Moving past the Milk

Today I was pondering the scriptures. One of my regular habits is to spend my Monday afternoon going through various books and passages seeking a word for myself, for a congregation member, or for the community. I was reading through a passage from Hebrews 6 and found myself caught up in verses 1-3. Hebrews 6:1-3 says the following in the New Revised Standard Version:

“Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits.”

Now, I found this passage was catching my eye, so I stopped to ask why it caught my attention. I slowed down and checked context. Hebrews 6:7-8 states:

“Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.”

Going further on in the chapter, Hebrews 6 states in verses 10-13:

“For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

So, looking forward through the sixth chapter, we see a strong correlation between the warning (do not stay put), with a checking on the results (what is growing in your field), and a reassurance that God will not overlook the work and love of the audience, which is tied to the full assurance of hope.

This ties together with what follows this chapter as a conversation of Melchizedek, the priestly function, and the completeness of the work of our High Priest Jesus Christ. Indeed, the conversation continues until a “therefore” appears in chapter 10. In chapter 10, Hebrews is translated as saying: (10:19-25)

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 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, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

So, we have a call to move beyond the basics, a call to good works and love, and ultimately a “therefore” that encourages us to live life assured of faith with clean hearts. We are called not only to have hope, but to hold fast to our hope in the belief that Christ is faithful. From that place of faithfulness and confidence, we are called to ponder how we might provoke each other on toward further good deeds and love. This call to community, good deeds, and love is where we are called to go from the basics listed in Hebrews 6:1-3.

This is challenging, because there are many times in life when it seems easier to focus upon these basic matters. As a United Methodist minister, I am questioned regularly about how many people I get to confess their faith, join my church, and be baptized. There are entire ministries whose only goal seems to be leading others to this place of basic belief (in the eyes of Hebrews), and then to move on to the next person. “Once saved, always saved“ is a motto of some of those who believe this is the only call of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews challenges this belief in my sight. The writer says (immediately preceding the call to move forward in 6:1-3) of those who he is addressing (in chapter 5:11-14):

“About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”

What we need to move beyond… (Image: Santeri Viinamäki [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons))

These basic concepts that the authors of Hebrews is addressing (matters which have concerned the church for millennia and have been the cause of war, debate, and suffering) are listed as the simple matters which should be understood by those who have not progressed beyond the basics. The writer of Hebrews even seems to imply that those who do not progress beyond a focus on such things have a bit of “dullness” around them.

All of this begs the question. Where is God calling the church? Certainly we do not abandon the foundation of what we believe, but where is God calling us? Is it to endlessly repeat the basic foundational principles or to move on toward something greater? Where do those building blocks lead us? Do our ministries spur us on toward good works and love? If they spur us on toward hate or self-service, is it time to consider retooling or scraping those ministries altogether?

There are many things to ponder and I do not offer answers, but the question should be asked? Are we moving beyond the milk? If so, where are we headed?

Let us Seek: “Confidence and Pride” or “On Lectionary Usage”

“Why do we use a lectionary?” “What use does a lectionary have for a minister in the church or for the community at large?” “Wouldn’t life be easier if you just picked out all of the scriptures?” One reason we use lectionaries as communities and as pastors is because they force us out of our own comfort-zones into scriptures we would ordinarily glaze over. I have been preaching out of the Narrative Lectionary which comes out of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I post blog entries based off the Revised Common Lectionary as provided through the library of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. I use both resources to help round out my teaching as a preacher and teacher of the Good News. I also occasionally wander off and do a series based on a particular book or concept, because even a crazy United Methodist minister like me has freedom of the pulpit and it can be cathartic to exercise that freedom.

For today’s reading I decided to use the complimentary daily readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. In those readings I was struck by the reading from Hebrews. Hebrews 3:1-6 says: (NRSV)

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also ‘was faithful in all God’s house.’ Yet Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.”

The first question this passage raised was the obvious question for anyone who studies some selections of scripture. What is the “therefore” referring to in the previous section? The second chapter of Hebrews refers to: (Hebrew 2:17-18 NRSV)

“Therefore [Jesus] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

(Sidenote: Hebrews is a logically organized book with a lot of “therefore” statements, so I will allow you to dig into the “therefore” of the previous chapter if you are inclined. Be forewarned that there are two more therefore statements with a significant amount of explanation in the second chapter before this particular “therefore.”)

In my opinion, the content of the “therefore” of the first verse of chapter three brings light into the reading, especially the sixth verse. Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. We are a part of that house if we hold firm to the pride and confidence that come with hope.

Why would we have pride? We are part of a people for whom Jesus intentionally entered creation. We have a merciful and faithful high priest in Jesus. Jesus came in service, sacrificed to bring atonement, and was like us in every respect. We are a people who have lived in futility but Christ has come into the world. We are part of the people which were blessed by Jesus’ presence. We are a part of the household of God due to the faithfulness of our brother and high priest Jesus. While pride is often a word used with negativity in church circles, there is surely some blessing and joy to be found in the reality that Jesus chose to become a part of our human family. There is a pride that does not come with smugness, but with peace. This is the pride that comes with the fulfillment of hope and faith.

The fulfillment of hope and faith are also behind our confidence. The legacy of the Christian worldview is a legacy marked with perfection in creation shaded by sinfulness, tranquility in a garden overshadowed by ejection from utopia, calling into community tainted by broken sovereignty and nationhood, and voices crying out from the wilderness drown out by earthly concerns. Throughout the history of the Christian and Hebrew journeys towards God there has been continual frustration marked by the stubborn refusal of God to give up on the people. We have confidence because Jesus has come to be our high priest.

Ancient promises, hopes, and dreams are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ as our high priest. Furthermore, we are brought into the family of God through the incarnation of Jesus Christ into humanity as our brother. We have pride and confidence because Jesus has willingly done these things with us and for us as a people.

Why do we use lectionaries? I had no intention of writing a blog post on a high priest or on the legacy of hope this morning. We use lectionaries because they lead us out of ourselves into God’s realm where the unexpected can happen. Making a choice to step beyond our comfort zone can be a blessing, but let’s not pretend that taking a risk is always easy. It takes confidence to believe God can meet us out in the wilderness where we relinquish control and it takes humility to listen for a word that we do not expect.

I hope this explains in part why your minister may or may not use a lectionary. There are many other reasons to use a lectionary, but I personally believe that this logic holds well. When I bake bread, I proof the yeast to make certain the yeast is alive and will help the bread rise. The lectionary tends to be full of life in my experience and sometimes the bread we need is not the bread we have in the pantry.