Hebrews 13:1-16 paints a picture of the ‘sacrifices’ of living a Christian life motored by Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of love for us.
Does the last verse of our reading this morning get your vote for the most underwhelming verse in the entire Bible? ‘Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.’ It sounds a bit like something you might say to a child as you pack them off on a school trip. Do good and share with others. Is that it? If that is it, we might be forgiven for thinking that here we have an ethic that lacks a certain ambition. ‘Do good and share with others’ sounds a bit weak as a message, doesn’t it? – and not as if it’s going to set the world on fire. If the world hears the church saying no more than ‘do good and share with others’, maybe the world can be forgiven for switching channels.
And how about this: “do good and share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased”. If that is true, then wouldn’t you say that God is easily pleased, with fairly small sacrifices on our part? I have titled this morning’s sermon ‘Small sacrifices’, even though I do think there is more to Christianity than doing good and sharing with others, just as there was more to that reading from the letter to the Hebrews than the last verse that was read.
When we look at the passage in its entirety, as I encourage you to do now, by turning back to page – in the pew bibles, when we look at the passage in its entirety, from the start of Hebrews chapter 13 onwards, we will find a set of small sacrifices that are part and parcel of the Christian life being set out one by one, before we come to one big sacrifice that makes all the small ones possible.
So let’s start by looking at these small sacrifices one by one. The first is there in verse 1 of chapter 13: Keep on loving one another as brothers. In other words, Christians ought to love other Christians. Some people might say that this sounds a bit exclusive, and not a very ambitious ethic. I did warn you, we’re talking about small sacrifices, and apart from anything else, we’ve all got to start somewhere. Keep on loving one another as brothers. But what does this even mean? Well, the addition of these words ‘as brothers’ in our English language Bibles helps us to understand what is meant by the Greek term, you might have heard it, philadelphia.
It’s easy for anyone to say that they love humanity in principle, in the abstract, in general terms. Very few would say that they did not, or did not at least think they should try to, love humankind in general. But brotherly love doesn’t work like that. In the context of family relationships, love is never in principle or abstract. Love in the context of family relationships is fierce and it is practical, or it is nothing at all. It is sustained on the basis of close and unsentimental knowledge of another person, with all their faults. Our brothers and our sisters may possibly have seen us at our best, and they are likely to have seen us at our worst. They know all sorts of things about us that we would rather not have broadcast. We trust them because they have our backs, and they love us regardless. When they do not love us like this, we rightly regard it as a kind of betrayal. Hebrews chapter 13 verse 1 tells us to love fellow believers like that, to love them despite all we have gotten to know about them by living with them in Christian community, to love them not sentimentally and in the abstract, but with determination and practicality. It’s not rocket science to do this, it’s not an earth-shattering new teaching we have here in verse 1, it’s just a small sacrifice on our part to keep on loving one another as brothers. Anything less you could say would be a kind of betrayal.
Moving on to verse 2 of chapter 13, we have the second of what will turn out to be six small sacrifices in this passage, over and above doing good and sharing with others. ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it’. So here we see the exclusivity of Christians loving one another as brothers opening up to welcome potentially anyone from outside the tribe. The Old Testament uses the word ‘strangers’ to denote foreigners, immigrants, non-Jewish people living in the land of Israel without much by way of support networks or social capital. This is what the Levitical law told the Israelites about how to treat such a person: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself , for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Perhaps here in the letter to the Hebrews, the Jewish Christian community to whom the author is writing takes the place of the nation of Israel in forming the circle of insiders, but the biblical imperative to love the outsider is essentially unchanged. When we put verse 2 together with verse 1, we can see that Christians have to give up any idea of relating to each other within a cosy inner circle. The Christian community must always remain open to outsiders. Those without social capital and support networks must be able to find community within the church. We must welcome newcomers as warmly as we do old-timers.
It may be that doing this goes against the grain, and requires a conscious effort, for many of us. But it’s not too much to ask of non-Jewish Christians like us, who were once ourselves strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. It’s really a small sacrifice on our part. The door was held open for us, and if we have any communion with Christ, we must hold it open for others. When we do, we will find that the sacrifice was worth it. When in the book of Genesis, Abraham extended hospitality to passing strangers in the desert, it turned out that, unknown to him, he had angels for guests. When we extend a genuine welcome to outsiders, we too will be rewarded for this small sacrifice in all manner of unexpected ways. The inner circles of which we are a part will lose their inward focus and be opened up and transformed. We too may encounter God at the margins of our community.
The third small sacrifice may be found in verse 3 of Hebrews chapter 13. “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” We can start to see a progression here: love one another in Christian community in verse 1; love those on the margins of, or actually outside, Christian community in verse 2; and now love those who are suffering in prison, who are not just social outsiders but actually outcasts.
“Remember” them, we are told in verse 3, which means acting according to their needs, rather than simply recalling their situation. Conditions in the prisons of the first century were appalling. Prisoners were supplied with food, clothing and emotional support only by visiting friends and family. If friends and family did not visit, not only would prisoners be lonely, they would also starve or freeze to death. The love for outcasts that is called for here is not theoretical. If “a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food”, “what good is it”, asks the apostle James in his letter, if someone says to him or her, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed”? In the face of avoidable human suffering, it’s not much to ask, it’s really only a small sacrifice on our part, to remember those who have been left behind and forgotten by society, to offer more than words, and to actually do something practical to relieve their suffering.
The fourth small sacrifice in this passage is found in verse 4. “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and the sexually immoral.” Love each other, love the stranger, love the prisoner and outcast, and now love your spouse. Is it really such a big ask of those who are married, to love their spouses? Is it such a big ask for them to remain true to their vows, to forsake all others, and to keep themselves only unto each other, for as long as they both shall live? Everyone will have noticed the a-word that features here in verse 4, which is not much talked about in polite society, even though it drives the plots of many written and broadcast dramas, as do many of the other things forbidden by the Ten Commandments. It is worth remembering that the opposite of adultery is faithfulness, the courage to carry through on a commitment. This will involve the sacrifice of other paths not taken in life, but it’s a small price to pay, don’t you think, for keeping open the path we have taken, for remaining true to our word and for protecting ourselves and our families from unnecessary harm? Marital faithfulness may sound boring, and it may not be the stuff of TV drama, but it is a demonstration of love in action, just as much as is brotherly love, love of outsiders and love of outcasts.
The fifth small sacrifice does not concern what to love as much as it concerns what not to love, and it’s there in verse 5 of the chapter. “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you’.” All of us need some money to get by and live on, but we are warned here to be careful not to love money. Anyone who loves money is a vulnerable position, because we can be sure of this: money does not love us. It is a false mistress; it is fickle, not faithful. It can be gained and it can be lost, and if it hasn’t already deserted us before we die, it will do so completely at that time.
In addition to this, money is a rival to God in the promises it holds out of safety, security, enjoyment and hope for the future. For depictions of the happy life enjoyed by people if only they will spend their money, we only have to look at advertisements on TV, and think about its messaging. But if we turn our attention to the news, and think about the messages it carries, we will learn that money can’t buy us happiness, and that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil. So choose this day whom you will serve. “No-one can serve two masters”, warns the Lord Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Safety, security, enjoyment and hope for the future are promises that money is in no position to make, so it is in truth a small sacrifice to stay away from, or give up, the love of money. We may make responsible and generous use of whatever money we have, while at the same time despising its false promises, and instead being devoted to and trusting God for our safety, security and future.
It’s a small sacrifice, because he has said, ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you’, and consequently we may say ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’ In the words of Jim Elliot, the famous twentieth-century missionary, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’.
However, I’ve got to be honest and say, the more I think about what is involved in loving one another, loving outsiders and outcasts, and retaining the love of spouses but avoiding the love of money, the more I wonder whether it’s accurate to say that the sacrifices involved are as small as I have been making out. If all of those imperatives are part and parcel of “doing good and sharing with others”, as we can now see that the letter to the Hebrews appears to say, perhaps this ethic of “doing good and sharing with others” is more demanding than it seemed to be at first. Perhaps it now seems so ambitious as to be actually quite difficult if not impossible to attain.
Yet the author of the letter believes that these sacrifices are achievable, on the strength of two considerations, both of which are set out in verses 7 and 8: the example of life set by the Christian leaders known to his readers, and their teaching of the word of God. “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The power of the example of leaders who are known to us is of some value to inspire us, provided they are good examples, of course, to make the sacrifices we have been thinking about. But there is a far greater power in this respect in the word of God that has been taught to us, and by the word of God the author of Hebrews principally means the gospel of Jesus Christ. Verse 12 reminds us what is at the heart of that message: “Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood”.
This is the reason I have been describing the efforts we make to live the Christian life as “small sacrifices”. They are small when compared to the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, which I described earlier as the one big sacrifice that makes all the small ones possible. The small sacrifices of the Christian life are not made possible merely by the power of example – as if the life and death of Jesus were sufficient to inspire our own efforts to live a good and self-sacrificial life. That way of thinking does not do justice to the words of verse 12: “Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood”.
His is not an exemplary but an enabling power, a power that makes stuff happen, that brings about what it sets out to accomplish: the forgiveness of sins, and the renewal of life. On the cross, the Prayer Book reminds us, Jesus made a “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”. In the light of that big sacrifice, we are told in Hebrews chapter 13, “let us go to him, outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore”. His cross and resurrection are the motor of our Christian lives, and they enable whatever small sacrifices we are able to make in his service, and in the light of his love. If in any respect or to any degree we may be considered holy, it is because he has made us holy through his own blood.
At the end of our lives, we won’t be crowing about our own modest achievements: we will simply say that we are unworthy servants, and we have only done that which it was our duty to do. But there is one thing we will be crowing about, this we can start doing now, and that is this: “Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood”.
This brings us nicely on to the last of the six small sacrifices I said earlier I was going to talk about – I have talked about five up to now, which are in verses 1 to 5 of Hebrews chapter 13, and now I will talk about the sixth, which is in verse 15. “Through Jesus, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name.” Confess the name of Jesus in singing – yes. Confess the name of Jesus in prayer – yes. Confess the name of Jesus in the creed – yes. Confess his name to one another here in church – yes. Confess his name also in the home and among family and friends, and to strangers and outcasts as well. Confess the name of Jesus in conversation.
In offering to God this sacrifice of praise, it may be that we will have bear just the tiniest postage-stamp sized corner of the kind of disgrace that he bore. If so, it’s a small sacrifice by comparison, don’t you think? “Offer to God a sacrifice of praise … and do not forget to do good and share with others”. And here’s the really amazing part, when you think about it: with such small sacrifices, God – who gave his only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death on the cross for our redemption – with such small sacrifices, as we are able to offer……God is pleased.