Let's not reject grace
Based on Hebrews 12:14-17
When I was a child – I was maybe eight or nine – my grandfather gave me his croquet set. I accepted it, but I was a little underwhelmed. Largely because at the same time, he gave my brother his fishing rod, and I would have far rather had that.
From what I can remember, it was a pretty impressive set, with really solid mallets. After using it only once or twice, I kind of forgot about it, and I never saw it again. I never did find out what became of it, but I suspect my parents probably gave it to someone who would have better appreciated it.
Nearly fifty years later, I wish I still had it. I now have very little that was my grandfather’s. I used to carry The Little Bible he had given me everywhere I went, but that got thrown out by those who stole my wallet in the library a few years ago. Meaning all I have left is a broken pocket watch. So I now regret that I wasn’t a bit more enthusiastic about his croquet set when he gave it to me.
This evening’s Newer Testament lesson is from The Letter to the Hebrews. This is arguably the second most enigmatic book in the entire Newer Testament after Revelation.
Hebrews was not included the Muratorian Canon, the earliest known list of Christian scriptures, which is understood to have been a list of all Christian scriptures recognised by the Church in Rome in the late second century. However, it appears to have already been in use in the Eastern Church, and its place in the Western Canon was only assured when it was accepted by St Hilary, St Jerome, and, finally, St Augustine.
We don’t know who wrote Hebrews. Even though it was written anonymously, it was traditionally attributed to St Paul. But for a variety of reasons, but most especially the style of the Greek in which it was written, we can now say it was all but certainly NOT written by St Paul but by some other figure in the early Church. St Clement of Rome, St Barnabas, and St Luke the Evangelist have all been named as potential authors. It has even been suggested that the First Century missionary Priscilla was the author of Hebrews, but she was not named, because scripture being written by a woman would have been an outrageous notion. We really don’t know.
And neither can we be entirely certain of who its original readers were, when it was written, and what prompted it. Although it is quite likely they were Jewish Christians, suffering persecution, who were beginning to doubt that Jesus really was the messiah because they were expecting the messiah to be a militant king who would throw off the shackles of Roman rule.
Some scholars have pointed to the context of the debate between early Christian factions. At one extreme was the view that converts to Christianity had to convert to Judaism first; at the other extreme was the argument that Jesus had superseded and therefore abolished the institutions of Judaism.
Overall, Hebrews, probably more than any other book in the Newer Testament, draws heavily on Older Testament Jewish temple cult tradition, with a strong emphasis on the priesthood of the Christ. It emphasises the role of Jesus as mediator between humankind and God. His kingdom is yet to come.
The text we heard tonight covers two themes. The first part tells readers to follow the example of Jesus and endure the trials they are facing. And the second part comprises warnings against not accepting God’s grace.
But what exactly does this mean?
The easiest answer is one you will hear in many churches; to not accept Jesus, and thereby reject him. A bit like how I didn’t truly accept my grandfather’s gift of his croquet set.
But it’s not that simple.
I was brought up in a very moderate Presbyterian church with a very intelligent and compassionate minister, the late Rev. Tom Woods. But in my teens, I also went to an interdenominational youth group called Youth for Christ. You have probably heard of it.
Now I am not suggesting that what I am about to describe happened elsewhere in Aotearoa New Zealand; it is not my intention to tarnish the movement as a whole. But this is what happened in Ngāmotu New Plymouth. And I am telling this story in full, so you will have the complete context.
Even though I thought I had thought I had been a Christian my entire life, I was told this was not good enough and that I wasn’t really a Christian at all. I had to undergo a precisely defined personal conversion experience of accepting Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. Otherwise, I would go to hell, where I would be tormented for eternity.
I was shown end-times horror films like A Thief in the Night and A Distant Thunder, which utterly terrified me. I had previously been told that you weren’t a proper Christian if you didn’t "have the gift of speaking in tongues". I didn’t speak in tongues, so I feared that I would be left behind at the rapture, which these films had convinced me was imminent, and that I would not have the courage to resist the ‘mark of the beast’ when the time came.
Our local Youth for Christ branch also engaged in other highly abusive practices; losing a game could earn you a turn in the 'zap chair'. This involved sitting on a wooden stool that had been wired up to a motorcycle battery and ignition coil to deliver a hefty electric shock to one’s nether regions. Not very Christian if you ask me. And looking back, I now realise I had been badly spiritually abused.
But the last straw for me was being at a Saturday night rally where the speaker delivered a tirade about how we should not listen to the band Village People (this was around 1980) because they were "filthy perverts" (or words to that effect).
The speaker was almost seething with rage as he spat his words out.
The toxic fundamentalism I had been subjected to for some years now had just gone too far.
I decided that if this was Christianity, I didn’t want to know about it. I stopped going to church and stopped identifying as a Christian. And I proceeded to have many misadventures in the wilderness.
Twenty years later, I found my way back to the Church. And thankfully to a faith community that didn't want me to reject others on the basis of how they had been created or leave my reasoning at the front door. That faith community was St Mark’s Church in Raumati Beach, where we are gathered right now.
But many people who left the Church in similar circumstances to me never come back. And the scriptures have some pretty choice words for those who would cause little ones to lose their faith.
Is there any hope for them? We’ll come back to that. For now, I want to speak just a little but longer about what happened after I stopped going to church.
I may have stopped identifying as a Christian, but 18 years of being in the Church was not simply erased from me. And when I took religious studies at university, I was faced with a real dilemma. I soon realised that I could see some truth in the various faith traditions I studied. But even though I was no longer a practising Christian, I had not let go of those of-repeated texts John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”; and John 3:16: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I could not reconcile my realisation that there was some truth in other faith traditions with the “one-way Jesus” mantra I had had drummed into me. While it ceased to be an issue as I drifted further from the Church, it re-emerged to haunt me when I came back.
Let’s fast-forward a few years. When I was at theological college, I deliberately left the paper that interested me most until last. That paper was ‘Church and Interfaith Engagement’. As well as having a strong interest in this subject, I wanted to resolve my dilemma once and for all.
And I am pleased to say I found an answer that worked for me, in the writings of theologian Andrew Wingate. He identified three Christian perspectives on salvation: ‘exclusivists’ believe only those who acknowledge Jesus the Christ as “Lord and Saviour” (and/or submit to the rite of baptism) can be ‘saved’; ‘inclusivists’ believe “people are saved through Christ alone”, but this salvation extends to non-Christians; and ‘pluralists’ believe people are saved through their own faith traditions.
These perspectives can be further refined into further subcategories, but they will suffice for today. They solved my dilemma for me, and I comfortably sit in the inclusivist camp. While I believe we are set free by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, I believe that this extends to everybody, and not just those of us who identify as Christians.
This may sound outrageous, even heretical, to some of you. But there is actually immense scriptural support for the doctrine of universal reconciliation.
The Gospel According to St John says of Jesus:
‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 
St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians states:
… all will be made alive in Christ. 
The First Letter to St Timothy notes:
10For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe. 
Note the word especially. It doesn’t say exclusively.
And the First Letter of St John tells us:
And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven, and not only our sins, but also the sins of everyone. 
I could offer many other examples, but these will do for now.
At this point, you may be asking, what’s the point of following Jesus if salvation extends to everybody? And that is a very good question.
My response would be that shouldn’t we follow Jesus because we want to. Not
because we want fire insurance.
God’s kingdom needs our contribution if we are going to help establish God’s reign of justice and peace. Don’t we want to be part of that? Because surely it is better to be willing servants than being motivated by nothing more than the prospect of a get-out-of-hell-free card?
Getting back to my earlier question, what is not accepting God’s grace?
While it is difficult to work with our text from the Letter to the Hebrews, given the obscure nature of its cultural and historical contexts, I cannot ignore the overwhelming repetition of the message of universal reconciliation throughout the Bible.
I believe it is clear that rejecting grace is not just refusing to accept it for ourselves.
I say rejecting grace is also denying that everyone else who has been set free by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ has in fact been set free. Regardless of how differently they may choose to worship God. Or whether they even worship God at all.
So let’s not regret the grace that has been given to us. And not reject the grace that has been given to others as well.
8 August 2021
2 1 Corinthians 15:22b
3 1 Timothy 4:10
4 1 John 2:2 (GNT)
All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless stated otherwise.