We are approaching the conclusion of Ordinary Time, next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King which will be the culmination of the journey we have traveled over the past twenty-five weeks.
The Gospel for this morning is often called “the little apocalypse” or “revelation” where Jesus tells the disciples what to expect as the Day pf the Lord draws closer. There are more than a few fundamentalist preachers who will take these verses literally, then attempt to correlate them with current events and jump to the conclusion that our Lord’s promised return is just around the corner. This misses the point Jesus is trying to make – that our faith will sustain us even in the worst of times, as well as the best.
The Epistle to the Hebrews I think gives us a way to respond to this morning’s Gospel that is both faithful to the text and makes clear what is expected of us as faithful Christians. In short, we are called to live a sanctified, or holy, life. The question for us is how do we do this – how do we live a sanctified, or holy, life?
First, a sanctified life is a life liven in a posture of confidence before God. Jesus’ offering of himself (“through his flesh”) has cleansed us “from an evil conscience” (vers 22). This is an allusion to our baptism, as well as to Jesus as the one who renews Israel (Ezekiel 36: 25), the author asserts that Jesus has “washed [our] bodies with pure water. In other words, as baptized and forgiven people, we need not be crippled by guilt and/or fear, but we can live with confidence before God.
Second, the sanctified life is one lived in hope. Verse 23 urges us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” This is not a misguided or misaligned hope. Even though Christ has inaugurated a new age, the world is still “waiting” for the final defeat of all God’s enemies – including death. All believers, then and now, face the challenge of living faithfully during this “in between” time, perhaps even in the midst of “abuse and persecution.” Christian hope is practiced against our outward circumstances; because our hope is rooted not in human effort, but solely in the faithfulness of God. We are able to “hold fast” to our hope because the one “who has promised is faithful”
Third, the sanctified life is lived in community. This flies in the face of our American tendency toward rugged individualism. The entire community is the target of the exhortation to persevere. In fact, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews scolds us for neglecting to meet together for worship and fellowship.
In urging us, and all, believers to gather, the author describes the “provocative” function of the Church. The Church gathers, in part, “for the purpose of incitement or provocation.” This can carry a negative connotation of irritation or sharp disagreement, as well as the positive meaning of encouragement. Therefore, agitation is not simply a tool for community or union organizers, but one of the functions of members of Christ’s body. We are to stir up – if necessary, irritate – each other in to fulfilling, or living into, our Baptismal Covenant.
This model of the Church presents an image where the agitators are not “outsiders,” but “insiders.” The Church is not a place where everyone “plays nice and gets along,” but a place where our duties to each other include difficult, perhaps contentious wrestling (but always wrestling together), with what love and good deeds available to us. This vision of the Church is the vision to which Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior called the clergy of Birmingham, Alabama in his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (August 1963). For King, the “love and good deeds” to which Christians provoke each other include agitation against an unjust status quo.
The fourth mark of the sanctified life is related to the third: as Christians we are called to live in solidarity with each other. Holy living means growing in acts of love and Christ-like service to all people. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews warns us against complacency, against allowing the gospel of reconciliation to become a matter of cheap grace. Sanctification, the process of growing toward becoming holy, is both a calling and a gift. We are called to respond to God’s gift by engaging in those practices that will shape us into mature disciples. These practices are best cultivated with in the life of the believing community, in other words, the Church, as we gather for worship, to enjoy fellowship with each other, and provoke each other to acts of Christ-like service.
Finally, the sanctified life is lived with a sense of urgency because “the Day [is] approaching” (verse 25). By invoking scriptural images of the coming Day of the Lord as one of both judgement and redemption, we are offered both warning and encouragement. Therefore, as believers we should support each other in “love and good deeds.” So, on this Sunday before the Feast of Christ the King how do we live with the disturbing images of today’s Gospel, especially in light of current events? I believe is this. Jesus told us there would be “troubles,” it’s no different now as it was then. Our task is to live faithfully in love with each other, doing the things our Lord told us to do – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the poor and advocating for those who have no voice in our society. Most of all we should lift our heads and rejoice because our redemption is drawing near.