A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on September 1, 2013.
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
For the past three weeks, I’ve been preaching from the book of Hebrews, a book that was written to a group of first-generation Jesus followers who were being imprisoned and mistreated for their faith. We examined the meaning of faith as trusting God with our lives even though we can’t clearly see what the future holds. We learned that a life of faith is a marathon in which Jesus goes before us to be our finish line. Last Sunday, we were reminded that though the world that we live in has a shaky existence, for those who trust in Christ, we serve an unshakeable kingdom.
This morning, we come to the end of the book of Hebrews, in which the writer offers final words of advice and exhortation. As I read those words, it reminded me of a mother sending off a child to college for the first time, and as she drives off from the dorm, she shouts back and rattles off reminders: “Remember to eat well! Go to class! Get eight hours of sleep! Text us! And oh yes, wear clean underwear every day!”
Well, it seems to me that at the end of this letter, the writer of Hebrews is also rattling off final reminders, exhortations that reminded those early Christians of what it meant to live a life of faith. Keeping the faith is not just about an individual believing in the right things. Keeping the faith is mostly about trusting God enough to behave in such a way that it gives witness to the person of Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. In order for that to happen fully, it takes a community, a group of people living life together. You’ve probably heard what Charlie Brown’s friend Linus once said: “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” That can also be true for churches! This passage from Hebrews offers us no new revelation, just much-needed reminders of what it means to be a community of Christ followers living life together, reminders of what it means to be the church.
So then, according to this passage in Hebrews, what does it mean for us to live a life of faith? We are told to keep on loving each other with brotherly love, to entertain or show hospitality to strangers, to remember fellow prisoners and those mistreated. Several years ago, Dan Kimball published a book called They Like Jesus But Not the Church, in which he interviewed non-Christians in their twenties about what they wished church to be. One common answer was that they wish the church to be a loving place. A young man named Duggan elaborated: “If I were to go to church, I’d want it to be like a family. A healthy family where you all are looking out for each other. Where they are glad to see you and it really feels like a community. A place where they love you, even when you aren’t doing well. Love shouldn’t be conditional.” Many comments such as this one were given by most non-Christians. However, somehow we’ve sent a message that church is not a place where love is evident, or if it is, then it is conditional: we’ll love you if you become more like us, if you make the effort to know us, if you shape up your life, if you dress like us, believe like us, vote like us, like the same music as us. One of the final reminders given to us this morning is that a community of faith seeks to love one another, not just those who’ve got it all together, but truly to love others in the messiness of their lives.
At a ministers’ gathering I attended several years back, we were sharing with each other our various church websites. One pastor showed his church’s website, full of beautiful photography showing soulful stained glass, parallel lines of pews, and a time-honored altar. One of other ministers playfully asked, “Why aren’t there any people in your church?” Without missing a beat, another minister responded, “I’ve found it’s much easier to be a pastor that way.”
In addition to loving others even in the messiness of their lives, the text also reminds us to honor the sanctity of marriage, to keep the marriage bed pure and not to indulge in sexual immorality. Now, this can be a whole sermon series in and of itself, and I don’t have time or the inclination to go into explicit detail. But I want to highlight a great point that Pastor John Burke makes in his book, No Perfect People Allowed. He says that in our sex-crazed culture, shaming people for their sexual behavior does not help—it only drives them into hiding. However, the church can help people understand that lust and fantasy and pornography and adultery are just imposters of the real thing they desire. The real thing most people desire is a lasting, truly loving, faithful marriage relationship where sex is a loving, satisfying part of a holistic, intimate relationship. Contrary to popular opinion which says: “no harm, no foul,” pornography and sexual intercourse outside a marital commitment can actually train us in ways might prevent us from entering into a growing, fulfilling sexual relationship in a marriage. Pornography trains a person’s mind to need a constantly changing image, person, or position to gain that sexual–stimulus high. We are a generation training ourselves to be discontent and unsatisfied with one partner for life.
Likewise, in our culture today, we are a generation training ourselves to be discontent and unsatisfied with what we already possess. We are constantly told that we need to buy the latest and the greatest. According to Diana Butler Bass, “Where previous generations found their identity in what they produced, we now find our identity in what we consume.” Our identity is now wrapped up in the kind of clothes we wear (Ralph Lauren or Abercrombie & Fitch), the car we drive (Prius or Hummer), and the smartphone we use (iPhone or is it now the Samsung Galaxy S4?). Against this flow of our culture, the writer of Hebrews warns: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.”
We live in a culture where people are often protective of their possessions and promiscuous with their bodies. The writer of Hebrews is reminding us that living a life of faith call us to be protective of our bodies and promiscuous with our possessions. According to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore we need to honor God with our bodies. And according to Acts chapter 4 verses 32 and 34, the early church was promiscuous with her material possessions: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had,” and “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” Being a community of faith means swimming upstream against the current of our culture to model a place where people are striving to be virtuous and faithful in their relationships and generous with their possessions. It doesn’t mean that we’re perfect. I personally have a long ways to go. But it does mean that we as a community are constantly taking that next step of faith toward having a greater trust in the God of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I believe we can do that because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” These verses, in my opinion, are the key to this whole passage. Why do I think we fail to be truly caring and hospitable in our relationships, truly virtuous and faithful in our sexuality, and truly content with what we have? I think it is because we are afraid. We are afraid that we have no helpers; therefore we must first care for ourselves and horde our possessions. We are afraid that we have no time for the people already in our lives; therefore, we don’t welcome new people. We are afraid that those whom we love will hurt and forsake us, so we would rather settle for connection without commitment, sexual release without relationship, and romance without risk. We are afraid of what mortals can do to us, so we would rather not welcome the stranger, not remember the prisoner, and not invite those struggling and suffering into our lives.
That good news this morning is that we need not be afraid because we are not alone in this. God continually gives us examples to follow. The writer of Hebrews has given us examples of saints from the past to encourage us and cheer us on. You may know of others who inspire you to live a life of faith. Just yesterday, I officiated in the memorial service of my aunt. She was the one who sponsored my family to immigrate to the States. She was the one who taught me how to sing. She served as an example of faith for me to imitate, and her life inspires me to live a life of faith that others may want to imitate.
Ultimately, however, it is the Triune God who is the leader in whom we’re called to imitate. We worship a triune God where each Person of the Trinity–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–is in perfect relationship with each other. God was perfectly self-contained within God’s self. God didn’t need human beings; God’s social calendar was full! And yet, God literally made time for us and created us for relationship. Over and over again, God risked and initiated a relationship with a group of people called Israel, and, like a faithful groom, God promised Israel that “you shall be my people and I will be your God.” But over and over again, Israel was an unfaithful bride, promiscuous in chasing after idols, even to the point that God compared Israel to a prostitute. But God remained faithful and did not forsake His bride. God was generous and gave His most precious possession, His one and only Son Jesus Christ, the very incarnation of God’s love and care, not just to His people but to the world. And yet, the world rejected Jesus and it did all it could to destroy him—people insulted him, hung him on a cross, stabbed him with a spear, and left him to die. Jesus was mistreated and he took upon himself our suffering, but instead of writing us off, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” God answered Jesus’ prayer, and forgave us and freed us from the imprisoning power of sin. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit, called the Paraclete, which when translated in English means “comforter,” “counselor” and “helper.” So listen again with fresh ears to what God is trying to say to the Church: “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you. I am your helper. What can mere mortals do to you? Do not be afraid.”
As we prepare to receive Holy Communion, we have in the bread and the cup of the Last Supper a final reminder that Jesus will never leave us, never forsake us. We are reminded that human beings did the worst they could to Jesus by killing him, and yet, it was not enough because he resurrected from the dead. Therefore, as followers of Jesus, we do not need to be afraid. We are a people who are not afraid to love others unconditionally because God first loved us unconditionally. We are a people who are not afraid to welcome strangers because God first welcomed us when we were strangers to him. We are not afraid to remember the prisoners because God freed us from the imprisoning power of sin. We are not afraid to be faithful in our intimate relationships because God remains faithful to us. We are not afraid to be generous with our possessions because God did not spare His own Son for us. We are not afraid to be a people who continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise with our mouths and with our deeds.
People of God, come to the Table, and be reminded of the goodness of Christ! Amen.
 Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church, p. 226-227.
 John Burke, No Perfect People Allowed, p. 258-259.
 Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, p. 231, citing Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (London: Church House Publishing, 2004), 9.
 Exodus 6:7; Jeremiah 11:4; Jeremiah 30:22; Ezekiel 36:28.
 See the book of Hosea.
 John 14:16, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7, 20:22.