Blue Mountains Franciscan Church Sermon preached by brother Andrew on Sunday 28th August.
15th Sunday After Pentecost Year C
On Friday morning I went with the seniors of the Maroubra Junction Neighbourhood Centre to see the new version of Ben Hur. It was like a breath of fresh air on the cover of a dusty Bible to see the living Christ about his trade in the markets, to watch him healing and preaching, to see him die…
To hear Pontius Pilate say that his words of love and peace were far more dangerous than any sedition or uprising the zealots might perpetrate.
Yet I am not going to look at this gospel but rather in Hebrews 13 at the lives of the Jewish Christians in the years after their excommunication from the Sacraments of Judaism.
Firstly look how, like Christ, the writer exhorts them to live as true followers of Christ
“Let mutual love continue.” Writes the author, in a word of St Francis “ Compassionate” with others, those in Prison those under oppression as though you yourselves are with them in their suffering. To keep marriages sacred living sexually moral lives, with the promise that Christ is ever with them and so what have they to fear?
It was verse 10 which arrested my interest, it says “ We have an altar” It is only natural that amidst the instructions for Godly living that there is the mention of the Sacrifice, this time it is by way of the comparison between the participation in the Jewish Sacrifices and being enfolded in the invisible, spiritual altar which is Christ himself.
If it was a puzzle to the Polytheists and the worshippers of the Baals that the Jews had a sumptuous Temple, magnificent altar and most holy place yet no visible god within this edifice, it was even more of a puzzle to the Jews that Christians who then worshipped in private homes had no altars and apparently no sacrifice. So the statement “ We have an altar” is a rebuttal to whatever taunting the Christians underwent after their excommunication from the reception of the food of sacrifices to God. Verse 9 is a warning against yielding to strange teaching, presumably about the impossibility of the forgiveness of sins without the prescribed Temple sacrifices.
Yet there is one sacrifice made on the Day of Atonement in which no one participates, not even the Jewish Priests when the goat upon whom all the sins of the Nation is laid is taken outside the walls of the city into the desert, killed and immolated.
Christ is such a scape goat as this upon whom was laid all the sins of the world so that he might die to make atonement for us and in him all who accept and believe receive the fruits of this sacrifice.
What or where, then, is this altar?
Here is where I defer to the commentators. Maclaren says the writer may have had one of two things in mind: a physical altar and if so this could only be the Cross outside the camp or the Spiritual altar of Christ himself who is both altar and sacrifice.
Maclaren continues Jesus Christ is the consummation of temple, priest, altar and sacrifice, that Christ is the substance and fulfilment of the shadow that the Jewish sacrificial system was, in Christ all are fulfilled and are no longer needed, not temple, altar priest or sacrifice, since he is all in all. The writer of Hebrews tells us that our offerings upon this spiritual altar which is very God is the sacrifice of thanks and praise. Matthew Henry, easer to understand simply says of verse 9 that the Jewish sacrificial system prevents anyone from receiving either/and the Atonement for their sins and the Lord’s supper of the Gospels.
Our salvation and worship do not depend on visible physical altars and sacrifices but on a free gift.
We offer God thanks and praise and prayer and he grants us holy bread and wine in remembrance of the fulfilment of the shadow of At one-ment.
And the writer leaves us with the reminder that there were Holy men and women who had gone before leaving example for them to follow.
OK back to my original thoughts “enfolded in the invisible, spiritual altar which is Christ himself.”
This was where Hebrew Christianity or rather the Christianity of the readers of the Sermon of Hebrews were; at what stage, then did the need for the physical altar resurface along with all of the Liturgical hoo har that some of us left behind us?