Today I’m writing a sermon about a sermon. I can tell you’re excited already. The Letter to the Hebrews describes itself as ‘a message of encouragement’ (13:22), a phrase used elsewhere in the Bible to describe a sermon. So this is a sermon about a sermon. When one of the early figures of the Christian Church was asked about the authorship of the letter he said, with timeless simplicity: “God knows”. Some think it was Paul and other scholars have even suggested a female author, Priscilla, but there is no agreement. Most of what is thought about the letter is opinion based on some of the clues within the letter itself
Setting all that to one side I wholly agree with the letter’s self-description. It is a letter of encouragement. Probably written to Jewish Christians suffering persecution in Jerusalem the letter has a stringent focus on the things that matter when people need support. If you like, it gets down to the key messages of the Gospel. The fact of suffering as a part of human experience means that the letter is relevant today as much as it was then. We may not face exactly the same challenges as those early Christians but the experience of oppression and suffering is never far away. We all need encouragement.
Several decades ago I spent a year working as a bread wrapper in a major supermarket on the Isle of Dogs in London. It was a part-time job which fitted in with my part-time role as a church youth worker. The bread wrapping was not the most exciting job in the world. At times managers could be vindictive if workers asserted their rights or refused to comply with unreasonable requests. To give you some idea of the severity of this it was said that the store had 110% staff turnover per annum. At the time I was doing some part-time training for ministry and one of the tutors came down to visit me in situ. As we talked about the degrading ways in which staff were treated I found myself saying: “sometimes you have to remind yourself who you are”. Quick as a flash the tutor asked: “well, who are you?” Perhaps he expected the answer ‘a graduate’ or ‘someone training for ministry” but without thinking I instantly replied: ‘a child of the living God’.
At one level it sounds a preposterous – or possibly pious - reply. I had strong feelings about the way shop floor staff were treated and equally strong feelings about my faith and, when push comes to shove, it is the only answer that matters. Our human dignity is derived from God. Christians over the centuries have suffered for their faith in many and various ways. I believe that the theology of the Letter to the Hebrews is an invaluable document for understanding what sustains Christians when they face conflict and suffering.
A Christian can renounce or disown their faith – but if faith is held it cannot be taken away. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison to countless others who have lost liberty and possessions, faith is the one reality which cannot be removed; even death cannot divide them from the love of God. When the writer to the Hebrews reflects on this we find the following statement:
“For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…
We are children of the living God. This is both our hope and our glory; a dignity which is placed on us at baptism. We are the brothers and sisters of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son who bears ‘the exact imprint of God’s very being’. Through Christ and with Christ and in Christ we share in a dignity which cannot be removed. So when we face suffering, loss or opposition, we know that this fundamental dignity cannot be taken away. It was present on the cross and passed through death: it became resurrection and is offered to all who turn to Christ.