Hebrews 13:1–8 (NRSV)
Service Well-Pleasing to God
13 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4 Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6 So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Hebrews 13:15–16 (NRSV)
15 Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
What is a lifestyle of faith? For the past few weeks we have looked into the things that faith is, and the conclusion I hope to have encouraged us to examine is that faith is not magic, it is not knowledge, but it is the deep entrusting of our lives into the hands of God. To entrust our lives to God we must trust that He is for us through the various amounts of struggles and blessings we live through. Faith is living our lives fully devoted to God; our mind, body, soul and spirit.
The writer of Hebrews gave multiple examples of people throughout Jewish history who lived lives of faith. People like Abraham who left the comforts of Ur and went out into the wilderness to the place where God would lead him. He went with the promise that God would make his offspring into a great nation which would be the light to all the world, yet for decades no heir was to be found. There was Joshua that trusted that God would deliver the city into their hands simply by walking around the walls as God commanded. Then there is Rehab the prostitute who was not born into the nation of Israel, yet had faith that their God was true. There was Moses, Gideon, David, Samson, and all the prophets each giving us a glimpse into this radical life of faith.
These stories of history speak to us. They tell us that there is struggle and victory, and hope even through the darkness. These stories speak of redemption, even among people who have a lifestyle seen as dirty and unrighteous. And those unrighteous lives can be used by God to bring redemption to the whole world, when people are willing to repent and follow Him who gives us hope.
These stories are wonderful stories. They are filled with adventure, suspense, and blessing. Faith does this. It takes us outside of our comfort zones and places us in that seemingly scary plain of unknown, with only the hope for the future to urge us on.
The interesting thing about faith is that it is something that must be communal. Our salvation is something very personal and individualistic, but it is also something that must be lived out in the company of others. This is why Jesus said that the most important commandment is, “hear O Israel the Lord your God is one God, Love the lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all the strength. And the second is like the first to love your neighbor as yourself.”
If we were to look back to the stories of faith that we previously examined we would see that they lived not only lives fully devoted to God but they lived them within their social context as well. Abraham left Ur with his family and servants, and when God gave him the sign of circumcision all the males in the household, including those enslaved to Abraham, participated. He left with a community, and all of them had faith in the God of Abraham. Rehab provided cover and aide to the spies from Israel, and when the devastation of her nation approached she and everyone in her house was joined into the nation of Israel. Again a community. Gideon was commanded to gather an army, and that army was whittled down to such a small number that only the power of God could be the answer for the feats, yet even a small army is a community.
We do not live faith in a vacuum, but our faith can only be expressed when it is lived with others. This is an extremely difficult path to walk. It is difficult because people are hard to live with. There is this thing that people seem to think that drives me crazy; they think that they have opinions and they often oppose what is clearly the best idea, my idea. We are individuals, filled with ideas, passions, desires, hopes, dreams, pet peeves, and countless other quirks that inspire, annoy, infuriate, and send our hearts head over heels. We live within the struggle of humanity trying to balance our individual identities within a crowd.
So often communities we find ourselves in cause us to withdraw and set up limits and policies to ensure only certain individuals can interact with us. We enjoy the company of similarities. But this is not what we are called to do. The final conversation Jesus had with His disciples, Jesus commanded them to go and make disciples of all the nations. The term nations is one that has multiple meanings, but the simplest definition is people. Any group of people is a nation. These nations populated by people that have similar ideas, values, or interests. This term goes beyond our contemporary ideas of nation being a civil government like that of the United States. Even within civil governments can be inhabited by several nations of people; some have even said that the federation of States that forms our country is actually made up of as many as eleven distinct nations and each of these nations have different ideas of what is best for our nation as a whole. With that in mind and the command of Jesus to make disciples of all nations, we must take a step back and consider just what that means. If we are to be followers of Jesus living by faith our identity should come from him as we engage those from other nations. And to make disciples of those nations we should be able to speak in their languages.
This is mindset is where the writer of Hebrews begins the encouraging portion of this letter. Let mutual love continue. This introductory statement is one with a great deal of weight. Why would he say this? There is only one reason for it, they had in some way dammed up the flow of love. They began building walls to place a hedge between the various national identities. So the writer of Hebrews is saying do not let these nationalistic ideas crowd out the gospel. Let brotherly love continue to flow.
This is a pretty shocking thought. So often we look to the ancient first century church and wish that our church was like theirs, but even two thousand years ago they had the same sorts of issues that we face today. Let love continue. Do not neglect hospitality. This second phrase is one that encourages us to open our lives up to those around us. To give hospitality is to offer food and lodging for those that need it. In the first centuries of the church the persecution was great on those that claimed to be followers of Christ. Throughout the Gospel of John we can hear little indicators of the fear that the earliest believers lived in when we read the term, “for fear of the Jews,” and being put out of the synagogue. If one was thrown out of the synagogue they were effectively a person with no home. Everything in the first century Jewish culture revolved around the synagogue, and if you were not part of that community you did not exist in their eyes. If you were a tradesman your goods and services were no longer bought by the community, so unless you had land to grow your own food you were impoverished. So hospitality became something of great importance among the earliest of believers. Without this kindness many would have starved. But this goes beyond the community of believers. It was a command of God to be hospitable to travelers. Many of the social laws of the Old Testament deal with idea, laws concerning fencing around your roof so that people will not fall off are there because often this would be where the travelers would sleep.
So if this was such an important concept of the early church why would the writer of Hebrews mention it? Again the only explanation is that the people of the church began rationing and testing the worthiness of their hospitality. They would only serve those that fit into their boxes of orthodoxy. And if you did not meet their criteria you would have to move along to the next location. The writer urges them to remember that to love God we are required to love those around us and one of the greatest ways to show that love is to help those in need of a meal and a place to rest.
He then speaks of those in prison and those that had been tortured. Again as the persecutions began to intensify many believers were incarcerated for their faith. Even to open their homes up to provide hospitality could open their door to their own imprisonment. But they are encouraged to be mindful of these prisoner’s needs. In ancient times anyone that found themselves in jail lived at the mercy of others. Jails were not tax funded for the most part but food and clothing would be brought in from the outside. In some cases a fee would even be charged to the inmate for their boarding, which would have to be paid before they were released. These practices continued for centuries. Even in colonial America these ideas continued.
Remember those who are in prison, make sure they have what they need. Remember to be hospitable and to offer food and rest to those who seek it. Let the love continue to flow. We could identify several contemporary ministries to be involved in with just those first three statements. The common theme is that each of those are encouraging us to take an active role in providing encouragement to the body and soul, to share life with others in community. And while we do that we are to participate in the making disciples of all the nations, these activities build the community and encourage them to continue along the journey with Christ. The next two statement are about abstaining from activities that divide the community, or drive wedges between those within a community.
Let marriage be held in honor by all and let the marriage bed be undefiled for God judges the fornicator and the adultery, keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have. At face value these seem pretty strait forward, but there is a great deal going on here. And in both of these are connected. It speaks of two forms of sexual immorality the first, “Fornication” is most commonly used in speaking of prostitution. Prostitution is the exploitation of others, forcing them to sell their bodies to others for their sustenance. The love of money is very similar, because it is also exploitation. It is not wrong to receive a profit from the goods and services one provides, but when profit becomes the central theme in our existence we begin have skewed visions of humanity. Both the prostitute and the customer become means to an end exploited for what they can provide for our selfishness. Adultery, or sexual relations outside of marriage, also exploit others, all three are wrongfully taking what is not ours for our own personal pleasures. These three things will divide any and every community because they dehumanize those involved. These activities rip communities apart because it does not allow room for others, there is only room for myself.
Love, be hospitable, and encourage those in need, do not exploit or be consumed by our selfish desires. All the stories of faith that were mentioned previously participated in these sorts of lifestyles. Even though one of those mentioned actually participated in an exploited lifestyle. This is simple stuff, there are only two commands: Love God, and to show that love of God, Love others. Simple right? How are we doing in these areas? Are we allowing the ideologies of nationalism, in all its forms, to limit the blessings God wishes to pour out on our community through us? Are we limiting those blessings even more by neglecting to share our lives with others through hospitality? Are we allowing others to struggle alone? Have we become consumed with selfish or self-serving power, treating others as means to an end?
Heavy questions to consider I know. If I want to be honest I could say that most of these I have failed in. I eat lunch in the company of people I get along with most of the time. But at times I rise up to a challenge, and have purchased lunch for people as a way to encourage them. Faith is a lifestyle that is lived out among others. Faith is taking on the very lifestyle that Jesus exemplified in his life on earth. Are we willing to walk that same path? “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”