a sermon on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
preached on September 1, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
You’d think that such a powerful statement would be the beginning of an extensive theological discourse, or at least a long paragraph explaining exactly how this makes sense! But it is not. This provocative line from our reading in Hebrews this morning reads almost like an afterthought, tossed into a mix of other comments just for good measure. It follows a number of simple, wise, common-sense exhortations about how to live as we follow Jesus.
Live in mutual love. Show hospitality to all people. Pray for those in prison and who face torture. Honor the commitments of marriage. Avoid greed and jealousy. Follow the examples of faithful leaders.
All these things make sense, and they’re good advice for everyone to follow, but for me at least, they aren’t quite so directly connected to this grand statement of the timelessness of Jesus. Still this sentence jumps off the page in this reading and in this strange and interesting book of Hebrews, whose authorship and audience are unknown and yet have shaped the church for centuries.
These words are a great statement of truth, really—Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Yet in their simplicity they leave so much for us to figure out. Ultimately I think people hear these words in one of two ways. One interpretation of them gives them as much weight for our lives as for our understanding of Jesus. Since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, so we who follow him ought to live in the same way as he did in his time. According to this view, we should not yield to any of the world’s changing understandings of things. We must avoid being tainted by progress, since there is nothing greater than this one who is the same yesterday and today and forever. And in this view, the only change that is welcome is change that restores things to the way they used to be when Jesus himself set it up. This interpretation of these words from Hebrews is very faithful to the exact words of the text taken on their own, but there is something very limiting about this way of thinking. I know for myself that my experiences of God in my life have changed based on what else has been going on in my life, so even though Jesus doesn’t change, my experience of him certainly does. To me, this human attempt to insist that we experience God in the same way now as Christians in the late first century actually limits the power of God to be fully and truly present in our changing world.
And so there is thankfully a second way of thinking about these great words from Hebrews. This second interpretation affirms that God in Christ is unchanging, yet it also recognizes that the way that we understand and experience God can and does and even should change. If Jesus Christ is just as alive and relevant today as he was when he walked the earth, then we must try to sort out what his life, ministry, death, and resurrection mean in our world, not just in the day and age that he lived. We can learn from the wisdom of our world, from science and technology, from medicine and psychology, from literature and historical reflection, and from countless other places of similar insight, for even though they are very much marked by our human wisdom, they remain a part of God’s good creation and so can give us insight into who God is and how God is at work in our midst. But even beyond this, we are different people than when we first began to follow Jesus, so we will hear Jesus differently and follow Jesus differently. When we live this way, we don’t so much try to recover a past way of life in faith or try to find out exactly who Jesus was in another day and age so we can exactly duplicate him, but instead we seek to understand how we are called to follow our unchanging Christ in our changing world.
So how do we do this? How do we sort out what it means for us today that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”? How do we live this reality out each and every day in our world? I think there is great guidance in the words attributed to John Robinson, the pastor who spoke to the Pilgrims as they departed for the New World, insisting that “he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” With each passing day, we can learn new things about what the unchanging Christ means to us, about this new truth and light breaking forth from God, about how Jesus impacts our lives in new and different ways, about how we will always know his presence, about what he calls us to be and to do, and about how we can be a part of his unchanging love, grace, and mercy each and every day.
As we follow this unchanging Christ, we will see new ways to live out the commands lifted up in Hebrews 13, not just living them out in the same way that the first hearers of them might but living them out appropriately and effectively in our own world. We can change how we live, not back to an old way but embodying a new way. We can look for new ways to show mutual love in Christ to our world without exception. We can show hospitality to all strangers, not just those who look like us or might fit in well in our community but to anyone and everyone who responds to our bold invitation of welcome. We can not only pray for those in prison or facing torture but also work for better treatment of them. We can deepen our understanding of the commitments of marriage and work so that all can benefit from this holy gift. We can step back from our culture of protection and hoarding to share our abundance with others and trust that God will provide for all our needs. We can honor the leaders of our communities by challenging them to keep the needs of those who may not always be visible at the forefront. We can look for broader and deeper ways to offer our praise to God in our changing world. And we can put our own gifts at the service of God each and every day, not just when we have time but in all our days, trusting that God will make even the smallest seed bear great fruit.
All along the way, we will even go farther than just these basic commands to see and hear and live in new ways. Our eyes will be opened to those who are different from us and who yet still need God’s loving care, even when we don’t understand them or struggle to be in relationship with them. Our hearts will be attuned to the love of God expressed for all peoples and nations, regardless of any human categories or characterizations. And our lips will speak words of peace not just for ourselves but for all people of the world, never responding to violence with more violence but always hoping and working and praying and trusting that God will guide our feet into the way of peace.
Ultimately, we can put these words about our unchanging Christ into their best setting here at this table. While the look of it may change from time to time, while we may partake of this bread and cup in different ways at different times in different places and with different people, while we may try to divide ourselves based on who is welcome here or how we understand what is happening here, it is actually at this table where the Christ who is the same yesterday and today and forever always waits to meet all of us and share this feast with everyone. And as we encounter him here, we are strengthened for this journey of living out our life with him in all these new ways.
So as we make our way to this table, may our unchanging Christ speak ever more clearly to our changing world and in our ever-changing lives, that our eyes, ears, and hearts might be opened to his new and deepening call yesterday and today and forever until he comes again to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.