“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
When I preached on Hebrews last Sunday, I described a pattern found in Hebrews used to show that Jesus Christ is a better, perfect fulfillment of figures and images from Israel’s history with God. Jesus Christ is the perfect Moses, the perfect high Priest, and so on. But the author of Hebrews follows each example of Christ as the perfect version of a symbol from Israel with a warning not to turn away from Christ. Remember how bad things got for Israel when they turned from Moses? We should not discover the consequences of turning away from the perfect Moses, Jesus Christ. There are four such warnings in Hebrews, and what we just read is far and away the harshest of them all.
We know very little about the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, except that they were Jewish Christians living in a time of intense, and frequent persecution. This is clear at several places in Hebrews itself, without needing to look behind or beyond the letter. For a Christian to “fall away” was simply to succumb to the weight of persecution. Falling away in the ancient church would sometimes be connected with a public, liturgical action, signifying that you no longer believe that Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and risen is the one true God. We should know that turning away from Christ usually takes more subtle, hidden forms than that, particularly in our culture where the expectation is that we keep our religious views private.
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food… solid food is for the mature.” If you were wondering how Christians are meant to withstand persecutions, or anything else that challenges Christian belief, the answer we are given in Hebrews is Christian maturity. In an age of temptation, persecution, and falling away, infant Christians simply will not make it, we need mature believers. It is the church’s responsibility to ensure that God’s people are being nourished to maturity with what Hebrews calls “solid food.”
The problem with solid food is that we do not want it. We want milk, or some other source of nutrition altogether. I grew up in the church with a very real sense of God’s presence, and have always known that God loves me. For many different reasons, as a teenager I began to “grow in my faith.” Some would say this was when I “became a Christian,” though that is not the historic teaching of the church or what I believe. Everything that needed to be done for my life with God had been done already by Jesus Christ, I just did not know it yet, but that is for another sermon.
As a teenager desiring a deeper life with God, I was a spiritual infant, I needed spiritual milk, and God gave me spiritual milk. What does that mean? There were a few months when I was really, really excited to study my Bible. I was really, really excited to pray. I was really, really excited to talk about my faith. I was a teenager waking up at or around 5 in the morning to pray, read my Bible, and write in a journal. It was easy because I was excited to do it. It was new, it was interesting, it was exciting, I wanted to do those things. St. Thomas Aquinas compares these sweet, simple early days of a life with God with “the beginning of a dear friendship.”
But if you are a teenager, or whatever age you are, do not feel guilty if that does not describe your life with God. My walk with God has never been as easy as it was for those few months in high school since that time. I still practice those very important parts of Christian life and a life with God, and I sense God’s presence in them; but it is not nearly as easy as it was back then. I wake up early for completely different reasons, and I often struggle to pray.
Spiritual infancy is simple. The faith of an infant is black and white, we have not yet been confronted with the complications of Christian life. Why does God allow people to get sick unexpectedly, die when we do not want them to, or go hungry? Why does God allow persecution? Spiritual infants do not ask these questions, not yet.The food we are given in spiritual infancy is simple, it is spiritual milk. Milk is exactly what an infant needs, but it does not nourish us to maturity, it does not take very long in our lives before milk gives us no meaningful nourishment, because we are growing up. It does not take very long in our Christian lives before the kind of spiritual nourishment we needed as baby Christians is no longer sufficient to sustain us.
The church, and the church in America in particular, has a problem with this. Most Churches in our part of the world tell us that we need to spend our energy and our lives as Christians chasing the spiritual highs of our Christian infancy. Like a married couple trying to conjure up the infatuation of a honeymoon period, Churches work so hard to manipulate our emotional lives in such ways that we always experience God like “new Christians.” If we are not experiencing God this way, we are told, implicitly and explicitly, that something is wrong in our life with God.
But married couples conjuring up feelings of infatuation to return to their honeymoon phase, if that were even possible, cannot raise children. They cannot endure the pain of walking through poverty, sickness, or conflict together. They cannot grow in their awareness of how sweet it is to find love at all stages of marriage, because they are not mature. It is okay to return from your honeymoon, and not only okay, but you must return from your honeymoon and grow up together.
The same is true of our lives with God. We must get over our spiritual infancy, as sweet, simple, and easy as that time is for us, or else our faith will not withstand the many temptations of this life. Not only is it acceptable to move past spiritual infancy, there is nothing wrong with you for not feeling exactly like you did when you first became aware of who God is for you in Jesus Christ, God wants you to move on. Moving on does not mean discarding the fundamentals of Christian life, and especially the fundamentals of Christian teaching, and the Gospel message, but to grow in our life with God through those things, with our feet firmly planted in them.
One of the primary, most ancient, basic tools for Christians to withstand times of persecution is exactly what we are doing now.
Liturgy, particularly confessions and creeds. The persecuted Christians of the early church were like most persecuted Christians throughout history, they could not read. They did not even have what we today call the “Bible,” only the Old Testament, and perhaps a fragment of the New. But even if they had some parts of sacred Scripture in their possession, these were easily confiscated and destroyed. So how did they remain grounded in the good news of Jesus Christ and the promises of God? They memorized confessions and creeds. Creeds are chock full of the Gospel. The second century Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons said that God gave creeds to the church so that Christians “might have salvation written in their hearts by the Holy Spirit without paper or ink.”
Hebrews 6, verses 1 and 2, is what theologians of the early church call a “proto-creed.” It is an early confession of the church, for Christians enduring persecution: “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”
“Repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,” that is all about confession, the need for frequent confession of sin, and trust in God’s promises. “Instructions about washings,” as well as “the laying on of hands.” This is a reference to baptism. Baptism in the church was always practiced alongside instructions about the basics of Christian faith, either for those being baptized or those charged with the spiritual care of an infant. Hands were laid on new believers at their baptisms as a sign that they have “received the Holy Spirit, and are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever,” and as a sign that they receive the teaching of the Apostles. And there is no Christian faith without belief in Resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment, or “life everlasting,” as our own creeds put it.
We encounter in this passage in Hebrews the prototype for the following lines from the Nicene Creed which we will soon say together, We believe in God. We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
This passage is not suggesting that we depart from these teachings as we grow in our maturity, or else Hebrews would not tell the recipients of this letter to return to these teachings, teachings which are like “spiritual milk” for Christians. Christian maturity thinks more deeply of these things, allows these wonderful gospel truths to bear fruit in the life of a Christian, and establishes a firm, solid foundation for God’s people to withstand the storms of life in the Church. To borrow the language of Hebrews, at some point we should know these basics of Christian faith well enough to indeed be “teachers,” of them, and have some ability to explain why we believe them, why they are important, and so on.
You may have met Christians who say things like, “we have no creed, but Christ,” or “our only creed is the Bible.” That is immature Christianity. It is vulnerable Christianity. The Bible itself is filled with creeds and confessions, and in spite of all the chaos that has taken place to the church, or around the church over the past 2000 years, we are about to say the Nicene Creed. Surely, that means something.
The Church in America is not a persecuted church. There are many leaders who tell Christians that we are persecuted, and they are only doing it in order to manipulate Christians into giving them more power and influence than they deserve to have. We do not need to be persecuted to fall away. We are doing a fine job of falling away from the inside, thank you very much. We stubbornly choose to remain in spiritual infancy, because that is much easier, much simpler, and draws bigger crowds than embracing a rich, creedal, tested, historic form of Christian belief that has been proven to survive the pressures and strains of life, over and over again.
I am comfortable confessing to you, as your Rector, that the blame for this sorry state of affairs mostly falls at the feet of clergy; Priests and Pastors. Solid Christian teaching, a grounded Gospel message, are rarely heard from pulpits in the church, even from those churches and leaders who claim to be Gospel-centered or Biblical. So it is that Christians are desperately confused right now, hungry for what is actually true, what Scripture actually teaches, and I know because I hear about this painful confusion all the time.
There is a new term being used to describe those who share the “politics of evangelicals,” but not evangelical religious faith, “political evangelicalism.” The Christian message has become so wrapped up with politics in our country that there are people who do not have faith in Christ who wish to call themselves “evangelicals,” or “people of the good news,” without believing in the good news.
Christians can claim to be all about the Gospel, but welcome a compromised non-gospel, so long as it means we have more people on our side in the culture wars. I am finding more and more Christians who believe the gospel message is just saying anything that people who do not agree with them politically would not agree with.
How did we get here? Where are politics and culture wars in this early creed from Hebrews? Where are they in the Bible’s witness to Jesus Christ? Where are they in the creeds of the Church?
Other well-meaning leaders in the church are told that Sermons must be helpful,” “interesting,“”relevant,” or offer “good advice,” all measured by the standards of the world outside of the church, in order for them to be effective. So, many Christians are taught that Christian faith is all about family values, civic duties, or something interesting such as what contemporary science says about the Bible. These things are nice, they might be helpful, but they are not solid food, nor even spiritual milk. They will leave God’s people in spiritual infancy. We need to encounter Jesus Christ in the Word preached, or else we will wither away and die. Good advice, relevant topics, interesting connections to science, these will not save us, they are not the Gospel.
A 20th Century English Bishop, the Rt. Reverend Douglas Feaver, once said of a fellow Bishop, “he will believe anything, provided it cannot be found in the Bible.” How well does this describe so much of the Christianity we see around us both, to put it crudely, on the left and on the right? This word from the Lord in Hebrews is indeed for us today.
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” The author of Hebrews’ hard warning for the church in his time, and the church today, is not divorced from a word of love, “beloved.” One of the stalwart Anglican leaders of the past 50 years is the former Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, Fitzsimmons Allison, who wrote a book in the 1970’s called The Cruelty of Heresy. The name alone captures the point perfectly. It is not loving, it is not pastoral, it is not caring to feed God’s people with anything other than the solid food described in Hebrews, and found throughout holy scripture, and the teachings of the church, even when God’s people ask to be fed something different. It is cruel to teach and lead apart from what God has given us in Jesus Christ.
God does not issue this warning, or any warning, to the church with a lightning bolt in his hand, ready to smite you when you start to fall away, or when you make a mistake. God is not Zeus. Neglecting the historic Christian message in our teaching and preaching in favor of something else will simply result in the death of Christians. God’s judgment often takes the form of just giving us what we ask for, and allowing the consequences of our decisions to play themselves out. He does not need to destroy us, we are very good at destroying ourselves.
But God has not left us to our horrible patterns of self-destruction. He has entered into our broken world, died on its behalf, and given us life with God. Why would we exchange that for bad news? Why would we exchange it even for other good news, that is not the good news?
God loves us. Because God loves us, God has given us a firm foundation, and feeds us with solid food. Repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, resurrection, eternal life, and the mighty grace and love of God. These are indeed better things than what we find anywhere else. “In your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things. Things belonging to salvation.” Amen.