Here we are, halfway between Easter and Christmas! The pews aren’t very full; the energy levels are low. At least this is finally for a good reason; summer holidays – not the pandemic. Over these last weeks of the summer, we are reading a NT text that was addressed to the church community that also struggled to fill their “pews,” and for much worse reasons. The Epistle to the Hebrews, a powerful and theologically rich piece of writing, which bears a greater resemblance to a sermon or treatise than to a letter. It was written to the community facing ridicule, social alienation, seizure of property and fines imposed on them for their divergence from the Jewish tradition. We, believers of today who live out our baptismal calling in a much safer context, might still experience social repercussions, as well as the loss of enthusiasm for growing in faith. “By faith” is, indeed, the phrase that the author writes multiple times in today’s passage with the caveat, of course, that faith alone, does not grant us immediate gratification. How might we encourage one another then to remain steadfast in faith, as based on Heb 11-12?
Well, first, I should say that the authorship, recipients, dating, and location of Heb remain a mystery. Its content does seem to be based on Paul’s teachings, but today, the scholars agree that the style is too polished and eloquent, and the theological focus is too different from his. It would also be unusual for Paul to write to erstwhile Jews, as in all other letters, he only either addressed Gentiles directly or responded to concerns related to them. It’s likely that someone who knew him well tried to present the interpretation of his teachings to help this struggling community. Maybe, it was Apollos; maybe, even Paul’s steadfast co-worker Priscilla, which would explain why the name of the author of such a work has been “lost”. We don’t know any of this for sure; as a result, Heb was slow to earn its canonical acceptance, despite its brilliance.
What we do know is that the intended audience of Heb would be familiar enough with the Scriptures to appreciate such a learned and literary tour de force, which makes new converts from Judaism a likely audience; hence the name, added as a scribal gloss sometime in the 2nd-3rd century. Some of them might have slipped back into Jewish rituals, some got discouraged by the argument that the Gentiles do not have to convert to Judaism first, and others might have been baffled by their laws becoming obsolete. And some endured actual hardships, though the list of trials we find in today’s passage might not have actually been what they endured personally. If the letter was written in 50-95 AD, since texts produced after that time already cite it, the text may refer to the Jewish martyrs of previous generations, such as the Maccabees in the 2nd century BC, since there was no systematic Christian persecution in those days, yet. Nonetheless, a few local outbursts of violence against Christians had already occurred, such as the Neronian persecution in 64 AD. However, it was localized in Rome, while the community of Heb is believed to have lived in Jerusalem. Could it be that the fledgling community had escaped Jerusalem because of social ostracism, only to find itself facing much greater horrors in their new homes in Rome? I think it is important to spend time thinking about the gravity of the context of the writing we read so casually today. Those were real people, facing real struggles – tangible enough to cause in them the “drooping of hands and weak knees”, “dullness of hearing”, and failure of nerve and faith (ch. 2- 10). Their avoidance of public worship was not the result of simply growing “lukewarm”!
So, here in chapter 11, the author turns to the stories of their ancestors to remind them about the origins of their relationship with God. We do something similar in many of our Eucharistic prayers, when we review the story of salvation as part of the preparation of the bread and wine. But in addition to these scriptural heroes, do we note some pioneers of faith in our larger Christian tradition, or in our lives, who particularly inspire us? There will be several feast dates to celebrate in the fall, but can we also think of friends, ancestors, or world leaders? How are they able to draw on an incredible faith without expecting anything more of God than a strong sense of his presence?
If “hope is a thing with feathers that perches on a soul”, then what is faith, that “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”? If we only had the first half of this quote, then I think many of us would give up. But faith is so much more. It motivates us to seek understanding, leads us to consider how the world was made, and why we were placed in it. It leads us to obey – yet, not blindly, but out of a promise. Most importantly, faith makes some of what is promised in the future, real now – as opposed to making all of what we want now, real in the future!
Yes, Abraham did finally have a child as a token of God’s promise to him and us; but many faithful people remain or become childless. Many live in continued pain; others lose their lives too early. Around this time of year, I always remember two fellow Wycliffe students, one of whom was killed in a car crash in his 20s, and another died after very difficult and drawn out cancer in his 30s – both in the year that I became a priest. When I think of these peers, I mourn the loss of what could have been: raising families, glorifying God, enjoying all earthly gifts, dancing, playing, singing, teaching, laughing, creating… everything I get to do today. Also, the loss to others of what they could have given as priests. As my friend was dying, he wondered what had he done wrong to set God so against him. Did their faith not matter then? It mattered. Faith matters because it opens our eyes to see the things that the world cannot yet see, even as it makes us “strangers and foreigners” to it. According to Heb, all Abraham’s descendants, including ourselves, die without receiving the fulfillment of God’s promises, only having seen them from a distance. But what we do see, from a distance, is the future life with God in a heavenly country. Faith makes us desire that life, and even experience some glimpses of such communion with God here on earth. Our faith matters because by faith, we experience a glimpse of God’s ultimate, eternal faithfulness to us. Amen.