Hebrews 5:11 – 6:12
October 18, 2009 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
One year, on the first day of practice, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, stood in front of his team of tough, seasoned, professional athletes, held up a ball, and announced, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” That line has been quoted over and over in sermons, pep talks, and motivational speeches to make the point that in any endeavor, one must begin with the basics, the fundamentals, and only then proceed to deeper and more complex plays, concepts or strategies.
One might imagine the writer to the Hebrews at the end of chapter 5 is about the same business as Coach Lombardi was that summer day with a football in his hand. You might think we’re being directed back to Christian basics. Let’s run through the rudiments of the faith a few more times. As the beginning of chapter 6 might suggest, let’s go over repentance and faith and baptism, all those simple truths about Jesus which we first believed when we came to Christ. Give us a course in the fundamentals.
Yet this passage is not about getting back to the basics. It’s about getting past the basics. The coach who wrote Hebrews did not want to talk about the Christian equivalent of blocking and tackling and ball handling. He wanted to move beyond that. He wanted to stand at the chalk board in the spiritual locker room and draw elegant plays with double reverses and backup quarterbacks and long beautiful passes. He’s disgusted with the idea that his Christian team might not know even know the rules.
“We have much to say about this…” it says in 5:11. He’s just been talking about the high priesthood of Jesus, Jesus interceding and mediating between God and us in the image of the Old Testament figure Melchizedek. I preached on that text back in March. Now, he wants to move on, to say more of what the priesthood of Jesus means for Christians, what its implications are for how we live, but he’s frustrated. His audience is not ready.
In fact, verse 12 tells us, the author of Hebrews feels like his students should themselves be teachers by now. They should have all the first-year material down pat and be ready to explain it to the freshmen just beginning, but they’re not ready. They should be doing advanced study and grading papers for the introduction classes. But instead it seems like they need to go back and take Christianity 101 all over again.
So the author sarcastically introduces the image of infants not yet ready for solid food. Paul uses the same picture in I Corinthians 3:2. They haven’t grown up. They’ve got no teeth yet. They can’t chew on real meat. All they can do is suck down milk.
The transition from milk to solid food for our girls was a little after they were six months old. Following our doctors’ recommendation, we took powdered rice cereal and mixed it with milk to produce a bland, runny, pale, disgusting gruel. It barely qualified as “solid.” We began to shovel this “rice slime,” as I called it, into their little mouths. Incredibly, they liked it. We might have saved a lot of effort and money over the years by never moving on from there. A perpetual diet of rice slime would have been quite economical.
But we did move on. First to other sorts of slime that came in little bottles, green and yellow and orange and really repulsive shades of brown and gray, then on to crackers and carrot sticks and peas and macaroni and cheese and then peanut butter sandwiches and apples and French fries and hamburgers and then on to broccoli and beef stroganoff and freshly caught trout and Caesar salad and steak and king crab and tacos and Pad Thai and souvlaki and lasagna and all variety of glorious solid food which God has blessed human beings to harvest and cook and eat. And we could have just stuck with rice slime. It would have been a lot easier and cheaper, but we all know it would have been wrong.
God does not want us to continue as babies in spiritual nourishment anymore than we wanted Susan and Joanna to grow up slurping down rice paste the rest of their lives. As verses 13 and 14 say, He wants us to go on to a mature teaching about righteousness, to train ourselves to know the difference between good and evil, to live good, holy, righteous lives as grown-up, not baby Christians.
That’s why, contrary to how Coach Lombardi has been understood, the best program is not necessarily “back to the basics.” Don’t get me wrong. The basics won’t hurt us and we constantly want to remember grace and forgiveness and Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection and all the fundamental truths that make us God’s people. Even adults need some milk in their diets. Yet every growing, maturing Christian needs to move further, deeper, more richly into the knowledge and love of God. We must never forget the basics—Lombardi is partly right—but we need to build on them.
So chapter 6 begins with the writer’s refusal to back up. Even if it seems like his students aren’t ready to move on, he will plough ahead, “Let us leave the elementary teachings behind…” The word “elementary” back in verse 12 of chapter 5 was the word Greeks used for the alphabet, the “ABCs.” We don’t need to go over the ABCs again, he’s saying. Let’s read some literature, let’s compose some essays, let’s get on with it and put our ABCs to work, grasping and passing on to others all the depth of what God has spoken to us in Christ and in the Scriptures.
Verses 1 and 2 lay out the ABCs of Christianity, Christ, repentance, faith, baptism, laying on of hands for a call to service, the promise of resurrection, the warning of judgment. That’s the foundation. Now, says verse 3, “God permitting,” we will go further.
But first, our author pauses to warn us about the possible consequences of not going any further. He warns us that those who fail to grow up, who merely start out on the Christian path, but don’t press on, are likely to fall away, even to their destruction.
I joked a moment ago about feeding our daughters baby food for the rest of their lives and implied that it was a live option. But you know it’s not. A diet consisting solely of powdered cereal would have caused them all sorts of problems. They would have gotten sick, would have been stunted in growth, would have grown up malnourished and weak, not to mention the humiliation at school when they opened their lunch boxes. A perpetual diet of baby food would be a disaster. It would probably end in terrible illness and death.
That’s what the writer is saying in verse 4 when he talks about “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away…” These are people who’ve only just taken a taste of the banquet that God lays out for us in Jesus Christ. But they haven’t gone on, they haven’t gotten past the basics, they have not yet sat down for the second and third and fourth courses and all the rich and delicious and nourishing food that awaits those who take their place at His table. It’s like they nibbled at an appetizer of cream cheese and capers on a Ritz cracker and thought it was the whole menu. Yes, it’s good, but in the end not something you want to make a meal on.
Don’t let me fool you with the food metaphors. Verses 4-6 are really hard. We seem to be talking about people who were once genuine Christians but have left the faith. And the writer says there’s no hope for them. “It is impossible…” for them, he says “…to be brought back to repentance.” Those words cut close to home for some of us and they ought to cut a little for all of us. They seem to fit people we love, parents, sons and daughters, dear friends that we’ve watched walk away from a Christian upbringing. And now, to hear that there is no possibility for them to come back to the Lord is a stab in the heart.
All I can offer is what I’ve read from better scholars of Scripture than I, people like F. F. Bruce, who suggest to me that the warning here is not about wayward children who quit going to church during their college years or even about those who fall into some deliberate and awful sin against God and His people. I’ve seen people like that come back to the Lord. The Bible shows us David and Peter being rehabilitated after sin and denial. The grace of God can accomplish what seems impossible to us.
Yet there is a warning here. Failure to move on to solid food and growth in faith can cause irreparable harm. God can forgive almost any sin, any betrayal of one’s faith. But if God Himself is rejected, if the saving work of Christ on the Cross is ignored and spurned, if the redeeming and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit is denied, then it is possible to put yourself beyond saving. Verse 6 boils down to this: If someone moves so far away from Christian faith as to reject and disown the power of Jesus’ death on the Cross, there is no second crucifixion there to save them. What Jesus has already done is the only way, the only hope. He’s not going to die again for us. The first Cross is the only Cross and is the only way back to God.
Verses 7 and 8 switch the metaphor to agriculture. Land that is soft and fertile and that “drinks in the rain,” produces fruit. But rocky, hard, impervious soil off which the rain merely runs away, produces weeds and thorns. Which kind of soil do we want to be? Land that welcomes, receives and takes in all that God pours out in blessing and instruction, or dry, stony dirt that sheds all the love and lessons God sends? Verse 8 pictures the ancient agricultural practice of burning off dry, unproductive land as a symbol of how God will judge lives that spurn and shed His grace and blessing.
These are hard words. That may be one reason the church lectionary skips over them. This is not the assigned reading for today, though it’s close by what’s assigned. The text itself calls us not to skip it, not to ignore the tough, solid food of these verses. Let us chew on them a bit. Let’s examine ourselves and our spiritual diets and ask if we’ve been living on milk or on meat, on baby food or on a banquet.
As hard as the words are here, it’s not hopeless, we are not hopeless, you and those you love are not hopeless. Verse 9 begins, “Even though we speak like this, dear friends…” And it’s not just “dear friends,” it’s “beloved.” This is the only place in which that word is used in the letter to the Hebrews. Right after he says the hardest, most difficult things he’s got to say, this writer speaks with the most tender address of all, “…beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that have to do with salvation.”
The hard words are not meant to write anybody off. They’re only written as a warning not to write ourselves off, not to let ourselves grow so accustomed to a bland diet that we can’t appreciate the flavor and spice of solid Christian life. This is painful yet gentle correction to children who may wander off into harm if they are not scolded a little about the dangers.
So, I want to echo this writer’s words directly on to you. I am confident of better things in your case. As in verse 10, I know that God sees in your lives, in this congregation, your works of love as you help each other and help those in need. The meals you share, the words of encouragement you speak, the money you lend, the roofs you repair, the prayers you offer for each other, all say that you are in fact ready and willing to dine on solid food, to eat up a faith that takes solid shape both in your hearts and in the way you live.
The point today, then, is just what it is in verse 11. You are ready for solid food. You don’t need to keep eating baby food. Just be careful, just heed the dangers of neglect and laziness as he says in verse 12. Just stick with that solid, rich, nourishing diet and “show this same diligence to the very end,” he says.
In order to keep on, in order to make our “hope sure,” the writer mentions one essential part of the Christian diet at the close of this text. The antidote to being careless and lazy is to feed on the examples that have been given us in other Christians. We are “to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.”
In just two weeks we will celebrate All Saints Day. A key aspect of that essential Christian celebration is that God feeds us through the models of those who’ve gone before us. Whether it’s the Apostle Peter or the Virgin Mary or Elijah the Prophet or Deborah the Judge; whether it’s Polycarp the Martyr or Juliana the Contemplative or Martin Luther King Jr. the Activist or Mother Teresa the Servant; whether it’s your grandmother or your Sunday School teacher or your best friend, God nourishes you through the lives of other Christians who show you what it means to live on the solid food of Jesus Christ and to be strong in that diet.
Which brings me to just one more thing. We want to keep on in a good diet for the sake of those who need to look at us as examples. Just like parents want to eat well and stay healthy for the sake of their children, you and I have a responsibility to those who will look to us as models for Christian living.
I’ve read recently more than one study of the contemporary church which says that young people—teenagers and those in their twenties—are leaving the church in droves. There are lots of reasons for this, and it’s very, very troubling. But at least one reason is that they are often failing to find something to chew on in the Christian community. We’ve entertained young people, we’ve marketed to them, we’ve told them over and over how special they are, but I’m not sure how well we’ve fed them. I’ve not sure we’ve tried enough to teach them hard truths, to give them difficult work, to call them to lasting commitments. Sometimes, I fear, we’ve kept feeding them, and perhaps ourselves, baby food.
Whole generations are or will be looking to you for a model of good eating, of a healthy spiritual diet. If they don’t find it among us, if they don’t see it in you, one of two things will happen. One the one hand they may find something else solid to chew on—it might be a political ideology, or another, more rigid religion altogether, or a good cause without any spiritual dimension to it, or maybe just hard work and profit. If Christ’s church offers them no meat, no bread, no vegetables, they will dine elsewhere.
On the other hand, if we don’t feed young people the solid food of Christ, they may keep eating baby food. They will live on entertainment, on pleasure, on the freedom of a life without commitment, on supposedly “spiritual” messages with no substance or challenge. If we offer baby food at church, those following us will see no difference between worship and a rock concert, no difference between Bible study and going to a movie.
Please join with me in the sumptuous, substantial, solid feast that God is setting before us. Let’s get beyond the basics. Let our discipleship be harder, not easier, our faith more complex, not simpler. Be part of serious, inquiring, difficult study of the Bible. Nourish yourself with serious, costly hours of service to those in need. Feed on rigorous, regular times of prayer and devotion. Fill up on demanding acts of love and ministry toward other believers. Most of all, most of all, come and dine often and always on satisfying, encouraging, uplifting times of worship, especially as we are blessed to receive the Food which is our Lord Himself, given to us in the Bread and in the Cup which He offers at His Table.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj