How to live well in the Kingdom of God
Hebrews 13 is a familiar end-of-letter exhortation to its audience, to live the life fully into which we have been invited by our Saviour Christ. When I preached on this in Crowmarsh Gifford in August 2006, I prepared a sermon on verses 1-3 as a manifesto for three kinds of love: mutual love, stranger-love, and love for the marginalized.
MUTUAL LOVE: Let mutual love continue - Ἡ φιλαδελφία μενέτω. This love is ‘brotherly love’ in the Greek, and the NRSV doesn’t preserve the force of the word. Love the family, love as sisters and brothers, love as those to whom you belong, certainly. More importantly, love with the full knowledge of the frailty and idiosyncrasies of those who are so close to you that you know them warts and all. It’s unconditional love, but it’s not careless love. It cares deeply that those we love are fractured, but it does not make love dependent on change. It is patient love, love for the addict who can’t find a way out; love for the sister who has wounded your life by a chance remark; love for the brother who doesn’t know how to treat you with respect. It’s redeeming love, because it frees those whom we love from the compulsion to prove themselves to us.
STRANGER-LOVE: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers – The word used for hospitality - φιλοξενία – may be literally translated as love of strangers or of those who are strange. The love theme continues! There is a further reminder that love for others doubles up as love for God, and that one without the other is the absurdity shown clearly in 1 John 4. Hospitality offered to humans may be hospitality offered to God, and there are echoes for me of Abraham’s experience in Genesis 18. Perhaps there is a supernatural dimension to all hospitality? We find the unseen guest Christ makes himself known in the breaking of bread when we make space at the table for strangers. Eucharistic strangers make the Eucharist a sacramental miracle, and Christ presents himself in them too. Might they, in a strange way, be some of the broken bread?
LOVE FOR THOSE ON THE MARGINS: Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured [μιμνῄσκεσθε τῶν δεσμίων ὡς συνδεδεμένοι] – the writer moves rapidly into more uncomfortable territory. We’ve been asked to make space at the table for those who formally don’t belong. Now we’re asked to go into inhospitable places, and make ourselves at home there, to be ‘in the flesh’ with them, as the text actually says. This is the core meaning of ‘compassion’, which takes us beyond empathy to participation, one of the ways of understanding what Christ means when he invites us to take up our cross. In a comfortable, warm and fuzzy church setting with glorious music and rich resources, it’s a challenge to remain uncomfortable and edgy ourselves.