Oct. 28, 2018
In the passage from Letter to the Hebrews that we read this morning, the priest chides his congregation for being like children, and then he lectures them about Christian maturity. I do not wish to chide you or lecture you. But picking up on the theme of the Letter to the Hebrews, I’d like to talk to you as a pastor and friend about spiritual maturity. Who is a mature Christian and what distinguishes a person with a mature Christian faith from one whose faith is immature and childish? I’ll begin by drawing attention to something easily overlooked. The New Testament reading this morning is from Hebrews 5.12-6.1; 9-12. It omitted verses 2-8. I don’t know why the authorities who designed this lectionary did that. But they did. I wish they hadn’t because these omitted verses, especially Hebrews 6.4-6 contain a powerful teaching about Christian maturity. The preacher who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, although he wrote it 2000 years ago, has an important message and warning about the cost of discipleship that we Christians today need to hear. Hebrews 6.4-6 is the heart of his message and so it’s to those verses that I wish to speak. We’ll look at those verses in a moment.
But first, as a way into this vast subject of Christian maturity, I’d like to introduce you to the Lectionary. For some of you this is elementary but for others this will be new. What is a lectionary? “Lectionary” is one of those words we only hear in church. It means a selection of readings from scriptures appointed to be read at religious services. Let me show you our lectionary. Take out your Book of Common Prayer and turn to page 889. You see there in big bold letters the Lectionary. This is where our readings come from for each Sunday. You see that there is a Psalm assigned for each Sunday. In the column that says lessons, there are three readings assigned for each Sunday: one from from the Old Testament, another from the epistles of the New Testament and then a reading from one of the four Gospels. You notice also that it says year A. And in year A the first Gospel reading is from Matthew. You’ll notice as you turn the pages that in year A, especially as we get to the season after Pentecost, p. 896, all of the Gospel readings are from Matthew. Now turn to page 900. This begins year B. And in year B you’ll see that the gospel readings are mostly from Mark. Turn to page 911 and you’ll find there the readings for year C, and you’ll note that the Gospel readings in Year C are mostly from Luke. The lectionary is designed so that over a three year cycle we read through much of Matthew, Mark and Luke with significant portions of John included each year. This means that every three years we read through all four gospels.
Now look at page 910. Can you find today’s reading? What is next week’s Gospel reading? No, it’s a trick question. Turn to page 15. There are 7 Principle Holy Days. When is All Saints’ Day? What are the special instructions for All Saints’ Day? Right, we keep it the Sunday after November 1. So next Sunday we’ll celebrate All Saints’ Day; but with what readings? Turn back to page 921. Here you’ll find the readings for Holy Days. What is the gospel reading for All Saints? Matthew 5.1-12. Matthew 5.1-12 is called what? Put down your Prayer book and take out your Bible and find Matthew 5. Matthew is the first book of the New Testament. You can see that Matthew 5 is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and these first few verses are known as what? The Beatitudes. So it’s a safe bet that the text for next week’s sermon will be from the Beatitudes.
So the point of this primary instruction is to remind you that our Bible readings each Sunday are not chosen randomly by the parish priest but they are the same throughout the church. And great thought and care is given to offering readings for each Sunday that reflect the theme of the season. So during Advent we have readings about the second coming of Christ and about John the Baptist announcing Christ’s coming. At Christmas we read of his birth. During the eight Sundays of the season of Epiphany we read of God’s revelation of his Word to the Jews and to Gentiles. In Lent we read about temptation, sin, repentance, and conversion. During Holy Week we read about Christ’s Passion and death. During the Easter season we read about Christ’s resurrection and ascension. And during the long season of Pentecost we read stories that teach us how to live a mature Christian life following the example of Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The lectionary is designed to take us through the New Testament every three years with appropriate readings also from the Old Testament and from the Psalms. The Old Testament reading is almost always a prophecy and the Gospel reading shows its fulfillment. So, if you come to church every Sunday for three years, you will read all four gospels as well as the most important prophecies and stories in the Old Testament, plus the Psalms and if you pay attention and if the preacher does his job and preaches from the lectionary text, you will really learn a lot about the Bible.
And of course that is the whole point of it. We come to church to receive the sacraments and to, thereby, have our sins forgiven; to pray together with the church; and to hear the Word of God read from the lectern and proclaimed from the pulpit. The Bible is the Word of God. That means that the Church has deemed the books of the Bible to be uniquely authoritative sources of doctrine. The Old Testament books are authoritative for us because they contain the words of Moses and the prophets and Jesus commending them to us. At age twelve, when he was teaching the rabbis in the Temple, he taught them from the books of the Old Testament which he thoroughly knew and loved. And the New Testament books are authoritative because they contain the teachings of Christ, revealed truths that heaven has handed down to us from his mouth, and through his apostles who received the inspired teachings from him, in person. The Bible is, therefore, a book unlike any other book. Each Sunday when we say after each reading, “This is the word of the Lord”, we are reminded that the stories and prophecies in the Bible not only speak to us of God but that God addresses us directly and personally in these words that we are, therefore, required by faith to receive, honor and obey. The word of God demands our solemn attention. Mature Christians have a responsibility to, as one of our Collects puts it “to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” God’s word written in the Bible. The word of God is food for our souls. You don’t become a mature Christian by eating junk food but by eating healthy portions of the word of God on a regular basis.
The word of God written in the Bible is the foundation of our religion. Someone once asked me what is the difference between the catechism and the Bible? A catechism is a short book of religious instruction usually presented in a question and answer format. For example, a typical catechism would ask, what are the Ten Commandments? And then it would give the answer. Then it might ask, what is the Lord’s Prayer? And then give the prayer. And then it may ask, why do we call Jesus the Son of God? And then give a short answer. So a catechism is a kind of question and answer book from which we learn elementary doctrines of the Christian faith. We traditionally use a catechism to teach children in Sunday school or to instruct candidates for baptism and confirmation in the basics of the faith. And so there have been in the history of the church many catechisms. Just as there are many American history textbooks, each generation of Christians looks for a new way to teach the same old truths.
So catechisms come and go out of style but the Bible is what the church says it is. You can’t add books to it as the Mormons have done or subtract from it as some Protestant sects did at the time of the Reformation. The Bible is the rock on which our religion is built and so you can’t change it without changing the religion. Nor is the Bible an answer book. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, the Bible often raises more questions than provide answers. Catechisms are designed to be easy reading. The Bible is just plain difficult reading through and through. For one thing, the Old Testament, which runs over a thousand pages, tells the history of Israel from its beginning with Abraham right up to Christ; that’s over a thousand years. If you’re not in to ancient history, the Old Testament can be really tedious reading. The New Testament epistles are also difficult reading. For instance, many of them were written by Saint Paul whose writing style was so challenging that even Saint Peter complained in one of his letters that he couldn’t make sense of much of what Paul was saying. The four Gospels, which tell Jesus’ life story, are relatively easy and fun to read. But they are also complicated by the fact that Jesus’ birth, miraculous life, suffering, death and resurrection fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament. So without a good grounding in the prophecies of the Old Testament, the Gospels make no sense. If you’ve tried to read the Bible but gave up because you felt overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Everyone who attempts to read the Bible experiences that to some degree. Mount Everest is an intimidating mountain to any would-be climber, and the Bible is a very intimidating text.
Students are often expected to memorize the catechism. No one will ever memorize the Bible. Nor should we try. The Bible is a word spoken to us by God our heavenly Father. So the best way to read it is to welcome it as you would a letter sent to you from your Dad. You read it over many times and cherish it. And hold on to it. Read it over again and think about it some more. And hopefully, act on it and grow to know and love your father all the more for his having written to you. That’s how mature Christians are, they love the Word of God and cling to it and cherish it above all things.
Now, in your Bible, turn to Hebrews 6 and let’s read verses 4–6. “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God, and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.”
That’s a mouthful but it comes down to saying this: mature Christians love, honor and obey the word of God; in season and out of season, in war and peace, whether the cup is full or dry they “keep the faith once and for all delivered to the saints”, (Jude 3) and never ever commit apostasy. Apostasy is to turn away from Christ, deny his divinity, abandon the church, leave the faith and no longer live the word of God. If you apostatize, the apostle tells us, you are as good as dead. Or, as the preacher to the Hebrews put it, once you partake of the divine nature and receive the Holy Spirit, and taste the goodness of the word of God, you commit to Christ. If you leave him after that you become then no better than the faithless goons who cast lots for his clothing after nailing him to a cross. We’re not talking in the abstract. We’re talking about our children and grandchildren, our parents and grandparents, our friends and neighbors. We’re talking about an American secular society that treats religious commitment as if it were a fashion. We don’t have control over others, but we do have control over our own decisions and actions. Others may fall away, but don’t you fall away. There is nothing more important in this world than that a man or woman hear the word of God and act on it. A mature Christian will give up everything rather than knowingly betray the word of our Lord. This society is filled with childish Christians who are Christians in name only. Don’t be deceived or seduced by their cavalier attitudes. But above all things, keep the faith once and for all delivered to the saints and always to the end love, honor, and obey.