Sermon - September 1st 2013 - A Practical Postscript
Keep on loving each other as fellow believers.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
I’ve always felt that Biblical Christianity is a supremely practical faith. I’ve always felt that Biblical Christianity is intended to AFFECT every part of our lives. And it's also intended to ENRICH every part of our lives. For me, Biblical Christianity is meant to affect and enrich our lives in the here and now as well as into the future. The Holy Spirit is frustrated, grieved, if we keep Jesus Christ at arm's length and don't let him transform our lives. Practical Christianity is lived out in the Christian community we call the church. It’s closely connected to a worshipping Christian community of believers. Practical Christianity is strengthened by our knowledge of the Bible and its teachings. I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Word this day!
Our sermon text this morning is found in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament — chapter 13. The first twelve chapters of Hebrews are what I call "Industrial Strength Theology.” The first twelve chapters of Hebrews lay a solid foundation for the Christian faith. Those chapters talk about Jesus Christ and they carefully explain what he has done for us and for the world. The first twelve chapters of Hebrews explain Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross, as payment for our sins. They speak of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which opens the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. These chapters connect Old Testament promises about Jesus with New Testament fulfillment of those promises. The first 12 chapters of Hebrews contain theology that would challenge the best Biblical scholar. The original document was written in a beautiful, scholarly Greek.
And then we come to chapter thirteen. The thirteenth chapter of Hebrews is very different. It’s the conclusion to the book. In some ways, it's a postscript. In the last chapter of Hebrews, the author deals, not so much with theological matters, but practical matters. It's interesting – and also significant – that the writer of Hebrews doesn't talk about these everyday, down-to-earth issues until after he's carefully laid out the theological basis for the Christian faith. He doesn't want to get the practical cart before the theological horse. And neither do we.
Christianity functions best in the context of the God-kind of love. Whether it's theology or the practical issues of the Christian life, all we do as God's people is to be motivated by the God-kind of love. The 13th chapter of Hebrews gives us good advice. It tells us how we ought to deal with non-Christians. And it tells us how we ought to deal with our Christian brothers and sisters as well. It helps us in our dealings with strangers and those in prison. It tells Christian husbands and wives what’s appropriate for them. It also tells Christians how to relate to their spiritual leaders.
Hebrews 13, verse 1, says:
"Keep on loving each other as fellow believers."
When God’s people are asked to "keep on" doing something, we know it’s something they've been doing already. The Bible describes Christians as brothers and sisters, children of our Heavenly Father. Christians are adopted members of the family of God. We become members of God's family by being born into it, or by being adopted into it. Little Tonny Zlahn was born into the family of God here last Sunday – born of water and the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Every family has a place for the little ones. And the Christian family does, too.
Bible scholars tell us that the book of Hebrews was originally directed to Christians who were being tempted to give up their faith in the Lord Jesus. Some of those early Christians were thinking about returning to the Jewish faith. Their faith was growing weak. And one of the first symptoms of a weak faith is a coldness to other Christians and an indifference to Christian fellowship and worship. These early Christians were told to do more than love one another. They were also told to deal with strangers in the context of the God-kind of love. When you think about it, love is at the very heart and center of the Christian faith. And it's not just any kind of love – it's gracious, sacrificial, caring, intelligent love. It cares more for others than it cares for itself.
I have a newspaper clipping in my files that says this:
Upside down in a car filled with water, disoriented and out of air, Joan Edwards thought her last moment had come. The 46 year-old … woman's vehicle was lying in 1.5 meters of water … after her car skidded off a bridge.
"I was upside down but I didn't know it," she said...
"I couldn't find the window handle. I ran out of air and I made one last scream for help. I thought I was a goner for sure. Then I heard a voice. I couldn't believe I was being rescued."
The voice belonged to Gerald Mansell, one of two 22 year-old twin brothers who dived into the river after seeing other spectators standing by and doing nothing. The two men arrived at the scene about 5 minutes after the accident. Gerald Mansell pulled off his jacket and swam to the car, while his brother James, ran back to their own vehicle to call police.
By this time, only the back bumper of the car was above the water. Mansell said he forced the car door open and the woman grabbed his wrist. He pulled her out of the car and held her above water until his brother arrived to help tow her back to shore.
Now, that's a very clear example of what Christian love looks like. It's sacrificial love for others. It's more concerned with others than it is with itself. It’s a bold kind of love that acts while other people stand around and do nothing. Christian love rescues those in distress – it helps those who can't help themselves. And, of course, Christian love is a reflection of Christ's love for this world. Christian love, like the love of our Savior, is sacrificial love. Christian love is willing to risk all to rescue others. Jesus Christ rescued us from sin when he died for us on the cross. Our love for others is a reflection of his great love for us.
So our faith is built on the solid foundation of Jesus’ and compassion. Remove those things and our faith quickly crumbles. Our world, generally speaking, is concerned with the self. But the thought that we live "only for ourselves" is utterly foreign to the Christian faith. It was Jesus himself who said, in Luke, chapter 6, verse 32:
"If you love only those who love you back, what good is that?"
It’s my opinion that the proclamation of God's love for us – the proclamation of Christ's rescue mission for us – has definite practical implications. Biblical love is a two-dimensional love. The vertical dimension is the love between us and our God, initiated by our Heavenly Father. The horizontal dimension is the love that we have for fellow human beings. Some churches preach the Gospel, but neglect Christian service for others. Other churches serve others, but neglect the Gospel. Both fall short of God's will. It's important that we preach Law and Gospel. As we preach, the Holy Spirit works through the Word to bring people to faith. The Holy Spirit enables people to know and trust Jesus Christ as the Lord of their lives and their Savior from sin.
You know, we communicate our faith by our words. But we also communicate our faith by our actions. Now, don’t get me wrong. Our words are critically important. But so are our actions. In the Christian community, preaching is important. But so is service. Our service for others is prompted by our hearing of God's word. If we really care for people, we'll tell them about Jesus Christ. If we really care about people, we'll tell them about the cross, and the empty tomb. But we won't stop there. If we really care for people, we'll be concerned about issues of justice and oppression. We'll be concerned about the environment – about the stewardship of this good earth that the Lord has given us. If we really care for people, our words and our actions will be in sync.
The writer of Hebrews counseled the Christians of his day to
"Continue to remember those in prison…" (Heb. 1:3, N.I.V.)
He counseled them to remember those who were being persecuted for their faith in the Lord Jesus. Persecution was a major problem for the early Christian church. Many Christians back then were martyred for their faith. Persecution still exists today. We’ve seen it lately in Egypt. We’ve seen it in Nigeria, and especially in areas of the world dominated by a fundamentalist, hate-filled form of Islam.
There’s persecution – more subtle, but just as real, in modern western societies, too. You might find Christianity being criticized in the comments section of a website. You might hear Christians described as narrow-minded relics of a past unenlightened age. You might encounter movies that ridicule Christians. Persecution comes in many forms. Early Christians supported their brothers and sisters in Christ when they were undergoing persecution. And Christians today do the same thing.
I mentioned earlier that our faith is intended to AFFECT our lives. And it's intended to ENRICH our lives as well. An important part of life is marriage. In Hebrews 13, verse 4, we find these words:
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. (N.I.V.)
As Christians, we’ve all experienced God's love and compassion. The moment faith is sparked in our hearts, God's love affects and enriches all aspects of our lives. As Christian people – disciples of Jesus Christ – God's love enriches our relationships with fellow Christians. It enriches our relationships with strangers, and with family members. And, as God's people, his love enriches our marriages, too. The writer of Hebrews tells us that marriage is to be held in honor by Christian people. Back in the early days of the Christian church, there were those who argued that that marriage was less than honorable estate; that celibacy was the only proper way to live. There are still those who say that today. But the writer of Hebrews described marriage as an honorable estate. Some are single. Some are single by choice. And some are single by chance. The single life is God's will for some. And marriage is God's will for others. Both are to be held in honor by God's people.
Marriage is honored when partners are faithful to one another. Marriage is honored when it’s based on mutual love and respect. Marriage is honored when Christians defend marriage and the family. Christian marriage work best in the context of the God-kind of love – sacrificial love. Marriage requires wholehearted commitment. It requires faithfulness and responsibility. Marriage requires the kind of love and compassion that God's Son abundantly provides for us.
I mentioned earlier that Hebrews chapter 13 is the final chapter in the book. It's a practical postscript to a solidly theological book. Hebrews 13 reminds us to "keep on loving" our Christian brothers and sisters. Two more practical issues are dealt with in Hebrews chapter 13. I want to briefly mention them. Hebrews 13, verse 5, says:
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." (N.I.V.)
The Bible has much to say about money. Money is a mixed blessing – it can accomplish much in the Lord's service, but it can also be a cruel taskmaster. The writer of Hebrews, as you would expect, has some practical advice for us.
"Keep your lives free from the love of money," he says.
God’s will is that money be a means to an end and not an end in itself.
"… be content with what you have," says the writer.
Hebrews 13, verse 7 deals with one last practical issue. It speaks of the relationship between Christians and their leaders:
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (N.I.V.)
The Christian faith is a practical faith. God wants our faith to affect, and to enrich, every part of our lives, all the time – every day. Our faith is relevant to the lives we live. It's surprisingly "down to earth." The key to this practical Christianity is knowing Jesus Christ Jesus, by faith. It’s knowing His love and compassion – knowing his forgiveness – experiencing his rescue from the bondage of sin. In this rapidly-changing, spiritually confused world of ours, we proclaim Jesus Christ, "the same yesterday and today and forever." (Hebrews 13:8, N.I.V.) Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER -- Give us eyes to see the practical side of the Christian faith. Enrich our lives as we seek to do your will. Help us recognize the needs of others. Help us stand for what is right and just. Help us to be good stewards of all of your amazing gifts. Turn our eyes upon Jesus, the Author and the Finisher of our faith – the One who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. In His name we pray. Amen.