November 15, 2015
11And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” 17he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
One of the very first churches in which I preached had much in common with the church in the book of Hebrews. Founded in the mid-1900s in a middle-class area in the western part of Greenville County, the church had more than one hundred members as recently as 2003. By the time I first preached there two years ago, a good Sunday meant twenty people in worship.
Time after time I found myself in churches with amazing histories – one founded during the Great Depression, where members had built the sanctuary debt-free through their financial gifts; another that had built a new sanctuary in the 1950s when its burgeoning membership caused it to outgrow the original church building. Histories told of deeply committed members, of dedicated service to the community, of vibrant worship. But by 2014, worshippers numbered between fifteen and twenty-five in each of these churches. One Sunday morning I climbed into the chancel and turned to look out at a congregation of six people – one of whom was my husband.
When I met for the final time with the Committee on Preparation on Ministry, one member asked me what I saw as the biggest issue facing the Presbyterian Church. My response? The church needs to learn how to be the church again. Our members need to relearn ways of faithfulness, commitment, and discipleship. Otherwise, we will continue to see churches fade away.
The writer of Hebrews does not want to see his congregation fade away. The early church had moved into its second generation. Many of the disciples who led the fledgling church had died. In this community, attendance at worship has dropped off, and people have lost their zeal for mission and the life of faith.
This preacher begins by reminding this fellowship of believers how blessed they are. Called by Christ, they do not need to offer regular sacrifices in worship – Christ has offered the single sacrifice required for the forgiveness of their sins. Instead, this preacher exhorts his congregation to live as people of the new covenant in Christ. That new life will require them to know more firmly and believe more deeply the work and meaning of Jesus Christ. Then he offers five characteristics of the sanctified life – of holy living. I think these characteristics can serve us well as disciples at Providence Presbyterian. Here they are.
First, we should live in a posture of confidence before God. As baptized children of God, we do not need to live in fear or under a cloud of guilt. Jesus has opened a pathway to the holy for us; we need only accept it.
Second, we live in hope, knowing that Christ has inaugurated a new age but yet waiting for Christ’s triumphant return. We live in hope despite our current circumstances, despite the trials of this life, because we know that the one “who has promised is faithful.”
Third, we are to live in community. We hear a lot these days about spirituality. People will tell us they don’t go to church because they experience God in nature, in the company of friends, in their personal devotions. The sanctified life calls us to focus not so much on a personal relationship with God as to commit to living as part of the community of faith, gathered together for mutual encouragement and support. Maybe these spiritual people don’t need the church, but the church needs them. As the community of Christ, we are called to a level of “communal accountability” for our Christian walk. We gather together, in the words of our text, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” As members of the body of Christ, “we are not mere spectators of God’s work or simple recipients of God’s grace: we are active participants in the saving work of God in the world.”
Fourth, we are to live in solidarity with others, offering acts of love and service to all people. Sanctification is a calling as well as a gift. The life of the worshipping community cultivates practices of mature faith.
Finally, we live with a sense of urgency. We do not know when, but we know that the “Day is approaching,” as our text tells us.
This text reminds us that a key part of keeping the faith is acting on our faith. If we stop gathering as the community, we place our faith, hope, and love at risk. Maybe we think we know the gospel, we know we possess salvation in Christ. Maybe we believe that we don’t need the routine of church. Maybe we think that showing up once in a while is enough.
It is not.
Sanctification calls for our commitment to love God, neighbor, and self to become an expression of everything we do. John Wesley said that God’s sanctifying grace “is the ongoing process of being transformed by God’s love throughout our lives.”
When we grow complacent about our faith walk, when we become comfortable with “cultural Christianity,” we neglect the benefits of Christ’s death. This life will be hard. We will sin. We will lose jobs. We will experience sickness. We will walk through the valley when people we love die. The encouragement of others will be critical to our perseverance when we face these trials.
In the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) we read the following:
The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world (1 Cor. 12:27–28):
The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.
The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord. (F-1.0301)
Friends, we are called together as the people of faith. May Providence live out its calling as the Church of Jesus Christ. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God. Amen.
 Elizabeth B. Forney, Feasting on the Word B/4, 304 [This section draws heavily on Forney’s description of the sanctified life.]
 Peter M. Wallace, Feasting on the Word B/4, 307
 Dawn Chesser, umcdiscipleship.org, 11/15/15
 Roger Hahn, “The Voice,” Christian Resource Institute, 2011