Collect for Trinity XIII
Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Jeremiah 2, Vv 4-13
Hebrews 13, 1-8 & 15,16
St Luke 14, Vv 1 & 7-14
I take for my text this morning some words from our Epistle, words from the eighth verse of the final chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews – ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever’.
The author of this epistle is not known. From the earliest days it was thought to have been Saint Paul. Saint Clement the First, who was said by Tertullian to have been ordained by the apostle Peter, and is believed to have been the fourth Bishop of Rome, thought that Paul had written this epistle, originally in Hebrew for Christian converts from Judaism. He also thought that Saint Luke had translated the text into Greek for Gentile church members. Despite serious doubts being raised about its authorship down the centuries, if you examine early translations of the Bible into English you will observe that it is still attributed to Saint Paul. This is certainly true of the King James Authorised Version of 1611. The Vulgate Bible, preferred by many Roman Catholics, and published as recently as the 1950s, still attributes this Epistle to Saint Paul. The principal arguments against Pauline authorship are: the many differences in vocabulary and style; the different manner of introducing texts from the Old Testament; and the use of the Septuagint for those references. The Septuagint was a translation of the Old Testament into Greek; it was written in Alexandria between the third and the first centuries BC.
The epistle’s closing verse contains the words; ‘Those from Italy send you greetings,’ which may indicate that it was written in Rome, but these words may equally mean that persons from Italy were in the author’s company when he wrote it. The epistle has been variously dated to a time before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD70 but most commentators prefer a dating between 80 and 90. Its careful composition in excellent Greek has caused it to be regarded as a theological treatise and it may originally have been a series of homilies for oral delivery. Its principal theme is the Priesthood of Christ.
What can we make of the content of my text? We could spend the whole of this sermon, and many others, just considering the first two words – Jesus Christ. For theologians, the whole academic discipline of Christology is devoted to him. When we read through all four gospels we quickly realise that we have learned very little about the person called Jesus Christ, the so-called ‘Jesus of History’. In these accounts we are given no indication of what Jesus looked like, we are told almost nothing about his childhood, adolescence, or, indeed, much about the first thirty years of his life. This is because these are details that the evangelists considered that their readers just didn’t need to know. Did he have long or short hair? Were his eyes blue or brown? Was he tall or short in stature? We are not told any of these particulars. However, the details that we are given are of fundamental importance to our belief in him. He was declared to be: Messiah, Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, The Lord, and God. Archbishop William Temple said, ‘The Jesus for whose existence we have evidence at all, is a gigantic figure, making stupendous claims’. Yet, despite all this he was human, just like you and me. He experienced the common emotions of love, sorrow, fear, anger and compassion. He knew what it was like to be tired, hungry and thirsty. He had limited knowledge of the world and often had to resort to questions. Saint Mark tells us, ‘Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?’ And the father answered, “From childhood”.’ Thus the New Testament presents us with a twofold picture of Jesus Christ: the hungry, tired, Jewish teacher; and the resurrected Lord, the judge of all, living and departed, and all in one person.
Jesus Christ yesterday. He was and is the Son of God, ‘begotten of the Father before all worlds’, as our Nicene Creed tells us. He was the creator of the universe, an insignificant portion of which we inhabit. Saint John tells us, ‘All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made’. At a point in God’s own time Jesus became incarnate; he was born to a virgin, teenage girl in Palestine. He came to preach a kingdom of God on earth. For his pains, and because he proved not to be the kind of Messiah that the Jewish leadership had led the people to expect, he was condemned on trumped up charges of treason against the occupying Roman powers and sentenced to an agonising death by crucifixion. As we all know, three days after his death he rose triumphant, commissioned eleven close friends to continue his work of salvation, and returned to the side of his heavenly Father. That he is seen, some two millennia later, to have done a splendid job for his Father is evidenced by the two billion who today claim to be Christians – a third of the population of the planet! That was the Jesus Christ of yesterday.
Jesus Christ today. Before he left this world to return to his Father, Jesus entered into a new type of covenant with his disciples. He gave them his promise that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age. In an upper room on the eve of his crucifixion he rehearsed a set of procedures with his friends; procedures that they were to adopt when he was gone from them, and when they had been empowered to do so through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, that Jesus said he would send to them. We know the details. They were to take bread, bless it in his name, break it and eat it – this, he said, would be his Body. Similarly they were to take wine, give thanks for it and consume it – this would be his Blood. The authority to perform these actions, given at Pentecost, has, we believe, been handed down through the Christian church for nigh on two thousand years, through tactile contact, that is, through the laying-on-of-hands, through a succession of archbishops and bishops, in an unbroken chain. That is what is called the Apostolic Succession, and, again, we affirm in our creeds that we are, ‘a holy, catholic and apostolic church’. The church has adopted Christ’s Eucharistic procedures so that we may know him today because he is, as he promised, with us always. Through our penitent and contrite acceptance of this Blessed Sacrament, by taking the host and drinking the wine, we are brought into direct contact with Jesus Christ today. The priest who consecrated the bread and wine that await us on our altar was given authority by his bishop at his ordination to call down the power of the Holy Spirit to effect the translation from bread and wine to Body and Blood. This happened in that part of the Prayer of Consecration called the epiclesis. The words that the priest used were Christ’s words; the actions the priest took were Christ’s actions. Through those prayers and actions Jesus Christ was here, in Gruline, at Saint Columba’s Church, that very morning when these elements were consecrated. Yet, through these elements, we can meet with him, today. We only have to confess our sins and be given God’s absolution, then we can step forward to receive him into ourselves.
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews spent much time in detailed and complex argument about the priestly nature of Jesus, how he was the High Priest of the order of Melchizedek and came to replace all of the ancient, sacrificial systems of his Jewish forebears. Our writer knew all about this sacrament, that we call the Holy Eucharist, or the Holy Communion, or the Holy Mass. He understood the work and the power of God the Holy Spirit in this divine undertaking. Thus he was able to write about Jesus Christ – the Jesus Christ of today.
Jesus Christ forever. Today is just one day in the eternity of time – tomorrow will be another one. When we come back or go back to our churches next Sunday, or whenever, exactly the same conditions will obtain. We shall still be able to approach the altar and receive this sacrament yet again. It is for us the very nourishment for our immortal souls, the parallel of the food that our physical bodies need. And so the processes go on, and on, and on – we could say forever. Whenever we approach the altar, Jesus Christ is there, waiting for us, and he always will be, forever. Still bearing the scars of crucifixion he sits at his Father’s side awaiting our calls on him. Just as when he walked this earth and answered the prayers and pleadings of the poor, the maimed and the dying, so he sits and waits for our prayers. And he will always be there, waiting for us to turn to him in supplication and thanksgiving, forever. Even when, in moments of worldliness we forget him, he never forgets us. We can depend on him; his character never changes. We will always know that his love for us cannot decrease; we can always depend on his commitment to us in all things, at all times, in all places, in every way. Though the world changes, and circumstances change, and people change, and we change; Jesus never does. Jesus Christ is there, forever. Perhaps we should pause at this point and query the word ‘forever’. There is no doubt that, from the Godly perspective, Jesus Christ is the same forever, but, what about from our point of view? Our transient, earthly existence means that we are not ‘forever’, so do we need to believe in Jesus Christ ‘forever’? Jesus made it quite clear that he would come again, in power and majesty to ‘judge both the quick and the dead’, to quote this time from the Apostles’ Creed. All created things will come to an end. Theologians use the word ‘eschatological’ to refer to these end-time events. Should this eschatology affect our understanding of ‘Jesus Christ forever’? No. Whether quick or dead, that is, living or departed, we believe that we shall be part of God’s kingdom, on earth or of the great company in heaven, that multitude that no one can number. On which ever side of the grave we find ourselves, Jesus Christ is, and will continue to be, the same forever.
In our study of these few words we have thus far left out an important one. Jesus Christ is the same. My text said, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever’. Here we face a dilemma. Is this Son of God, the Jesus Christ who was incarnate in our world, lived here for thirty or so years, and returned to heaven, the same now as before he left his Father’s side? It can be argued, on the one hand, that God, and that includes the Son of God, is unchangeable, immutable and inflexible. But, God the Son now has a human understanding of what it is like to be tempted, to be hungry, to be tired; indeed, to die! And these are just a few of many examples. God did not previously have any such intimate knowledge. So, my final question must be: is Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever? What do you think?
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