love.
Suffering and death are to be endured with a great reward. While we are in community, we are to extend mutual love toward one another (13.1). We are to show hospitality to strangers (13.2). We are to remember those who are being mistreated (13.3). We are to remain faithful to our loved ones (13.4). We are to be content with what we have not seeking after financial gains (13.5). Remember those who have taught you well the way of life (13.7). Do not be carried away with philosophical teachings and human rituals (13.8-9).
As mature believers we are to choose to become like Christ Jesus who suffered a shameful death outside the city walls (13.13) as a stranger among his own people. To go with Jesus “outside the camp” is to join Abraham and the whole company of faithful witnesses who left their homelands on a pilgrimage to discover their true place of belonging. By declaring themselves strangers and aliens they took on the life of a vagabond who wanders without identity, status, or title of belonging, and without a true home on this earth in search of a better place in the afterlife.
We have been given the opportunity to no longer wonder what our tomorrows will bring. With Jesus we know who we are and whose we are and where we are going. We know that we are sinners saved by grace and renamed “Saints” in the Kingdom of God. We have been given a new name. While we are on this earth we may still experience life as vagabonds, and pilgrims on a journey.
Today nearly 1/3 of the worlds population declares itself to be Christian (Pew Research Center). That’s over 2 million people who believe themselves to be “saints.” In 2011 80% of the U.S. population declared themselves to be Christians, while less than 20% of them attended church on a regular basis.
The Pew Research Center suggests that only about 10% of the people who show up in the pew on Sunday morning are truly serious about their faith: meaning they study the Bible and apply what they hear in Sunday service to their lives through the week. That’s nearly 5 million “saints” who are truly committed followers of Jesus and devote their time, energy, and money to their churches. With this number of people the church should be easily reaching the lost and serving the poor all the while transforming our society and influencing our governmental policies.
Today is All Saints Day. As United Methodists call people “saints” because they exemplified the Christian life. In this sense every person who has accepted Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior can be considered a “saint.” United Methodists believe that All Saints Day is a time to remember Christians from every time and place, honoring not only the deceased that have formed our faith but those who are still with us who have been instrumental in growing us up in the one true faith.
As United Methodist our mission is to follow the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This statement is not simply the evangelization of the people around us. We are called to do more than simply tell people about Jesus. As followers of John Wesley we are to disciple those we invite to church. If John Wesley were with us today, I believe he would inspire us to run the race laid out before us by continuing to utilize the “means of grace” or the spiritual disciplines that Christ Jesus has taught us by his example. One of those means of grace is “Christian conferencing.”
Wesley would inspire us to join together in Christian conferencing. Wesley believed that Christians coming together in relatively small, communal settings for purposes of “watching over one another in love” was a true “means of grace.” Christian conferencing could be described as “religious conversation,” “holiness of conversation,” or “Christian fellowship.”
If you and I had sat in on a class meeting with John Wesley, he would have asked each one of us several questions for spiritual self-reflection.
If you are a new Christian, Wesley would have asked … Have you the forgiveness of sins? Have you peace with God? Have you the witness of the Spirit? How is your relationship with your neighbor? Have you a love for spiritual things? Any questions relating to Christian experience
If you are a professing Christian, Wesley would have asked … Are you walking in the light God shines on your way? Are you experiencing the conviction for entire sanctification? Are you progressing in your walk with God? Is there progress in your field of labor? Have you desire for a fuller fellowship with the Savior?
If you are a maturing Christian, Wesley would have asked … Is your holiness increasing? Have you an increase in mercy, compassion, humbleness of mind? Do you have an increase in faith and labor of love?
No doubt these are challenging questions for the purpose of accountability and transformation, and as Methodist we are bound to this high standard that Wesley has laid out for us.
As we come to the Table today Christ invites each one of us to reflect on what it means to be a “saint.” To be a “saint” is to be a person who inspires Christian devotion in others. To be a “saint” is to be someone who maintains the traditions of our faith so that the next generation might know what it means to be called Methodist. To be a “saint” is to be someone who knows the Word of God in such a way that we keep our orthodox Christian values.
We are all called to become “saints.” And, it can seem very hard to be a “saint,” but God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. We can all be saints when we allow Jesus to work in us and through us to fill us and change us to love God and neighbor with all our hearts.